Legend of El Dorado: A Latin American Tale

author: Beatriz Vidal
author: Nancy Van Laan
illustrator: by Beatriz Vidal
Alfred A. Knopf, 1991
preschool-grade 4
Latin American, Chibcha

In an introductory note, Vidal writes that, as a child in Argentina, she first heard the stories about El Dorado from her father; and much later, she came across the “original source,” which inspired her to paint this “rich and fascinating treasure.” Vidal showed her version to her colleague, Van Laan, who “had the right poetic voice,” and the two decided to collaborate on something that would appeal to young readers “without losing the romantic, tragic flavor of the tale.”

There are many, many variations of the El Dorado story. Some contain a cacique, who covered his body with gold dust each day before jumping into the lake to bathe. Some involve the lake itself, into which gold would be thrown in political or spiritual ceremonies. Some contain a description of the city as a vast kingdom where gold was so plentiful that it was used to construct whole houses. Some involve women and children being thrown into the lake, either as sacrifices or as punishment. Some involve a cacique’s wife who throws herself into the lake to escape a horrible punishment for her sins, and survives there as a deity. And other variations are so violent and gory as to compete with a Mexican telenovela gone rogue.

In Vidal and Van Laan’s version, the wife and daughter of a wealthy Chibcha “king,” lured by the dazzling sight of a ruby-eyed emerald serpent, disappear into the waters of Lake Guatavita. The high priest speaks to the serpent, who assures him that the “queen” and “princess” are safe and happy and will be reunited with the king, but only if he rules wisely. So each year, he covers himself with gold dust (thereby becoming known as “El Dorado”) and throws his treasures and himself into the lake to remind the serpent of its promise. One year he doesn’t reappear—the serpent has kept its promise: the king is reunited with his lost family.

Vidal’s mixed-media art—lush tropical scenes in bejeweled tones of mostly blues, greens, and reds—are reminiscent of Paul Gauguin’s post-impressionist work. The Indian subjects are mystical and primitive, and perfectly complement the text, which focuses, not on the people as fully developed humans, but as mystical and primitive. There’s lots of gold throughout. The title on the cover shines. The endpapers depict tropical birds flitting around golden beads. There’s gold dust on the king’s body, on the earthen ground, and in and at the bottom of the lake.

Before the conquistadores got to them, there were some 500,000 Chibcha people[1], who lived in the high valleys around what are now Bogotá and Tunja, Colombia. They were centralized politically and their economy was based mostly on intensive agriculture and considerable trade, which provided the gold used for ornaments and offerings. In the 16th Century, the Spanish invasions crushed the Chibcha political structure, and in the next 200 years, the language was all but obliterated as well.[2]

What have been mislabeled as Indigenous “myths” or “legends” are cultural histories and teachings, passed down from generation to generation. Since the Chibcha political and economic systems were never based on gold, the “legend of El Dorado” is not, and never was, a Chibcha legend.

A brief digression about the history of the “legend of El Dorado”:

In the early part of the 16th Century, fantastic stories circulated throughout Europe about a city of immense wealth somewhere in the Americas, a place of untold riches, a place that contained so much gold that it later became known as “El Dorado.” In this city, it was said, the people adorned themselves, head to toe, with gold; they even painted themselves and the trees and the rocks with gold! Heavily financed and heavily armed by the royals and other wealthy families, the explorers and conquistadores raced to the Western Hemisphere to find, conquer, and occupy El Dorado and the people who lived there.

But wherever they went, the locals pointed this way and that way—anywhere but where they were. And everywhere the conquistadores landed, the story became more and more embellished. Now there was a tribe—somewhere else—high up in the Andes Mountains—that way—where the cacique painted himself with gold dust each day before jumping into the lake to bathe! Or down there in the impenetrable jungles, where the people threw gold and precious jewels into the water to appease the spirits! Or over there, in the barren deserts, where could be found gold nuggets as large as suckling pigs! Indeed, the Spaniards, who wanted so much to believe that they were soon to encounter El Dorado, began to call the cacique of this unknown tribe El Dorado.

