Ghosts

author: Raina Telgemeier
illustrators: Raina Telgemeier and Braden Lamb 
Scholastic, 2016 
grades 3-6 
Indigenous, Mexican American

Poorly conceived, abysmally written, and apparently neither well-researched nor fact-checked, Raina Telgemeier’s Ghosts, which saw a six-figure first-print run, garnered record sales even before its official release. Favorably reviewed by all of the major trade journals, a thoughtful reading of Ghosts may well answer the question about the difference between “multicultural celebration” and “multicultural appropriation.”

Presenting a Mexican American family that includes a child with a profound disability, Ghosts would appear to be a celebration of multiculturalism. Sixth-grader Catrina Allende-Delmar and her younger sister Maya and their family are moving from sunny Southern California to a cloudy northern coastal town called Bahía de la Luna. Maya has cystic fibrosis and the family has been told that the cool, salty air that blows in from the sea will be good for her. As the family moves into their new digs, they meet their neighbors, the Calaveras family. Carlos Calaveras tells them that the town is densely populated with ghosts.

Let’s stop here for a moment. It wouldn’t be a stretch to opine that no Latino family in the world would be named “Calaveras,” which means, “skull,” any more than, as Laura Jiménez points out, there would be “a family named Advent Calendar living in a town with a reputation for elves.”[1]

Cat and Maya’s mom, Leona, is an assimilated Mexican woman who has married a white guy and turned away from her people to the extent that she doesn’t speak any Spanish and wishes she could cook Mexican food like her mother used to but can’t. It’s the offer of authentic Mexican food in this story that tempts the girls to accompany Carlos on a tour that includes the local mission, which has been abandoned and is, like the rest of the town, full of ghosts, because ghosts like to hang out in foggy places.


Cultural Appropriation 1:

The California Missions

After a long trek, the three arrive at the ruins of a local mission, where they encounter tombstones and a large crowd of ghost-like creatures, who entrance Maya but totally freak out Cat. Carlos speaks Spanish to the ghosts because “most of the people buried here were from Mexico, so they like it when you speak Spanish to them.” Since these ghosts are “a little shy around people they don’t know,” Carlos hands Maya a bottle of orange soda and a bottle opener, which immediately attracts the ghosts, who happily morph into friendly skeletons who embrace and tickle a giggling Maya, who thinks they’re “awesome.” When Maya has a sudden coughing episode because the ghosts have, according to Cat, “stolen her breath,” the mission tour is done. That’s it. The missions are the homes of shy, Spanish-speaking ghosts from Mexico—not the Indigenous people who really worked at the missions and were forced to speak Spanish, the language of their oppressors—who dance around and will do anything for a bottle of orange soda.




Here’s how the author describes her relationship with the California missions (from her blog):

I like exploring old abandoned places and mysterious towns. I love skeletons. I love stories with magical realism in them.”[2]

That’s it. All of her research about the California missions seems to have been boiled down to her love of old abandoned places and skeletons. Telgemeier lives in California. In September of last year, Pope Francis journeyed from Rome to Washington, D.C.,  to canonize Fr. Junipero Serra, who created the brutal California mission system. Fewer than ten minutes of research by Telgemeier or anyone else would have uncovered tears and protests from thousands of people descended from the “Mission Indians.” It also would have uncovered this information:

During the period from 1769-1848, some of the most stable societies in human history had to contend with warfare, disease, and colonization—resulting in a population reduced by over 90% in fewer than two generations. It would not be a stretch to compare the Indian Holocaust of the California Mission system with the Nazi Holocaust in Europe in the 1930s and 40s. It would not be a stretch to compare any of the California Missions to any of the European concentration camps. But, since its inception, the teaching in California schools of the California mission system, or worse, of the “Mission Indians,” has always been a political and religious hot potato.

In 1987, in an attempt to derail the impending canonization of Junipero Serra, Rupert Costo (Cahuilla) and Jeannette Henry Costo (Cherokee) edited The Missions of California: A Legacy of Genocide[3], which was published by the non-profit Indian Historian Press in San Francisco. This book, which contains an excellent chapter called “The Indian Testimony,” remains the cornerstone of educational work about what occurred during the Mission Period. Here is an excerpt from “The Indian Testimony.” It’s called “The Crying Rock—Where They Killed the Children,” told to Rupert Costo by Rosalie Robertson (Kumeyaay), who learned it from her great-great-grandfather:

One way they had was to get to the people through the children. They would take the children up on the cliff and drop them down the cliff and killed them. And that went on. You can get some of the people to show you just where that happened. Where they threw the children down and killed them, they call that place the “Crying Rock” today.

A lady asked me why they did that to the children. And we know it was done to make the parents do what they were told to do. They didn’t want to do what the padres told them to do, so they forced them to do these things; if they knew the children would be killed they would be more likely to mind the padres.

