Niños: Poems for the Lost Children of Chile

author: María José Farrada 
illustrator: Maria Elena Valde 
translator: Lawrence Schimel 
Eerdmans Books for Young Readers 
grades 3-up 

On September 11, 1973, a U.S.-led coup d’etat assassinated Chilean President Salvador Allende and overthrew his populist government; and installed in its place the fascist regime of General Augusto Pinochet. For the next 17 years—until democracy was restored—Pinochet ruled with an “iron fist”: imprisoning, torturing, murdering and “disappearing” thousands of Chilean citizens. Among these 3,197 desaparecidos, 34 were children. 

In Niños: Poems for the Lost Children of Chile, Chilena author María José Ferrada and illustrator María Valdez remember and honor those disappeared children whose names and ages are listed on a final page. Each poem and illustration, titled with a child’s first name, is a gift to the children and their parents—and to the people of Chile, who still mourn and remember.

That none of these short, beautifully illustrated poems mentions Pinochet or the despicable things that he did is a metaphorical payback to him and to dictators in general. All children’s lives should be full of love and beauty, and, in a sense, Ferrada’s tender poems and Valdez’s soft illustrations name and remember these children as their lives should have and would have been. In imagining these children’s lives without violence, they’ve returned to these niños desaparecidos the lives and childhoods that the fascists stole from them. 

Here, young readers meet, among others:

Alicia, who releases her birthday balloons to give a gift to the wind

Jaime, who learns to sing from a bird nesting nearby

Soledad, who writes a symphony from the sound of raindrops on the roof

Paola, whose heart buzzes when she sees an insect for the first time

Eduardo, who watches the flight of the first leaf of autumn 

Jessica, who leaves a gift for the ants disappearing over the edge of a table

Felipe, who turns a light bulb on and off like a miniature sun

Jose, who invents his own dictionary

Orlando, who draws insects to march in single file

Sergio, who plants words in a flowerpot so he can watch them bloom

Valdez’s double-page spreads of soft-edged artwork—accomplished in watercolors, charcoal, graphite, and pastels, on a muted palette of grays, greens, blues, and browns with touches of yellows—are serene and beautiful. They complement the gentleness of the poems and the imagination of the children.

In her dedication, Ferrada, who works as the children’s editor of Memoria Chilena (Chilean Memory), a digital resource center of the National Library of Chile, writes:

This book is an homage to those thirty-four Chilean children, who in these pages play, dream, and listen to the voices of their mothers. Because this is what we think children should do. But this book is also a reminder, an alarm. For we tell this story knowing that at this moment, many children feel afraid, suffer tragedies, and even lose their lives because of political violence. To those children, and to the memory that helps us defeat monsters, we dedicate this book. 

Towards the end is a list of the full names and ages of the 33 children, victims of Pinochet’s fascist regime. Some were only a few months old. The final poem, opposite a blue sky with animals leaping in the clouds, is for a child named Pablo:

When I grow up I’ll be a tree, a cloud,

a wave,

a snail.

And all those shapes

that can be seen in the clouds I’ve learned to stare at.

A tree, a cloud, a wave, a snail.

When I learn to speak,

these words will be the first things I’ll say.

Below this poem, there is another name: “Pablo” is Pablo Athanasiu, who had been disappeared as an infant and was found, alive, as an adult:

Niños is also dedicated to Pablo Athanasiu, who had been part of this list until August 7, 2013, when the Abuelas of the Plaza de Mayo found him alive. We dedicate this book to him and hope the stars always shine for him.

Niños: Poems for the Lost Children of Chile is highly, highly recommended.

—Beverly Slapin

(published 2/25/21)


In its previous edition, Niños received recognition from the Academia Chilena de la Lengua (Chilean Academy of the Language) for the best literary work published in Chile, the Premio Municipal de Literatura de Santiago (Municipal Prize of Literature of Santiago) in the category of youth literature, and was chosen to represent Chile in the catalog, La Organización Internacional para el Libro Juvenil (International Organization for Children’s and Young People’s Books; in English, from IBBY, or International Board of Books for Young People). 