After Cortés sacked the great Mexica Empire in 1519 and Pizarro, the Inca Empire in 1532-33, the conquistadores found some gold—but not very much—among the Indigenous peoples living along the coast of South America. In the years that followed, the conquistadores rampaged up and down the coast, plundering Indigenous towns and villages and slaughtering hundreds of  thousands, if not millions, of people. But, of course, no one ever did find El Dorado—because it existed only in the searchers’ fevered, gold-crazed imaginations.

One of the things that survived these atrocities was a story published in the journal of Sebastián de Benalcázar, a chief lieutenant of Pizarro’s and a ruthless conquistador who claimed that an “Indian” had told him about El Dorado. (This is the account that Vidal names as the “original source” of her story.) But two other scenarios are totally possible and more likely: one, that the anonymous Indian was one of many who made up these stories to deflect the Spanish (and let’s not forget the British and German) forces away from their own communities; or, two, that de Benalcázar invented the story in order to bankroll new projects, justify new incursions, and recruit new soldiers.

So Van Laan’s version is her adaptation of Vidal’s father’s adaptation combined with the adaptation of a mass murderer who undoubtedly embellished the story (if he didn’t actually write it himself). And from all this we get: A picture book for children.

The major reviewers loved The Legend of El Dorado: Booklist praised it as “a splendid addition to folklore shelves and useful for showing the richness of Indian culture prior to the arrival of European explorers.” Kirkus suggested that it was “just right for giving added dimension to a unit on explorers.” And Publishers Weekly called it a “splendid pairing of Van Laan’s suave retelling and Vidal’s richly colored illustrations—meticulously executed and imbued with primitive charm—capture all the beauty and mysticism of a culture from long ago and far away.”

What’s wrong with crafting a picture book out of a legend—that never existed—about a fabulously wealthy tribe in South America—that never existed? And leaving out the fact that versions of this legend were spread around Europe as a rationale for greed and genocide? Indeed, Vidal and Van Laan’s The Legend of El Dorado, as a picture book, is dishonest: It promotes a worldview that justifies rapacious colonialism, Manifest Destiny, economic determinism and neo-liberalism.

When The Legend of El Dorado was being created, written, illustrated, and finally published, Vidal and Van Laan (and/or the editors and publisher) either didn’t know about the awful repercussions of this fake “legend,” didn’t want to know about them, or didn’t think they were important. Or did know and didn’t care.

In fact, the whole concept of teaching children about “myths” like these is that, absent any cultural and/or historical contexts in which they were created, they portray Indigenous peoples as ignorant, superstitious, materialistic, and therefore deserving of conquest. Or being wiped out entirely. It’s a setup. Now, more than ever, we have to be responsible enough to be truthful, to talk about history, not gloss over appalling things like genocide.

There is no excuse for this; not even when it’s couched in ridiculous, incomprehensible, New Age romanticism that neither children nor teachers will understand:

“As bits and pieces of the treasure are recovered,” Vidal writes, “the real El Dorado begins to unfold, the one that has lain dormant, waiting to be discovered, not by conquerors but by true seekers. For El Dorado is much more than the physical and glittering gold: it is that Inner City of the spirit, which one needs the utmost purity of heart to enter.”

All of our children deserve way better than this. Our Indian children do not need further humiliation and our non-Indian children do not need more affirmation of their alleged superiority.  The Legend of El Dorado is not recommended.

—Beverly Slapin
(published 6/17/13)

[1] There’s lots of available research on the historical Chibcha economy; this information is from the Encyclopedia Britannica.

[2] Many reputable organizations are working to recover Indigenous languages in the Americas. Among them are: Advocates for Indigenous California Language Survival, Endangered Language Fund, and Indigenous Language Institute.

Friends from the Other Side / Amigos del otro lado

author: Gloria Anzaldúa
translator: Gloria Anzaldúa
illustrator: Consuelo Méndez
Children’s Book Press / Lee & Low, 1993
preschool-grade 4
Mexican, Mexican American

In Friends from the Other Side / Amigos del otro lado, Prietita, a young Chicana, meets Joaquin, a boy who, with his mother, has crossed the border from Mexico without documents and is living in poverty on the outskirts of town. After defending Joaquin from a group of local boys who call him a “mojado” and try to throw stones at him, Prietita befriends him. When immigration agents come looking for people without documents, she helps Joaquin and his mother hide in the house of the local curandera, who later teaches her how to use herbs to help heal the sores on Joaquin’s arm.

