Picasso: I the King, Yo el rey

author: Carmen T. Bernier-Grand
illustrator: David Díaz
Amazon Children’s Publishing, 2012
grades 6-up

As in her other poem-biographies, Bernier-Grand’s elegant free verse is crisp and clean, with every word precisely chosen. Here, in 40 carefully researched poems, she chronicles the creative and turbulent life of Pablo Picasso—profound narcissist (“yo el rey”), notorious philanderer (“ravenous for orgies”), tormented hypochondriac (death, “the mistress that never leaves you”), loving father (“let the children just be children”)—and artistic genius, perhaps one of the most important of the past century. Although Bernier-Grand frankly discusses Picasso’s many relationships and marriages and how the women in his life inspired his artistry (“As paint is to brush, women are to Picasso’s art”), she neither sensationalizes nor demeans them.

Here, Bernier-Grand writes of Picasso’s main obsession:

When Picasso has emptied himself of painting, he draws,
when he has emptied himself of print making, he sculpts,
when he has emptied himself of sculpting, he illustrates,
when he has emptied himself of illustrating, he photographs,
when he has emptied himself of photographing, he writes poems,
when he has emptied himself of writing poems, Picasso paints.
when he has emptied himself of drawing, he make ceramics,
when he has emptied himself of ceramics, he makes prints.

Extensive back matter includes a biographical essay, entitled “Pablo Picasso and the Mistress Who Never Left Him,” which fills in any and all gaps in the poetry; a chronology, a glossary of Spanish words and terms, a list of sources, and copious notes on paintings and quotes.

Interspersed throughout the book are reproductions of some of Picasso’s paintings, including an exhausted woman bent over an ironing board, portraits of Gertrude Stein and Georges Braque, and sex workers in a brothel. I was especially glad to see Picasso’s perhaps most important and definitely most famous painting, “Guernica,” which memorializes the Nazi bombing in 1937 that killed some 3,000 people, injured more than another 1,000, and destroyed the Basque town. Accompanying the painting on a two-page spread are a descriptive poem and short historical note. 

Bernier-Grand writes:

Monday—market day
Basque city
Peasants shot from the air.
Children and women
horses, sheep, cattle
Terrible deaths.

Picasso paints:
eyes open in horror,
mouths shrieking,
a horse screaming,

a shocked bull.

As an introductory biography of a particular artist, Picasso presents myriad opportunities for teachers of middle- and high school students: an introduction to modern art and artists, an exploration of the relationships between art and history and censorship (including point-of-view depictions of world events), a discussion of the many and varied forms of cultural expression, and a model for writing exercises of bio-poems.

In answer to those reviewers who criticized Picasso for not being a “happy” book and/or suggested that children should not be exposed to the seamy sides of Picasso’s life, I would say this: Every child who watches television, and every teenager who reads graphic novels, is exposed to sexuality, death, disease, suffering and war—in situations and circumstances that occur every day. I’d rather have children read an honest biography that discusses the issues of a person’s life than one that obfuscates them. Bernier-Grand is a brilliant storyteller who pushes boundaries and takes great care with her words. She is also ethical; I don’t believe she would ever attempt to conceal unpleasant facts about someone whose biography she decides to research and write. I applaud her choices, especially here. Picasso: I the King, Yo el rey is a remarkable achievement. It’s an illuminating and provocative work of art—poetically and visually. Highly recommended.

—Beverly Slapin
(published 11/21/13; paragraph redacted and note added, 2/15/18)

Note, 2/15/18: Multiple women have come forward with public statements that David Díaz sexually harassed them. After investigating claims against Díaz, the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) removed him from its board and conference faculty, and expelled him from the organization. Several other conferences have banned him as well. We have redacted our references to his art in this review.

