That Girl on TV Could Be Me!: The Journey of a Latina News Anchor / ¡Yo Podría Ser Esa Chica el la Tele! El Camino de una Noticiera Latina

author: Leticia Ordaz
translator: Leticia Ordaz
illustrator: Juan Calle
Immedium,  2020
grades 2-4 
Mexican American

Leticia Ordaz remembers when, as a young girl, she watched the news and began to question why no one on TV looked like her. With encouragement from her hard-working parentswho had left school after the sixth grade in Michoacán, Mexico, to support their families; and later, had immigrated here to give their own children a better life—Leticia begins to imagine that she could realize her dreams and work as a newscaster.

Colombian illustrator Juan Calle’s brightly colored manga-influenced art (which has been trending with young people for years), digitally “painted” in Photoshop, transports the audience into the story. His illustration on the inside front cover, for instance, shows young Leticia, looking out at the reader. She holds a blank notebook and her expression radiates confidence. A sketch of a microphone floats nearby. Young readers know from the beginning that Leticia’s story has a positive ending. 

But it’s the images of Leticia’s family’s journey and hard work to encourage their children and give them a good life that especially stand out. In one, the family sits around a tiny dinner table as Papá, in work shirt and cap, tells the children stories about the difficulty of farm labor in Michoacán. 

In other images, Leticia tells readers about her timidity, her practicing to read out loud in front of the mirror at home, graduating from high school and enrolling at Sacramento State, breaking into broadcasting through an internship at a local news station, and how her dream career slowly unfolds. 

Here is Leticia accompanying reporters to snowstorms, practicing “standups” in rainstorms, covering Cowboy Poetry Day, becoming wrapped up by a snake at a country fair, being attacked by mosquitoes in an almond orchard, and covering the most destructive fire in California’s history. The first in her family to graduate from college, Leticia learns on the job to write, shoot and produce her own stories and on-air interviews. And when her dream job in Bakersfield opens up, she is home!

Ordaz’s non-literal Spanish translation is appealing. It’s the way people actually talk in their own languages. For instance, one of Leticia’s mentors, Lois Hart, tells the astonished young woman (in English):

“This is a tough business, and the starting pay is peanuts. On your first job you’ll have to be a one-man band, carry your own camera, and edit your own stories.”

In Spanish, Lois Hart’s warning is this: 

“Este es un negocio difícil y el sueldo inicial es apenas nada. En tú primer trabajo tendrás que hacer todo tú sola, llevar tu propia cámera y editar tus propios reportajes.” (“This is a tough business and the starting salary is hardly anything. In your first job you will have to do everything yourself, bring your own camera and edit your own reports.”)

Of course, Leticia Ordaz’s story is about overcoming obstacles. But, more than this, it’s about knowing who you are, acknowledging what you come from, and—with love and support from family and community—you just might go on to realize your dreams. That Girl on TV Could Be Me!: The Journey of a Latina News Anchor / ¡Yo Podría Ser Esa Chica el la Tele! El Camino de una Noticiera Latina is highly recommended. 

—Beverly Slapin

(published 9/19/20)

Tiny Travelers: Mexico Treasure Quest // Tiny Travelers: Puerto Rico Treasure Quest

authors: Steven Wolfe Pereira and Susie Jaramillo
illustrators: Susie Jaramillo, Mei Li Tan and Magali Reyes McDonald
Encantos Media Studios, 2019
preschool-grade 3 
Mexican, Puerto Rican

Tiny Travelers is a fun series of board books for travelers of all ages. Aimed at young audiences from preschool-grade 3, readers voyage to different countries and are introduced to various cultural traditions, culinary histories and a sense of geographical places worth visiting.

For my own tiny travel, I chose to read Mexico and Puerto Rico. The authors and illustrators introduce both countries in captivating ways that invite youngsters to take in and embrace the cultures. Each spread contains information presented in one or two quatrains, along with a small “did you know?” fact and a “can you find?” question that engage young readers to connect more fully with the cultures. In addition, this design uses a minimum of space that allows plenty of room for the bright, vibrant digitally “painted” illustrations. 

Mexico begins with a map of the country and lets children know that the quest is not for gold “but another special kind.” Given Mexico’s colonial history, this is a subtle reminder of the past, something that older students can research. Moving forward in curiosity and celebration exhibits page upon page of bright illustrations with multiethnic children of varied complexions interacting in diverse parts of Mexico. Emulating the “Where’s Waldo?” concept is an indigenous dog—“xoloitzcuintli”—who can be found on just about every spread.

Youngsters learn about traditional foods, cultural icons, music and famous places in Mexico. (And it’s also refreshing to see tiny details that Mexican children will note, such as a girl mariachi.) Throughout the text, connections are made with various cities or regions that invite further investigation later. The final pages include a world map that puts Mexico in context with the rest of the world. This book was an engaging read for this aging “tiny traveler.”