Friends from the Other Side stands out among picture books dealing with immigration as a frank portrayal of the difficult lives of undocumented people on this side of the border. Far from the rosy picture of life in the US painted by many children’s books about immigrant lives, Joaquin and his mother are portrayed as living in poverty, facing discrimination from community members, and constantly wary of immigration raids. Also present is the tension and horizontal violence that can occur between Mexican and Mexican-American people in the US. For example, the neighborhood boys who are Mexican American, tell Joaquin, “We don’t want any more mojados here.” When immigration agents arrive in the neighborhood, the Chicano agent laughs and jokes with the Mexican-American residents. These complex dynamics are well done. 

Méndez’ colored pencil-and-graphite illustrations, on a subdued palette of mostly browns and greens, genuinely evoke the lands of the southwest. Yet, the people’s faces are strange looking and the asymmetrical proportions change on every page. Both Prietita’s and Joaquin’s noses, for instance, are sometimes small and sometimes bizarrely large. This constant distortion makes it difficult to connect with the characters.
The language is stilted in both Spanish and English. The dialogue is unnatural; Prietita and Joaquin don’t sound like children. In some places, the English reads as significantly less natural than the Spanish. For example, the Chicano immigration agent asks in English, “Does anyone know of any illegals living in the area?” Yet in Spanish he asks, more colloquially, “¿Saben ustedes dónde se esconden los mojados?”

In the English version where Joaquin’s mother offers Prietita food, there is this: “She...knew that they would offer a guest the last of their food and go hungry rather than appear bad-mannered.” Here, the emphasis is on “appearance” rather than generosity. The Spanish version, on the other hand, reads: “[S]upo que compartirían su poca comida aunque después pasarán hambre.” This suggests that a certain degree of cultural awareness has been lost in translation.

The biggest problem with Friends from the Other Side is that, while it appears to portray undocumented immigrants sympathetically, it ultimately patronizes them. From the beginning, Joaquin and his mother seem like helpless victims. Even the way that Joaquin is drawn shows him as skinny, sick, and awkward. He cannot stand up for himself with the neighborhood boys. The only agency that he and his mother seem to have is offering food to Prietita when they are clearly too poor to put food on their own table. Prietita refuses, but notes the “pride in their faces.” This whole dynamic plays into the common stereotype about the nobility of poverty and essentializes the characters.

The real focus here is not on Joaquin and his mother, but on Prietita. She saves the day again and again, defending Joaquin from the neighborhood boys, deliberately befriending him, giving him food in a way that doesn’t damage his “pride,” hiding him and his mother from immigration, and finally curing his sores. Joaquin and his mother are essentially voiceless and lacking in agency. In the end, the curandera decides to teach Prietita how to make the paste to heal Joaquin’s arms. It’s awkward that, although Joaquin is right there, there’s no implication that he could also learn to heal himself. In truth, the message is one of charity rather than empowerment or solidarity.

While I have great respect for Gloria Anzaldúa as an intellectual and an author, and while I think that very critically conscious teachers and parents could possibly use this book to good effect, I can’t recommend it.

—Grace Cornell Gonzales
(published 6/14/13)

My Diary from Here to There/ Mi diario de aquí hasta allá

author: Amada Irma Pérez
translator: Consuelo Hernández
illustrator: Maya Christina González
Children’s Book Press, 2002
kindergarten-grade 4
Mexican, Mexican American

My Diary from Here to There/ Mi diario de aquí hasta allá is the semi-autobiographical journal of a young girl who migrates with her family to the US from Mexico. Her father is a US citizen, but the family must wait in Mexicali, near the border, while he leaves for Los Angeles to look for work and secure their green cards. It is a difficult process for Amada—she leaves behind a dear friend in Mexico, and is afraid of losing herself and her connection to the place where she was born:

Mamá and Papá keep talking about all the opportunities we’ll have in California. But what if we’re not allowed to speak Spanish? What if I can’t learn English? Will I ever see Michi again? What if we never come back?

