Papa Gave Me a Stick

author: Janice Levy

illustrator: Simone Shin

Star Bright Books, 2015

preschool-grade 3

Mexican


On the cover, a young Mexican child sits on the ground in his barrio. With his dog serving as a cushion, the child uses a stick to carve out his dream: owning a mariachi guitarra with a leather strap and fringes.


When they hear music in their courtyard, Antonio and his father run out to enjoy a performance by the local mariachi.


Papá y niño see and hear a traditional Mexican mariachi—one plays una vihuela Mexicana (a Mexican violin), another plays una trompeta (a mariachi horn), and several play their guitarras. The child is mesmerized, and tells his father that he wants a mariachi guitar. But his dad can’t afford one (“Ay, hijo, I have no money for such things”), so he gives his young son a stick instead. 


Papa Gave Me a Stick transforms a Japanese Buddhist folk tale, “the straw millionaire”—in which a poor man, starting with a single piece of straw, becomes wealthy through a series of successive trades—into a morality tale: a “give and ye shall receive” for young children.


Antonio selflessly helps a number of animals, who show their gratitude in various ways: He uses the stick his father had given him to start a fire in the comal, which warms a shivering dog, who gives him a tortilla, which he feeds to a hungry bird, who gives him a piece of string, which he uses to help a donkey with a rotten tooth, who gives the boy his blanket, which he uses to save a drowning cat, who gives him a gold ring from his collar, which Antonio gives to a young mariachi who had lost his bride’s wedding ring. And the grateful mariachi gives the boy a beautiful—guitarra! 


Simone Shin used a combination of pen and ink with acrylic paints and digital finishing, to create her spare, uncluttered illustrations. Her style, especially in the backgrounds, evokes soft colors and subtle textures. The Mexican characters are individuals, with varying skin tones and body types. The detailed mariachi instruments are right on target, and the backgrounds, many of which are white or a single muted color, leaves plenty of room for Antonio, his father, and his animal friends.


When the boy brings home his cherished prize and tells his father how he earned it, his father laughs: “All that to earn your guitarra” (which diminishes all that this child has done and the value of what he has earned). Then he divulges that, as a boy, he also earned a guitarra after his papa had given him a stick. 


If the boy’s father earned his guitarra in the same way as his son, what happened to it? (In mariachi families, the instruments are passed down. And there’s a lot of serious study with teachers and relatives and a ton of practicenot to mention fundraising and community servicebefore someone is recognized as a mariachi.)


Pros

Papa Gave Me a Stick is a warm story that demonstrates kindness to animals without asking anything in return. The story is soft and gentle, with a rhythmic cadence, uncluttered artwork, and an unspoken message of reciprocity. The story demonstrates a close relationship between a Mexican father and his young son.


The adobe buildings with gates at the windows, a cobblestone street, and a hanging string of papel picado in the courtyard, are reflective of small Mexican towns in which street mariachi often play.


Cons

Papa Gave Me a Stick contains multiple errors in colloquial Mexican Spanish. For instance, a mariachi band should be referred to as a “mariachi.” A mariachi singer should also be referred to as a “mariachi.” And “mariachi” should be used as both a singular and plural noun (no “s” at the end). 


In the illustration where two mariachi are playing their instruments, the “violin” should be violín, and the “horn” should be trompeta (trumpet). (The names of the five major mariachi instruments are shown in the back matter, but not as part of the story. This takes away important cultural information.)


• As Antonio accepts each gift from a particular animal, he dismisses its value: “What good is this?” What’s the point of his reacting rudely in a story that focuses on empathy and generosity?


• While everyone else is enjoying the mariachi performance, the story reads: “The mariachis [sic] sing as they strum their strings. But Antonio hardly listens. He is too busy staring at the mariachi’s guitar.” Why is Antonio portrayed as an empathetic kid who helps animals in need—and as an obsessively materialistic little boy who doesn’t even appreciate his own people’s music? Although he longs to own a mariachi guitar, he has no particular interest in becoming a mariachi. In a sense, this story objectifies both the mariachi culture and its material aspects.


• Another problem is that the Spanish words and phrases appearing in the story are italicized. Why are they italicized? And they’re immediately translated into English, even in dialogue. Like this: “ ‘¡Qué bueno! Good for you!’ Papa laughs.” Bilingual people do not talk like this—unless they’re kindergarten teachers of English as a Second Language (ESL).


• And finally, except for the bride, who “stands alone at the altar, (stereotypically) scowling and tapping her foot” because her novio misplaced the wedding ring, why is just about everyone else (including the animals) male?


The author’s intended audience is clearly not Mexican or Chicano kids. Rather, she apparently envisioned and wrote this story to appeal to a “universal” child audience, which dismisses those young people who want and need books that speak to them.


Papa Gave Me a Stick is not recommended.