But there’s so much more. Here is part of Wendy Rose’s poem, “Excavation at Santa Barbara Mission”:

They built the missions with dead Indians.
They built the missions with dead Indians.
They built the missions with dead Indians.
They built the missions with dead Indians.[4]

Literally. The bodies of Indians who had died or been killed were cemented into the walls and body parts were mixed into the masonry and dirt used to build and repair the missions. Can you imagine the horror of, not only not being able to bury your beloved dead in your traditional way, but actually using their body parts as building material?

My friend and colleague, Deborah Miranda, wrote about the generational trauma of the California missions in her blog, Bad Ndns[5]:

[All] of my relatives and I live in a secular world that is pocked by the scars of everything that happened in the California missions, including the devastation that Mission Mythology spreads among Natives and non-Natives alike.

Had she chosen to include in her story anything even approximating the real histories of the Indigenous peoples enslaved in the California Missions, Telgemeier could have perused the following books and materials:

Castillo, Elias, A Cross of Thorns: The Enslavement of California's Indians by the Spanish Missions. Craven Street Books, 2015.

Costo, Rupert, and Jeannette Henry Costo, eds., The Missions of California: A Legacy of Genocide. Indian Historian Press, 1987.

Haas, Lisbeth, Saints and Citizens: Indigenous Histories of Colonial Missions and Mexican California. University of California Press, 2014.

Lightfoot, Kent, Indians, Missionaries and Merchants: The Legacy of Colonial Encounters on the California Frontiers. University of California Press, 2006.

Miranda, Deborah A., Bad Indians: A Tribal Memoir. Heyday Books, 2013.

Sandos, James A., Converting California: Indians and Franciscans in the Missions. Yale University Press, 2008.

“Saying Our Share: Surviving the Missions,” special issue of News from Native California, vol. 28 #2, winter 2014-15.

And. A quick Google search would have come up with literally hundreds of news items, articles, and essays, many from a Native perspective. Here are just a few:

“Indian Resistance to the California missions” http://nativeamericannetroots.net/diary/525
 (5/29/10)

“The dark, terrible secret of California’s missions” / SF Gate http://www.sfgate.com/opinion/openforum/article/The-dark-terrible-secret-of-California-s-missions-2685666.php (11/8/04)

“Indian Country Diaries. History. California Genocide / PBS”
http://www.pbs.org/indiancountry/history/calif.html

“It’s time to acknowledge the genocide of California’s Indians” / LA Times http://www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-madley-california-genocide-20160522-snap-story.html (5/22/16)

“Jacque Nunez explains beginning of genocide” / California Missions / California Museum and Cultural Center /https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7QOuuPXklGQ (8/7/13)

And, definitely not least, Deborah A. Miranda’s blog, http://badndns.blogspot.com/, has a wealth of information for educators, children, and others who really want to know.


Cultural Appropriation 2: 

Día de los Muertos

Here’s how the author describes her relationship with Día de los Muertos (from her blog):

I’m really interested in holidays (like Halloween and Día de los Muertos) that celebrate spirits in different ways. I attended San Francisco’s Día de los Muertos procession and Festival of Altars while I was working on GHOSTS, and everything I saw and experienced made its way into the book in one way or another. It’s a very respectful, reverent, and beautiful experience, and everyone brings their own story and history to it. Traditionally, it was celebrated in Mexico, and while there are many common themes and motifs, every town and region has their own take on it. I researched multiple traditions and sources, and the town of Bahía de la Luna celebrates it in its own unique and special way. If your town celebrates Día de los Muertos, I encourage you to learn more about it![6]

The purpose of contemporary Día de los Muertos festivities, which involves the whole community, are to remember and honor the ancestors, to entice and welcome them home, to invite them to visit among the living for a while, before they have to return to the land of the dead. Traditionally, the souls of children who have died are welcomed home on November 1, and the souls of adult family members, on November 2. In some places, especially in Mexican towns, the ceremonies are elaborate and religious, involving both Indigenous and Christian traditions.[7] But in both towns and urban areas in Mexico and the US, there are usually parades, celebrations at cemeteries, and elaborate altars set up in homes—with pictures of the ancestors, fragrant and beautiful marigolds, and delicious foods, drinks, candies as well as toys to let the visitors know they are welcomed. It is only after the souls have absorbed the essence of the food and returned to the land of the dead that the families may eat and drink what’s on the altars. The souls may present themselves to families in any of many forms, including hummingbirds or the scent of flowers, or the music of a favorite song. But the souls of the dead are not ghosts. They do not float around and they do not touch people.

In Ghosts, Catrina dresses up as La Catrina for “Halloween / Día de los Muertos.” But. Halloween and Día de los Muertos are not the same, not even similar. And. La Catrina is no ordinary “ghost” and has nothing to do with Día de los Muertos. She’s a creation of José Guadelupe Posada (1852-1913), who became a political cartoonist during the Mexican Revolutionary period. His satirical work mocked the Mexican upper classes, members of whom, even in death, stubbornly refused to surrender their wealth. For a Mexican or Mexican American child to personify “La Catrina” would be the equivalent of someone who is African American dressing up as “Amos” or “Andy,” caricatures of Black people. During contemporary Día de los Muertos parades, children and teens sometimes deck themselves out as skeletons (and may even be carried around in mock open coffins out of which they toss candy), but they don’t costume themselves as specific people.