While she is waiting, young Amada also expresses sadness at how she cannot see her father (who is now working in the fields of Delano) 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. The book ends on a triumphant note:

You know, just because I’m far away from Juárez and Michi and my family in Mexicali, it doesn’t mean they’re not here with me. They’re inside my little rock; they’re here in your pages and in the language that I speak, and they’re in my memories and in my heart.

González’ vibrant, jewel-toned acrylics—full of blues and greens and yellows, with red and purple highlights—are as bright and hopeful as the story itself. The illustrations are playful at times, especially in portraying Amada’s mischievous younger brothers. There is also a great deal of symbolic depth in the artwork. Butterflies flit across almost every page: some on Amada’s dress, some on her blanket, some in the skies, some on her diary. They seem to represent Amada and to connect her to her friend, Michi, and to Mexico. In some places, Amada, her parents, and her brothers all seem to have the same faces, but that’s because they’re family. The illustrations are stylized and portray a sort of magical realism as we see the world through Amada’s eyes. Father’s arm, for instance, stretches all the way around Amada, her mother, and her brothers; to Amada, his embrace signifies the warmth and connection of a large, loving family.

Consuelo Hernández’ Spanish translation is fluid and natural sounding. Interestingly, the translator is actually Amada Irma Perez’ mother—a detail you would never know without reading the fine print on the last page. I question the publisher’s decision not to credit her excellent translation on the book cover.

My Diary from Here to There is a heartfelt story that’s real and deeply connected to the author. It portrays a meaningful female friendship, something that is not all that common in picture books. Most importantly, the central theme is that you can move from place to place without losing your connection to yourself, your family, your culture, or your language. Amada’s pride at being Mexican and her desire to maintain her Spanish language create an important example for young readers.

Unfortunately, although My Diary broaches a lot of important issues, it doesn’t invest any energy in exploring them. At the beginning, we learn that Michi’s sisters and father work in the US and that she envies the fact that Amada’s family will stay together. Family separation is a huge theme in the lives of many children, yet this issue is not explored.

While Amada is waiting for her father to get the green cards for the rest of the family, he writes to her about the conditions under which farm workers labor and even mentions César Chávez. Yet again, these issues are just left hanging. Finally, on the bus into the US, the police detain a woman without papers—and her children. This incident is mentioned but not discussed, leaving young readers to question why only some immigrants have easy access to documents.

Ultimately, My Diary from Here to There/ Mi diario de aquí hasta allá could be a great jumping-off point for discussion when used by adults who are willing and able to address some of the issues that are avoided here. Recommended.

—Grace Cornell Gonzales
(published 6/14/13)

Super Cilantro Girl / La superniña del cilantro

author: Juan Felipe Herrera
translator: Juan Felipe Herrera
illustrator: Honorio Robledo Tapia
Children’s Book Press / Lee & Low, 2003
kindergarten-grade 3
Mexican American

 Super Cilantro Girl  La superniña de cilantro 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. 

Robledo Tapia’s acrylic illustrations, on a bright palette of mostly cilantro greens with browns, blues and yellows, are rendered in a comic-book style that children may find appealing. Unfortunately, his characters’ faces—skeletal, with bugged-out eyes and weird grimaces—are unnerving and almost grotesque, an awkward distraction from the story.

Herrera’s Spanish version reads at least as well as the English, to the extent that it’s hard for me to figure out which he wrote first. One doesn’t seem like an obvious translation of the other; rather, there are small differences in the text that show an appreciation for the subtleties of each language.
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.

As long as this book is accompanied by thoughtful discussion about the harsh realities of immigration, Super Cilantro Girl / La superniña del cilantro is recommended.

—Grace Cornell Gonzales
(published 6/14/13)

How Many Days to America? A Thanksgiving Story

author: Eve Bunting
illustrator: Beth Peck
Clarion, 1988
kindergarten-grade 3
Latin American

How Many Days to America? A Thanksgiving Story tells the wrenching tale 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 US. 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 US mainland, 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 in which there are 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.”

Peck’s pastel drawings, on a subdued, depressing palette of mostly browns, blues and some yellows, portray the characters as real human beings. They have real expressions; they are real people with whom children can relate. The tone of the illustrations is as somber as the story, and then—voila!—the people are all sitting together at a table laden with delicious food, and the whole scene is brighter, lighter, and more hopeful. Teachers may be drawn to the illustrations as well, and those who find stories about “The First Thanksgiving” problematic might unwittingly see this book as a great Thanksgiving read-aloud that encompasses both multicultural and social justice themes. They would be wrong.