—Beverly Slapin

(published 7/31/2021)


[Random note: The second creature young Antonio helps appears to be a male bluebird (el pájaro). “ ‘¡Qué hambre! I am so hungry!’ chirps el pájaro. ‘I am too weak to build my nest.’ ” (Actually, male and female bluebirds gather material and build the nest, but the male generally does more gathering and the female generally does most of the work.) Bluebirds eat insects, and will eat fruit if they can’t find any insects. But tortillas? No.]



Rata-pata-scata-fata: A Caribbean Story

author: Phillis Greshator
illustrator: Holly Meade 

Star Bright Books (1994, 2005)

African-Caribbean, preschool-grade 3


Rata-pata-scata-fata was originally published in 1994 and re-released in 2005, ten years before the advent of the #OwnVoices movement, which began on Twitter in 2015. #OwnVoices is a campaign advocating for the rights of authors and illustrators to tell their own stories aligned with their identities. #OwnVoices asks the questions: Whose voices are being written and illustrated? Whose voices are being published? Whose voices are being promoted? Whose voices are being heard?


#OwnVoices was not the first such movement. Since 1994, the Cooperative Children’s Book Center of the School of Education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison has collected and documented books for children and teens by and about Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC). Each year, CCBC releases a list of “Diversity Statistics,” a helpful guide for educators, publishers, and others in the field.


All of this doesn’t mean that every single published children’s book used in libraries and classrooms is required to have the #OwnVoices and CCBC imprimaturs. But it helps. It is within this context that Phillis Greshator and Holly Meade’s picture book, Rata pata scata fata: A Caribbean Story is reviewed.


Illustrator Holly Meade’s brightly colored torn-paper collages, with white borders surrounding the characters, trees, foliage, and land areas, are gorgeous. Entirely double-page spreads convey the expanse of the tropical Caribbean land and leave plenty of room for the characters as well. Young Junjun and his mother are close, and realistically portrayed. She is warm and loving and very, very busy. He is active and likes to play. They are part of the land and the land is part of them.


It’s the story that is problematic. Junjun’s mother wakes him and asks him to do a few chores while she does the laundry. Instead, he stays home, leans against a tree, and chants, “rata-pata-scata-fata”—while wishing for the chores to get done by themselves. They do: A fish flops out of a fisherman’s basket and into Junjun’s arms. The family goat returns home. A big wind fills Junjun’s basket with tamarinds. And each time, Junjun lies to his mother. Finally, when his mom asks Junjun to fetch some water from the well, he convinces her to chant “rata-pata-scata-fata”—and rain fills the empty rain barrel. The chores have done themselves and all is well.


Here’s what young readers might well take away from this story:


African-Caribbean people are lazy.

African-Caribbean people—children and adults—are superstitious. 

African-Caribbean people are magical.

African-Caribbean children get away with lying to their parents.


Imagine a teacher’s reading Rata pata scata fata aloud in a mixed classroom. How might white students in this classroom react? Might they laugh and applaud—while the stereotypes of Black children and their families become embedded in their psyches? How might Black children in this classroom react? Might they laugh and applaud like everyone else—or might they slump in their chairs, embarrassed? In any event, yet another micro-aggression will have been launched at them and the psychic damage will eventually take its toll.


Despite Holly Meade’s gorgeous artwork, Rata pata scata fata is not recommended. 


—Beverly Slapin

(published 7/28/2012)


Thank you to my friend and colleague (not to mention dedicated librarian) Betsy Bird.

21 Cousins // 21 Primos


author: Diane de Anda

illustrator: Isabel Muñoz

Star Bright Books, 2021

Mexican, Mestizo

grades: preschool-up


Against a brightly colored background of blue sky, growing greens, and festive papel picado, the 21 cousins—with 21 hair textures, styles and colors; and 21 complexion tones ranging from chocolate to café con leche—sit, stand, wave, laugh, and make funny faces for the cover shoot. 


On the frontispiece, the young narrators—grade-schoolers Alejandro and Sofia—stand on a stairwell, talking with each other. They’re about to introduce readers to each of their 21 cousins. Young readers will see that this book is, in effect, a “photo” album, with one page for each member of this diverse, loving family. 


The first spread, which contains black-and-white wedding photos—of Abuelo Pedro and Abuela María in 1953; Abuelo Juan and Abuela Marta; and tías Rosa María and Juanita as teenagers—are together a testament to the family’s mestizaje. As with all mixed families, relatives “look different in many ways.”


Alejandro and Sofía invite young readers to meet their “primos and primas.” Some of them: Cousin Enrique (“Kiki”) is a football player who has “long, strong legs.” Cousin Elena, whose nickname is “Guera” (“Whitey”) because she is light-complected, wants to teach in English and Spanish. Twins Tony (who plays soccer) and Tonia (who plays basketball) are tall. Young Teresa, who’s called “Morena” because she has “milk-chocolate skin,” likes to jump rope. Baby Miguel has no hair yet, so his nickname is “Pelón (“Baldy”). Martina (“Teenie”) is a gymnast.