As Laura Jiménez writes, “In Telgemeier’s graphic novel the ghosts have a bit of an obsession with orange soda in a bottle. The dead basically want to party all night long, drink orange soda, and don’t seem to care if they are with family or just randos on the street.”[8] Ghosts and spirits and souls are not interchangeable, yet Telgemeier has made a mishmash of them. “The end of the book,” Jiménez continues, “is full of music, flying, an inexplicably dead lighthouse attendant, and a black cat who delivers Mexican food. If you are teaching kids about Día de los Muertos, please look elsewhere.”

I imagine that the black cat who delivers Mexican food on the last page—and who makes brief appearances by crossing Maya’s path several times—is supposed to be the children’s departed abuela, demonstrating her love for her family through food. One of the clues is the photo of Abuela, smiling, on the altar nearby. But. This is yet another unnecessary cultural anomaly. The Mexican and Mexican American souls who visit among the living at Día de los Muertos aren’t shape-shifters. They’re just not. And they don’t prepare (or deliver) food for the families—even families who are so thoroughly assimilated that they just can’t figure out how to make decent tamales. The families prepare food for the souls to enjoy. What a mess.

Had Telgemeier wanted to portray an honest interpretation of the cultural facets of Día de los Muertos, she could have perused many excellent books for children. They include, but are not limited to:

Ancona, George, Pablo Remembers: The Fiesta of the Day of the Dead, photographs by the author. HarperCollins, 1993.

García, Richard, My Aunt Otilia’s Spirits / Los espíritus de mi tía Otilia, illustrated by Robin Cherin and Roger I. Reyes, translated by Jesús Guerrero Rey. Children’s Book Press / Lee & Low, 1986.

Morales, Yuyi, Just a Minute: A Trickster Tale and Alphabet Book, illustrated by the author. Roaring Brook Press, 2003.

Morales, Yuyi, Just in Case: A Trickster Tale and Spanish Alphabet Book, illustrated by the author. Roaring Brook Press, 2008.

Salinas, Bobbie, Indo-Hispanic Folk Art Traditions II: The Day of the Dead and other year-round activities, illustrated by the author. Piñata Publications, 1988.

Toledo, Natalia, and Francisco Toledo, Light Foot / Pies Ligeros. Groundwood Books, 2007.

Tonatiuh, Duncan, Funny Bones: Posada and His Day of the Dead Calaveras, illustrated by the author. Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2015.

Weill, Cynthia, Mi Familia Calaca / My Skeleton Family, art by Jesús Canseco Zárate. Cinco Puntos Press, 2913.


Telgemeier’s work is not “celebration of diversity.” It’s not “multicultural.” It’s cultural appropriation at its worst—the denial and diminishing of the real histories and cultural beliefs and practices of the peoples of this area. It’s privilege without responsibility. With all of its engaging art and pretense of fun and wit and humor, and despite all of its laudatory reviews, Ghosts is a contribution to the erasure of the Indigenous peoples and those who are “mixed” with the blood of the conquerors and the blood of the conquered. And it’s a contribution to the exclusion of young Indigenous, Mexican and Mexican American readers who might be sucked into a graphic novel that purportedly shows their own histories and cultures.

Trafficking in stereotypes can never be condoned, no matter how eye-catching the art, no matter how fast-moving the plot, no matter how humorous the dialogue, no matter how pure the writer-artist’s intentions. Contributing to the erasure of a people is not OK. It is never OK. It never will be OK. Ghosts is not recommended.

—Beverly Slapin
(published 9/27/16)

Míl gracias to my friends and colleagues, Maria Cardenas, Judy Zalazar Drummond, Pat Enciso, Laura Jiménez, Deborah A. Miranda, Lyn Miller-Lachmann, and the work of Yuyi Morales, Debbie Reese, Reading While White, and so many others.



[1] Laura Jiménez, booktoss.wordpress.com (2016).

[3] Costo, Rupert, and Jeanette Henry Costo, The Missions of California: A Legacy of Genocide. San Francisco: Indian Historian Press, 1987.

[4] The entire poem can be found at Deborah A. Miranda’s blog, http://whenturtlesfly.blogspot.com/2009/09/wendy-rose-hopimiwok.html

[5] http://badndns.blogspot.com/

[7] What became known as “El Día de los Muertos” began about 3,000 years ago as an Aztec celebration, which the Spanish conquistadores forcibly Christianized in order to subjugate the Indigenous peoples of what is now called Mexico.

[8] Laura Jiménez, ibid.

