Great Kapok Tree: A Tale of the Amazon Rain Forest

author: Lynne Cherry
illustrator: Lynne Cherry
Scholastic, 1990
preschool-grade 3

The world’s tropical rainforests are being destroyed at an alarming rate by multinational corporations, deforestation operations, road paving, cattle ranching, and, in Central and South America, the runaway eco-tourism industry. 

All of this is implied in Cherry’s myth-like tale of a lone woodsman who is assigned to chop down a huge kapok tree in the forest. After a few whacks, he sits down to rest and is lulled to sleep by the “heat and hum of the forest.” While asleep, the woodsman is visited by creatures who live in the forest—a boa constrictor, a bee, a troop of monkeys, a toucan, a macaw, a tree frog, a jaguar, four tree porcupines, “several anteaters,” and a three-toed sloth—who each tells him how this tree and everything in the forest is intricately related to each other. 

And finally, “a child from the Yanomamo tribe who lived in the rain forest” joins the creatures and whispers into the man’s ear, “Senhor, when you awake, please look upon us all with new eyes.”

The woodsman awakes with a start.

Before him stood the rain forest child, and all around him, staring, were the creatures who depended upon the great Kapok tree. What wondrous and rare animals they were!

He takes in everything: the “sun streaming through the canopy,” the “fragrant perfume” of the flowers, the “steamy mist rising from the forest floor,” and he knows he must make a decision.

The man stood and picked up his axe. He swung back his arm as though to strike the tree. Suddenly he stopped. He turned and looked at the animals and the child. He hesitated. Then he dropped the ax and walked out of the rainforest.

In The Great Kapok Tree, Cherry has produced an abundance of information about the flora and fauna of the rain forest, and about the necessity of preserving it. Her gorgeously rendered double-page spreads, in watercolors and colored pencils—on a palette of subdued earthy forest tones of mostly browns, greens and reds—aptly convey the beauty of the endangered rainforest ecosystems. And there’s a helpful world map that shows both the rainforests’ original extent and how much of them is left today.

However, two things trouble me about this story. One is that children might see the struggle to save the rainforests as merely about convincing individuals not to chop down trees—rather than about stopping the multinational corporations intent on chopping up the magnificent biospheres into marketable pieces. The second problem is that Cherry apparently drops in the “child from the Yanomamo tribe” to illustrate how the destruction of the rainforests affects humans as well as the forest creatures. But it’s unlikely—even in a myth—for a young child to be hanging around with a bunch of wild animals. It weakens, rather than strengthens, the story.

Lynne Cherry dedicated this book to Chico Mendes, a third-generation Brazilian rubber tapper, human rights activist and trade union leader who was assassinated by a rancher who would have profited from logging an area that had been planned as a reserve.

Rather than the tale of the rainforest’s being threatened by a single man with an ax who is then easily convinced to walk away, I would rather have seen a children’s version about how the Indigenous peoples of Brazil, together with local trade union activists and supporters around the world, are fighting to preserve the Amazon rainforest. Even the youngest children are capable of understanding the complexities of problems such as this one—and thinking about solutions.

So—but only as a jumping-off point for classroom discussions, research and activities about the struggle to save the world’s rainforests—The Great Kapok Tree is recommended.

—Beverly Slapin
(published 5/23/13)

Pancho’s Piñata

authors: Stefan Czernecki and Timothy Rhodes
illustrator: Stefan Czernecki
Hyperion, 1992
preschool-grade 2

On the last page of Pancho’s Piñata, there’s this: “The tale of Pancho and his piñata is so old that no one knows whether or not it is true.” It is not.

One Christmas Eve in San Miguel, a boy named “Pancho” hears the faint cries of a small falling star that had flown down to listen to the village merriment and gotten stuck on a giant cactus. Boy rescues star, and star gives him a “wondrous gift”—“some shimmering stardust that had drifted quietly down to earth.” Boy becomes an old man, who is poor but happy because he remembers the star’s “wondrous gift.” Old man spends the few coins he has saved and makes what becomes a piñata, so that the village children can receive “wondrous gifts” and be as happy as he is. The term “wondrous gift” is used four times. In some stories, repetition is a good thing. Here, it’s annoying.

“[T]his enchanting story of Pancho,” the cover copy says, “reveals the true meaning of Christmas.” I looked several times; couldn’t find it. Rather, this totally boring story, “inspired by the Diego Rivera mural La Piñata and the Procession (1953),” is one of those “original legends” that make me gnash my teeth.

