Olita y Manyula: El gran cumpleaños / Olita and Manyula: The Big Birthday

author: Jorge Tetl Argueta
illustrator: Alex “El Aleph” Sánchez
Luna’s Press Books, 2015
kindergarten-grade 2
Pipíl, Salvadoran

In this sweet little story, which has roots in Argueta’s own childhood, young Olita (Holly), who lives in the US, has come to visit friends and family in El Salvador, where it’s “green, warm and rainy.” On Sunday, Olita’s tía, cousin and two friends are taking her to Manyula’s big birthday party. Olita has no idea who Manyula is, only that she’s their “great friend” and her house is close by. The four excited children, with Tía not far behind, walk in the rain, jump puddles, stop at a bridge to admire the bubbly water of a river, and “pass through a river of food vendors.” And finally, they meet and greet the birthday girl—the great Manyula, the elephant who came to live in El Salvador more than 50 years ago, the elephant so treasured by all that the government made her a Salvadoran citizen.

While both the English and Spanish have a rhythm that will appeal to young readers, Argueta’s Spanish is the beautiful music of an accomplished poet who knows and loves the land of his birth and his childhood streets.

In English, for instance, we read:

[W]e see the San Salvador volcano. What a giant! It looks like it’s playing soccer with the winter clouds. It’s raining the way it rains around here: tik-tik, a little bit of rain; tok-tok. The sun shines and then hides again.
And in Spanish,

[V]emos el volcán de San Salvador. ¡Qué gigante! Está jugando fútbol con las nubes de invierno. Está lloviendo como llueve aquí: pin-pin un poquito de lluvia, pon-pon, más lluvia. El sol brilla y luego se vuelve a esconder. 
Sánchez’s acrylic art on canvas, on a bejeweled palette of mostly pinks, blues and greens, portray the lushness of the land and the ethnic mixture of the Salvadoran people. As the friends walk through the countryside, young readers will take in the ever-present raindrops, a giant volcano “playing soccer with the winter clouds,” a river’s “zigzag of bubbly water,” tall bamboo stalks swinging, a rainbow’s “path of colors in the sky,” and Manyula, of course, with her huge fruit-and-veggie birthday cake.

Since way before Manyula arrived in 1960, El Salvador has been plagued by US-financed and -supported death squads, assassinations, failed revolutions, gang wars, and ownership of the country by an oligarchy of 14 families who siphon the wealth, leaving behind fear, poverty and garbage. To the strong, enduring people of El Salvador, Manyula, in effect, unites the community; she’s a beloved symbol of survival and stability.

Olita y Manyula will resonate with young children on so many different levels. As a story for little ones, including migrant, immigrant and refugee children, it can be about appreciating all the beauty that, even in the toughest of situations, life can offer. It can be about living socially, outside the vast universe of Facebook or the Internet. It can be about issues involving immigration and traveling back and forth, and the nature of the place one calls “home.” Olita y Manyula: El gran cumpleaños / Olita and Manyula: The Big Birthday, Luna’s Press’s first bilingual picture book, is highly recommended. 

—Beverly Slapin
(published 10/20/15)

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