For older students (high school-up) and their teachers, I highly recommend the documentary film, The Judge and the General, which chronicles the investigation by Chilean Judge Juan Guzmán, a former backer of the Pinochet regime, of the mysterious disappearances of countless political opponents—and his own personal and political transformation—BHS

13th Street Series

Book 1: Battle of the Bad-Breath Bats

Book 2: The Fire-Breathing Ferret Fiasco

Book 3: Clash of the Cackling Cougars

Book 4: The Shocking Shark Showdown

author: David Bowles

illustrator: Shane Clester

Harper Chapters, 2020

grades 1-3 

(Mexican American)

In this fast-paced action series, young readers join Mexican American cousins  in South Texas—Malia Malapata, Dante Davila, and Ivan Eisenberg—as they engage with ghoulies and ghosties in the strange and dangerous world of “13th Street.” Malia’s la fregona—the boss, Dante’s the computer genius, and Ivan’s the bookish, sensitive one.

“Progress bars” mark the completion of chapters, and at the end of each story, young readers see how many chapters, pages and words they’ve read. Suggested activities (“Think! Feel! Act!”) encourage youngsters to work together in community.

Appearing as a barely visible safety check, a mysterious elder named Doña Chabela Aguilar kicks off and ends every story. In the fourth book, readers find out why she sends Malia, Dante and Ivan to alternate worlds to battle monsters. 

Book 1: Battle of the Bad-Breath Bats

In Battle of the Bad-Breath Bats, Malia, Dante and Ivan—while visiting their aunt Lucy for the summer—get lost somewhere on “13th Street.” As they work together to escape from the street that doesn’t exist, they must (with the aid of a friendly skeleton) battle a swarm of Snatch Bats—the “bad breath bats”—who can be defeated only by water guns firing “minty-fresh” streams of mouthwash.

Book 2: The Fire-Breathing Ferret Fiasco

In The Fire-Breathing Ferret Fiasco, the three cousins are back in their hometown, Nopalitos. When their school bus takes a wrong turn, everyone winds up back on 13th Street (the street that doesn’t exist), where they, together with the driver and their friends, brother Robby and his sister, Susana, encounter giant, fire-breathing ferrets from another dimension. Hiding inside a vacant warehouse, they meet a friendly nuclear family of Mictecah—Undead Folk, or zombies—who lead them to safety and a time portal to the past.

Book 3: Clash of the Cackling Cougars

In Clash of the Cackling Cougars, the cousins, on a ski trip, are sucked through another portal and accosted by joke-telling cougars: “Why did the human put its money in the freezer? It wanted cold, hard cash!” The cougars’ loud laughter and  horrid jokes sicken the cousins. Literally. But as they soon find out, the laughter also is a weapon of mind control.

Saved by a green elf with a glowing stone that heals Ivan’s heart and stops the revolting laughing echoes in his brain, Ivan rejoins his cousins, trapped in the Underworld with zombies, ghosts and skeletons. Using catnip powder to control the cougars, they escape, but must go back to rescue Micky’s dog, Bruno.

Book 4: The Shocking Shark Showdown

In The Shocking Shark Showdown, Doña Chabela reveals that she’s been sending our courageous young trio down the magical portals to rescue her grandson, Mickey—the “Quiet Prince”—who is trapped on 13th Street and needs their help to find Bruno and open the return portal. They have to figure out when and how to get there.

Finding themselves under 13th Street, they navigate a stinky sewer filled with a menacing Shiver of electric sharks until Bruno shows up and menaces them. Then they meet a bunch of raccoon-like talking pikos who play tumbling games in the water. (As everyone knows, sharks hate pikos and pikos hate sharks, and since Bruno’s been around, much of the Shiver seems to have gone elsewhere.)

It will all be over soon, thinks Malia. Mickey will return home with Chabela. No more 13th Street. 

But first they have to disable the sharks by salinating the water. Guided by a rhyming pico named Pecki, the trio of humans climbs through a manhole into an abandoned grocery store, fills sacks with salt, and gets menaced by razor-clawed rats whom they escape by finding an “impossible room” whose floor somehow “glitches” out of existence.

Back in the sewer, the trio encounters a boat that looks like the upside-down skull of a giant dragon, crewed by little elves called chaneks, and, standing at the front is—Mickey Aguilar.

