Our California

author: Pam Muñoz Ryan
illustrator: Rafael López 
Charlesbridge, 2008
grades 1-4

Our California (previously California, Here We Come!) has been re-illustrated and re-designed, with short poems that celebrate 14 of California’s major cities and regions, and back matter that includes state symbols and additional artwork and information about each place.

López’s double-page spreads are stunning. Rendered in bright, bold acrylics on a palette of mostly reds, greens, blues and purples, the paintings are heavily saturated and textured by scratching and scraping the paint on grained wood. Some bring to mind the Mexican muralistas and WPA artists, others have a graphic-novel feel, and still others have a sort of folkloric tone. There is also a good deal of magical realism here. For instance, the spread for “Los Angeles” shows a movie director riding a terrified mastodon, who is stuck in the tautologically named “La Brea Tar Pits” near Hollywood.

However, Ryan’s text—and I cannot say this strongly enough—inculcates in young students the appreciation of the Doctrine of Discovery and Manifest Destiny. Each descriptive spread consists of a rhyming four-line verse that—by disappearing the Indigenous peoples, enslaved people, and super-exploited poor and working people, all of whom actually built California—erases any real history and leaves youngsters with nothing of value. For example,

San Juan Capistrano is where you will learn
about a quaint village where swallows return.
Junipero Serra stopped here on his way
to build a grand mission from adobe clay.

Junipero Serra did not build anything. Rather, it was his padres and soldiers who wreaked havoc—physical and spiritual—on the enslaved Indian people who built the 21 missions that line El Camino Real.

Another example: In the section describing the Central Valley, López’s spread at least shows a few agricultural workers, but Ryan’s text disappears them.

The Great Central Valley, with its plentiful yields,
feeds the whole nation with its orchards and fields.
This rich, thirsty farmland needs water to thrive.
Canals, pumps, and dams keep this valley alive.

The back matter, consisting of 75 bulleted informational items, follows no organizational pattern other than proximity to the geographical locations in the text. Most of the items are incorrect and seem to have been haphazardly plucked out of less-than-authentic sources; and many of them appear to have been written by clueless elementary school students. For instance:

Thousands of years ago Asian hunters migrated to North America through what is now Alaska. Their descendants, the first Californians, later became known as Native Americans.

I could easily deconstruct each textual section, but I won’t bother. Despite López’s excellent artwork, Our California is not recommended.

—Beverly Slapin
(published 12/22/14)

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