One of the most frustrating things about How Many Days is that Bunting doesn’t specify where the characters are from, why they have to leave their homes, or why they are being shot at. Rather, she serves up a generic version of a politically oppressive tropical nation, feeding into US stereotypes of Latin America as a backwards place full of palm trees and dictators. Many factors indicate that the unnamed country is probably Cuba—for example, the fact that the refugees can travel by boat to the US and that they are presumably safe from immigration authorities once they land. However, by refusing to name the place—by portraying the characters absent any cultural, linguistic or historical specificity—Bunting avoids real conversation about politics or the realities facing Cuba and her people.

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. In How Many Day to America? A Thanksgiving Story, Bunting simplifies and objectifies immigrants’ struggles and ignores the possibility that citizenship might not be easily attainable for all who set foot on US shores. NOT Recommended.

—Grace Cornell Gonzales
(published 6/14/13)

Frog and His Friends Save Humanity/ La rana y sus amigos salvan a la humanidad

author: Victor Villaseñor
translator: Edna Ochoa
illustrator: José Ramírez
Piñata Books / Arte Público Press, 2005

A long, long time ago, before the Spring of Creation, before humans inhabited this world, there were many, many animals; and all of these many, many animals went about doing what they knew how to do: “Frogs did what frogs do. Turtles did what turtles do. Armadillos did what armadillos do.” And then, one day, a helpless, two-legged creature—a baby human—appears, and no one knows how this kind of cute, smiling thing will ever survive in this world. The others know that this strange creature is not going to be as strong as the bear, or as fast as the deer. They know it is not going to be able to fly like the birds, and it certainly isn’t as beautiful as the butterflies.

The animals just don’t know what to do with this strange creature. While they’re all debating, the frog reaches out with its little hand and begins to rub the creature’s belly. When the baby human’s response is to fart and laugh and fart and laugh some more, the animals decide that this poor defenseless, skinless creature that isn’t strong, can’t run and can’t fly, was probably put here to—fart and laugh, fart and laugh, and bring the world together. And if they protect this creature, they decide, maybe someday it will grow into something beautiful.

A delicious breeze blew and the grass began to dance, the flowers smiled, the trees sang, and the rocks laughed. For here, in the Spring of Creation, everyone present had finally agreed on how to handle the confusing situation.

“It is true,” the story goes. “Mother Nature does not make mistakes. So humans must have been put on earth for some good reason, other than being selfish children full of gas!”

(Reviewer’s note: Now it’s up to us, the descendants of that human baby, to get our act together and stop farting around.)

Victor Villaseñor writes that, as a young child, when he wasn’t feeling well, his mother would rub his forehead or belly and sing to him, “Sana, sana, colita de rana, saca un pedito y sanarás mañana,” and then his father would tell him the story of how the frog saved humanity.

In The Frog and His Friends Save Humanity/ La rana y sus amigos salvan a la humanidad, Villaseñor’s thoughtful—and hilarious—written version of the traditional Oaxacan tale he learned as a child maintains the pitch-perfect rhythm and cadence of a well-told oral story. I can all but guarantee screams of laughter when children listening to this story hear the word “fart”—and quite possibly fart-noises as well. 

José Ramírez’ luminous paintings, in brightly colored and thickly layered oils, remind me of the early Mexican muralists Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueiros. Each double-page spread, with a background of yellows, oranges, reds, purples or greens, wraps around the text on the left-hand side; and on almost every spread, Ramírez has embedded an iconic image of the human baby. As the story progresses, the baby grows as well, and youngest listeners will enjoy finding it and identifying each animal and Mother Earth.

Edna Ochoa’s Spanish version of this story is superb—far from the clunky, literal translations that too often inhabit bilingual children’s books. 

The Frog and His Friends Save Humanity/ La rana y sus amigos salvan a la humanidad is a treasure that young children—listeners and readers, hablantes and English-speakers—will ask for, over and over. Highly recommended.