Czernecki's gouache art, with flattened perspective and bright borders on a palette of dark blues and greens, warm browns, pale pinks and deep reds—and the details, such as braids of chili and garlic, a large olla, and an altar to La Virgen de Guadalupe—mimic some facets of Mexican art, but, combined with that anthropomorphic little star, they're as uninspiring as the story.   

A quick look at the author’s and illustrator’s bios reveals that Czernecki’s work “is greatly influenced by Latin American culture [sic],” and that Rhodes “has become an avid collector of folk art, especially that from Mexico and South America.” Oh.

Pancho’s Piñata is not recommended.

—Beverly Slapin
(published 5/20/13)

Going Home

author: Eve Bunting
illustrator: David Díaz
HarperCollins, 1996
kindergarten-grade 3
Mexican, Mexican American

Ever since the day after Thanksgiving in 1960, when “CBS Reports” aired a documentary called “Harvest of Shame,” the exploitation of migrant agricultural workers has been a national scandal. Farm workers—then and now—live at or below the poverty level and depend on their meager income to feed their families here, and often to support relatives in their home country as well.

Two years later, César Chávez and Dolores Huerta founded the United Farm Workers, a human rights and labor organization that successfully focused the national media’s attention on the struggles of agricultural workers for better pay, safer working conditions, and the right to organize. “Alone, the farm workers have no economic power,” Chávez said, “but with the help of the public they can develop the economic power to counter that of the growers.”

More recently, the corporate successes and excesses of NAFTA have brought nothing but impoverishment to Mexican workers, both in their country and in the US. While large transnational corporations profit hand-over-fist from free trade, slack regulation, and abundant and cheap Mexican labor, hundreds of thousands of displaced people—from cities, towns and villages—are forced to head north in order to survive. On this side, the Mexican migrant workers, many if not most undocumented, have nowhere else to go.  

Eve Bunting’s Going Home was published 35 years after “Harvest of Shame” was aired, 33 years after the United Farm Workers was founded, and two years after NAFTA was enacted into law. So one might think that Bunting would have had plenty of information about how agricultural workers and their families live—if she had looked. Apparently, she didn’t. 

In Going Home, the young narrator, Carlos, finds out that he and his farm worker family will soon be “going home” to La Perla, Mexico, for Christmas vacation. “Home is here,” his mother explains, “but it is there, too.” Well, I would bet anything that no agricultural workers in their right mind would refer to a labor camp as “home.” Turn two pages: “Papa locks the door of our house,” Carlos says. “The house really belongs to Mr. Culloden, the labor manager, but it is ours as long as we work the crops for him. It has been ours for almost five years.” On the facing page, the artwork depicts this farm worker family’s “home” as one in a row of suburban tract houses, with neatly manicured lawns—as far from a typical ramshackle labor camp domicile as Santa Barbara might be from Appalachia.   

Papa tells the children that they are “legal farm workers,” so they will have no trouble crossing the border. Well, that’s convenient—not only does Bunting neatly avoid describing the incidences of harassment, arrest, jail and deportation common at border crossings, she also does so by having Papa explain why: This family is “legal.” The world is good.

Then there is the peppering of Spanish words in the text—“sí,” “mijo” [sic], “papeles”—coming from the parents. Carlos explains to the reader that, “Papa speaks always in Spanish. He and Mama have no English. There is no need for it in the fields. But I’m always trying to teach them.” But. Since there are only a few Spanish words in the entire text, everyone appears to be speaking English. And Carlos is correcting Papa when he says a word in Spanish, which Mexican children do not do because it would be rude. Rather, children learn early on how to code-switch, an important skill in a household where the parents speak one language and the children speak two. This is all different from teaching the parents English or interpreting when interpretation is needed, a subtlety that is lost on Bunting. And I’m not sure why Bunting decided to use Spanish grammatical forms in Carlos’s English, either. This whole language thing is just a mess.

Carlos says that he and his sister know “how hard the work is. The heat in the strawberry fields. The sun pushing down between the rows of tomatoes. The little flies biting our faces. We know because we work, too, on weekends and school vacations.” In truth, children often work alongside their parents in the fields—before and after school, when they are fortunate enough to be able to attend school—as well as weekends and vacations. While federally mandated Migrant Education Programs exist, children living in rural areas often do not get to go to school. And despite the existence of child labor laws that vary from state to state, children are often forced to work under a parent’s name or under an alias. It’s a dirty business, but one that Bunting conveniently ignores. 