From Mexico, this traveler flew to Puerto Rico. As with Mexico, readers learn easy Spanish greetings and are transported to the capitol, San Juan, for a celebration. The legendary monster, “Vejigante,” shows up a few times and, of course, everyone is partying and he’s one of the musicians. But just in case, the text reads “If you see a monster, don’t be afraid! People love wearing masks of the Vejigante…”

The repeating cultural motif—on every spread—is PR’s beloved national symbol, the tiny coqui (whose loud, chirping call sounds like its name), hiding out, partying, sunbathing at the beach, watching TV, flying a kite… I’m reminded of a dicho: “Soy de aquí como el coquí.” It literally means, “I am from here, like the coquí.” 

The nearby island of Vieques lends a note of local biological beauty with a bioluminescent bay. This occurrence is in direct contrast with the island’s colonial history of the United States military presence, so is a welcome natural beauty addition. The reader continues discovering beaches, “coco frios” (cool coconut juice), culturally relevant sports such as boxing and outdoor spots for kite-flying such as El Morro on San Juan Bay.

My one suggestion for this series is that the names of places visited be included on each map. Map searching is less important for the preschoolers, but second-and third-graders could happily cross-reference towns on the map.

Although both Mexico and Puerto Rico follow a formula in describing the places and cultures, there is little that is formulaic in the Tiny Traveler series. Rather, as these gorgeously illustrated board books introduce young people to each place and culture, they nurture a healthy curiosity and encourage youngsters to want to know more. As well, Mexican and Puerto Rican children will see themselves as belonging to a land that is part of their own rich heritage. This series is highly recommended. 

—Rose Veda Berryessa

(published 9/10/20)

[Note: One of the “Did You Know?” entries tells young readers that “Puerto Rico has officially been a territory of the United States since 1898, making all Puerto Ricans American citizens.” This is true. However, the people of what’s currently known as Puerto Rico have been struggling for independence—first, from the Spanish Empire from 1493 to 1898, and since 1898, from the United States. In this review, I refer to Puerto Rico as a country. !Que viva Puerto Rico libre!]

Zorro and Quwi, Tales of a Trickster Guinea Pig // Love and Roast Chicken: A Trickster Tale from the Andes Mountains

Zorro and Quwi

author: Rebecca Hickox

illustrator: Kim Howard 

Doubleday, 1997 



Love and Roast Chicken

author: Barbara Knutson

illustrator: Barbara Knutson 

CarolRhoda Picture Books, 2004 


Andean, Peruvian

In the Author’s Note for Zorro and Quwi, Hickox writes that she based her children’s book on a cycle of tales called “The Mouse and the Fox,” which she found in Folktales Found Around the World (Univ. of Chicago Press, 1975). She rewrote four of the tales, in which she substituted a guinea pig for the mouse. In Peru, she writes, Quwi is the hero of many trickster tales, although a rabbit or mouse is sometimes used instead. Since I raised guinea pigs as a girl and now have a daughter who raises and shows them through her 4H cavy group, I couldn’t resist making this personable (though perhaps not quite so cunning) little creature the hero.

In the Author’s Note for Love and Roast Chicken, Knutson writes that, in the two years that she and her husband lived in Peru, she “learned many stories, including trickster tales that reminded (her) of the ones (she) knew from Africa.”

Then she writes:

A trickster tale tells about a small animal (or a person) who uses brains instead of force to compete against bigger, fiercer characters. In the Andes, the trickster is often a little gray fox, but one story has a guinea pig hero. I have heard and read this tale many times in Spanish—in a lovely, old Bolivian book; from a Peruvian guide in a mountain town; in a Bolivian children’s magazine; and from our friend, Edwin Sulca, a Peruvian weaver. It was never told the same way twice! In this book, I have combined and rearranged my favorite versions.

To reiterate: Hickox switched the “hero” in her stories from a rabbit or a mouse to a guinea pig because she “couldn’t resist making this personable…little creature the hero.” And Knutson switched the “hero” in her story from a “little gray fox” to a guinea pig, and “combined and rearranged (her) favorite versions” of the stories she heard and read.

Here, as in many “trickster stories for children” written and published by cultural outsiders, the authors removed the stories from their cultural contexts and reinterpreted, trimmed and customized particular cultural concepts to fit their needs and those of their perceived child audiences.

But tricksters are not one-size-fits-all, not even within specific cultures. Some tricksters vary within cultures, depending on what a particular Indigenous storyteller is teaching. Some tricksters often use bad behavior to hint at good behavior. Some tricksters succeed and some fail. Some tricksters don’t try to overcome anything; they’re just deceptive characters.

Tricksters are not necessarily heroes. Some tricksters are downright dangerous and the lesson is to keep away from dangerous characters.

Some tricksters grow and some shrink. Some tricksters appear in human or animal form and some tricksters change forms. Some tricksters are half-human and half-spirit. Some tricksters can maintain more than one gender or switch genders.

A lot of what may currently be called “trickster” tales are actually Indigenous cautionary tales that have been passed down through the generations. Just about every culture has its own “bogeyman” or “cucuy” story to keep kids from misbehaving or wandering off. Children from within the cultures who hear these stories from their elders know, without being specifically told, that something’s up. 