—Beverly Slapin
(posted 6/10/13)

Arrorró, Mi Niño: Latino Lullabies and Gentle Games

selector: Lulu Delacre
illustrator: Lulu Delacre
musical arrangers: Cecilia Esquivel and Diana Sáez
Lee & Low, 2004
preschool-grade 2
Latin American

As a toddler, my son never walked. Every morning, he would practically wake up running! In his exuberance, he would run and fall down, run and fall down, run and fall down. Sometimes, he’d scrape his knee—and cry. And I would comfort him by placing my hand over his knee and whispering:

Sana, sana,
colita de rana.
Si no sanas hoy,
sanarás mañana.

Loosely translated into English, the words are:

Heal, heal,
little frog’s tail.
If you don’t heal today,
you’ll heal tomorrow.

So I was particularly happy to see this rhyme in Lulu Delacre’s little book of 15 lullabies and gentle games from Latin America. In Spanish and English—with the lovely, rhythmic Spanish predominant—this captivating little book shows the many faces of La Raza. Here, parents and grandparents, neighbors, teachers and friends—in school, at the market, in the park, at the library, in a museum, on a farm and in the strawberry fields—demonstrate their love for the community’s children. Delacre’s full-bleed watercolor spreads, with mostly warm earth-toned backgrounds, are calming and perfectly suited to the short rhymes. Several of these offer a few lines of simple instructions for how to play games that accompany the rhymes; and the end of the book provides sheet music so youngsters can sing along. A quiet treasure, Arrorró, Mi Niño is highly recommended.

—Beverly Slapin
(published 6/6/13)

Mediopollito / Half-Chicken

author: Alma Flor Ada
translator: Rosalma Zubizarreta
illustrator: Kim Howard 
Dragonfly Books, 1995

On the double-page frontispiece, a Mexican mother and her son are sitting at a fountain, their shoes off, relaxing. The mother is gesturing as she begins to tell her son a story, and the little boy is taking it all in. In the background are rolling hills, a road, and several small houses and buildings—every one of them sporting a weather vane.

The story of Mediopollito—how weather vanes came to be—originated in Spain and, over the years, traveled to various Latin American countries. Alma Flor Ada writes that she heard it from her Cuban grandmother, who had heard it from her grandmother. Rather than setting the story in Spain, Alma Flor Ada chose to locate it in colonial Mexico.

Mediopollito is the story of a little chicken who’s born with one wing, one leg, one eye, half a beak, half a body and half a head. Mediopollito—“Half-Chicken”—is a vain, haughty little guy who looks down on everyone around him. One day, over his mother’s objections, he hops off, on one foot, to see the world.

In the old story, Mediopollito is an unlikeable, nasty little creature. He ignores his mother, he’s rude to everyone he meets, he picks fights with the other animals, and he’s really, really mean. On his trip to visit the king, the haughty chicken refuses to help those in need—water, fire, and wind. When he arrives at the palace, the royal cook tosses him into the pot for the king’s dinner. Here, Mediopollito gets his comeuppance from water, fire, and finally wind, who blows him up to the top of a church, where he becomes a weather vane, never to hurt anyone else’s feelings again.

In Alma Flor Ada’s kinder, gentler version, Mediopollito is vain, but not totally nasty. On his journey, when he encounters someone in trouble, he decides to lend a foot. So when he gets to the palace and the royal cook dumps him into the pot to boil him for the viceroy’s dinner, those he helped—water, fire and wind—return the favor and save his skin—literally. Wind blows him up to one of the towers of the palace, where he is able to see everything he wants, “with no danger of ending up in the cooking pot.”

Several other versions I’ve read are so cloyingly lesson-heavy that they’ve had me gnashing my teeth. But Alma Flor Ada’s story is none of this. Rather, Mediopollito is a well-told tale that works well with youngsters and adults who appreciate the style of a good storyteller.

With Spanish text on the left side and English on the right of each double-page spread, Kim Howard’s lush mixed-media art is rendered in festive colors, complementing both languages and lending continuity to the story. Rosalma Zubizarreta’s excellent Spanish translation has its own rhythm and cadence, so hablantes and English-speakers can follow along in their own language—or in both. Mediopollito is highly recommended.

—Beverly Slapin
(published 6/5/13)