Why did Carlos’s family come here, then? “We are here for the opportunities,” Papa says. More likely, the children would not ask, because they would know. Toiling in the fields as migrant agricultural workers is hardly done for the “opportunities”—it’s done for survival and possibly to send some money home. 

So Mama, Papa, Carlos, Delores, and Nora arrive at La Perla, where they meet the rest of their family and have a great time. Everyone is impressed with the children’s nice clothes and English skills, and the family talks more about “opportunities”:

They laugh and clap. “Imagine, Consuelo! Your son—and all your children—speaking English. So smart!” “Yes,” Papa says. “Their school is very fine. They are getting a good education.” The woman nods. “You were wise to take them and go. Our school is good, too. But where are the opportunities for our children after?”

La Perla is a beautiful place, but there is no “opportunity” here, only in the US. That night, the children sleep in the car, and Mama and Papa come out to dance in the streets. Older sister Delores tells Carlos that Mama and Papa “plan to come back someday and live in Grandfather’s house and work his land.” Carlos thinks, “It will be after our opportunities.”

Diazs fiesta-bright artwork,” a reviewer for Kirkus gushes, “ignites this joyous tale of a Mexican-American family’s sentimental journey.... The fiery colors and bold lines of Diaz's woodcut-like illustrations lend a strength and nobility to these scenes.... [H]e sets his artwork within the photographic backdrops that show gaily painted pottery, folk art figurines, Mexican Christmas decorations, festive flowers and other shiny holiday trinkets. A veritable feast for the eyes... What the Kirkus reviewer lauds is precisely the problem. Diaz has aptly illustrated Bunting’s sanitized story of a hard working Mexican family for the edification of cultural tourists: take home all the pretty things and look away from the garbage.  Indeed, this story and art together function as an apologia for imperialism.

Bunting’s purposeful ignoring of racism in order to maintain the status quo is palpable. Where she sees issues, they are not so bad. In the case of Going Home, there is no backbreaking labor, no inhaling of toxic pesticides, no sweat, no tears, no exhaustion, no harassment from labor bosses or La Migra. Just “opportunities.” A Publishers Weekly review of Going Home could have been about any of Bunting’s “social justice” books, which “(hint) at the depth of parental love and sacrifice while distancing children from genuine understanding.”

Scholar Joyce King has coined a term for this kind of thinking: “dysconscious racism,” which she defines as “a form of racism that tacitly accepts the dominant white norms and privileges.” [1] And scholar Dan Hade has labeled Bunting’s “social justice” books as “aestheticizing the poor, anesthetizing the reader.”[2]

One last thing: On the dedication page of Going Home, Bunting writes: “Sincere thanks to Joe Mendoza, Regional Director of Migrant Education, Region #17.” Curious to know what kind of involvement someone who works with migrant families might have had with this book, I phoned him. What he told me[3] was that he and Bunting were “like two ships passing in the night; if she walked in right now, I wouldn’t remember her. As I recall, she walked into my office and asked if she could meet a migrant family because she was writing a book. I vaguely remember introducing her to a family, more as a courtesy than anything else and that was that. I spoke with her once or twice; she never asked me to read her manuscript or anything like that.”

Bunting is not the only mediocre writer who acknowledges sources solely to create credibility for a book. When a writer acknowledges someone who is not a friend but whose name carries a particular credential, the assumption is that the person has lent some kind of oversight or has helped in significant ways. In Going Home, Bunting implies something that isn’t there; it’s disingenuous.

Bunting’s “social justice” books show a distortion of reality in order to appeal to what some want to believe. Her formula fits issues such as homelessness (Fly Away Home, 1991), immigration (One Green Apple, 2006), rebellion (Smoky Night, 1994), youth gangs (Your Move, 1998), forced relocation (So Far from the Sea, 1998). Et cetera. As with Bunting’s others, Going Home is sympathetic in a seemingly harmless way. But it’s not harmless; on the contrary, it’s cruel. It’s cruel to the children of agricultural workers and other migrant and immigrant children who must struggle for the “opportunities” that others have as their birthright. And it’s cruel to the unsuspecting children who are being anesthetized to the hard lives of others.

Going Home is not recommended.

—Beverly Slapin
(published 5/18/13)

[1] Joyce E. King, Ph.D, holds the Benjamin E. Mays Chair of Urban Teaching, Learning, and Leadership in the College of Education at Georgia State University. This definition is from her paper, “Disconscious Racism: Ideology, Identity, and the Miseducation of Teachers” (Journal of Negro Education, Vol. 60, No. 2, 1991).