Hinting at the next books in the series, Mickey tells the others that he’s called the Quiet Prince because “this place has a noisy queen, and she’s stealing human children.” 

And back through the portal, back into the world Mickey had left behind, go our heroes. Except for Malia, who first has to escape another shark attack before she returns to the aquarium to meet her teacher and class.

~    ~    ~    ~    ~    ~    ~    ~    ~    ~    ~    ~    ~    ~    ~    ~

Shane Clester’s digital black-and-white images, drawn on an electronic tablet, give these books a graphic novel appearance. Especially impressive is Malia’s expression as she’s about to vomit, nauseated at the cougars’ terrible jokes. 

Capitalized comic-book noises abound (“The bats couldn’t stop themselves. One by one they smashed into the closed door! BOOM! BAM! BASH!”). Or words are spaced to slow down the reader (“Lightning    flashed    overhead”) or italicized for creepy cultural capital (“¡Uy, cucuy!”).

There are giant doses of snark. For instance, Dante muses, “What’s most important is in our hearts,” to which Malia answers, “Gimme a break!”

There are biological and cultural impossibilities, such as “a calavera with friendly eyes” (uh, skulls don’t have eyes…) whose “bones made weird marimba sounds as he walked.”

And what would a series like this be without fart jokes?

Young readers will get wrapped up in Bowles’ and Clester’s creepy and hilarious 13th Street series, which continues. It’s highly recommended.

—Beverly Slapin

(published 2/21/20)

Mexique: A Refugee Story from the Spanish Civil War

author: María José Ferrada 

illustrator: Ana Penyas

translator: Elisa Amado

Eerdman’s Books for Young Readers (2020)

grades 2-up (Spanish, Mexican)

During the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), Generalísimo Francisco Franco led the fascist Nationalist forces—with the assistance of Nazi Germany and fascist Italy—in overthrowing the democratically elected Second Republic. From 1939-1975, his dictatorship—known as the “White Terror”—was marked by forced labor, concentration camps, assassinations and summary executions, leading to an estimated death toll of between 160,000-200,000. During this time, Franco’s deals with US corporations financed his war and the dictatorship that kept him in power. 

Mexique: A Refugee Story from the Spanish Civil War (originally published by Alboroto Ediciones, Mexico, in 2018 as Mexique: El nombre del barco (Mexique: the name of the ship) is an illustrated photo album from that time, depicting for young children the horrors of what it is to be alone and lost and not knowing what lies ahead. The story is based on interviews with some of the children—now adults—part of a group of 456 refugees whose Spanish Republican families sent them to the safety of Morelia, Mexico, aboard the Mexique at the start of the Spanish Civil War. Their parents were seeking something that most children don’t think about: a life without fear. The art is derived from photographs of the “Children of Morelia” and the ship that brought them to Mexico. The story is dedicated:

To the Children of Morelia. 

And to all those who are moving in search

of a life without fear.

Through the words of a frightened child, young readers will feel the fear of the unknown as the children try to sleep while a volunteer comforts them:

Some cry. Especially at night.

They say that they dream that the ground is crumbling.

The houses are crumbling, and their memories are blank.

Clara, Sonia, Eulalia, María wake us up.

They say it’s just a dream,

one that we all dream together.

Clara, Sonia, Eulalia, María, our sisters,

collect our tears in their handkerchiefs and in the morning

return them to the sea.

The story’s stark, sepia-toned illustrations—many offset with touches of peach and rusted red—complement the fears and uncertainty of the children on the Mexique and their parents, who will never see them again.

On the cover, a large group of children hang off the railings of the ship. Most look forward. With both hands on the railing, a young boy in a white shirt smiles directly at the reader. Many others have their fists in the air. Their expressions range from excitement to sadness to fear. One girl wears a bright red dress. Two boys hold hands. Young readers will see many of these same children, some identified from their clothing, portrayed in the book. 