For the most part, guinea pigs are prey animals. Their natural instinct is to hide, and they can be very fast. But they are not tricksters.

For authors who are cultural outsiders to read or hear some versions of particular “trickster tales,” take them out of their cultural contexts, keep some parts and toss the others, rearrange the events and mix in a few italicized Spanish words or phrases (such as “bueno,” mi amigo, and ¡ay, caramba!”)—and then overlay the values of their own cultural outsider versions onto the specific culture from which the stories originated (e.g., “from the Andes Mountains”)—is the definition of cultural appropriation. 

Zorro and Quwi, for instance, begins: “In the mountains of Peru there was once a fox called Zorro…” Children who speak Spanish will know that “zorro” is not the fox’s name—it’s the Spanish word for “fox.” (So, to a Spanish speaker, it would read like, “there was once a fox called fox.”) And “Quwi” is the Quechua word for “guinea pig.” Similarly, Love and Roast Chicken begins, “One day in the high Andes Mountains, Cuy the Guinea Pig was climbing up and down the paths…” Again, “Cuy” is not the guinea pig’s name—it’s the Spanish word for “guinea pig.”

Both characters—“Zorro the Fox” and “Tío Antonio the Fox” resemble Coyote from the old “Coyote and Roadrunner” cartoons, and Cuy / Cuwi, of course, are stand-ins for “Roadrunner.” As well, astute older readers will discern elements of Cuwi’s / Cuy’s tricks in “Brer Rabbit,” “Henny Penny,” “Billy Goats Gruff,” and probably more European tales. 

Although the bright, stylized artwork, composition and book design in both titles are vibrant and gorgeous and totally child-friendly, both Zorro and Quwi: Tales of a Trickster Guinea Pig and Love and Roast Chicken: A Trickster Tale From the Andes Mountains embody all the elements of cultural appropriation. They’re not recommended.

—Beverly Slapin

(published 9/5/20)

Marcus Vega Doesn't Speak Spanish

author: Pablo Cartaya
Viking, 2018
grades 7-up
Puerto Rican

Narrated by a six-foot-tall, 180-pound eighth-grader, Marcus Vega is variously known as the “Mastodon of Montgomery Middle,” the “Springfield Skyscraper,” the “Moving Mountain,” the “Terrible Tower.” You get the picture. “Most kids clear out of the way when I walk down the hall,” he tells readers. 

Knowing how hard his single mom works to support him and his younger brother and how she worries, Marcus uses his size to build what becomes a booming “profit center”—for a small fee (which he secretly stashes into his mom’s Cookie Monster jar), he provides a “walking service,” protecting a group of kids from bullying as they go to and from school. 

Marcus for sure does not fear bullies and, in fact, makes a point of not taking short cuts in order to avoid them. This does not sit well with a notorious bully, who particularly aims his ire at the seemingly most vulnerable, including Marcus’s younger brother, Charlie, the first kid with Down syndrome to attend Montgomery Middle. When the bully pushes Marcus to the brink by calling Charlie the “R” word, Marcus slams him—and gets suspended.

Marcus and Charlie are very close, and Charlie is a refreshingly well-developed character. Like many children with Down syndrome, he is outgoing, cheerful, likes to joke around with his friends and relatives, has favorite stories and TV programs, and is liked by his teachers and the other students. His mixed program of general education and special education classes includes speech therapy, occupational therapy, physical education and art; and while Marcus does homework during his brother’s sessions, he does not hover.

Marcus’s and Charlie’s mom works as an airline gate agent, sometimes morning and sometimes night shifts. While she refers to her sons as her “all-star team,” she stresses about income and not having enough time with them. 

In order to “regroup,” mom decides to take the boys to Puerto Rico for spring break—where the boys were born, and to reconnect with their absent dad’s side of the family. For Marcus, it may be a chance of finding and getting to know his father. (Unanswered emails are an indication for readers that this reconnection may not go well, but they’re no clue for the ever-hopeful Marcus.)

Unlike his dad’s Puerto Rican relatives, and his mom, who is not Latina but is a fluent Spanish-speaker, Marcus, who was born in Puerto Rico but doesn’t speak Spanish, wonders if where he’s from determines who he is.

As mom and Marcus and Charlie reconnect with their large, exuberant Puerto Rican farm family, they see “corridor after corridor” of gardens everywhere, and each garden has its own story: when and why it was built, whose responsibility it is, what it grows—tomatoes, yucca, a guanabana tree, achiote. Or, as Marcus notes, “the theme is weird-looking fruit no one has ever heard of … Nobody in my school would go near these.”

Here, the boys learn about the realities of farm life—everyone works hard and there are few complaints. Tío Ermenio explains, for instance, that when the toilet is flushed, the shower turns freezing cold.

And when a problem arises, everyone knows what has to be done and someone does it. After a sudden, loud gunshot “cracks the air and echos through the mountains,” Tía Darma returns, hands her large pistol to someone, and comments about the weather before she matter-of-factly tells the stunned children that she has just “said good-bye to a sick cow.”