[2] Daniel Hade, Ph.D, is an Associate Professor in Language and Literacy at Penn State College of Education, where he looks at how poverty is constructed in children’s books and how it is used as an aesthetic. In 1995, he spoke at a children’s literature conference; the title of his talk was “Aestheticizing the Poor, Anesthetizing the Reader: the ‘Social Justice’ Books of Eve Bunting.”

[3] Joe Mendoza generously gave me permission to take notes while we were talking, and to quote him. He said, “Only liars don’t let themselves be quoted.” Thanks, Joe.

Fernando’s Gift/ El Regalo de Fernando

author: Douglas Keister
photographer: Douglas Keister
translators: Mario Reposo and Margaret E. Hines
Sierra Club, 1995
kindergarten-grade 3
Costa Rican

The tiny country of Costa Rica contains 5% of earth’s biodiversity, a density unmatched anywhere else in the world. Her lush rainforests and coastlines are home to an abundance of mammals, amphibians and birds, including jaguars, ocelots, spider monkeys, whales, and sea turtles. At the same time, Costa Rica faces multiple threats from reckless commercial deforestation for timber, cattle pastures, and crop farming; growing pressure to open the coastlines to oil and gas drilling; and negative impacts of the rapidly growing eco-tourism trade on the Pacific Coast infrastructure.

In this small, bilingual photo-essay, readers meet young Fernando Vanegas, who lives with his family deep inside the lush tropical rainforest. While his mother works at home and his father tends crops, plants trees, and teaches people about the rainforest, Fernando and his friends go to school, pick bananas off the trees, and swim and fish nearby. When Fernando and his friend, Carmina, discover that her favorite climbing tree—a very old cristobal—has been chopped down, Fernando presents her with a small cristobal from his father’s nursery, and the two plant it in a secret spot where it will be safe.

Although Fernando’s Gift will give young readers a small indication about what it’s like to live in the rainforest, the photos are pretentiously staged and manipulated, and the text—a child’s narrative—is embarrassingly unrealistic.

In each of the photos, for instance—even those of Papá milking the cow and doing farm labor, and of Fernando and Carmina fishing for trout—everyone’s clothes is immaculately clean and pressed. There’s not a speck of dirt to be seen, not even on young Carmina’s pristine white tennis shoes and white socks. No dirt under the fingernails, not a hair out of place. Wouldn’t someone know that, when you live in the countryside, you get dirty?

In addition, the text and photos are mismatched. For instance, there’s a photo of Mamá giving baby sister, Evelyn, a bath. A few pages later, little Evelyn is shown sitting close to Mamá, who is chopping onions. The text reads: “When it’s time for breakfast, my father milks the cow, and my mother and Evelyn chop onions to flavor our meal.” But Mamá and Evelyn are not chopping onions together! Evelyn is a baby!

And Fernando’s narrative is self-consciously belabored; it’s just not realistic for a young child to elaborate like this:

Grandfather explains that people have been cutting down trees in the rain forest for many years. Often they don’t understand the harm they are doing. He tells us that when trees are cut down, animals no longer have a place to live. Trees also help to keep the soil from washing away. Grandfather says that this is why my father’s job planting trees and teaching people about the rain forest is so important.

It’s apparent that the author wrote this story first—as a “child’s” narrative—and then staged photos to illustrate it.

Finally, the Spanish translations are constructed in such a literal manner as to allow English-speaking readers (and their teachers) to follow the English text word-for-word. For English speakers this might be seen as a plus; but for Spanish speakers, it is confusing and off-putting. 
A couple of examples: While an English-speaking child might refer to a grandfather as “grandfather,” a Spanish-speaking child would refer to him as “mi abuelo or “mi abuelito.” “It’s a long way, even on horseback” should be, “Queda muy lejos, incluso a caballo,” not “hasta a caballo.” 

A more honest children’s book would have shown the rainforest and her inhabitants as they really are—incomparably beautiful and in great danger of extinction. It can be done. Young children are capable of understanding great complexity and difficult issues. And if book is written in English and Spanish, the Spanish should be as well written as the English.  Fernando’s Gift/ El Regalo de Fernando is not recommended.