Pig Park

author: Claudia Guadalupe Martínez 
Cinco Puntos Press, 2014 
grades 7-up 
Mexican American

Martínez’s Pig Park is a contemporary novel that depicts with affection and a light touch a bustling, though little-known, neighborhood in Chicago and an unholy alliance between business interests and politicians. Ever since the American Lard Company closed in 15-year-old Masi Burciaga’s Pig Park neighborhood of Chicago, times have been tough for the local businesses tucked behind the plant. Masi’s father and grandmother started Burciaga’s Bakery when they came to Chicago from Mexico some 30 years earlier, but now the bakery is losing money. The local councilman, though, has an idea. He has been in contact with a New Mexico businessman, and if all the local businesses can contribute a sizable sum, the businessman will build a Mayan-style pyramid—“La Gran Pirámide”—in Pig Park to attract tourists.

Overlooking the stereotypes implied in this local “attraction,” Pig Park’s business owners sign on, and construction begins. Masi wants to work outside, but she and the other girls are stuck indoors doing clerical work. Although she has imagined a romantic relationship with her best friend’s older brother, she’s also drawn to the mysterious teenage intern who arrives from New Mexico to help. Her mother, who is ill with diabetes, leaves because the stress is too much. Masi misses her mother, as does her father, and they strategize in their own ways to get her back.

But as “La Gran Pirámide” is built and the community’s money runs out, the schemers want more. Here, Loretta, Masi’s mother’s best friend, voices her suspicions to the community:

“I already put in every last cent I had left on this,” Loretta said. “Besides, we don’t celebrate Cinco de Mayo. That’s just for people who like to get drunk. Don’t get me started on Day of the Dead. It’s disrespectful to try to make money off of our dead. And where are we supposed to get all of these ‘historical’ artifacts? Are we supposed to make people think they’re real? Are we building a museum now? I just stood here with my mouth shut last time because we are all so desperate, but not this time.”

As individuals and families begin to realize that they’ve been had, they also realize that something must be done. As narrator, Masi is an engaging and resourceful protagonist who wants to do right by her family and community, and sometimes voices what everyone is feeling.

Through Masi’s narration, Martínez shows, rather than tells, how Spanish language is used in a community that is largely bilingual; and since Masi has grown up working in her family’s bakery, her descriptions of people and places often contain food similes and metaphors.

Readers will be caught up in Masi’s story, wondering if and hoping that her mom will return and the bakery and the other local businesses will survive. Things look particularly bleak when Masi finds out that other places that hired the New Mexican businessmen ended up worse off than when they started—and that the beneficiaries of their pain turned out to be outside investors tight with the local politicians. Eventually, Masi prevails on the intern, her father, and the community to take matters into their own hands. A fast-moving page-turner, Pig Park is an excellent example of how young people, through creative action, really can bring about personal and political change. It’s highly recommended.

—Lyn Miller-Lachmann
(published 9/18/16)

An earlier version of this review first appeared in The Pirate Tree (thepiratetree.com). We thank The Pirate Tree for permission. 

Somos como las nubes / We Are Like the Clouds

author: Jorge Tetl Argueta 
translators: Jorge Tetl Argueta and Elisa Amado 
illustrator: Alfonso Ruano
Groundwood Books, 2016 
grades 2-up 
Pipíl, Salvadoran

Even before the Monroe Doctrine, which declared that all of the Americas belonged to the US, this country has wreaked havoc through invasion, setting up companies to put native products in the hands of American corporations, and creating and supporting regime change to fit the agenda of big business, all of which have resulted in political and economic destabilization. What ensued is mass unemployment, social chaos, and the terror of government death squads and the murderous narcotraficante gangs. As of now, few holdouts remain—among them, Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Nicaragua. Meanwhile, refugees from the most dangerous of the US “client” countries—such as El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico—have fled by the hundreds of thousands into the US. They are not coming here for a “better life”—they are fleeing to save their lives. And they flee, as a colleague aptly described, “into the mouth of the shark.” 

In Somos como las nubes / We Are Like the Clouds, poet and storyteller Jorge Tetl Argueta—himself a refugee from the 12-year war following the US-sponsored military coup in El Salvador—writes from the perspectives of the frightened children caught up in the horrific  aftermaths of these wars of conquest, understanding only what they see around them, yet still with large hopes and limited choices. Argueta told me that, as a Salvadoran man, he “can’t do anything else but talk about this great injustice; to be the voice of the voiceless children, whose hearts, minds, souls, and spirits have to endure such sadness in their young lives.”

Argueta’s evocative free verse in Spanish and English communicates to young readers the dreams, fears, and hopes of the refugee children who have been forced to leave everything—and sometimes everyone—they know, to get to a temporary place of safety where strangers will decide their fates. Some will be reunited with their parents or other relatives. Many will not. But for now, they are safe.

Accompanied by paid “coyotes” who guide them—the children, carrying only backpacks and jugs of water, sometimes with a parent, most times only with each other—take the perilous journey for hundreds of miles through the desert, cram themselves onto the top of “La Bestia” (the train they call “the beast”), encounter the Border Patrol, and pray to El Santo Toribio, saint of the immigrants, to be shown the way:

Don’t let us fall
into the hands of the migra,
and never into the hands of the traffickers,
or worse, the minutemen.
You who are the good coyote,
protect us, lead us.
Deliver us from all evil. Amen.