Some adult readers from outside the culture may find offense at some of the nicknames the relatives give each other. Don’t. Loving teasing among close friends and relatives is indigenous to Mexican culture and to other cultures as well.


Lesser authors would have called undue attention to some of the relatives for their disabilities or differences. Diane de Anda doesn’t. Rather, she sometimes mentions a disability as one element of a child’s life, and then lets it go. For instance:


Eight-year-old Beto “goes to a special class in school. He has Down syndrome. Sometimes he needs our help to do things.” Alejandro and Sofía make sure that readers also know that Beto has fun playing games with them and sharing their favorite flavor of ice cream, dulce de leche. Another page shows Maricela, who “can spell words in Spanish and English” and “won the third-grade spelling bee.” That Maricela uses a wheelchair is shown but not even mentioned. Rather, everyone “cheered when she rolled up the ramp to get her trophy.” 


In the final spread at the end of Alejandro and Sofía’s introduction to each family member, the two pose for a family portrait—in which they welcome cousin number 22, Baby Christina. 


Using a bright spectrum of colors, soft strokes, and a lot of background detail, Isabel Muñoz created her vibrant, expressive artwork on a digitally manipulated “canvas.”  


Writing and illustrating a children’s picture book that describes the lives of 21 individuals in a family—and holds the attention and imagination of very young children—is no easy task. But Diane de Anda and Isabel Muñoz have pulled it off, seemingly effortlessly.


Diane de Anda’s outstanding writing and Isabel Muñoz’s gorgeous artwork give new meaning to the term, “We are all related.” 21 Cousins is highly, highly recommended.


—Beverly Slapin

(published 7/27/2021)

Alicia's Happy Day / El Día Más Feliz de Alicia

author: Meg Starr

illustrator: Ying-hwa Hu

illustrator: Cornelius Van Wright

translator: María Fiol

Star Bright Books, 2002 

Puerto Rican


In this bilingual edition of Alicia’s Happy Day (translated as Alicia’s Happiest Day)the Spanish is an excellent reimagining of the English with rich cultural details throughout. Here, the translator is instrumental in transforming the story, assigning the child protagonist a measure of autonomy absent in the English-only version and the English text here. 

Alicia is a strong, self-sufficient young girl, a Puertorriqueña who lives with her family in the large Puerto Rican barrio in East Harlem. Today is her birthday, and her family, friends and community bless her. They wish for her all good things, large and small. Among them:


Que todas las banderas ondeen en tu honor (“May all the flags wave in your honor”)

Que las palomas se inclinen para saludarte (“May the doves bow to greet you”) 


Que rías con todas tus ganas sin que nadie te interrumpa…(“May you laugh deep and rich with no one getting in your way…”)


Without going into overtly descriptive details, all of these good wishes bring life to the story, and it’s Ying-hwa Hu’s and Cornelius Van Wright’s gentle illustrative work in soft, realistic watercolors that defines Alicia, her family and her barrio. They portray a warm Puerto Rican community where everyone knows everyone, and the doves and squirrels in the park (in their own languages) bless Alicia on her happiest day. 


María Fiol’s excellent Spanish translation is a great improvement on the original English text, which was left unchanged. For instance, every sentence in Spanish (except for the first one in the story) begins with “que,” in this context a blessing that expresses a wish or hope. After the first few pages, the Spanish text maintains this warm, hopeful feeling, and the sometimes weak English (although the hope is understood) switches from hope to fact. For example, returning to the doves: (Que las palomas se inclinen para saludarte), the English text reads, “And pigeons bow shiny necks to you.”


Throughout this story, the Spanish implies: May you see a shooting star. May you have an extra scoop on your ice cream cone. May you be blessed.


At the time Alicia’s Happy Day was first published (2002), it represented a move towards more diverse publishing. In this bilingual edition, Alicia’s Happy Day / El Día Más Feliz de Alicia (translation: Alicia’s Happiest Day) is a better story for the Spanish, and it’s highly recommended.


—Beverly Slapin 

(published 7/23/2021)


I Love You, Baby Burrito

author: Angela Dominguez

illustrator: Angela Dominguez

publisher: Roaring Brook Press, 2021

preschool-up (Mexican American)


On the cover, a tightly-swaddled infant, fists slightly emerging, is fast asleep in an oval cradle—resembling a “baby burrito” in a basket.


Next to a birdhouse in the crook of a tree, a protective mamá and papá robin greet their newly hatched nestlings; while inside their home, a mixed couple celebrate the swaddling of their new café-con-leche infant. 


Dominguez’s artwork—using a gentle, pastel palette of watercolor paint and colored pencil combined with digital imaging—lovingly portrays the first few hours in the lives of the young couple together with their beyond adorable bebé.


Throughout, one of the dominant colors is a soft green, which readers will see on the cover and the infant’s cap and blanket, and a toy llama. While most of the English text is set in black type, each larger bolded word and phrase in Spanish, appearing together with an illustration—is highlighted in the same, gentle green, and merges with the other design elements.


