Treasure on Gold Street/ El tesoro en la calle oro

author: Lee Merrill Byrd
translator: Sharon Franco
illustrator: Antonio Castro L.
Cinco Puntos Press, 2003
grades 2-up
Mexican American

In this slightly fictionalized account of a story about real people living in a real bilingual- bicultural community in El Paso, six-year-old Hannah tells about her relationship with her friend, Isabel, who “is big like a grown-up but she plays with me like a friend.” Isabel and her grandma, Bennie, are long-time residents of the neighborhood and an integral part of the community.

That Isabel has mental retardation is not mentioned until the author’s note; but young readers find out that one of the reasons all the children love Isabel is because there’s something about her that allows her to have fun at a child’s level.

As the story progresses and the children mature, they drift off and begin hanging out with their age-mates. But Isabel remains—there are always younger children to play with.

Castro’s detailed, almost photographic characters are warm and natural, neither exaggerating nor marking Isabel. She’s a real person rather than a caricature; her emotions are real. The illustrations, executed in pen and ink and watercolor on a palette of bright pastel colors, appear to be cut and pasted onto the background. Here, cartoon-like illustrations—of streets, houses, furniture, toys, and even a dog—enhance the focus of the characters.

In one of my favorite illustrations, a laughing Isabel is hanging the wash, and possibly, hiding from her grandma. In the foreground are drawn butterflies, but the butterfly resting on the line close to Isabel’s face is realistic, even to the powdery wings.

Franco’s idiomatic Spanish translation is excellent: “Make new friends but keep the old / One is silver and the other’s gold” becomes “Los amigos que tienes son un tesoro / Los nuevos de plata, los viejos de oro.”
In an author’s note, Byrd describes the qualities that endeared Isabel to the community’s children:

She was big like an adult, but she didn’t have any of those characteristics adults have that are so difficult: she didn’t tell them what to do, she didn’t boss them around, she didn’t suddenly stand up and say she was leaving. She could come over early and stay all day. If my kids wanted to watch TV, Isabel would sit and watch TV with them. She would laugh at all their jokes, even the ones that weren’t funny.

Teachers are often at a loss in dealing with issues such as mental retardation, especially since children with retardation are often teased at school. Gold Street, by focusing on Isabel’s attributes, provides a starting point for conversations about similarities and differences, while maintaining a perspective of how everyone can have something to offer. The Treasure on Gold Street / El tesoro en la calle oro is highly recommended.

—María Cárdenas
(published 2/13/14)

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