—Beverly Slapin
(published 5/9/13)

Who Can Stay Here? Documentation and Citizenship in Children's Books

Nearly five years ago, the bilingual elementary school where I taught in East Oakland was subjected to an attempted US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raid. Early in the school day, rumors among students and teachers began to fly—ICE agents had been seen parked several blocks away from the school. Everyone panicked, terrified that the agents would apprehend parents on their way to get their children at the end of the day. Office staff and parent volunteers called each family at home, instructing them to send only friends or relatives who had documents. The administration contacted the media. Soon, Mayor Ron Dellums and members of the Oakland police gathered outside to denounce ICE’s fear tactics. 

While politicians made statements outside, it was my job inside to calm down a class of first-graders who were all too aware of what an ICE raid meant. They knew their parents could be suddenly taken away or that they could be forced leave their homes and schools. As my students were playing outside during recess, a news helicopter began to circle above the playground. Many of my students came running back inside, panicked, in tears, shouting that la migra was coming in helicopters to get them. It was almost impossible to assuage that fear—to tell them that they were safe here and no one would take them away. Especially because I didn’t really know if that was true. 

The ICE agents never actually entered our school that day. Perhaps this was because intimidation had been their only goal, or perhaps the barrage of media attention had put them off. I later learned that several other schools in East Oakland and South Berkeley were subject to similar intimidation tactics that day—ICE agents parked nearby, watching and waiting for parents and students to leave the campus. At one East Oakland elementary school, ICE agents apprehended a woman in the school hallway before the start of classes; they led her away in front of her six-year-old daughter, other parents, and staff. 

Though such a dramatic brush with immigration enforcement didn’t reoccur during the two years that I worked at that school, each year parents asked many teachers, including me, to write letters on their behalf for immigration hearings. And each year I knew of at least one student whose mother or father had been deported. 

So when I set about compiling a list of children’s picture books that dealt with immigration issues, the memories of that attempted ICE raid and the deportation hearings were fresh in my mind. I found books that dealt with intergenerational ties and gaps, peer pressure and friendship, and, of course, language barriers and language learning. 

What caught my attention was the one theme that was missing. Though many of these books dealt with border crossings, few addressed issues of documentation and unequal access to citizenship in any meaningful way. Indeed, most skirted around the topic, leaving unexplained holes in their narratives of immigration. Others explicitly sent the message that citizenship in this country is equally attainable by all—a fact that many of my students know to be false. 

Especially in this current political climate, children’s book publishers rarely address issues such as undocumented immigration, unequal access to citizenship, deportation, the separation of families, and economic and racial discrimination—which they may see as too controversial for the children’s book market. Yet when I think about my students’ fears on the day that ICE came near our school, I know that, daily, many of our children have to deal with these issues. Whether we want them to or not, these powerful experiences and fears make their way into children’s lives.

When we create immigration units or read picture books about immigration to our children, we have the luxury to avoid these issues. However, if we choose to do so, we risk marginalizing the students who don’t. Of course, we should never ask children to share personal information or disclose their immigration status, but we can safely discuss these topics through a literary lens. Indeed, if we want to help children better understand their world and realize that they are not alone in the problems they face, it is important to look at children’s books about immigration with a critical eye. Specifically, what kinds of messages about documentation and access to citizenship do these books impart to students?

With this issue in mind, I studied and identified three broad categories of books according to the extent to which they explore or obscure these themes. Here are a few examples that illustrate each category. I hope that this provides a framework for critical analysis of children’s literature about immigration and is helpful to teachers planning curriculum or adding to their classroom libraries. 

(1) Creating the Image that Citizenship Is Equally Available to All

The first category consists of books that ignore issues of undocumented migration or immigration and unequal access to citizenship, portraying a world in which US citizenship is equally (and often easily) available.

The most extreme example I encountered was Maggie Rugg Herold’s A Very Important Day (Morrow, 1995), in which families from the Philippines, Mexico, India, Russia, Greece, Vietnam, the Dominican Republic, China, Egypt, Ghana, Scotland, and El Salvador joyously celebrate as they make the trip downtown to the courthouse to receive their papers and to be granted citizenship. They happily swear loyalty to the United States of America and recite the Pledge of Allegiance, waving tiny American flags as they exit the courthouse.

A Very Important Day implies that each family has had an equal opportunity to apply for citizenship. They have all followed the same equitable legal process described in the epilogue. For a child unfamiliar with the economic, linguistic, and political issues that make US citizenship more attainable for some than for others, this book creates a false sense of security—Look, our system is working well! For students and/or parents who do not have documents, A Very Important Day raises many questions that remain unanswered—Why can’t we just go down to the courthouse, recite the Pledge of Allegiance, and become citizens if everyone else can? Unless a teacher is willing to engage with these issues and discuss with students the story’s underlying assumptions, this book could do more harm than good.

