Children's Books about César Chávez: Telling or Showing?

Many reviewers of books for young readers give a free pass to the often-oversimplified narratives and illustrations that constitute pictorial biographies. I have seen and heard, more often than not, comments to the effect that these are “just” for children and therefore, should not contain more than brief chronologies of events. It is my firm belief, however, that young children who are challenged to think deeply are capable of understanding complex issues and responding positively. Values such as “empathy,” “honesty,” “kindness,” “respect” and “fairness,” among others, can be encouraged early on if they are modeled in life—and shown in picture books.

I use the word “shown” because one of my other firm beliefs is that children shown how to think are more likely—than are those who are “told” only what to think—to develop into critical readers and thinkers, children who will apply what they have learned to their lives.

To illustrate how some picture books “show” and others “tell,” let’s look at a pair of excerpts, each from the introduction to a picture book about César Chávez. Following the excerpts are my comments.

Excerpt 1:  

As a child, Cesar Chavez traveled with his family from one farm to the next to pick beans, broccoli, lettuce, and other crops. After a day in the fields, his back often ached. His hands were sore. Yet Chavez and others who helped put food on Americans’ tables often had no tables of their own, no real homes. Later, Cesar Chavez would lead the fight for better pay, working conditions, and health care for families such as his.[1]

Excerpt 2:

Who could tell?

Who could tell
that Cesario Estrada Chávez,
the shy American
wearing a checkered shirt,
walking with a cane to ease his back
from the burden of the fields,
could organize so many people
to march for La Causa, The Cause!

Who could tell
that he with a soft pan dulce voice,
hair the color of mesquite,
and downcast, Aztec eyes,
would have the courage to speak up
for the campesinos
to get better pay,
better housing,
better health?

Who could tell?[2]

Comments: While Excerpt 1 implies that César Chávez was born poor, that he had no real home, and that he was not American, Excerpt 2 makes no such implications.[3] While Excerpt 1 dispassionately tells young readers that “after a day in the fields, his back often ached” and “his hands were sore,” Excerpt 2 shows them the effects of a lifetime of difficult labor: “walking with a cane to ease his back/ from the burden of the fields.” While Excerpt 2 shows young readers how César Chávez belonged to the land and the culture (“shy American,” “hair the color of mesquite,” “soft pan dulce voice,” and “downcast Aztec eyes”), Excerpt 1 does not.

Now, here are some more excerpts from picture books about César Chávez, including the ones we’ve already examined. Each excerpt below either “shows” or “tells” about an aspect of his life. In each category: Which ones carry stated or unstated assumptions that “tell” children what to think? Which ones “show” or gently lead children into understanding? Which ones are more likely to engage child readers? Which ones are more likely to encourage empathy in child readers?

Early Childhood

Facts: As a young child, Cesario Chávez lived with his large extended family on an 80-acre ranch, where the family produced all that they needed, not only for a comfortable life, but also to stock their grocery store and feed homeless people who happened by. Cesario and his siblings were raised on the dichos of their mother, the examples of their father, and the stories of their grandparents—and lots of love. He later wrote, “I had more happy moments as a child than unhappy moments.”

Cesar Chavez was born in 1927 near Yuma, Arizona. His family had a grocery store and a farm. Cesar was born in a little room over the grocery store.[4]

Everyone in the Chavez family worked on their farm. Cesar’s father planted seeds in the dirt. He hoed away the weeds. He dug ditches to bring water from the river to the farm. Without water, the crops could not grow. Cesar and Richard fed the horses, cows, and chickens. They gathered eggs. Rita washed clothes by hand. Juana made tortillas from ground corn. Their family was poor.[5]

Cesar woke up early each morning and did the usual farm chores. He carried water from the nearby canal, fed the animals, and gathered eggs. Then he went to school.[6]

Until Cesar Chavez was ten, every summer night was like a fiesta. Relatives swarmed onto the ranch for barbeques with watermelon, lemonade, and fresh corn. Cesar and his brothers, sisters, and cousins settled down to sleep outside, under netting to keep mosquitoes out. But who could sleep—with uncles and aunts singing, spinning ghost stories, and telling magical tales of life back in Mexico? Cesar thought the whole world belonged to his family. The eighty acres of their ranch were an island in the shimmering Arizona desert, and the starry skies were all their own.[7] 


Facts: Cesario’s extended family was huge: Besides grandparents, parents, sisters and brothers, there were aunts, uncles and cousins. These loving role models were always around. From his father, he learned the value of honest work, however hard—and the inequities of the farm labor system. From his mother, he learned the value of compassion and the importance of caring for poor and homeless people. From his grandparents, aunts and uncles, he learned about faith, the history of his people, and how to read in Spanish.

