Where Fireflies Dance / Ahí, donde bailan la luciérnagas

author: Lucha Corpi
illustrator: Mira Reisberg
translator: Lucha Corpi
Children’s Book Press / Lee & Low, 1997
grades 1-5
Mexican, Mexican American

In Where Fireflies Dance / Ahí, donde bailan las luciérnagas, Lucha Corpi shares an autobiographical story of her childhood in Jáltipan, Mexico, on the Caribbean coast. “Where Fireflies Dance,” she writes in an author’s note, “is that place where imagination and memory blend and take on new color and voice. It is my way of paying homage to my family and bestowing their legacy of culture and love on my son, Arturo, and my granddaughter, Kiara Alyssa.”

Here, Corpi weaves together disparate elements—a ghost story, a tale of a Mexican revolutionary, a childhood love affair with a jukebox, and her eventual decision to leave Mexico and immigrate to the United States—into a story that is natural and will appeal to children. The language flows well in Spanish and in English; in fact, it is difficult to tell which version Corpi wrote first.

Reisberg’s brightly colored artwork is simple, and evocative of the Caribbean area. Most of the borders look like the kind of embroidery one would find on Mexican dresses; others reflect parts of the story—the ghost story, the rainstorm, the music, and leaving Mexico for the US. Adding warmth to the artwork are family photos, combined with one of Juan Sebastián, the iconic portrait of Emiliano Zapata and the famous painting of La Virgen de Guadalupe.

Where Fireflies Dance gives us a gentle look into a different time and place, but brings out themes (fear of and fascination with ghosts, love of music, getting into trouble with parents) that will easily resonate with young children. Highly recommended.

—Grace Cornell Gonzales
(published 9/2/13)

Storyteller’s Candle / La velita de los cuentos

author: Lucía González
illustrator: Lulu Delacre
translator: Lucía González (?)
Children’s Book Press / Lee & Low, 2008
grades 1-4
Puerto Rican

Because of language and cultural barriers, people who immigrate to the US can often experience public institutions such as libraries as unwelcoming and inaccessible. In 1929, Pura Belpré became the first Puerto Rican librarian to be hired by the New York City Public Library system where, at the 115th Street branch (and later the 110th Street branch), she instituted bilingual story hours, purchased Spanish-language books, and implemented cultural programs. Belpré was an advocate who helped shape the public library into a community space in which the Spanish language was used and valued.

Told through the eyes of a young Puerto Rican girl who moves to New York and meets Pura Belpré, The Storyteller’s Candle / La velita de los cuentos captures the magic of the public library in a way that is unusual in children’s books. Though the story is heavy handed in delivering the message that the public library is for everyone, it’s an important message nonetheless.

Delacre’s artwork is exceptional on two levels. Beginning with sepia tones to take the story back in time, she layered oil washes and paper collage onto bristol paper that she had primed with clear gesso. The paper collage consists of pieces of an original copy of The New York Times from January 6, 1930; each piece contains information that correlates with a particular aspect of the story. And Delacre’s softly toned oil washes show the many faces of the Puerto Rican people—indeed, “Rainbow People”—with skin tone, hair, bone structure and facial features different from each other.

However, there are two major problems with the English version of this story. Usually when words are left in Spanish in the English version of a text, it is because they have important cultural connotations that would be lost in translation. Here the story seems to be randomly peppered with Spanish words that add nothing and only serve to make the English version awkward and tokenize the characters as “Spanish speakers.” For example, when the children ask if they can go into the library, their aunt answers, “The library isn’t for noisy niños like you.” Who talks like that?

It is also awkward that, in the English version, there is dialogue in English about how the characters don’t speak English. For instance, the aunt says, “We don’t speak English, and the people in there don’t speak Spanish.” It is confusing, to say the least, and the story would have been much better in the English version without dialogue.

Despite these problems, Pura Belpré’s story is an important one. So, La velita de los cuentos (Spanish version) is highly recommended. On the other hand, The Storyteller’s Candle (English version) is way not recommended.

—Grace Cornell Gonzales
(published 9/2/13)

Angel’s Kite / La estrella de Angel

author: Alberto Blanco
translator: Dan Bellm
illustrator: Rodolfo Morales
Children’s Book Press / Lee & Low, 1994
grades 2-5

At first, I was excited to pick up Angel’s Kite. Alberto Blanco is a prominent Mexican poet, and I was intrigued to see a children’s book, written in fluent, gorgeous Spanish by a Mexican author, published in the US. However, I almost immediately began to have my doubts.

In this poetic, mystical story, a young kite maker’s passion and determination result in the return of the town’s missing church bell, which had disappeared for no known reason. Although there are complex implications about the loss of the bell—Was it stolen by the priest and sold to a foreign collector (which implies both dishonest clergy and colonialism)? Or, could it have been stolen by the “revolutionaries” and melted down for cannons (which implies something about the relationship between the church and the Mexican Revolution)? Or, could it have disappeared by magic?—there’s no exploration of any of them.

While the rest of the townspeople get on with their lives, Angel creates his most beautiful kite ever—holding the image of the entire town, including the missing bell. The kite escapes and is found—without the bell—which magically reappears in the church tower.

Although the Spanish rendition is beautiful, I’m just not sure whether young children would relate to a story about a young man who expresses his agency, not through confronting the corrupt clergyman or organizing his community around creating a new church bell, but through making a kite.

Bellm’s English translation is clunky and awkward. On one page, for example, the Spanish reads: “Hasta que una tarde, para sacudirse la nostalgia por la campana desaparecida, Angel decidió hacer el papalote más bonito del mundo. Lobo, Chino, y Rabito, sus tres perritos, sus inseparables compañeros, estaban a su lado.”

The literal English translation would be this: “Until one afternoon, to shake off his nostalgia for the bell that had disappeared, Angel decided to make the most beautiful kite in the world. Lobo, Chino, and Rabito, his three dogs, his inseparable companions, were at his side.”

This is Bellm’s translation: “One day, to shake himself out of missing that lost bell so much, Angel decided to make the most beautiful kite in the world. His three trusty dogs named Lobo, Chino, and Rabito were at his side. (Their names meant Wolf Dog, Curly Head and Little Tail.)”

Rodolfo Morales was an amazing artist, firmly rooted in the land, culture and mythos of Oaxaca. His collages—made of silk, lace, silver stars, found objects—are world famous. But the same collage art technique just does not make a positive impact in this children’s book. Rather, the people look like they’ve been beaten up: their noses and eyes are black, their faces are distorted and expressionless, their bodies are weirdly out of proportion. 

In Spanish, Angel’s Kite / La estrella de Angel alludes to a rich history and uses magical realism to portray a certain time and place. I believe that students in, say, a Latin American literature class, might enjoy reading and discussing it. But as a children’s story, Angel’s Kite comes off as weird and unappealing. Not recommended.

—Grace Cornell Gonzales
(published 9/2/13)