Eve Bunting’s How Many Days to America? A Thanksgiving Story (Clarion, 1988) portrays immigration and border crossings as difficult, but at the end the barriers suddenly disappear. This book tells the wrenching story of a family forced to leave an unnamed Latin American country, where they are fleeing from political oppression. They board a fishing boat to travel to the United States. Their journey is arduous—the motor breaks, the soldiers in their country shoot at them from the shore, their food and water run out, people become ill, and thieves take what little they have left. When they finally arrive at the shore of the US, soldiers give them food and water but do not let them land. “They will not take us,” the father comments sadly, but he doesn’t say why.

Yet inexplicably, the next day, the boat lands at the US shore again. This time there are no soldiers, but instead a large crowd of people who welcome the family and usher them into a shed with tables covered with delicious food. They explain that it is “Thanksgiving” and tell the new arrivals about the significance of that day in the US. How Many Days ends with a description of how “[f]ather gave thanks that we were free, and safe—and here.” The little sister asks if they can stay. “Yes, small one,” the father replies. “We can stay.”

How Many Days sets up a false expectation: No matter the struggle that it takes to get to the US, once here, you are safe and you are allowed to stay. Yet this is clearly not the case for many migrants and immigrants who have no documents. Indeed, many children recognize that, despite their families’ arduous journeys to this country, they still face the dangers of deportation, exploitation, and discrimination. Just as Bunting stays silent on the reasons why the soldiers initially refuse to allow the family to land, she all too swiftly conjures up a happy ending. Like A Very Important Day, How Many Days ignores the possibility that citizenship might not be easily attainable for all who set foot on US shores.

(2) Someone Else’s Problem

While the books in the first category ignore issues of documentation and equitable access to citizenship, those in the second category hint at these themes but fail to explore them. They imply that the dangers exist, yet avoid putting the main characters at any real risk. Their message is that, although deportation and the separation of families occur, they usually happen to someone else.

Amada Irma Pérez’ My Diary from Here to There / Mi diario de aquí hasta allá (Children’s Book Press / Lee & Low, 2002) is the fictional journal of a young girl who migrates to the US from Mexico. Her father is a US citizen, but the family must wait near the border while he secures their green cards. The young narrator expresses sadness at how she cannot see her father and fears that he will not be able to obtain green cards for the rest of the family. Yet they wait patiently, the green cards finally arrive, and the family is able to cross the border and be reunited. On the bus into the US, the police arrest a woman without papers. This incident is mentioned but not discussed, leaving children to question why only some migrants or immigrants have easy access to documents.

Juan Felipe Herrera’s Super Cilantro Girl / La superniña de cilantro (Children’s Book Press / Lee & Low, 2003) tells the story of Esmeralda, a child whose mother, despite the fact that she is a US citizen, is stopped at the US-Mexico border. Worried about her mother, Esmeralda dreams that she turns green like a bunch of cilantro, grows into a giant, and flies to the border to set her mother free. Here Herrera paints a vivid picture: “She gawks at the great gray walls of wire and steel between the United States and Mexico. She stares at the great gray building that keeps people in who want to move on.”

In her dream, Esmeralda rescues her mother. When the soldiers begin chasing her, she makes green vines and bushes of cilantro grow up and erase that border, declaring that the world should be sin fronteras—borderless. However, when Esmeralda wakes up, she discovers that she had been dreaming and that her mother is safely back home.

Super Cilantro Girl hints at the terror that children experience at the prospect of their families’ being split apart, but it does not put the characters in any real danger. Esmeralda’s mother is a citizen and, therefore, does not risk being separated from her family. In the foreword, Herrera expresses concern about families kept apart by borders and shares his wish that some superhero could abolish such borders and bring those families back together. However, making Esmeralda’s mother a citizen in no danger of actually being barred from returning home sends the message that family separation, deportation, and detention centers are all part of a dream from which you can wake up. These real dangers exist only in the lives of others.

(3) Tackling the Subject 

 The final category includes the handful of books I found that deal head-on with issues of documentation and unequal access to citizenship.

In Belle Yang’s Hannah Is My Name (Candlewick, 2004), a family immigrates to San Francisco from Taiwan. Though they apply for green cards, they wait more than a year for a response from the government. During this time, the young narrator’s parents must work illegally to make ends meet. When the boss of a clothing factory realizes that Hannah’s mother doesn’t have papers, he fires her; and Hannah’s father, who works in a hotel, is constantly on the watch for immigration agents. One of Hannah’s friends, a child from Hong Kong, is deported because her father has been discovered working at a Chinese restaurant before his family has received their green cards. And one day, while Hannah is visiting her father’s work, she and her father are forced to flee from an immigration raid. From then on, her father must work at night.