Ruano’s acrylic on canvas paintings beautifully show, rather than tell, the children’s emotions. Here is a young child, covering his ears, not wanting to hear the voice of a gangster. Here, in the background, are tiny figures of a family, leaving their neighborhood, in which there is a whistling dog, a dancing cat, and a rooster looking in the mirror. Here are the scary, expressionless, one-eyed, tattooed gangsters, one holding a machete. Here are lots and lots of children, seen from the back, beginning their dangerous trek, some holding the hands of even younger children. Here is a little boy, in the desert, riding on his father’s shoulders. And here are perhaps hundreds of children, piled onto the top of “La Bestia.” Of all of them, only two children in the foreground are looking directly at the reader.

Finally, for these children, there is shelter. A mother tells her child in his dream: “This is not a dream. You are in my arms.” And in Los Angeles—the City of Angels, where the children will stay, for now—there are paletas, fruit popsicles in every color and shape:

Llevo paletas
para cantar
y paletas para volar.
Llevo paletas para bailar
y paletas para soñar.
Llevo paletas
como las nubes.

Somos las nubes.

In the end, “Somos como las nubes”—the simile, becomes “Somos las nubes”—the metaphor. We are the clouds. We will reunite with our families. We will get through this. Nothing and no one can stop us. A strong message of hope for lost, lonely, terrified young children. An important and gorgeous book, Somos como las nubes / We Are Like the Clouds is highly recommended. It’s my hope that Groundwood will donate a copy to every Spanish-speaking child in every refugee center in el norte.

—Beverly Slapin
(published 9/10/16; revised 9/11/16)

Thunderous Whisper

author: Christina Díaz González 
Alfred A. Knopf, 2012 
grades 5-8 
Basque

Díaz González’s second novel mines her rich family history originating in the Basque region of Spain, specifically the experiences of her grandparents and great-grandparents who came to the Americas following the Spanish Civil War. Drawing from their lives and culture, she weaves an original and powerful story of a 12-year-old girl caught up in this war, which began with General Francisco Franco’s invasion of the Spanish Republic from Morocco with the help of Hitler and Mussolini in 1936. While the war continued until Franco’s victory in 1939, the novel culminates with the bombing in 1937 of the Basque city of Guernica by Nazi forces allied with Franco’s Nationalist (fascist) army.

Anetxu (Ani) lives on the outskirts of Guernica. Her classmates call her “Sardine Girl” and bully her relentlessly because she is poor and smells of the fish that she and her mother sell in the marketplace and deliver door to door.

My father would say our family’s clothes carried the scent of the sea, but that was just his fancy way of saying that we reeked of fish. It made sense since Papá had worked as a merchant seaman before joining the army and Mamá had always been a sardinera, selling the sardines that were the size of my feet, but stinkier… No wonder everything they owned, including me, smelled of fish.
At home, things aren’t much better. Her mother still mourns the death of Ani’s brother from illness years earlier. Ani endures both physical and emotional abuse from a mother who won’t call her by her given name but merely “neska”—the word for “girl” in the Basque language—and she misses her father, who has volunteered to fight against the fascists.

One afternoon, while sitting under her favorite tree outside the city, Ani sees a slightly older boy with a limp. She has never seen him before, and she learns that he has recently moved to Guernica because his father manages movie theaters for a large company. Mathias’s father is of Basque heritage, and his mother is a German Jew; for that reason, he too supports the anti-fascist cause. After some mutual distrust, Ani and Mathias become friends. He brings her to his father’s theater, where they eavesdrop on his father and other community leaders who have become spies. Soon, the children are carrying messages to the anti-fascist resistance about the location of Franco’s ground forces and Hitler’s planes and ships. However, they are unable to protect their city against the devastating bombing that destroys Guernica and kills hundreds of residents.

Many young people learn about Guernica from the famous anti-war painting by Pablo Picasso. Díaz González’s novel portrays the people in a way that contributes greatly to our understanding of the painting, of the war that has widely been seen as an Axis testing ground for the Second World War, and of the lives of children living in a war zone. The author realistically depicts life on the home front and the longing of many children to become part of the fight and to “make a difference” with little understanding of the true costs and horrors of war. A Thunderous Whisper is highly recommended.

—Lyn Miller-Lachmann
(published 9/9/16)

An earlier version of this review first appeared in The Pirate Tree (thepiratetree.com). We thank The Pirate Tree for permission.