As the new parents speculate on their baby’s face, fingers, and toes, Dominguez deftly conveys the meanings of the Spanish words and phrases by her illustrations—“This is your delightful carita, which I think looks a little bit like mine. And these are your precious manitas and deditos…that I could gobble up”—and there’s also a helpful Spanish-English glossary and pronunciation guide on the final pages. 


As their baby awakes and begins to signal distress, one of the parents asks:


Speaking of . . . 

Are you hungry? 

¿Tienes hambre?


I Love You, Baby Burrito is a serene and tranquil portrait of a loving family welcoming their new addition, and is highly, highly recommended.


—Beverly Slapin

(published 7/18/2021)

Little Polar Bear: Where Are You Going, Lars? / El Osito Polar: ¿Adónde vas, Lars?

author: Hans De Bee
illustrator: Hans De Beer

translator (English): Dr. Kristy Koth

translator (Spanish) Beatriz Bernabé

NorthSouth Books, 2020; ages 8-up


This first book in the classic “Little Polar Bear” series by Hans de Beer was published in Switzerland in 1987 under the title, Kleiner Elsbär—Wohin Fährst du, Lars? In 2020, NorthSouth Books, in association with Edition bi:libri, co-published this story in ten bilingual editions. The bilingual (English-Spanish) version is reviewed here. 


After learning from his father the things that a young polar bear needs to know, young Lars and his dad build their snow piles and settle down to sleep. But when Lars wakes up, his dad is gone and he is all alone with his little snow pile, stranded on an ice floe in the middle of the ocean.


Lost and frantic, Lars encounters a friendly hippo, who takes him across the river; a helpful eagle, who escorts him to the bay; and a generous whale, who navigates him home to his family. 


The Spanish translation is excellent. When Lars meets the hippo, for instance, “a huge animal emerges in front of him,” and Lars runs away. “Wait, wait! I’m just teasing you!” yells the big animal. The idiomatic Spanish—“¡Espera, espera!¡Sólo te estaba tomando el pelo!”—translates literally as “Wait! Wait! I’m just taking your hair!”


The author’s beautiful illustrations—in what appear to be pen-and-ink and mostly pastel-hued watercolors—complement this warm story of a bear cub in a cold environment.  


Unfortunately, in centering the little bear’s whiteness—making whiteness thematic—the story dives into precarious waters. While, of course, it’s appropriate to describe a polar bear as white, and ice as white, there is this: 


  • The hippo asks him: Why are you so white?
  • And he answers: Where I come from, everything is white!
  • When Lars and his eagle-friend stray into Africa (a racially and ethnically mixed continent) the eagle appears to signify: Well, well, a polar bear in Africa! You’re a long way from home…
  • When Lars arrives home and tells his father about his adventures, his father asks, And no one there was white? Not anyone?


Used with caution, and possibly as an instrument for discussion with older readers, Little Polar Bear / El Osito Polar is recommended.


—Beverly Slapin

(published 7/16/2021)



The Rainbow Fish / El Pez Arcoíris

 

author: Marcus Pfister

illustrator: Marcus Pfister

translator (English): Dr. Kristy Koth

translator (Spanish): Dr. Olga Balboa Sánchez

North / South Books, 2019, preschool-up


In 1992, Marcus Pfister wrote, illustrated, and published Der Regenbogenfisch in Switzerland. In 2019, Dr. Kristy Koth translated the story into English (The Rainbow Fish); and Dr. Olga Balboa Sánchez set it into Spanish (El pez arcoíris). This English / Spanish bilingual story is the product of these talents. 


On the cover is a fish—“the most beautiful fish in the ocean”—whose textured scales literally sparkle in all the colors of the rainbow. As the story begins, the other fish invite him to play, but he ignores them because he’s way too busy showing off his sparkling scales. When a little blue fish asks him for one of his beautiful scales, he refuses to share. This guy—let’s call him “Rainbow”—is so full of himself that the other fish decide they no longer want anything to do with him—and he becomes “the loneliest fish in the whole ocean.” 


On the advice of a helpful starfish-therapist, our sparkly-but-egotistical Rainbow consults the ocean’s resident wise Octopus, who suggests that Rainbow give each fish one of his scales—so he could trade, as it were, beauty for friendship and happiness. This is a majorly difficult choice for Rainbow. 


But once he starts giving away his sparkly scales—the first one to the little blue fish who had previously asked him for one and whom he had rebuffed—Rainbow changes. He begins to feel happier with each gift and he begins to know what it is to have friends—“The more sparkly the water became, the more he enjoyed being among the fish.” In the end, Rainbow has only one glitter-scale left, and each of the fishes has one as well. And the entire ocean sparkles.