The story concludes happily—the family finally receives the green cards and is allowed to stay. In the process, however, the author exposes several key issues, including the seemingly arbitrary nature of the immigration process and the fact that many families must work illegally to survive while applying for documents.

Luis J. Rodríguez’ América Is Her Name and La llaman América (Curbstone, 1997, 1998) deal with many other harsh issues facing migrant and immigrant communities: neighborhood violence, unemployment, language barriers, and—perhaps most importantly—racism, an issue that is not directly addressed in any of the other stories. América Soliz’s mother is called a “wetback” when she goes to the market. In school, América’s ESL teacher, Ms. Gable, scornfully refers to her as an “illegal.” América’s confusion is heartbreaking: 
How can that be—how can anyone be illegal? She is Mixteco, an ancient tribe that was here before the Spanish, before the blue-eyed, even before this government that now calls her “illegal.” How can a girl called América not belong in America?

This is a powerful question to pose to students, one that could generate much discussion. Fortunately, América finds release from the pressures of her life through writing poetry; in this new passion, she discovers her voice and her place. América’s family and her teacher, who are initially skeptical, finally support her, telling her that she will be a real poet some day. “A real poet,” the book concludes: “That sounds good to the Mixteca girl, who some people say doesn’t belong here. A poet, América knows, belongs everywhere.”

(4) Encouraging Critical Thought

Although there are many children’s books that deal with the experiences of Asian immigrants and Latin American (specifically Mexican) migrants and immigrants, few tell the stories of immigrants from other places, such as Africa or the Middle East. I urge teachers to seek out books that represent these populations, especially books that tackle the difficult issues surrounding immigration status and citizenship. If we want migrant and immigrant students to know that they are not the only ones who face struggles in the US—that many share similar experiences because of the existence of larger systemic injustices—this is especially important.

Although I’ve reflected on these books because my class includes migrant and immigrant students—many of whose families do not have documents—I believe that it’s just as important for all teachers to look critically at books such as these. In all probability, children who do not confront these issues in their daily lives are the least likely to question the portrayals of immigration in the books they read.

Finally, I want to emphasize that none of these books—regardless of whether they confront or evade the topics of documentation and inequitable access to citizenship—stands alone. Before adding titles to the classroom library for independent reading, read these books aloud and discuss them as a group. Treat these sensitive issues with care, give them the attention they deserve, and deal with them in a safe environment. If we want to develop students who think critically about their own lives and about the world around them, we, as teachers, must involve ourselves in guiding children as they discover, explore, and analyze. Thinking critically about the books ourselves is the first step in facilitating thoughtful dialogue among our students.

—Grace Cornell Gonzales
(published 5/8/13)

Another version of this essay first appeared in Rethinking Schools ( We thank Rethinking Schools for permission.

From North to South / Del norte al sur

author: René Colato Laínez
illustrator: Joe Cepeda
Children’s Book Press / Lee & Low, 2010
Grades 2-5

Mexican, Mexican American

From North to South / Del norte al sur is one of the few children’s books that directly address the issues of deportation and family separation. The young narrator is José, a child who travels from San Diego to Tijuana to see his mother, recently deported in a factory raid. At the shelter where she is staying, José meets other women and children who have also been separated from their families. It’s clear how deeply his mother’s deportation affects José—but this family’s situation is not broadly representative. José’s father is a permanent resident of the United States and can hire a lawyer for his mother, and José and his father live close enough to the border to visit her every weekend. His mother has been able to find lodging at a safe and welcoming shelter, and every indication is that she will soon be able to return home.

Joe Cepeda’s engaging illustrations, on a palette of earthy colors, complement the warm story of a loving family separated by the circumstances surrounding migration to the US.

There is much here for teachers to discuss with their students—especially the complex reasons behind José’s family’s separation and the different ways that families experience deportation. From North to South ends with a description of José’s dream as he sleeps on the car ride back to San Diego: Mamá has the right papers, the family crosses the border together, fireworks fill the sky, and José knows “that all the other children would see their parents soon, too.”