The final illustration shows 12 adults standing in a semicircle, looking out at the young readers. These people represent some of those who defeated the Spanish Republic and transformed it into the violent and terrifying world that the children have fled. They are soldiers, a nun and priest, spies, businessmen, fascists, and government officials. Sprawled at their feet are tiny figures of dead people: revolutionaries, bloodied and mutilated. They represent the parents, whom the children will never see again. And overhead soar two buzzards. 

Mexique is a photo album of sorts. It is, as artist Ana Penyas (ana penyas libros) writes (in Spanish), “a story that recovers one of the first episodes of the Spanish exile, and at the same time, evokes the history of all the ships that cross the ocean every day, transporting human beings who have the right to a life without fear.”

Here is a mom giving a last hug to her baby. Here is a father embracing his young son for the last time. Here is another mom, handing her little girl over to a stranger as her eyes plead: We trust you with our life’s blood. And here is the stranger, walking up the ship’s ramp with the little girl, looking down at her mom for the last time. 

Elisa Amado is an amazing storyteller and translator, and she pulls no punches here: 

War is a very loud noise. 

War is a huge hand that shakes you 

and throws you onto a ship.

Of course, young children will not understand the violent roots of fascism, how easily it can take hold, and the destruction it leaves in its path. What they will understand, through text and illustrations, is, as the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 3) states: “We all have the right to live in freedom and safety.” Mexique: A Refugee Story from the Spanish Civil War is highly, highly recommended.

—Beverly Slapin

(published 2/17/21)

Tales of the Feathered Serpent, Book 1: Rise of the Halfling King

author: David Bowles

illustrator: Charlene Bowles

Cinco Puntos Press, 2020

grades 3-7 (Mayan)

For millennia, Indigenous elders have transmitted histories and their teachings through story. In many of the teachings the lessons are inferred rather than directly stated. The objective is to tell an interesting story that would engage listeners in an enjoyable way. The story stays with them longer and the lesson in the story might be discovered later. Traditional stories are interesting, engaging and memorable. And when written or drawn, the depth of meaning is still there. “Graphic novels”—when done well—engage the eyes and the mind at the same time. And the presence of the storyteller, which was always visual, remains in the graphic novel.

Some two thousand years before the Spanish conquest, the Mayan peoples of the Yucatán Peninsula developed a hieroglyphic script to record their stories and histories with words and images. It’s not much of a stretch to see these codices—most of which the Spanish conquistadores burned—as the forerunners of today’s graphic novels.

In Tales of the Feathered Serpent, David Bowles translates traditional Yucatec Mayan stories and gifts them to young adult readers. Now, in Rise of the Halfling King—the first of ten graphic novels, each based on a story in Tales of the Feathered Serpent—he transmits some of this millennia-old traditional lore in a way that’s accessible to younger readers, and, accompanied by Charlene Bowles’ vibrant art, shapes these stories into another part of the same experience.

Trained to become a curandera since she was a young girl, apprentice witch Almah is beloved by her community for her goodness and kindness and ability to call down the gentle rain. Time passes, and although nearby Uxmal had not had a king for a hundred years, the aluxes—“mystic elfin beings who wield great magic to protect nature”—select Almah to receive a magic stone and a drum that will “announce the true king of Uxmal.” As the villainous Kinich Kak Ek is enthroned, his chief advisor, the sorcerer Zaatan Ik, announces that “no man born of a woman can usurp” his sovereignty and that when a “kingmaker” drum sounds, his rival must be given the opportunity to take the throne by overcoming three challenges.

Uneasy with the sorcerer’s prophesy, (partly because he mistranslates “not born of a woman” as “not born”), the king conquers the surrounding cities and establishes a barbarously cruel empire. 

Out of fear of the king and his priests, the community shuns Almah. Lonely and wandering in the hills, she finds an unusual egg, which she takes home and places near the hearth, by the “kingmaker drum” that she had hidden. When a little boy—a “halfling” secretly gifted to Almah by the aluxes—emerges, Almah adopts him as her grandson, names him Sayam, and as he grows (but not as much as other young people), she teaches him “green magic and the sacred prayers that call down gentle showers in spring.” And she realizes that he’s destined to be king.