Pfister’s ink and watercolor art on a blue, green and sometimes purplish “ocean” background enhances Rainbow’s colorful metallic glitter scales; and as Rainbow distributes his sparkly scales to the other ocean denizens—leaving only one for himself—he realizes what it is to be happy, and goes off to join them in play. Two particular favorites are the illustrations in which Rainbow gives one of his sparkles to the excited and happy little blue fish, and another in which all the fish—each with one sparkly scale and a fishy grin—swim around Rainbow.


Rather than producing an exact Spanish translation, Dr. Olga Balboa Sánchez’s use of conversational Spanish demonstrates her own storytelling talent. For instance, where the English reads, “But he wasn’t a normal fish, no!” the Spanish reads, “¡Pero no era un pez cualquiera, no!” (“But he wasn’t just any fish, no!”) And when Rainbow ignores his friends, gliding past them, “silent and proud, letting his scales glitter,” the Spanish reads, “Pero el pez Arcoíris siempre se deslizaba callado yorgulloso a su lado mostrando sus escamas brillantes” (“But the Rainbow fish always glided quietly and proudly by their side showing his shiny scales.”)


Young readers and listeners will particularly enjoy Rainbow’s textured sparkly scales on the cover. 


With shimmery holographic art providing the textured fishy sparkles, The Rainbow Fish / El Pez Arcoíris is a delightful story that encourages young children to experience the joy of sharing. It’s highly recommended. 


—Beverly Slapin

(published 7/14/2021)


Peace // Paz



author: Baptiste Paul

author: Miranda Paul

illustrator: Estelí Meza

translator: Aida Salazar

North / South Publishing, 2021

preschool-up



Peace can begin with a laugh and a wave,

and grow into actions remarkably brave.


La paz puede comenzar con una risa y un hola,

y crecer en acciones notablemente valerosas.


In Peace and Paz, young readers encounter children of various ages, cultures, ethnicities, genders, and skin tones. Two of them wear eyeglasses and one uses crutches. All are shown working and playing together in different environments, enjoying each other’s company—and the company of a multiplicity of animal friends and families as well.

In both the English and Spanish versions, each double-page spread consists of a perfectly rhymed couplet on one side, accompanied by a gorgeous illustration whose theme speaks directly to young readers: 

Peace can begin with a laugh and a wave // La paz puede comenzar con una risa y un hola…—two smiling children, accompanied by a colony of penguins, greet each other across an ice floe—… and grow into actions remarkably brave. // “y crecer en acciones notablamente valerosas —while a large shoal of big fish and little fish, swimming together to form an image of one enormous fish, fearlessly confront an unsmiling, possibly confused, shark.



Estelí Meza’s outstanding, vividly colored artwork—rendered in acrylic paints, graphite, colored pencil, and digital media—is strikingly reminiscent of a Cuban-based poster art style of flat features on humans, animals and flowers—each incorporating solid individual colors with no shading. 


Peace can be bold // La paz puede ser valiente… As a smiling fox, and a rabbit mama and her baby watch, a smiling girl swings upside-down from a tree limb…. or quiet and snug // o tranquil como un abrazo caliente, another child cuddles a rabbit, who appears to enjoy the attention.


In addition to the beauty of her artwork, Meza’s details are spot-on perfect. For instance, one girl, using a pair of forearm crutches, stands with one crutch leaning between her upper right arm and against her body, which frees her to reach out to a monarch butterfly flitting close enough to touch. In another illustration, she comfortably balances herself on both crutches, while she converses with a nearby rabbit.


Animals and / or insects accompany children—or vice versa—on virtually every page. Astute child readers and listeners will locate a dove, an international symbol of peace—sometimes alone, often with an olive twig, also a peace icon—on every double-page spread. As well, children will see myriads of fragile-seeming monarch butterflies, symbols of metamorphosis and strength, transformation and hope.


The final spreads fold outward into four pages and inward into two. On the four-page spread, youngsters see all of the children and the smaller animals playing in open space. When the pages are folded inward, readers see a single girl at a small campfire—with a dove on her shoulder and a monarch butterfly flitting overhead—reading to the attentive group of children and animals.


In perfectly rhyming couplets—without either version’s missing a beat or a nuance—both Peace and Paz will be enjoyed by young Spanish-speakers and English-speakers alike. And, read aloud together by an enthusiastic bilingual adult, they just might learn some of each others’ language as well. Both are highly, highly recommended.


— Beverly Slapin

(published 7/12/2021)

La Llorona: Retelling a Mexican Legend

author: Wim Coleman

author: Pat Perrin

illustrator: Martha Avilés

Red Chair Press (Lerner), 2015

grades 3-5

“Aztec”



REVIEW OF THE INTRODUCTION


La Llorona (The Crying Woman) is a sad and haunting tale from Mexico. Parents have told the story for hundreds of years to misbehaving children and to guard against vanity. Some say the story is about Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés and a native Mexican woman who served as his translator. Her loss can be compared to the loss of native Mexican culture after the Spanish conquest.


The “native Mexican woman who served as (Cortés’) translator” was Malinalli (aka, “la Malinche”).