Head of the Saint

author: Socorro Acioli 
translator: Daniel Hahn 
Delacorte, 2016 
grades 7-up 
Brazilian

Translated fiction for teen readers is not easy to find. Despite the recent success of adult titles by Elena Ferrante, Steig Larsson, Roberto Bolaño, Haruki Murikami, and others, and the growing number of acclaimed picture books from other countries, middle grade and young adult novels in translation haven’t yet received their due. This oversight is particularly troubling given that most high school social studies curricula feature a year or two of global studies, any person who isn’t Indigenous to this land has roots in another country, and many teens travel or study abroad in high school or college. A mandatory 100-level college course should not be someone’s first exposure to international literature.

So I was thrilled to see a major house publish Brazilian YA author Socorro Acioli’s novel, The Head of the Saint, translated by Daniel Hahn. (The book, with Hahn’s translation, was first published in the UK in 2014; as a recent article in The Guardian points out, translations now sell better in the UK than do literary novels in English.)

The Head of the Saint begins with 15-year-old Samuel’s long and exhausting pilgrimage from his hometown in northeastern Brazil, where his mother has just died, to the town of Candeia, where his father and grandmother supposedly live. He travels in pursuit of three tasks his mother assigned him on her deathbed. But Candeia is a cursed town, ever since the residents attempted to build a statue to their patron saint, Saint Anthony, and because of a construction error the head could not be attached to the body. Samuel’s grandmother chases him from her home and tells him to hide out in the head. There, he meets 13-year-old Francisco, sneaking away to read pornographic magazines. He blackmails Francisco into helping him, and the two become friends and collaborators in an enterprise to revive the town.

While living in the head, Samuel hears voices—a woman singing, women praying to find love. He and Francisco set up a meeting between one young woman and the local doctor that leads to marriage, and then scores of desperate women arrive in Candeia looking for similar magic. The town begins to recover, but secrets are revealed that put Samuel in mortal danger. His promise to his mother involves even more danger, but it may also be the thing that saves him.

Readers and writers of magic realism will find inspiration in this exemplary work by Acioli, who wrote The Head of the Saint under the mentorship of Nobel laureate Gabriel García Márquez. Translator Hahn captures the lyrical, dreamlike omniscient narrative (though mostly focused on Samuel), and readers of the US edition will not suspect that he is British or that the novel was first published in the UK. As in other magic realist fiction from Latin America, Acioli explores the official corruption and repression, environmental degradation, and individual malice—things that appear unbelievable but regularly happen in countries and communities all over the world.

Acioli’s vivid descriptions bring to life the lush vegetation invading the ruined community, the crumbling mansions of a once-prosperous town, the remaining young residents clinging to life and hope in the face of death. Brazil’s complex ethnic heritages and religious traditions, intertwined with those of Portugal and Cape Verde, are central to the story as well. Acioli weaves all these themes and motifs into an organic whole, showing us that those who know a place best are the ones who live there.

At first, some readers may find it difficult to figure out the strange relationships weaving in and out and all around, as well as the symbolism and significance of the statue itself and in particular, the head. But when everything comes together—as it does—the message is satisfying and real. Without giving away the ending, let me say that everything somehow involves “courage,” “forgiveness,” and “love,” which Samuel ultimately comes to understand.

Head of the Saint is highly recommended.

—Lyn Miller-Lachmann
(published 9/6/16)

This review, in a slightly different form, first appeared in The Pirate Tree (thepiratetree.com). We thank The Pirate Tree for permission.

Goodnight, Papito Dios / Buenas noches, Papito Dios

author: Victor Villaseñor 
illustrator: José Ramírez 
translator: Carolina Villarroel 
Piñata Books / Arte Público Press, 2007 
preschool-up 
Mexican

When a fearful young child (“I’m scared that creepy creatures will come and get me!”) tries to settle into bed, his father comforts him by remembering, when he was a child, how his own mother sang to him each night—“¡Cu-cu-ru-cu-cuuu!”—the beautiful, lilting turtledove song. As the child snuggles up under the covers, Papá soothes his son, telling him about feeling good and safe and warm as he travels up, up into the heavens with his Guardian Angel, “flying through the clouds and past the stars,” to visit with Papito Dios. Papá sings, just like his own Mamá sang: “Cu-cu-ru-cu-cuuu, canta la paloma. Duérmete, mi niño, duérmete ya, cierra los ojitos y empieza a sonar” (loosely translated: “Coo-coo-roo-coo-coooo, sings the turtledove. Sleep, my little darling. Sleep, my little love. Close your tired little eyes, m’ijito, and go quietly to sleep.”)

Goodnight, Papito Dios is a gentle song that comforts a child in the loving care of his parents, all of his relatives, his community, everything that lives and the world above.

Ramírez’s striking images, rendered in acrylic and enamel paint on canvas, consist of blue and red underpainting followed by contrasting primary and secondary colors, and enclosed with dark purple enamel marker outlines. The stylized faces, reminiscent of Diego Rivera’s murals and some of Picasso’s, aptly portray the emotions of the story and song. As well, the opposing text pages—each placed on a yellow background containing a design element that separates the English and Spanish—lighten and brighten the double-page spreads.