Under Almah’s tutelage and through her unconditional love, the brave and reckless young Sayam matures and begins to understand what it is to be a leader with a sense of duty to his people. He also learns earth magic, how to read the “ancient books”—the sacred Mayan codices—and works with the Bobatil Ju’un, the Book of Prophecy. These are important skills he will need when it comes time to fulfill his prophecy—to defeat Kinich Kat Ek and assume the throne.

Throughout this gripping, fast-moving plot—which includes Sayam’s defeating a serpent from the underworld that aims to devour the people’s beloved dead—Bowles seamlessly weaves in references to Mayan philosophy, ethics and traditions. As well, he embeds, in heavy, bold type, the incantations that Almah, Sayam, and others utilize in the Yucatec Mayan language. And he sprinkles into the dialogue present-day phrases and thoughts, such as when Sayam apologizes to some of the dead ancestors for having to unwrap them: “Sorry, old ones, I need a diversion” (to get the serpent’s attention).

Charlene Bowles’ expressive digital art seamlessly melds strong, dynamic lines typical of the ancient drawings with modern comic-book “speech balloons” and text boxes. Her organized panels provide clarity for the dialogue or narration and, at the same time, the large ones offer visuals to emphasize specific moments. 

Throughout, her varying palettes tie into the story’s environment and what’s happening at a particular time. For instance, the forested areas overlay greens, the darker environments are mostly blues and purples, the outside kingdom locations feature more reds and teals, and the inside scenes where the rulers plot to keep themselves in power are dark and foreboding browns.

It’s a brilliant idea to present Mesoamerican traditional literatures as “graphic novels” for young people because they’re essentially extensions of the ancient Mayan codices. As David Bowles writes: “Blending written words and images, comics and other sorts of graphica allow our brains to process stories more like our ancestors did.” Working together, the father-daughter team of David and Charlene Bowles have produced a remarkably illustrated, Mayan tradition-based story, seamlessly interwoven with comic-book action (wham! pow! bam! thud! klonk! thok! fwoosh! glorp!) And it’s not surprising that the two have pulled this off brilliantly. Tales of the Feathered Serpent, Book 1: Rise of the Halfling King will mesmerize middle-grade readers. It’s highly, highly recommended.

—Beverly Slapin

(published 1/7/21)

(Note: I was disappointed to learn that Cinco Puntos Press intends to bring in “various illustrators” for the remaining nine volumes of Tales of the Feathered Serpent. Young readers form visual connections with graphic novels, and the first in a series establishes the vision for the rest. Contracting with different artists who use different art styles is likely to destroy the vision and ruin the continuity. I would like to have seen consistency of the creative team across the series.—BHS)

My Big Sister // Mi hermana mayor

author: Samuel Caraballo
illustrator: Thelma Muraido

Piñata Publications / Arte Público Press (2012) 

preschool-grade 2 (Puerto Rican)

On the cover, a young boy offers his older sister a small bunch of flowers he has just picked along the road. His eyebrows are slightly raised as he looks up at her. As their hands meet, she accepts his gift with a smile. 

In this gentle, bilingual story that centers the loving relationship between young Pablito and his big sister, the child shows and tells young readers all that Anita does for him while their parents work in a factory, where they “sew jeans for the whole world.”

Throughout an ordinary day, Pablito is full of enthusiasm.

Anita wakes him up, and applauds while he ties his own shoes “with lightning speed.” After Pablito gobbles up his “hot, creamy oatmeal with raisons,” Anita walks him to the school bus, where she “plants a kiss” on his cheek and he greets the driver. After school, Anita sits with him as he does his homework; then they play a round of soccer with some neighborhood boys, come home and have dinner, and get ready for a nighttime story (which happens to be Monica Brown’s Clara y la curandera, illustrated by Thelma Muraida) and bed. After Pablito falls asleep, his parents return and praise Anita for taking care of him, “because,” as Pablito says, “¡ella es era hermana mayor que cualquier hermanito querría tener!” (“She is that big sister that any little brother would want to have!”)

In working class Puerto Rican neighborhoods, it’s common that both parents have to work at low-wage factories while older siblings care for the younger children. This is one way that they are allowed to demonstrate responsible behavior and it creates a strong family bond.