Long before Columbus came to the Americas, a similar legend was told by the Aztec people. Some very old European legends are also a lot like this tale. So perhaps those stories from the New World and the Old World got mixed together as they were retold.


The story of La Llorona is not an Aztec story. La Llorona (typically known as Citlali) was not an Aztec woman. She was from Xochimilco, a tributary kingdom of the Aztecs (whose inhabitants also spoke Nahuatl).


Sometimes the legend is mixed with the story of a real woman. La Malinche was an Aztec woman who helped the Spanish warrior Hernán Cortés. La Malinche and Cortés had a son together. Some stories say that La Malinche killed the child when Cortés left her for a Spanish lady. (This is probably not true.)


Malinalli (aka La Malinche, aka Malintzin) was not an Aztec woman. She was from a town near the Coatzacoalcos River, a tributary nation of the Aztecs. She was probably of mixed Popoluca and Nahua ethnicity. Malinalli did have a son with Cortés, and she did not kill him; rather, she raised him until Cortés took the boy with him to Spain. Malinalli never saw her son again.


Others say that the story of La Llorona is about Mexico’s history. They think that it is really about the bitter meeting of Aztecs and Spaniards after Europeans first came to America.


No, it’s not. It’s about a real woman who “chose” to sacrifice her children rather than to surrender them to colonialism. 


To many people, this is more than a story. Countless people claim to have heard, seen, or even met the Weeping Woman. And in Mexico, children are warned not to go out at night because La Llorona might take them away. 


“Countless people” have claimed countless things about countless occurrences. The story of La Llorona is a story rooted in the history of colonialism, and, for Mexican and Mexican American children, it has morphed into a scary, sometimes cautionary, bedtime story.


—David Bowles

(published 7/1/2021)



                                               REVIEW OF THE STORY



This project for third-graders—allegedly “Setting the Stage for Fluency”—presents as a story within a five-scene play. The “cast” consists of the narrator, Older David, a Mexican American man in his 30s; Younger David, at ten years of age; Tía Viviana, David’s aunt; José and Lilia, Tía Viviana’s servants; La Llorona, the spirit; and María (who becomes La Llorona). The settings are Tía Viviana’s home in Mexico, La Llorona’s nightmare world, and the village where María lives. The time frames are the present, the past (when David was 10 years of age), and the “more faraway past” of the “La Llorona” story.


SCENE ONE: Young readers meet “Older David,” telling of when he was “Younger David,” and his Tía Viviana, who speaks in short, italicized, Spanish words or phrases—which Older David translates on the spot or before she actually utters them—and whose pronunciation is shown at the bottom of each page. For instance, “¡Mi casa es tu casa!” becomes the incorrectly emphasized syllables, “Mee CAH-sah ehs too CAH-sah!” There are also bolded English “vocabulary” words, such as foyer and patio.


SCENE TWO: Older David describes the scenes and characters, while Younger David appears in the story. Now he’s in bed at Tía Viviana’s home. La Llorona shows up, scratching at the door and screaming, of course: ¡Aaaiiiiii! And then she screams again, but first, Older David translates from the future: “Help me, please,’ she cried.” ¡Ayudame, por favor!


Then, Younger David (in the past) questions La Llorona, while Older David (in the present) describes her.


Younger David: Who are you?


Older David: Her thick, black hair hung down to her ankles. Her hair was tangled up with twigs and briers. Her long, white gown was badly torn and faded. Large patches of it were stained and caked with dry, brown mud. Or was it blood? A lacy white veil hung over her face.


At this point, Older David confesses: I was terrified—but my heart was full of pity. (Young readers are forgiven for not knowing what this all means.)


Younger David wants to see her face and Older David notes that she is sobbing: She lifted her hands in a pleading motion. Those dull-colored, bony hands had frightfully overgrown nails. This woman appears to be majorly in need of a meal and a manicure.


Younger David notes that La Llorona speaks English, but the ghost reassures him (in English) that she does not speak at all: You hear me only with your heart. While Older David and Younger David appear to be competing for space here, Younger David follows the ghost. 


In this chapter, young readers learn landscape and plateau.


SCENE THREE: La Llorona waxes philosophical and young readers will have to figure out what this all means (because it’s independent reading and their teachers have left the room):


All rivers are one river. It is the river that flows through all our hearts. Listen to that rumbling. It is the war in our blood.


To which Older David responds: “I grew dizzy at the sight of that rushing red-brown water.” (Yeah, young readers majorly don’t want that crap flowing through their blood.)


So, the sobs stop “exploding from her throat” and then they rise up again, “threatening to drown her words.” (Young readers may be confused or bored by all this drowning metaphor stuff, but since this is independent reading, no one will know if they skip a few pages.) 


La Llorona starts to narrate to Younger David: “I was a young woman, a peasant of pure Indian blood. Very poor. It was so long ago…” (We don’t know what “pure Indian blood” may have meant—if anything—at that time, nor do we actually know what it may mean today.)