Yet, despite the incomparable beauty of the land and the generosity and humor of his Puerto Rican relatives, our city-boy Marcus remains non-plussed: “A sleepover at our cow-murdering great-aunt’s farm in the middle of nowhere with little singing frogs ‘co-keeing’ everywhere. What’s not adventurous about that?

Marcus’s father turns out to be the reason no one talks about him. He’s a self-involved jerk who probably never thought twice about abandoning his family. 

Five days later, Marcus, Charlie and mom have returned. As Marcus pores over the many photos he had taken and emails them to a friend, he chooses a file name: “Familia.”

Marcus is changing. His familia has changed him. He’s more thoughtful. He likes to “visit the bodega next to the train and say hola to the lady at the counter. She speaks Spanish too fast, but I’m learning to understand her better.” He takes photos of “everything that makes up this tiny town that’s forty-five minutes from a big city and four hours away from an incredible island.”

I think of the book Charlie picked up at the airport, Proud to Be Boriqua. The author writes about the little singing frogs that I heard on Darma’s farm. The coquí. He says, “Soy de aquí como el coquí.” It literally means, “I am from here, like the coquí.” From Puerto Rico. He belongs somewhere. I’ve been feeling the same way. I won’t be croaking songs into the night like the tiny little frogs do. But it’s nice to feel like I’m finally part of something that’s way bigger than me.

With spot-on code-switching and non-italicized Spanish words and phrases, and with clearly transmitted dichos—traditional, usually rhyming, “sayings” that hold encoded teachings—Marcus Vega Doesn’t Speak Spanish is a deeply satisfying story of family relationships, of growing up, of coming to know who you are and where you fit in. Marcus doesn’t speak Spanish yet, but, in his time, he will. And for now, he understands it.

Marcus Vega Doesn’t Speak Spanish is highly, highly recommended. 

—Beverly Slapin

(published 8/22/20)

Abrazos a mi colega y amiga, Judy Zalazar Drummond.

Science Wide Open: Women in Biology // Las mujeres en la biología

author: Mary Wissinger 
illustrator: Danielle Pioli
series creator and editor: John J. Coveyou 
Science, Naturally! 2020
grades 2-5

Originally published by Genius Games, LLC (2016), the first of this series is republished by Science, Naturally! and two more are slated for next year. According to Genius Games, the Science Wide Open series “celebrates the true stories of women in science, while also teaching the basics of chemistry, biology, and physics,” with its goal being to “transform the narrative surrounding girls, women and science.” 

The publisher recommends the Science Wide Open series for ages 7-10. This is a mistake. Although the text and glossary are accessible for middle readers, second-graders for the most part do not yet have the skills to decode terms such as “metamorphosis,” “Linnaean system,” “transposons,” or “hypothesis.” As well, metaphoric text such as “Inside of every cell is an instruction manual called DNA” is bewildering to youngsters who take language literally (“You mean, we eat books?”) Similarly confusing is the anthropomorphizing of genetic material—DNA tells the body how to make cells and build body parts like muscles, bones, and skin. It also determines the color of your eyes and hair

Second-graders generally look at (and begin to read) picture books. Middle readers prefer chapter books. 

Pioli’s stylized, computer-generated art employs solid, flat backgrounds that hold bright-colored details and large, clear, readable text. However, the only contemporary character in the book is a cartoonish “inquisitive young girl,” questioning a behind-the-scenes scientifically knowledgeable narrator. The child has oversize eyeglasses and over-the-top “girlie” expressions. She’s excited, puzzled, worried, baffled. In the two illustrations that show her using a magnifying glass, she’s holding it over one eyeglass lens—which makes no sense and distorts her face. Portraits of the five women scientists are stylized as well, but they’re not as frightening as the young girl.

Of the five scientists, two are German and three are from the U.S. Celebrating the discoveries of European and American women—and consistently using the term “people” as “all (European) people”—erases everyone else.

Here’s an example:

Almost a thousand years ago, Hildegard of Bingen wrote about biology and medicine. Back then, people didn’t understand that they could get sick from drinking dirty water.

Hildegard figured out that water should be cleaned first, and this stopped people from getting sick. She also studied how plants could be used as medicines, and shared her ideas so people could have better health. (emphases mine)

And here’s what the author erased:

For millennia, Indigenous peoples have understood and worked with complex scientific concepts and methods. Indigenous peoples were building aqueducts to bring clean water in and filter dirty water out. The Aztecs, for instance, and the Mayans before them, built and utilized aqueducts and they also had indoor bathrooms with flushing toilets.

In short, as the sister of a friend remarked,

“Native people had running water when Europeans were still pooping in their bedrooms.”—Laura Martinez, Lipan Apache, historian, in conversation

And Indigenous peoples have identified and used plants for all kinds of things—including medicines—for millennia. 

