Upside Down Boy/ El niño de cabeza

author: Juan Felipe Herrera
translator: Juan Felipe Herrera
illustrator: Elizabeth Gómez
Children’s Book Press / Lee & Low, 2000
Mexican, Mexican American

Appointed California’s poet laureate in 2012, Juan Felipe Herrera grew up as the child of migrant farm workers. His bilingual picture books exemplify the type of literature that the teachers in my district are calling for. Written in fluent, vibrant Spanish, drawing upon the lived experiences of Latina/o children and families in the United States, they are full of engaging, lively stories with illustrations that fascinate students. And themes of social justice are always at the heart of his stories.

The Upside Down Boy / El niño de cabeza is a story drawn from Herrera’s own life as a child struggling to learn English and to adapt to a new community. Juanito, the child of migrant farm workers, attends school for the first time, where he is thrust into an unfamiliar environment and lost in a new language. He feels like un niño de cabeza—an upside down boy, who worries as his tongue turns into a rock. Young readers will see Juanito’s shyness, with the help of caring adults in his life—eventually turn to confidence. While his tongue remains a rock for a while, his art expresses who he is:

We are finger-painting.
I make wild suns with my open hands.
Crazy tomato cars and cucumber sombreros—
I write my name with seven chiles.

This is an excellent story to use with English language learners because it eloquently describes the feelings that Juanito experiences as he struggles with English. It also serves to remind English-speaking students (and their teachers) of the challenges that some of their classmates face.

However, the English version of the book can be confusing, especially because it is narrated by a child who does not initially speak English and yet contains a lot of dialogue in English. And as Juanito becomes more proficient in English, the question of what language he is speaking and writing becomes even more confusing. For example, on the last page he is directing the class choir. The Spanish reads: “¿Listos para cantar sus poemas?” le pregunto a mi coro. Uno… dos… !and three!” And the English reads: “Ready to sing out your poems? I ask my choir. Uno, dos… ¡and three!” Here, it’s unclear what language Juanito is speaking to his classmates.

Gómez’s brightly colored acrylic illustrations attempt to capture the colorful, surrealistic tone of the story. Readers will see Juanito’s name spelled out in chiles, for instance, and cattle (“reses”) flying in the sky as he watches the other children play during a time called “recess.” However, the characters are mostly expressionless and, with their thin and awkwardly angled limbs, almost look like stick figures.

Yet, despite the somewhat unappealing artwork, I find it impossible not to fall in love with the story’s rich, metaphorical language and the fact that it is an authentic story from the author’s own life. Recommended.

—Grace Cornell Gonzales
(published 10/5/13)

Skippyjon Jones and the Failed Read-Aloud

I sat down in my read-aloud chair in front of my first graders, excited to read the “Skippyjon Jones” book given to me by a retired teacher who had volunteered at my school. It had come along with a beautiful floor puzzle picturing the series’ main character, which my students loved. Although I had worked as a bilingual teacher for several years, this year I was teaching in a non-bilingual school. I was excited to read a book that used Spanish terms, and hoped that my handful of Latina/o students would enjoy sharing their knowledge to help us decode them. 
But it quickly became apparent that neither I nor my Spanish-speaking students were going to connect to the kind of “Spanglish” used in the “Skippyjon Jones” books, principally because it wasn’t Spanglish at all. When I was in middle school, some of the kids in my class would make fun of Spanish and of our Spanish teacher by just adding “o” to the end of the words. They would say things like, “I-o don’t like-o this class-o,” and then high-five each other and say, “Nice Spanish, dude.” “Skippyjon Jones” operates on the same principle, creating gems like “ding-a-lito,” “stinkitos,” and “snifferito.” Skippyjon Jones is a cat who pretends to be a Chihuahua and talks in a fake Mexican accent (“they are reely, reely beeg, dude”) and calls himself “El Skippito Friskito,” which drives me crazy because there are no k’s in Spanish. If one of my students started talking that way, we would have conversations about stereotypes and offensive behavior. Yet somehow these are popular children’s books.

A few pages into the read-aloud, I realized I had made a big mistake. I tripped over the fake Spanish words and ridiculous names (Poquito Tito? What does that even mean?). In order to have read the book well, I would have had to adopt a fake Mexican accent and essentially mock the way that Mexican people speak, even clapping along to fake mariachi songs with lyrics like, “Diggeree diggeroo diggerito (clap-clap) / We learned something new from Skippito! (clap-clap) He scares them to death/ with his old pickle breath,/ and that’s how we get fossilitos! (clap-clap).” Note: This is also false history. This is not, in fact, how the dinosaurs became extinct.

Tongue-tied and embarrassed, I put the book down. Later, still ashamed that I had subjected my students to even ten minutes of that horrific read-aloud, I tossed both the book and the floor puzzle in the trash. Even a gorgeous floor puzzle and a free book were not worth subjecting my students to toxic racial and linguistic stereotypes.

—Grace Cornell Gonzales
(published 10/5/13)