Villarroel’s idiomatic Spanish maintains the softness and beauty of the English:  

Daddy loves you. Mommy loves you. Your Guardian Angel loves you and the turtledove loves you too. And so does the dog, the cat, your brothers and sisters, and the trees and the grass and the flowers that dance in the wind.

Papá te quiere, Mamá te quiere. Tu Ángel de la Guardia te quiere, igual que la paloma. El perro y el gato te quieren y tus hermanos y hermanas también, así como los árboles, el césped y las flores que felices danzan en el viento.
  
Goodnight, Papito Dios / Buenas noches, Papito Dios, a tender, loving story and song in Spanish and English, complemented by lush artwork, is highly recommended.

—Beverly Slapin

(published 9/4/16) 

Little Chanclas

author: José Lozano
illustrator: José Lozano
translator: Luis Humberto Crosthwaite 
Cinco Puntos Press, 2015 
preschool-grade 2 
Mexican American

Little Lily Luján loves her chanclas. In a whole school year, their flipitin-flipitónes have accompanied her to “six quinceñeras, four baptisms, three weddings, two graduations, and sixteen family barbecues.” Everyone can hear Lily coming and going, and that’s why her nickname has become “Little Chanclas.”

Although the unrelenting, noisy flipitin-flipitón of Lily’s chanclitas majorly annoys everyone—relatives, neighbors, and others in the community—no one takes her flip-flops away. After all, they are part of who Lily is and how she navigates her world.

Now, every adult (but not necessarily every child) knows that nothing lasts forever—even flip-flops. Once their delicate straps break, it’s over. Lily’s personal tragedy occurs when the straps snap during a family barbecue, one of the chanclas falls into the guacamole bowl, and Chewcho, the neighborhood bulldog, quickly swallows the other one. ¡Aye, que no! Lily’s chanclitas are gone, she’s totally bummed, and there’s no consoling her.

Lily’s relationship to her beloved flip-flops and how friends, family and community members react to the strong-willed little girl is the essence of the story. As her Abuela gently and wisely reminds frustrated family members of their own childhood flirtations with flip-flops, the unspoken subtext demonstrates the acceptance of individual differences and the care and patience bestowed on the community’s children, who are to be loved and indulged rather than scolded or punished.

Using watercolor and inks on a vibrant palette of mostly oranges, yellows, blues and greens, Lozano’s art is reminiscent of the great Mexican and Chicano murals, especially those in East Los Angeles, the Mission District of San Francisco, and the Tex-Mex border towns. Flip-flop designs fill all of the front matter and back matter, and there are chanclas on virtually every interior page as well. Stylized full-bleed illustrations that often spread to parts of the accompanying pages contain real cultural events and real characters whose faces encompass the wide range of ethnic mixes among the Raza peoples in the Chicano communities.

Adding cultural authenticity and lively storytelling for young readers and listeners—hablantes and English speakers together—are the Spanglish words and phrases, together with onomatopoetic word play, all flawlessly woven into both texts. There’s, for example, Lily Luján’s “chanclas slippity-slappetying like castanets” (or, in Spanish, her “chanclas flipitín-flipitoneaban como castañuelas”). And, after Chewcho gobbles down one of Lily’s chanclas, “Chewcho se enfermó de chanclitis.” There are also some tongue-twisting place names tossed into the mix: Benny’s Burgertería, por ejemplo, and Sukey’s Sushitería.

It would seem that author-illustrator José Lozano and translator Luis Humberto Crosthwaite —who both demonstrate a dry wit and deft command of language—worked together, a practice rarely permitted in publishing.

Of course, Lily eventually grows to love a variety of other kinds of shoes—including high heels and moccasins—as well as her beloved chanclas. But her new favorites become—CLEATS! And, while everyone hears Lily’s “clickety-clackety ruckus” on the soccer field, no one cares. As she scores one goal after another, “todos gritarán de emoción,” ¡Échale ganas, Chanclitas!

The charm and enthusiasm of Little Chanclas (the child) invites young readers and listeners into her world, and the vibrant illustrations and upbeat word play of Little Chanclas (the book) is a delight for everyone.


—Beverly Slapin
(published 8/11/16)

Rooster / Gallo

author: Jorge Luján 
illustrator: Manuel Monroy 
translator: Elisa Amado 
Groundwood Books, 2004 
preschool-up











El gallo abre su pico
y sale el sol.
El sol abre su mano
y nace el día.
El día se asombra cuando la noche
tiende su capa y la colma de estrellas
para que coma el gallo
y vuelva transparente
al nuevo día.
The rooster opens its beak
and up comes the sun.
The sun opens its hand
and the day is born.
The day is surprised when night
spreads its cloak and fills it with stars
that the rooster can eat
and so clear the sky for
a new day.
With only three lyrical sentences, this elegant, simple yet complex poem about the diurnal round brings to life all of the aspects of day and night. Here, all have volition and all cooperate for the greater good of the whole: Rooster pulls in his blanket of clouds to bring in the sun, who opens its hand to bring forth the day, who is surprised at the advent of night, who brings forth the stars for Rooster to eat and clear the sky for a new day.