Beyond the damaging erasure of millennia-old Indigenous scientific knowledge, Spanish and bilingual young readers are dealt further insult with inadequate translations. A good Spanish translation has to be able to capture the author’s style and intent, and the deeper feelings that the author is trying to convey. A good Spanish translator may have to move sentences around to convey the proper meanings and language idiosyncrasies. 

The unnamed translator here is The Spanish Group, a document translation service. Children’s book publishers that contract with document translators—rather than with talented bilingual translators who care deeply about their work—receive poor outcomes. For the most part, that’s what happened.

First of all, Spanish is a gendered language, so the title—“Women in Biology”—should have been translated as “biólogas,” rather than “Las mujeres en la biología” (literally, “The women in biology,” which makes no sense here.) 

There are lots of mistakes. “What makes a butterfly?” is translated as “¿Cómo se hace una mariposa?” (“How do you make a butterfly?”) rather than “¿Qué hace una mariposa?”

“So… biology keeps me from getting sick?” is translated as “Entonces...¿la biología hace que no me enferme?” (“So—biology makes me not sick?”) rather than “Entonces ... ¿la biología evita que me enferme?”

“Just look at Jane Cooke Wright!” is translated as “¡Tan solo mira a Jane Cooke Wright!” While this is a correct literal translation, the Spanish implication uses “tan solo” (“only”) for “just.” But, in context, the “just” in the English means, “for example…” so a better translation would have been “por ejemplo…”

There’s nothing redeeming here. Both Science Wide Open: Women in Biology and Ciencia Abierta: Las mujeres en la biología are poorly planned and poorly executed. They’re not recommended.

Beverly Slapin

(published 8/16/20)

Muchas grácias a mis colegas Judy Zalazar Drummond, Ricardo Ramirez, Kelly Reagan Tudor, y Noam Szoke.  

Gustavo, el Fantasmita Tímido // Gustavo, the Shy Ghost

author: Flavia Zorilla Drago
illustrator: Flavia Zorilla Drago

Candlewick Press, 2020



Gustavo is a young ghost. He enjoys doing all “the normal things that paranormal beings do”—he can change his shape, make objects fly, pass through walls, and glow in the dark. And he loves playing beautiful music on his violin. But Gustavo is shy beyond words, and making friends is, well—more than terrifying. 

He’s so shy that no one else in his ghostly barrio notices him—even when he’s right in front of them in any of his many different forms: a balloon, a lampshade, a surfboard, a soccer ball, a sheet drying on a clothesline, a soap bubble, and one of Diego Rivera’s unfinished paintings.

This child of mixed parentage (dad is a ghost and mom is a skeleton) is secretly in love with Alma, “the prettiest monster in town.” She is popular and so is her name (it’s Spanish for “soul” or “spirit”)—and appropriately headless (with eyeglasses in front of where her eyes would be).

Gustavo finally musters the courage to overcome his timidity and organize a violin concert at the Día de los Muertos party—“next full moon” at the local cemetery—and sends invitations to all of the monsters in town. 

But no one shows up. So Gustavo does what he loves most—his music makes him so happy that he literally glows. Soon, everyone is there. Gustavo’s concert is a success and all of his paranormal neighbors want to be friends with him. “And they never stopped loving him.”

Zorilla Drago’s multimedia artwork—combined with, as she notes, “a bit of digital sorcery”—has a childlike quality as vibrant and playful as her storyline, and is loaded with folk, mythological, and (refashioned) pop-culture figures. Her palette consists of mostly flat, neutral colors alongside touches of Mexican pinks (seen on art, design, clothing and buildings all over México) and bright oranges (for cempazuchitl, or “marigolds”—the national flower that decorates ofrendas and cemeteries during Día de los Muertos celebrations). These two colors frame the awesome book jacket as well.

Besides Diego Rivera as a zombie, youngsters will encounter Posada’s La Catarina as a vain young skeleton; the gruesome beheaded Ichabod Crane as an adorable pumpkin-head boy, the Gingerbread Man, Disney’s Milo the Fish, an anime Catgirl, and many others. And (this took some research): Zorilla Drago depicted the International fútbol (soccer) star, Roberto López Ufarte, nicknamed “the Little Devil”—as a little devil.

There are also small images and details that will engage young readers, such as Edgar Allen Poe’s ever-present raven, a goldfish skeleton swimming in a fishbowl, a tiny Indigenous ghost-doll, strings of papel picado skulls, an ofrenda, a floating teapot pouring tea into a floating teacup, a skeleton violinist on a poster advertising “Danse Macabre,” and drawings and portraits of ghost families lining the walls. 

Yet with all of these illustrations to pore over, nothing is crowded. Rather, Zorilla Drago’s art and book design maintain their physical integrity and every detail is allowed its space. And there is nothing frightening here. After all, this is Gustavo’s barrio—his neighborhood, his culture, his people. All of the paranormal characters are normal ghosts or skeletons, and they are all smiling.

Young hablantes and English-speakers will love how Zorilla Drago’s rhythmic story and playful art come together in a soft, satisfying whole. 