Since Pablito narrates his relationship with his big sister—his experiences—he doesn’t mention that Anita goes to school after she puts him on the bus and picks him up on her way back. However, young readers will notice that Anita carries two backpacks—the bigger one is hers and the smaller one belongs to Pablito. 

Anita has a lot of responsibilities, but they do not include cooking. Rather, at dinnertime, she and Pablito enjoy a delicious, nutritious, and traditional festín de sobras—a feast of leftovers. 

Caraballo is a talented storyteller and poet who composes first in Spanish and then in English. Since every Spanish-speaking culture or region has its own dialect, including local names for plants and animals, people’s names, and the ways in which words or phrases come together, Mi hermana mayor is full of Puerto Rican modismos. For instance, while Pablito picks “buttercups” for Anita, in Caraballo’s Puerto Rican Spanish they’re “botoncitos de oro”—little gold buttons. 

Muraida’s full-bleed, earth-toned pastel and colored pencil illustrations reflect the warm relationship between the young boy and his older sister, who cares for him while their parents “sew jeans for the whole world.” 

On the first spread, expressionless images of a line of factory workers at their sewing machines recede into a rounded earthy background that gives the impression of “the whole world.” Across a “road” is a sketchy image of a town with faceless inhabitants. They are all wearing jeans. 

Mostly single page illustrations on the right and spare text on the left—with the English and Spanish texts separated by spot details—depict Pablito’s and Anita’s day. By their expressions, it’s clear that the two are devoted to each other. And on almost every page, their tiny Chihuahua accompanies them.

It’s important to note that, although Pablito and Anita’s parents work at low-wage jobs, the family is not impoverished. They live in a tree-lined Puerto Rican neighborhood of small, single-family houses, they have curtains on the windows and furniture and books and family photographs.

Samuel Caraballo’s engaging bilingual story of a day in the lives of loving family members, and warmly illustrated by Thelma Muraida, will appeal to young readers—both Spanish- and English-speakers. My Big Sister / Mi hermana mayor is highly recommended.

—Beverly Slapin

(published 12/27/20)

Míl gracias a mi amiga, Judy Zalazar Drummond, who is also a great fan of Samuel Caraballo’s.

La selva de Zonia // Zonia's Rain Forest

author: Juana Martinez-Neal 
illustrator: Juana Martinez-Neal
Candlewick Press, 2021 
all grades (Asháninka)

[Reviewer’s note: La selva de Zonia // Zonia’s Rain Forest is reviewed in two parts. The story and the back matter are discussed separately.


La selva de Zonia // Zonia’s Rain Forest: The Story

Young Zonia’s rain forest home is calm and beautiful—everything is “green and full of life.” A hammock hangs between two trees, and the presence of metal pots, a woven basket, a gourd and wooden bowls signals to young readers that this story takes place in the present. As Zonia looks on, her mom contentedly nurses her baby brother. Green grows all around, and a blue morpho butterfly flits around them.

“Every morning, the rain forest calls to Zonia,” and, every morning, she answers. With the butterfly in the lead, Zonia greets the forest’s creatures: two-toed sloths, red Andean cock-of-the-rocks, and South American coatis. She takes a ride on the back of a jaguar and says hello to Amazon river dolphins, congratulates an anteater family on the arrival of their new babies, plays hide-and-seek with a spectacled caiman, hangs upside-down on a high branch with a boa constrictor, and visits with a group of Arrau turtles. And after Zonia’s visit, the butterfly guides her home—almost.

What she sees frightens her—much of the forest has been clearcut; all that’s left are stumps. Zonia’s animal friends are gone; only her butterfly guide remains. She runs home and tells her sorrowful mama that the forest needs help.

“It is speaking to you,” says Zonia’s mama.

“Then I will answer,” says Zonia, “as I always do.”

On the final spread, Zonia is no longer a carefree child. Her face is painted and she wears a patterned dress. With one hand on a remaining tree trunk, she looks forward. She is ready for the struggle ahead. With the butterfly circling around her and showing her the way, Zonia tells young readers:

“We all must answer.”