Diego: Bigger than Life

author: Carmen T. Bernier-Grand
illustrator: David Díaz
Marshall Cavendish, 2009
grades 7-up

Here is Diego Rivera, the revolutionary Mexican artist who sought justice for all poor and working people. Here is Diego Rivera, the woman-chaser, whose many marriages and extra-marital affairs were well known. Here is Diego Rivera, the storyteller and, some would say, master liar. The 34 poems here, in flawlessly executed free verse gathered mostly from Rivera’s own writings—and occasionally, from those of Frida Kahlo and the Mexican Communist Party—affirm the exhaustive amount of research that Bernier-Grand must have undertaken.

In the text of her work, the author chooses to leave Rivera’s perspectives virtually untouched, relegating unanswered questions and hypotheses to a helpful author’s note. In a piece entitled “The True Life of Diego Rivera,” Bernier–Grand raises the inconsistencies between Rivera’s writing and information available today—When Rivera was born, was the pale infant really thrown into a dung bucket? Was he really raised by an Indian wet nurse? Did the Mexican Communist Party really expel him, or did he expel himself? Here is where Bernier-Grand details the political and personal controversies of Rivera’s tumultuous life and work, as well as his many stormy dalliances, affairs and marriages. 

In addition to “The True Life of Diego Rivera,” there’s a short section entitled “In His Own Words.” Other back matter includes a glossary, a chronology of Rivera’s life, a list of sources, and copious notes that support Bernier-Grand’s research. This wealth of material will prove invaluable for student research and classroom projects, including, for example, a study of political mural art or that of point-of-view in published biographies and autobiographies.    

But it’s the biography itself that’s a veritable work of art. Here, Bernier-Grand, with an amazing economy of words, paints a portrait of a man who was, indeed, “bigger than life”:

As naturally as I breathe,
I painted in grand scale the colors of Mexico—
clearer, richer, more full of light than colors in Europe.

As naturally as I speak,
I painted in grand scale the music of Mexico
in markets, crowds, festivals—
Burning of the Judases, the Dance of the Deer.

As naturally as I sweat,
I painted in grand scale the workers of Mexico
in fields, mines, streets—
Indians carrying bundles of calla lilies.

A million public walls
wouldn’t be enough
to paint all the beauty of Mexico.

Diego: Bigger than Life is, indeed, an amazing mural of words. It is highly recommended.

—Beverly Slapin
(published 11/19/13; note added )

Note, 2/15/18: Multiple women have come forward with public statements that David Díaz sexually harassed them. After investigating claims against Díaz, the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) removed him from its board and conference faculty, and expelled him from the organization. Several other conferences have banned him as well. We have redacted our references to his art in this review.

Juan Bobo: Four Folktales from Puerto Rico

author: Carmen T. Bernier-Grand
translator: Carmen T. Bernier-Grand
illustrator: Ernesto Ramos Nieves
“I Can Read” / HarperTrophy, 1994
preschool-grade 3
Puerto Rican

 Oral stories often speak of the real and unreal, known and unknown, past and future, helpful animals and powerful tricksters and courageous heroes. And sometimes, oral stories impart their wisdom through characters who appear dazed and confused—who teach proper behavior by behaving improperly. Juan Bobo—as one could discern from his name—is Puerto Rico’s most beloved noodlehead. “For decades,” Bernier-Grand writes in her short author’s note, “Juan Bobo, the invention of rural storytellers of Puerto Rico, has been one of the most popular fictional characters on the island…. The oldest and best-known Juan Bobo stories authentically illustrate what life was like in poor rural areas of Puerto Rico at the beginning of the twentieth century.”  

There are literally hundreds of storybooks about Juan Bobo, some better than others. In the 1920s, Pura Belpré, the wonderful storyteller and puppeteer—and first Puerto Rican librarian hired by the New York City Public Library system—brought Juan Bobo to the mainland so that Puerto Rican and other Spanish-speaking children and their families could enjoy his antics in Spanish—and feel connected to their cultures in a hitherto English-only library system.