This is a beautiful dream, but it is indeed a dream. In reality, neither the other women and children at the shelter, nor our own students who face similar challenges, are guaranteed the same advantages and resources that José’s family has: They may not soon be reunited with their families. The real world just does not deliver endings so reliably. In this respect, the story hedges between attempting to portray the pain caused to children by deportation and providing a happy ending. In doing so, it sets students up with the unrealistic expectation that deportation is always temporary, and those who face it will always be reunited with their families in the US.

Still, From North to South / Del norte al sur remains one of the few children’s books that discuss this topic at all. So, as long as it’s paired with guided discussion, it might be a good classroom addition. Recommended.

—Grace Cornell Gonzales
(published 5/7/13)

This review, in a slightly different form, first appeared in Rethinking Schools ( We thank Rethinking Schools for permission.

Rethinking El Cinco de Mayo

I recently came across a flier in an old backpack of my daughter’s: Wanted: Committee Chairs for this Spring’s Cinco de Mayo All School Celebration. It was replete with cultural props, including a sombrero, cactus tree, donkey, taco, maracas, and chili peppers. Seeing this again brought back the moment when, years earlier, my daughter had handed the flier to me: The local elementary school’s PTSA, in an attempt to provide a “multicultural experience” for students and families, was sponsoring a “Mexican-American” event. But, since there were no Chicana/o students, parents, or staff members in the school community (as far as I knew), it seemed that the PTSA was likely to get it wrong. I was concerned.

After making some inquiries, I was told the school wanted to celebrate El Cinco de Mayo because it was Mexico’s Independence Day. However, El Cinco de Mayo is actually Battle of Puebla Day, commemorating the defeat of Napoleon III in 1862. Mexico’s Independence Day is September 16. Concerned that the stereotypes associated with Chicana/os, such as fast-food items, piñatas, sombreros, and serapes would be central to the event, I wrote the school, asking if they might consider canceling the event. They didn’t, and I was correct.

Queen of Water

authors: Laura Resau and 
Maria Virginia Farinango
Delacorte, 2011
grades 7-up 

Though normally dedicated to the consumption of luxury goods, The New York Times Magazine supplement (April 26, 2011) featured an article by Barbara Ehrenreich about union organizing efforts among nannies and other domestic workers in New York City. Ehrenreich, whose own experience as a low-wage worker for a housecleaning service, is chronicled in the classic and highly recommended Nickel & Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, profiles labor organizer Ai-Jen Poo, who in turn describes the life of one worker from Jamaica:

Alice had been lured to this country at age 16 with the promise that she would be able to go to school while working as a live-in nanny and housekeeper. Once she arrived, however, she found that school was not on the agenda—Alice’s domestic duties filled her time from early morning till late at night—nor, according to Poo, did she ever see a paycheck. The couple who employed her claimed they were sending her wages straight home to her parents, and since they controlled her access to mail, both incoming and outgoing, she had no way of finding out that no money was sent. After working without pay for 16 years, and cut off from her parents, who thought she had abandoned them, Alice escaped from her “employers” with help from one of their three young children. (“The Nannies’ Norma Rae: Ai-jen Poo Fights for Domestic Workers’ Rights”)

This story is depressingly familiar to readers of Laura Resau’s novel based on a true story, The Queen of Water, and it highlights the fact that what happened to her co-author Maria Virginia Farinango in Ecuador in the 1980s is happening today. In the United States. And it will continue to happen if workers do not have the right to organize and if the government at all levels refuses to defend the poor and powerless against the well-heeled, whose donations fill their campaign coffers.

Like many Indigenous children in Ecuador, seven-year-old Virginia Farinango was sent by her impoverished parents to work for a Mestizo family that abused her and broke their promise to pay her and to give her an education. However, the lively and ambitious girl overcame her feelings of inferiority and learned to read, then secretly borrowed the textbooks of her masters, both teachers, to teach herself science and history. Despite the wife’s regular beatings and the husband’s sexual advances, Virginia eventually escaped their household, returned to her family, and worked her way through high school and to a better life.

Resau does a masterful job of giving her collaborator’s story shape and dramatic tension. Farinango doesn’t idealize her life before being sent to work as a servant, but readers see the strength and independence that she gains while growing up in a poor Indigenous community. Her masters are portrayed as complex people with their own problems, and Virginia’s attachment to the two boys in her care make it all the more poignant when she must make the choice to stay or run away. The collaboration between Farinango and Resau has resulted in a powerful, well-paced story that will appeal to teen and adults readers alike, and is certain to generate lively discussion in classrooms and book clubs. Highly recommended.

— Lyn Miller-Lachmann
(published 5/3/13)