It’s no surprise that Martinez-Neal tells the Spanish version, La selva de Zonia, at least as beautifully as the English. Especially, in the Indigenous struggle to save the rain forest, her repetition of a particular phrase—“verde y llena de vida” (“green and full of life”) strikes an emotional chord, because, by the “end” of the story, young readers ascertain what’s coming and what has to be done—and that it is far from the end of the story.

Martinez-Neal sets every full-bleed double-page spread—rendered in acrylic, colored pencil, pastel, ink, and linocuts and woodcuts—on handmade textured banana bark paper, which she purchased from women paper artisans of Chazuta. In most of the illustrations, gentle rainforest greens frame Zonia’s bright yellow dress; and the blue butterfly on the right of each spread leads to the next page. Young readers see the soft textures and blending of art and story coming together in a gentle, satisfying whole.

On the acknowledgements page, Zonia’s guide—the blue morpho butterfly—circles around a statement issued by the United Nations International Labour Organization at the Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention in 1989:

The peoples concerned shall have the right to decide their own priorities for the process of development as it affects their lives, beliefs, institutions and spiritual well-being and the lands they occupy or otherwise use, and to exercise control, to the extent possible, over their own economic, social and cultural development. In addition, they shall participate in the formulation, implementation, and evaluation of plans and programmes for national and regional development which may affect them directly.

As this particular story—La selva de Zonia // Zonia’s Rain Forest—ends, young readers understand that this brave little girl knows who she is, what she comes from, and all that she has been given to do. And the story of all the “Zonias”—the struggle of all the Indigenous peoples who acknowledge the Amazon rain forest as their home—“green and full of life”—continues.

Told in a way that engages the youngest readers and listeners—and everyone else—La selva de Zonia // Zonia’s Rain Forest is a beautiful and important story that encourages compassion and activism. It’s highly recommended.

— Beverly Slapin

(published 12/12/2020)

La selva de Zonia // Zonia’s Rain Forest: About the back matter

“Todos debemos de responder.” // “We must all answer.” In the last few words of the story, Zonia acknowledges the Indigenous peoples who, for some five millennia, have sustainably managed the rain forest—and are now struggling to save it. And she calls out to allies all over the world to join them. 

Asháninka is the name of Zonia’s people, the language that’s spoken at home, and the language of one of the largest Indigenous nations struggling to save the Amazon rain forest. The author acknowledges and thanks the many people who worked to translate this story into Asháninka Satipo-Junin, and others who worked to vet it for fidelity and accuracy. So it’s unfortunate that the Asháninka version was relegated to one page in the back matter and accompanied only by an illustration of a sloth hanging upside down. 

Although Candlewick took the extra step of hiring a team to translate this beautiful story into the Asháninka language, no one who speaks or reads the language will benefit from its placement in any substantial way. Rather, Asháninka speakers will have to turn back to the illustrations to enjoy this story.

Since this book is set to be published in Spanish and English only—and the decision was made not to incorporate the Asháninka version into the story—I would like to see the story in Asháninka, perhaps in a limited print run, donated to the Asháninka people. As it stands, the inclusion of the Asháninka text on a single page, while a well-intended gesture of respect, is ultimately hollow and performative because it’s unlikely that anyone from that region will benefit from the translation of this story about their beloved rain forest in their own language.

The rest of the back matter is divided into seven  sections: “The Asháninka People,” “A Few Facts about the Amazon,” “Threats to the Amazon,” “Illegal logging,” “Farming,” “Mining,” and “Oil and Gas Extraction.” The back matter is limited and confusing. It contains numerous errors and is full of Eurocentric markers as well. 

Here are examples:

1. Text: Zonia is Asháninka, which is the largest Indigenous group living in the Peruvian Amazon… 

What’s wrong: Referring to an Indigenous nation as a “group,” rather than “people,” “nation,” or “society”—diminishes them. 

Corrective: Zonia is Asháninka, which is the largest Indigenous nation living in the Peruvian Amazon.

2. Text: They have a long history of insisting on self-determination….

What’s wrong: “Insisting on self-determination” diminishes their continuous struggle, recognized by the United Nations. 

Corrective: They have a long history of struggling for self-determination and freedom—to exercise control over their own economic, cultural and social development. 

3. Text: Those rights continue to be ignored and violated, and harassment grows because of others’ impatience to develop, cultivate and mine the world’s tropical forests for profit. 