In telling these Juan Bobo stories, Bernier-Grand is not only a wonderful storyteller, but also someone who illustrates Puerto Rican rural traditions—from subsistence farming, to minding one’s manners as a dinner guest, to selling homemade syrup at church. Here, to the constant exasperation of his overburdened mother, Juan Bobo takes all of her instructions literally, and each task she gives him results in a comedy of errors.

For the most part oral stories leave their lessons unstated, for the listeners to figure out and enjoy. Here, Bernier-Grand has flawlessly transported the stories to print; her flow and timing are superb. Each time the ever-adventurous Juan Bobo falls into a new and different catastrophe, youngest listeners and emerging readers will scream with delight.

Here is Juan Bobo, asked to bring his mother some water, trying to make his task easier and winding up with a big mud puddle. Here is Juan Bobo, instructed to take care of the family pig instead of going to church, and dressing her up in his mother’s Sunday clothes. Here is a hungry Juan Bobo, invited to lunch, told not to sneeze or scratch or touch the food with his hands—and leaving as hungry as when he arrived. And here is Juan Bobo, told to sell their homemade syrup to the church ladies who are small and soft-spoken and “they wear shiny black dresses and carry fans”—making sure the flies get their fill.

Ramos Nieves’s acrylic paintings, on a palette that reflects the hot tropical colors of the Puerto Rican countryside, are stylized and vibrant, and complement Bernier-Grand’s charming tellings. There are Puerto Rican flags all over—including on the roof of the “Bobo” family’s tiny house and on Juan Bobo’s kite. There’s a lizard climbing up a palm tree in the front, and chickens running free. Young Juan Bobo is shirtless and wears a straw jibaro hat and pants. He has a dark complexion; his mother, who wears a headscarf when she’s working, has a slightly lighter complexion; and the gussied-up neighbor who invites them to dinner—and lives in a house with a china cabinet and lace tablecloth—is clearly of mixed ancestry.

But there is a problem: Since these Juan Bobo stories are folktales from Puerto Rico, one might think that the Spanish text would either be given prominence—or at least, placed near the English text and artwork. Rather, the Spanish text, in small print spanning only five pages, is relegated to the back of the book. So early elementary school teachers who want to read these stories to a class in Spanish, would have to flip back and forth from text to illustration—in a very small book. As well, the Spanish translation appears to be rushed and literal, not typical of the way that Bernier-Grand carefully crafts her writing. I wonder why this was the case. Treating the Spanish text as unimportant back matter is clumsy and confusing, not to mention disrespectful, to the language and the culture.

Juan Bobo: Four Folktales from Puerto Rico is currently out of print and unavailable. My hope is that a progressive multicultural publisher will see it for the treasure it is, and republish it in a large-format, bilingual storybook that children and their teachers will love. As it stands, this version of Juan Bobo stories is highly recommended for the wonderful English text and the amazing artwork; but it’s not recommended for the book size, Spanish as an afterthought, and abysmal design.

—Beverly Slapin
(published 11/17/13)

Marisol McDonald and the Clash Bash / Marisol McDonald y la fiesta sin igual

author: Monica Brown
translator: Adriana Domínguez
illustrator: Sara Palacios
Children’s Book Press / Lee & Low, 2013

Her Peruvian mami gave her a brownish complexion, her Scottish dad gave her carrot-orange hair and just about all of her ancestors gave her a face full of freckles. And Marisol McDonald’s over-the-top, non-conformist sense of fashion is, well, her gift to herself. As is her adopted puppy named “Kitty,” who has one floppy ear and one pointy ear, Marisol is “unique, different, and one of a kind.” In this second book of which I hope will become a series, Marisol’s eighth birthday is approaching, and the little girl we met in Marisol McDonald Doesn’t Match / Marisol McDonald no combina is throwing a theme party like no other—incorporating her love of princesses, unicorns, pirates and soccer into a veritable “clash bash.”

As our exuberant young narrator looks forward to her bash, what she wants most is a visit from Abuelita, who lives in Peru. In fact, she has been saving her chore earnings for two years so that Grandma can make the trip, “even if she has to fly on a butterfly’s back!”