Both in Spanish and English, as well as in the art, Zorilla’s Drago’s humor shines. In the English version, for instance, an ice cream vendor’s cart is brightly painted “EYE-SCREAM” and in Spanish, it’s “HELADOS YETI” (or “Yeti ice cream”).

In the story as well, neither the Spanish nor the English version is a direct translation of the other; rather each has its own rhythm and syntax. For example, while an English passage reads, “More than anything, he wanted to make a friend,” the Spanish reads, “Más que nada, soñaba con tener un amigo” (“More than anything, he dreamed of having a friend.”)

Gustavo, El Fantasmita Tímido and Gustavo, the Shy Ghost are highly recommended.

—Beverly Slapin

(published 8/3/20)

[Note: Although this awesome story and art, in Spanish and English, depicts an aspect of Día de los Muertos, it is not solely about this important cultural holiday. Around Día de los Muertos time, educators who might not be familiar with Mexican culture might want to supplement Gustavo, El Fantasmita Tímido // Gustavo, the Shy Ghost with George Ancona’s beautiful photojournalistic essay, Pablo Remembers: The Fiesta of the Day of the Dead (Lothrop, 1993).


Birdie’s Beauty Parlor / El salón belleza de Birdie

author: Lee Merrill Byrd
translator: Luis Humberto Crosthwaite

illustrator: Francisco Delgado

Cinco Puntos Press, 2020



What do you do if you’re a little girl with a great imagination and not very much to do and the only person you have to play with at the moment is your grandma? And she’s all worn out. What do you do? You go through her drawers and dump all her makeup and everything else you need on her bed; you put a towel under her head to make sure she’s comfortable—and the grandma makeover is on!

Birdie’s Beauty Parlor / El salón belleza de Birdie uproariously depicts the close relationship between a patient, loving Chicana abuelita and her artfully ambitious young nieta.

Although Birdie’s Beauty Parlor / El salón belleza de Birdie is based on a true story about Lee Merril Byrd and her own granddaughter, Emma “Birdie” Byrd, fronteriza artist Francisco Delgado used his children, Citlali and Itzel, as models for bossy beautician Birdie; and his mother-in-law—whose many skills include relaxing under pressure—posed for Abue.

Delgado’s art— on a background spray-painted with thinned acrylic and illustrations filled in with colored pencil and acrylics—complements both Birdie’s entusiasmo sin fin and Abue’s paciencia sin fin. On one spread, for instance, Birdie is focused on pulling out one of her abuelita’s gigantic chin hairs while Abue is focused on not screaming. And on another illustration, Abue even allows her nieta to pinch her lips (¡Ay!) in order to apply the lipstick just-so. 

As always, Crosthwaite’s talent in idiomatic translation follows the hilarious tone of the story and illustrations while maintaining their rhythm and exuberance, so both young hablantes and English-speakers will laugh out loud at Birdie’s abuelita’s makeover. For instance, the rhyming English on the back cover tells young English-readers:

When Grandma’s ready to hit the hay, there’s still one game you both can play—Birdie’s make up will save the day!

And Crosthwaith’s rhyming Spanish speaks to young hablantes: 

Abue nada más se quiere acostar, pero todavía se puede jugar—maquillala bien y hazla brillar! 

(The direct English translation would be: “Grandma just wants to go to bed, but you can still play—put her makeup on and make her shine!”)

Together, Byrd’s riotous, no holds-barred story, Crosthwaite’s brilliant idiomatic Spanish translation and Delgado’s delightful illustrations are filled with humor and warmth and demonstrate the love between an exuberant little girl and her ever-patient abuelita. 

Finalmente, after treating her abuelita to a foot massage, putting earrings in her ears and expertly wrapping a bufanda around her head, Birdie holds up a mirror so both she and Abue can admire her handiwork.

Indeed, Abue’s face is a work of art: almost totally enveloped in rouge, her eyebrows and eyelids are purple, blue and yellow; white dots of talcum powder cover her chin, and bright, bright red lipstick fills much more than just her lips. ¡Birdie es la jefa¡

Now done with Abue, Birdie turns to the story’s young readers: “Who’s next?” she asks. “¿Quién sigue?”

As with Byrd’s and Delgado’s earlier Juanito Counts to Ten / Johnny cuenta hasta diez (2010), young hablantes who want to learn English and English speakers who want to learn Spanish will revel in this hilarious family story. Birdie’s Beauty Parlor / El salón belleza de Birdie is highly recommended. 

—Beverly Slapin

(published 7/28/20)

[Note: With only the English title displayed on the cover, there’s no indication until the first story page that Birdie’s Beauty Parlor / El salón belleza de Birdie is bilingual. Whether this was an error or a design decision, it needs to be corrected in the next edition—BHS]

Hard Road to the Heavens:
The Genesis and Publication of The Garza Twins

It was Spring 2012. My second book, Mexican Bestiary (an illustrated bilingual encyclopedia of creepy cucuys), had just been released by a small press, much like my previous collection of short stories, The Seed: Stories from the River’s Edge. Outside of the Río Grande Valley of South Texas, that stretch of borderland where my family has lived for generations, no one really knew who I was. But on the strength of a few school presentations, Pat Anderson of Overlooked Books—distributor of hard-to-find and little-known Texas titles to school libraries—had invited me to sign at his booth at the annual conference of the Texas Library Association (TLA). 