Cesar’s father was often too busy to spend time with his family. It was Cesar’s mom who kept them together. She told her children stories. She taught them values and many proverbs, such as “What you do to others, others do to you.”[8]

At night, Cesar watched his father make toy cars from tin cans and small pieces of wood. Cesar and his brothers played with their cars on the floor. At bedtime, their grandmother listened to the children’s prayers.[9]

(Librado) taught César
how to make cars
out of sardine cans
and tractors
out of spools of thread….
Tugged at César’s ears
and patted his head….
(Juana) often spoke to César in dichos,
taught him from the Bible.
“What does the Lord require of you,
but to do justice,
to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?”
Hated violence.
“God gave you senses,
like your eyes, and mind, and tongue
and you can get out of everything.”
Gave César manzanilla tea,
and hugged him tight.[10]

Until Cesar Chavez was ten, every summer night was like a fiesta. Relatives swarmed onto the ranch for barbeques with watermelon, lemonade, and fresh corn. Cesar and his brothers, sisters, and cousins settled down to sleep outside, under netting to keep mosquitoes out. But who could sleep—with uncles and aunts singing, spinning ghost stories, and telling magical tales of life back in Mexico?[11] 

César learned from his parents. His mother told him many stories that taught about the importance of helping the poor and not being violent. César’s grandmother also taught him how to believe in God and the teachings of the Catholic Church. César’s uncle taught him to read in Spanish.[12]


Facts: School was a horrible time for young Cesario. Here is where his name was changed to “Cesar,” and he was taught that all that he learned from his family was worthless; that he was “less than” because he spoke, read and wrote in Spanish. The usual punishment for young César and his Spanish-speaking friends was humiliation—and to have the Spanish beaten out of them. Needless to say, he hated school. But he remained, learning to speak, read and write English, and learning the other skills that would serve him later in life. César was the first in his family to graduate from eighth grade.

The teacher told the children to speak English. Speaking English was hard. Everyone spoke Spanish at home. Many times, Cesar forgot to speak English. Then the teachers hit his fingers with a ruler.[13]

The Chavez family spoke Spanish at home; but in school, whenever Cesar spoke Spanish, his teacher hit him. “It’s a terrible thing,” he later said, “when you have your own language and customs, and those are shattered.”[14]

School was an unwelcoming place. He wasn’t allowed to speak Spanish, the family’s household language. In fact speaking it brought on punishment. All Cesar would remember of school was the whistling of the ruler as it came down on his wrist or knuckles.[15]

Once, after Cesar broke the rule about speaking English at all times, a teacher hung a sign on him that read, I AM A CLOWN. I SPEAK SPANISH. He came to hate school because of the conflicts, though he liked to learn.[16]

One word in Spanish,
 just one word,
and ¡Fuii! whistled the ruler
across César’s knuckles
its edge cutting sharply.
The teacher hung a sign
around his neck:
“I am a clown.
I speak Spanish.”
“If you’re an American,”
 she said,
“speak only in English.
If you want to speak in Spanish,
go back to Mexico.”[17]

In 1992, I worked with an ad hoc group of Bay Area parents, students, school workers and community activists. Together, we gave our skills and life experiences to a project that evaluated a set of history and social studies textbooks with a collective eye on giving our diverse community’s children what they needed to survive and thrive.[18] The insidious message with the focus of these textbooks, as we stated, was this: “In order for some children to be proud of their histories, other children must be made ashamed of theirs.” We went on to say, “We have to teach (all our children) who they are, where they came from, and how they can change the world.”

It’s not enough for children to be told the facts. Children need to be shown to see the colors, hear the music, sniff the air, taste the food, touch the trees and feel the emotions. ¡Sí, se puede!

—Beverly Slapin
(published 12/8/13)

[1] David A. Adler and Michael S. Adler, A Picture Book of Cesar Chavez, illustrated by Marie Olofsdotter. Holiday House, 2010.

[2] Carmen T. Bernier-Grand, César: ¡Sí, Se puede! Yes, We Can!, illustrated by David Diaz. Marshall Cavendish, 2004.

[3] In fact, young César and his family lived in a spacious adobe house that his grandfather had built many years earlier. As Kathleen Krul writes, “Cesar thought the whole world belonged to his family. The eighty acres of their ranch were an island in the shimmering Arizona desert, and the starry skies were all their own.” It wasn’t until César was ten years old, when the Great Depression hit, that the Chávez family joined hundreds of thousands fleeing to California to seek itinerant work.

[4] Susan Eddy, Cesar Chavez. Children’s Press, 2003.

[5] Ginger Wadsworth, Cesar Chavez, illustrated by Mark Schroder. Lerner, 2004.

[6] Adler, op. cit.

[7] Kathleen Krull, Harvesting Hope: The Story of Cesar Chavez, illustrated by Yuyi Morales. Harcourt, 2003.

[8] Adler, op. cit.

[9] Wadsworth, op. cit.

[10] Bernier-Grand, op. cit.

[11] Krull, op. cit.

[12] Richard Griswold del Castillo, César Chávez: The Struggle for Justice / La lucha por la justicia, illustrated by Anthony Accardo. Piñata Books, 2002.

[13] Wadsworth, op. cit.

[14] Adler, op. cit.

[15] Gary Soto, Cesar Chavez: A Hero for Everyone, illustrated by Lori Lohstoeter. Aladdin, 2003.

[16] Krull, op. cit.

[17] Bernier-Grand, op. cit.

[18] Our evaluation, which we distributed widely, was entitled, Communities United against Racism in Education: CURE Analysis, Houghton Mifflin History/Social Science Series, 1991.

No comments:

Post a Comment

We welcome all thoughtful comments. We will not accept racist, sexist, or otherwise mean-spirited posts. Thank you.