What’s wrong: Placing the Asháninka people’s difficulties into the passive tense—things that happen to them—rather than the active tense—who’s doing it and why—in a sense, blames the victim. 

Corrective: They are answering the call to protect the rain forest—their home—from the rapacious multinational logging and mining industries that continue to destroy the world’s tropical forests for profit. 

4. Text: The Amazon rain forest takes carbon dioxide out of the air and turns it into oxygen, producing more than twenty percent of the oxygen on our planet…

What’s wrong: This is a widely held myth that’s been debunked by scientists for years. See “Why the Amazon doesn’t really produce 20% of the world’s oxygen,” in National Geographic, 2019:

Corrective: The trees in the Amazon rain forest filter and reprocess huge amounts of carbon dioxide, which helps stabilize climates locally and globally.

5. Text: The Amazon rain forest shrinks by 18.7 million acres every year, or the size of twenty-seven soccer fields every minute. It shrank 17 percent in the last fifty years alone. 

What’s wrong: This phrasing hints that “shrinking” is something that happens naturally. 

Corrective: Depredation and degradation caused by the rapacious logging and mining industries destroys some 18.7 million acres every year, or the size of twenty-seven soccer fields every minute. In the last fifty years alone, they have demolished some 17 percent of the rain forest.

6. Text: The Amazon rain forest is home to between four hundred and five hundred different Indigenous groups—some of which are isolated or uncontacted.

What’s wrong: Besides referring to Indigenous peoples as “groups,” the phrasing suggests that they can’t be found by anyone.

Corrective: In some of the larger areas, difficult access has allowed them to remain isolated from the outside influences of the settler society.

7. Text: Every day, the Amazon rain forest is being changed by development. Large infrastructure projects (dams, roads, hydroelectric power plants) and extractive industries (oil wells, mining) have transformed the lives of the people who live there, sometimes permanently and not always in positive ways.

What’s wrong: The infrastructure projects and extractive industries do not ever “transform” the lives of the people impermanently or in positive ways.

Corrective: Every day, large infrastructure projects (such as dams, roads, hydroelectric power plants) and extractive industries (such as oil wells, mining) destroy the land and endanger the lives of the Indigenous peoples who have, for millennia, lived and thrived in the vast Amazon rain forest. 

8. Text: Forests are being burned down and cleared to make room for pastureland on which to graze commercial livestock. Destroying the rain forest also destroys a key source of oxygen (which all living things need in order to keep on living).

What’s wrong: See #4.

Corrective: The Amazon rain forest is critical to the world because of its rich biodiversity, its enormous stores of carbon, and its effects on many species of plants and animals found nowhere else. Forest clearing for increased commercial agricultural development, such as cattle grazing, decimates the balance of the rain forest.

9. Text: While illegal gold mining is done on a small scale, its effects are anything but small. Illegal mining causes an increase in other types of crime. And, to find even trace amounts of gold, mercury is dumped into the rivers and streams, poisoning the water and all that lives and depends on it.

What’s wrong: Gold mining not only pollutes the rivers and streams, it significantly limits the regrowth of Amazon forests. 

Corrective: The extraction process of mining strips nitrogen from the soil and contributes to the presence of mercury within forests and rivers. This process not only contaminates food sources from the rivers, it also limits the forest’s important capacity to accumulate and store carbon. (See

10. Text: Oil and gas exploration and extraction take place largely in Indigenous territories. Due to poor environmental practices by these industries, the ability of the people and the land to recover from such damage is severely limited.

What’s wrong: This section makes the assumption that the Indigenous peoples of the rain forest are helpless.

Corrective: Decades of oil and gas extraction have widely contaminated much of the Amazon rain forest in Peru. Other negative results of the pipelines include sharp declines in fish stock, interruption of seed dispersal and natural forest regeneration, and habitat destruction. In the last 15 years, protests by Indigenous organizations against the oil companies have exposed the toxic results of this contamination.


—Beverly Slapin

(published 12/12/2020)

Míl gracias a mis colegas David Bowles, Judy Zalazar Drummond, and Ricardo Ramírez.