As fate would have it, both of my signing slots put me at a table with two talented, more established authors, both of whom would become close friends: Jason Henderson, promoting his Alex Van Helsing series from HarperCollins, and Belpré Award-winning Guadalupe García McCall.

Loops (as I affectionately call her) was there for her second book, Summer of the Mariposas. She was generous with her time and advice, which I appreciated deeply, but perhaps more important was that sophomore publication itself. I read it that evening in my hotel room, awed by the beautiful prose and inspired by her deft integration of not only Mexican American legends into the narrative, but also Aztec mythology.

I had been toying with an idea. During my kids’ childhoods, I read all the major series with them: The Chronicles of Narnia, Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, Hunger Games, and others We would often joke that it would be so nice to crack open a cover one day and find a Chicana battling cucuys and Mesoamerican deities (instead of the typical Chosen White Dude facing off against European monsters and gods, with an occasional Secondary Sidekick of Color). Our laughter would often fade to wistful looks, as it didn’t seem particularly plausible.

But after my first book was published, I began to dream about creating just such a series, centered on magical Mexican American kids whose abilities must be put to use to stop the forces of chaos from ending the world for a fifth time (as predicted by Mesoamerican sacred stories). 

Speaking with Guadalupe García McCall, reading her work, I became convinced that this could actually happen. I gave the characters a family name from my dad’s side—Garza—that also served as a nod to Loops (the five sisters in Summer of the Mariposas, which I would go on to translate into Spanish, are also Garza: cousins of my protagonists, we have officially agreed). 

By late 2013, I had written The Smoking Mirror, the story of Carol and Johnny Garza, 12-year-old twins whose lives in a small Texas town are forever changed by their mother’s unexplained disappearance. Shipped off to relatives in Mexico by their grieving father, the twins soon learn that their mother is a nagual, a shapeshifter, and that they have inherited her talent. But there’s more. Twin shapeshifters come along only once a millennium, capable of wielding savage magic, a power even the gods can’t control. In order to rescue their mother, the twins have to descend into the Aztec underworld and face the dangers that await them in each of its nine levels. 

This was a quest story, which I infused with video-game logic and middle-school snark, with a thematic twist at the end: it isn’t the twins’ might that ultimately saves their mother, but their love for her and each other. 

I began sending it to editors. Every single one of them rejected it. Nearly two dozen. Most expressed some variation of the following concerns:
  1. There are no white kids. Can’t the twins have a white sidekick they have to explain all the unusual cultural stuff to?
  2. There’s too much Spanish. Can’t you cut back on it? Readers will be confused or alienated. 
  3. Aztec gods have hard names. Can’t you shorten them or something?

To which my responses were, over and over:
  1. No. Donna, Texas, has hardly any white people. It would feel forced.
  2. No. There’s not too much Spanish, to my mind. And who do you mean when you say “readers”? Do you think that Latino kids don’t read? 
  3. No. Tezcatlipoca isn’t any harder than Hephaestus. You’re just used to the latter because we teach Greek gods in school. 

Soon I started sending it to smaller presses that accepted un-agented manuscripts. Many gave me similar pushback. A couple of prominent publishers of Mexican American kid lit passed on the manuscript as well. One said, “We don’t publish fantasy.” The head editor of the other rejected the book five minutes after receiving the first chapters, citing excessive adverbs (there were three—I counted). 

Finally, I saw an ad from IFWG Publishing, an Australian outfit that also distributed in Europe. They were looking to break into the US market and had put out a call for manuscripts. I submitted: editor Gerry Huntman loved the book (a big fan of Mexico, he really got what I was trying to do). Seeing that it was clearly the first volume in a series, he offered me a contract for all five books. 

Small publishers had been good to me so far, so I agreed. When the cover illustrator dropped out, they took my advice and hired my then 18-year-old daughter Charlene, a great artist who had just begun her BFA. If you’re wondering about the benefits of publishing outside of the Big Five, those sorts of opportunities top the list.

The book was released in the spring of 2015, right before that year’s TLA conference. Pat Anderson of Overlooked Books sat down with me, and we came up with a strategy for promoting The Smoking Mirror. I bought 100 copies from IFWG, and Pat helped me to give them away to key librarians from all over Texas, with no strings attached beyond the hope that they would share the book with students at their schools, especially Mexican American kids. If they also wanted to give it a positive review with online booksellers, Goodreads, or their own blogs, that would be wonderful, too. 

Ah, who can fathom fate? There’s no way of knowing what will grow from the seeds we plant. All we can do is our best, hearts full of good intentions, actions free of malice. 

One of those librarians loved the book. She gave it to her friend, who was on the Pura Belpré committee, looking for titles by “a Latino/Latina writer and illustrator whose work best portrays, affirms, and celebrates the Latino cultural experience in an outstanding work of literature for children and youth.”