SCENE FOUR: María is gorgeous and she knows it. According to the artwork, she hides her alleged poverty by dressing in gorgeous, expensive clothing. She demonstrates her indigeneity by wearing large gold hoop earrings and carrying a clay pot. She seems to enjoy being ogled by all the young men, two of whom have handlebar mustaches, so readers will know they’re Mexican.


One day, she says, she was walking by the cantina and sees a beautiful horse, who “bore a saddle of excellent leather, sparkling with silver decorations…” She hears someone inside playing a guitar and singing:


Yo soy como el chile verde, Llorona,

picante pero sabroso.


(Yoh soy COH-mo ehl CHEE-leh VEHR-deh, Yoh-ROH-nah, / pee-CAHN-teh PEH-roh sah-BROH-soh.)


OK, wait! Stop! The guy inside the saloon is singing a song to (about?) Llorona, who is still María (but hey, no one will notice how ridiculous this time-travel stuff is getting because it’s independent reading and no one really cares, anyway).


So María notices that the guy who’s singing is white, and therefore, a prize catch: He was blond, fair-skinned. His face was lightly sprinkled with freckles. I was sure he was of pure Spanish blood. He’s wealthy. They flirt. After a short courtship, she agrees to marry him. 


“We lived on his grand hacienda. We had two beautiful children.”


Fast-forward. Really fast. Her wealthy white husband takes a girlfriend (or another wife). He disdainfully refers to María and their children as “peasants from the village,” so María (now, the narrator) confesses (to the reader) in a soliloquy worthy of an imitation of something Shakespeare might have written had Shakespeare been a hack writer:


Why did I do what I did then? Did I hate my little ones? Did I think my husband had stopped loving me because of them? Or did I pity them because he no longer wanted them? Did I pity them so much that I’d rather they died than suffer from his neglect? Or was it simple madness? I took each child by the hand. I led them here, to this place. I pushed them off this ledge and watched them fall into the water. As the current carried them away, they called out…


“I ran and ran until my heart burst,” she continues. “I fell dead to the ground. And yet… here I am. Still trying to save my children.”


SCENE FIVE: Older David knows he is about to die. (Young readers are mystified. So is this reviewer.) “But there is one thing I wanted first,” he says, so Younger David asks La Llorona to show her face.


Back to Older David: Slowly, she lifted her veil. Her brown skin was parched and cracked. Her long, rotted teeth stuck out. Her lips were thin and dry. Her eyes were gone—dried up from weeping. Oh, the hundreds of years of suffering! It had ruined that once beautiful face! I began to cry myself. I began to pray [for her].


Older David becomes Younger David again, and Younger David (who now has some kind of a fever or something), tumbles to the ground.


SCENE SIX: Younger David wakes up. He’s lying in bed, and Tía Viviana is touching his forehead with a cool, damp cloth. José had found him by the arroyo. He tells his aunt that he met a woman, and his aunt knows who she is, because she had snatched his aunt’s little girl, who never came back. Then, when Younger David tells Tía Viviana about the things that La Llorona told him (“she spoke of a war in the blood”), his aunt responds:


Yes, it’s the war between the conquerer and the conquered. The war between the Spaniard and the Indian, the ruler and the ruled. The war between the rich and the poor, the man and the woman. Do you understand?


I don’t.


Then, they talk about the expression, “ni modo,” which Tía Viviana says a lot. “Ni modo” is a short form of “no hay ni modo” or “there is not any way (of getting something done”), and  best translated as “oh, well” or “that's too bad.”


Older David chimes in: He doesn’t believe in ghosts, but he believes in giving peace a chance: “those terrible wars that rage in the blood… I believe that there is always something to be done. And there is always something more to be said. Together, we can somehow learn to end these wars forever.”


The illustrations appear to have been executed in Photoshop. The colors are bright and the details are about what one would expect of an abysmally written, poorly executed story in a mass-produced series. 


La Llorona: Retelling a Mexican Legend is not recommended. 


—Beverly Slapin

(published 7/1/2021)


Muchísimas gracias a mi amigo y colega, David Bowles, por su paciencia y generosidad. Once again, I want to thank David for all he does to move the community forward. ¡Palante!

—BHS

¡Corre, Pequeño Chaski! Una Aventura en El Camino Inka // Run, Little Chaski! An Inka Trail Adventure

author: Mariana Llanos

translator: Mariana Llanos

illustrator: Mariana Ruiz Johnson

Barefoot Books, 2021

all grades 

(Inka)


On the cover, a llama, a vicuña, and the Inka sun (Tayta Inti) watch as a young chaski—on his first run on the Inka Trail as a messenger to the Inka royals—tightly grasps his khipu, the rope and hanging knotted threads that will communicate an important message he must deliver. On a cord around his neck hangs a pututu—a conch, the giant seashell that is used, even today, to call everyone together. In Inka times, chaskis blew on the shell to let people know they had arrived at their destination.


