Skippyjon Jones and the Failed Read-Aloud

I sat down in my read-aloud chair in front of my first graders, excited to read the “Skippyjon Jones” book given to me by a retired teacher who had volunteered at my school. It had come along with a beautiful floor puzzle picturing the series’ main character, which my students loved. Although I had worked as a bilingual teacher for several years, this year I was teaching in a non-bilingual school. I was excited to read a book that used Spanish terms, and hoped that my handful of Latina/o students would enjoy sharing their knowledge to help us decode them. 
  
But it quickly became apparent that neither I nor my Spanish-speaking students were going to connect to the kind of “Spanglish” used in the “Skippyjon Jones” books, principally because it wasn’t Spanglish at all. When I was in middle school, some of the kids in my class would make fun of Spanish and of our Spanish teacher by just adding “o” to the end of the words. They would say things like, “I-o don’t like-o this class-o,” and then high-five each other and say, “Nice Spanish, dude.” “Skippyjon Jones” operates on the same principle, creating gems like “ding-a-lito,” “stinkitos,” and “snifferito.” Skippyjon Jones is a cat who pretends to be a Chihuahua and talks in a fake Mexican accent (“they are reely, reely beeg, dude”) and calls himself “El Skippito Friskito,” which drives me crazy because there are no k’s in Spanish. If one of my students started talking that way, we would have conversations about stereotypes and offensive behavior. Yet somehow these are popular children’s books.

A few pages into the read-aloud, I realized I had made a big mistake. I tripped over the fake Spanish words and ridiculous names (Poquito Tito? What does that even mean?). In order to have read the book well, I would have had to adopt a fake Mexican accent and essentially mock the way that Mexican people speak, even clapping along to fake mariachi songs with lyrics like, “Diggeree diggeroo diggerito (clap-clap) / We learned something new from Skippito! (clap-clap) He scares them to death/ with his old pickle breath,/ and that’s how we get fossilitos! (clap-clap).” Note: This is also false history. This is not, in fact, how the dinosaurs became extinct.

Tongue-tied and embarrassed, I put the book down. Later, still ashamed that I had subjected my students to even ten minutes of that horrific read-aloud, I tossed both the book and the floor puzzle in the trash. Even a gorgeous floor puzzle and a free book were not worth subjecting my students to toxic racial and linguistic stereotypes.

—Grace Cornell Gonzales
(published 10/5/13)

6 comments:

  1. Do you read the books before you share them with your children?

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    1. Grace Cornell GonzalesApril 21, 2014 at 8:06 PM

      Thanks for asking; that is a great question. I do generally read books to myself before I read them aloud to my students. With that particular book, I had flipped through the pages and had listened to the retired teacher who volunteered read pieces of another book in the series. Interestingly, it wasn't until I tried reading the book aloud myself that I noticed how problematic the language was--a definite oversight on my part. But there is something about reading aloud that changes the quality of your experience with a book-- something I definitely learned the hard way from that experience.

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  2. I just stumbled across this blog and read the essay on Skippyjon Jones. I too had never read the books, just seen the cute characters on the covers. I think I even bought one once for my daughter. It makes kind of me sick that these books are pushed on our children at school book fairs and such. It mostly makes me sad that these mock-Spanish stereotypes still pass for funny or clever. I'm grateful to you and Beverly for writing this blog and for the reviews of books. And I think it's always true, when you know better, you do better. So I wont' beat myself up about it, just do better. Thanks from another Bay Area educator.

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  3. I just found this blog and I am very impressed with all the content. I teach in higher education and a colleague of mine wrote an critique on Skippyjon Jones, specifically looking at the way mock Spanish is used in the book to position Spanish speaker.
    Here is the reference:
    Martínez-Roldán, C. M. (2013). The representation of Latinos and the use of Spanish: A critical content analysis of Skippyjon Jones. Journal of Children’s Literature, 39(1), 5-14.

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    1. Thank you, A. Garcia, for your comment and recommendation. After reading "Skippyjon Jones: Transforming a Racist Stereotype into an Industry" (http://decoloresreviews.blogspot.com/2013/04/skippyjon-jones-and-big-bones.html), Evelyn Arizpe also recommended Carmen Martnez-Roldán's article. It's excellent.

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  4. I am so glad to see that someone else reacted the way I did to Skippy... they regularly circulate from the library I used to work at, so I was interested to read one of the books. Once I did, I was appalled at their whole concept. It was clearly a riff from the "I am the frito bandito" school of bigotry (?) and I cannot believe people enjoy them.... the stories just aren't, to me, good enough to overcome that stereotyping. I mentioned it to the children's librarian and she was sort of non-committal....

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