The committee member loved it, too. Shared it with the rest of the members. Advocated for it despite the small size and unusual situation of the publisher.

I was sitting at the dining room table with my wife that January afternoon when calls started coming in from Baltimore. Whom do I know in Baltimore? Probably a robocall or bill collector. Chale, not answering.

Then my editor messaged me. Answer your phone. It’s the American Library Association. 

It was a good thing I was sitting down when they finally got through. It was one of the most unexpected, beautiful things to ever happen to me, listening to the committee congratulate me on the book’s being selected for one of the author honors. 

Awards change things, for authors and publishers both. IFWG had to revamp its distribution model and retroactively put out a hard cover edition. I was interviewed again and again. Agents came out of the woodwork, trying to sign me. 

I came away from la Celebración in Orlando with two new book deals with publishers who had (no hard feelings, folks) passed on The Smoking Mirror. 

At the same time that The Smoking Mirror was receiving all these accolades, the publication of its sequel, A Kingdom Beneath the Waves, went somewhat unnoticed. Set about six months after the first volume, this second installment finds the Garza family’s Christmas vacation in Mexico cut short by the appearance of Pingo, one of the elfish tzapame. The news is grim: a rogue prince from an ancient undersea kingdom is seeking the Shadow Stone, a device he could use to flood the world and wipe out humanity. Now Carol and Johnny must join a group of merfolk and travel into the deepest chasms of the Pacific Ocean to stop the prince and his monstrous army with their savage magic.

The book was structurally a departure from the first. Setting it in a fictional place of my own devising (rather than in an established region like the Aztec Underworld) gave me the freedom to raise the stakes considerably and craft an entire culture from a few throwaway lines about mermaids in an old Nahuatl text. 

Speaking of being overshadowed, the third book in the series was released in 2018, sandwiched between the mythology collection Feathered Serpent, Dark Heart of Sky and the multiple-award-winning They Call Me Güero, my first novel in verse (see the De Colores review here). Around that same time, after a recommendation from Matt De La Peña, author Adam Gidwitz asked me to co-author the fourth book in his Unicorn Rescue Society series from Dutton Penguin. It was a wonderful, high-profile opportunity, and together we wrote The Chupacabras of the Río Grande (see the De Colores review here). As Penguin Random House prepped us for our tour, I could see Garza Twins #3 fading in the rearview mirror.

And, yikes! There’s the rub, the downside to being prolific, no matter the quality of one’s work: invariably some of it “hits” better than the rest, and there’s no way of predicting what project will. I try to make sure that when multiple books of mine are coming out the same year, none of them compete against the others for the same readers (each project should be intended for a different audience). 

Still, The Hidden City just didn’t get the same love (from its author or its public) as my other work that year. The book is ambitious, opening up the twins’ adventures to conflicts not just with gods, but also with humans, setting up the endgame that will play out in books 4 and 5. When Carol and Johnny learn of the Ollamat—an ancient stone that can channel savage magic—they convince their parents to take them to the cloud forests of Oaxaca. With Pingo’s help, they search for the legendary city where it has been protected for a thousand years. But the twins aren’t the only ones hunting for the Ollamat. After it is stolen, they travel to the beautiful yet dangerous Tlalocan, the paradise of the rain god. To retrieve the stone, they face talking apes and forest elementals, rock wyrms and vicious elves, demons of lighting and something even more unexpected: the souls of people they have watched die. As always, they are aided by allies old and new, though nothing can quite prepare them for the biggest foe of all—a member of their very family.

Now here we are, two years later, and I’m working on book 4, Wings Above the Burning Earth. Racing against the clock and against the better judgment of their parents and allies, Carol and Johnny head for the Above, the heaven of the sun god, to retrieve the lost soul of their cousin Stephanie before she becomes a cihuateotl, a fearsome ghost that haunts the evening skies. Their desperate trek lands them in the midst of a massive civil war in heaven, as a former sun god leads rebels against Nanahuatzin Tonatiuh, trying to wrest away control of the sun so he can set the earth’s atmosphere on fire. The twins will have to forge a fast alliance among harpies, phantoms and ancient vampires if they’re going to stop the destruction of all they hold dear.

Publication is set for 2021, but Charlene has already completed the cover, and I wanted De Colores readers to be the first to lay eyes on that artwork.

For those of you who haven’t read the series or who stopped after The Smoking Mirror, now is the perfect time to get caught up. And if you prefer Spanish, Gemelos Garza (translations done by the amazing Libia Brenda) will start publishing this winter, beginning with El espejo humeante.

The Garza Twins will wrap up with book 5, The World Tree, in 2022, ten years after I started writing The Smoking Mirror
The twins will be climbing the axis mundi to reach the highest heaven of all, Omeyocan, Place of Duality. What a fitting finale for a series that nearly didn’t see the light of day. 

Ad astra per aspera, my friends. Much respect and love to all of you who struggle day and night along your own hard road to the heavens. 

—David Bowles
(published 5/8/20)