Born to a family of chaskis, this boy has been taught that, to become one of them, he must be strong, swift, and sharp—but most of all, he must never be late. As Little Chaski” begins his run to carry a message from the Qoya (the Queen) to the Inka (the King), observant young readers will keep their eyes on the khipu.


First, the young chaski accidentally knocks down a chinchilla, and stops to apply first aid. Then, he rescues an allqu (a Peruvian wild dog), who has fallen into the river. As the boy resumes his run (and young readers will see the chinchilla passing the khipu to the dog), he spots a condor, trapped in a tree. Taking care not to get hurt, Little Chaski frees the condor (whom young readers will see in a tiny illustration, accepting the khipu from the dog). It’s getting later and later, and Little Chaski is getting more and more worried. Finally, “he shoots through the temple doorway just as Tayta Inti’s last rays sink behind the mountains.” 


The Inka and some of his people are there—impatiently waiting for the khipu—and the boy realizes that it’s gone! But. Just when everyone expects the worst, his three grateful friends appear—and drop the khipu into the boy’s hands! Of course, Little Chaski is relieved, and after he relates the story, the Inka honors him for his kindness and generosity. Not only is he now an official royal messenger, he also has a new name to suit him: Big-Hearted Chaski.


There is so much to enjoy about this heartwarming story, both the Spanish and English versions. (The author wrote them simultaneously, so there’s no word-for-word translation and readers can enjoy one or both interpretations.) For instance, when the boy is little more than a toddler, his male relatives advise him: “


“Be sure to be strong,” says Brave Chaski, his older brother. 

“Be sure to be swift,” says Big Chaski, his father. 

“Be sure to be sharp,” says Wise Chaski, his grandfather. 


And in the Spanish:


—Sé fuerte—le recuerda el valiente Chaski, su hermano mayor.

—Sé veloz—le recuerda el gran Chaski, su padre.

—Sé astuto—le recuerda el sabio Chaski, su abuelo.


(In the English version, they tell him and in the Spanish, they remind him.)


Inka iconography is represented throughout. Especially notable is the Inka sun—Tayta Inti—who has his own personality. Young readers will see him—fully or in part, with varying facial expressions—on virtually every page or spread that depicts daylight. At dawn, for instance, Tayta Inti yawns—it’s time to wake up and light up the world. Next, a concerned Tayta Inti peeks through a trapezoidal window as the Qoya hands the youngster an important khipu to bring to the Inka. Tayta Inti is worried as he sees animals in trouble—and relieved when the human youngster stops to help them.


As the young chaski runs—and Tayta Inti keeps an approvingly watchful eye on him—he trips over a chinchilla and bandages his paw, rescues an allqu (a Peruvian hairless dog) stuck in the river, and (very carefully) frees a condor, trapped in a bush. When he finally arrives at the Inka’s temple, he finds to his horror—and the Inka’s rage—that the important khipu is lost. 


In a parallel story—half-hidden in the illustrations—the animals whom the young chaski had rescued find the dropped khipu and pass it to each other. The stories merge as the “three grateful friends soar from the clouds” and drop the message into the youngster’s hands. The boy is relieved and the Inka is impressed—so much so that he proclaims the child an “official Chaski of the Tawantinsuyu,” and in recognition of his kindness, the Inka names him “Big-Hearted Chaski.”


“Everyone cheers,” the story ends, “And Big-Hearted Chaski’s smile glows brighter than Tayta Inti.”


Mariana Ruiz Johnson accomplished her bold, vibrant, intensely-colored “digital collages” by first hand-painting the textures, using pencil, scanned paper, acrylics, and gouache; then scanning them and creating the illustrations using Photoshop. That her characters are stylized, yet individualized—complexions vary among the human characters, for example—is unusual and refreshing in a picture book such as this one. Observant young readers will especially notice—and call attention to—the series of rescued animals holding onto and passing the khipu to each other. 


In addition to the full-page illustrations and gorgeous iconography—such as the patterns on clothing and vases, for example—Ruiz Johnson’s beautifully decorative endpapers hold miniature versions of the animals interspersed with khipus.


Back matter includes a helpful glossary of Quechua words, a map of the Inka empire superimposed on a partial map of South America, accessible information about the Inka Empire, the Inka Trail, animals in South America, and use of the spellings, “Inka” and “khipu” as opposed to “Inca” and “quipu.” Another section poses and answers questions about the Inka and the important work of the chaskis.


“Small” details, such as the author’s use of the Quecha spellings of the people’s name,“Inka,” rather than the colonial Spanish spelling,“Inca”and “khipu” rather than “quipu”—signals that the people are reclaiming their languages, changes the narrative and, for older readers, opens up conversation about Indigenous peoples and Indigeneity.


¡Corre, Pequeño Chaski! Una Aventura en el Camino Inka and Run, Little Chaski! An Inka Trail Adventure are playful, historical fiction picture books. And they are much more. Both are highly, highly recommended.


—Beverly Slapin

(published 6/28/2021)