Monroy’s striking images of bright and muted watercolors on a palette of blues, browns, golds and greens darken as night approaches and lighten at daybreak; he masterfully depicts Rooster sometimes as a weathervane, sometimes in the shape of a cloud, sometimes bringing in the day, and sometimes spreading his cloak to release the stars. The design, which forefronts Luján’s original Spanish in large red letters, is followed by the English translation below in smaller black or blue type that contrasts with the background.

Written in Spanish and beautifully translated into English, Rooster / Gallo is a brilliant little book with a large meaning. For babies, children and adults to enjoy at their own levels of understanding, it’s highly recommended.   

—Beverly Slapin
(published 8/7/16) 


Clara and the Curandera / Clara y la curandera

author: Monica Brown
illustrator: Thelma Muraida 
translator: Gabriela Baeza Ventura 
Piñata Books / Arte Público Press, 2011 
preschool-up 
Mexican American

When I was a little girl, my family and I lived in Borough Park, a low-income Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn. My grandparents, economically marginalized people with large families, having been hastily transplanted some 30 years earlier from stetls in Poland and Russia, had brought little with them to the “goldene land”—pretty much just each other and the clothes on their backs. And their stories. Some of the stories were heartbreakers—such as the one my father told me about when the family had to sell their cow to the butcher in order to get the money for them to leave. As the butcher led her away, my father recalled, she turned her head to the family and mooed her goodbye.

The traditional stories were often hilarious, with each having an embedded “lesson.” In one, a poor peasant with a large family, including his wife, many children, and his mother-in-law, live in a tiny house in a tiny stetl somewhere. All he wants is peace and quiet. So he enlists the aid of the rabbi, who, after lots of beard-tugging and heavy thought, tells him to bring the dog and cat inside. When the noise worsens, the rabbi tells the man to bring in the cow, then the goat, then all the ducks and chickens. When the man can no longer bear the chaos, the rabbi tells him to put the animals back outside. After which the man enjoys his newfound peace and quiet, and finds out—as listeners already know—that life could always be worse.

Monica Brown’s Clara and the Curandera / Clara y la curandera was inspired by this traditional Jewish story. Here, a grumpy little girl, one of eight children, is “tired of not having any space or time” to herself. She doesn’t like to share, doesn’t like to do her chores, and doesn’t like to read. Overwhelmed, the child’s mother sends her to the curandera down the hall. But, rather than being taught how to survive the chaos of everyday life, Clara is given more tasks than she’s ever had—which indirectly teaches her that she has value in her community. In the end, when the curandera allows the transformed Clara to resume her old habits, she chooses to be helpful to everyone, and—while her family, friends and neighbors appreciate her for this newfound generosity—the curandera goes on to help another child with a problem.

Brown’s story has little left of the traditional one that inspired her—she’s flipped the time, the place, the characters, the cultural elements—and even the lesson learned. Yet, Brown is a talented storyteller and her version has a genuine feel to it, it’s got good rhythm, and it’s respectful of Mexican American elders, children, and the community in general. And, similarly to the “original,” the story is nuanced rather than “teachy-preachy”—the words show rather than tell. Young listeners will enjoy how Clara and the Curandera gently conveys its lessons.

Unfortunately, Muraida’s pastel artwork, on a palette of mostly blues, browns and golds, sabotages the story. Although the facial expressions of the main characters—Mami’s exasperation, Clara’s grumpiness, and the elderly curandera’s wisdom—are portrayed well, there are too many errors, ethnically and culturally. There is no father in the text; rather, it appears that Mami is a single mother of eight. Yet, the father appears as a small figure in the background of two illustrations. In the text, the family and community are Mexican American, but except for the curandera’s apartment (with candles, carved boxes and frames, and patterned tablecloth), nothing in any of the illustrations reflects the community’s culture. Rather, every room, hallway, and street appear to be bare; and in Clara’s apartment, which is home to her large family, nothing is out of place and there’s not a speck of dirt anywhere, not even a spot of grease on the oven.

Everyone—even the neighborhood children—has the exact same (light) complexion. And several of the artistic details—two of which separate the English from the Spanish text—are unforgivable. In one, Clara, hauling a heavy, stinky bag of trash, imagines herself enslaved. She is painted as dark. In another, a mini-portrait of Mami, Papi and the eight children, all of them are painted as dark. And in a third illustration, while Clara’s favorite doll is Mexican, the curandera gives her a new doll. This doll is white.

Behind the substandard art and boring design is this question: What kind of damage does this type of illustration inflict on children, especially the children whose cultures are being depicted? The lack of editorial attention, direction, and cohesiveness here are unacceptable. Our children deserve much better than this.

Unfortunately—despite the fact that Monica Brown is a very good storyteller—Clara and the Curandera / Clara y la curandera, as a picture book, can’t be recommended.

—Beverly Slapin
(published 8/1/16)