But that is not to be. As Marisol’s Mami explains, “it isn’t just the money… It’s hard to get papeles to come to the United States. Abuelita needs a special document called a visa to visit us, but sometimes it takes a long time for the visa to arrive.” Marisol doesn’t understand: “Why does Abuelita need papers to see her own family who miss her so much?” I don’t understand, either, and I’m glad that Monica Brown has brought up an important issue for many children—separation from family members because of government-imposed immigration rules.

The big surprise, though, is that Abuelita has used some of the money to purchase a computer and—through the magic of Skype—is able to attend “the best Clash Bash birthday ever!”

Sara Palacios’s mixed-media art, as in the first “Marisol” book, is a feast of colors, patterns and textures. With a rich palette of warm tones, Palacios paints Marisol with her arms open wide to all the joyous possibilities of her world.

Eschewing literal translation, Adriana Domínguez artfully and flawlessly interprets the English text so that both hablantes and English-speakers can enjoy the story. Beginning with the title—because “clash” is kind of iffy to translate—she interprets “the clash bash” as “la fiesta sin igual.” And here—I just love this!—

Next week I turn eight, which rhymes with “great.”
La semana que viene cumpliré ocho, que rima con bizcocho.

And—oh, yes—in the helpful glossary in the back, “pretzels” is translated as: “pretzels.”
My one concern with this story (and illustrations) is the depiction of “pirates.” In the next book, I hope Marisol will discover that pirate costumes—with their eye patches and hooks for hands—are long-held stereotypes that portray people with disabilities as villains. Maybe she’ll educate her friends about this and other stereotypes in popular culture. Now, here’s something that Marisol could totally pull off. Wouldn’t that be cool?

Besides this issue—which could be a topic of discussion in an early childhood classroom—Marisol McDonald and the Clash Bash / Marisol McDonald y la fiesta sin igual is highly recommended.

—Beverly Slapin
(published 11/13/13)

Pablo Neruda: Poet of the People

author: Monica Brown
illustrator: Julie Paschkis
Henry Holt, 2011

“Once there was a little boy named Neftalí, who loved wild things wildly and quiet things quietly,” this story begins. “From the moment he could talk, Neftalí surrounded himself with words that whirled and swirled...” With spare, honest prose and luminous illustrations—and with neither polemic nor dilution—Monica Brown and Julie Paschkis have condensed the essential elements of Pablo Neruda’s life to create an amazing biography for the youngest readers and listeners, a picture book that Neruda himself would surely have loved.

Neftalí’s childhood fascination with all that surrounded him—stones, shells, trees, flowers, “beetles and birds’ eggs and tall ferns that dripped water like tears”—and, especially, written and spoken words—became part of what made Pablo Neruda a poet.

But beautiful things were not all that Neruda saw. As a young adult, he saw people struggling to survive; he saw “coal miners working dangerous jobs for little money.” As Neruda “joined those who fought for justice and wrote poems to honor all workers who struggled for freedom,” he was transformed into a “poet of the people,” whose talent and passion and courage spoke to and for poor and working people in Chile and the world.

All of this is contained in Brown’s narrative, including a mention of what became the beginnings of a fascist transformation that caused Neruda to flee his beloved country. (Neruda died soon after a US-backed military coup assassinated his close friend, Salvador Allende, replacing him with the brutal dictator, Augusto Pinochet.)

Paschkis’s exquisite watercolor paintings of Neftalí’s development—from a child daydreaming of colors, seasons and animals into an accomplished poet writing of hunger, struggle and revolution—complement Brown’s text. Although the text is not bilingual (as I would have wished), the art certainly is. Bright, vividly colored ribbons of words, in Spanish and English—and sometimes in other languages, too—depicting both beauty and struggle, whirl and swirl around each page. On a Chilean beach, ribbons of blues and greens read, “sonrisa,” “salto,” “playa,” “bailando,” “salud.” On the flags of protestors, red ribbons proclaim, “obreros,” “liberación,” “aprender,” “remember,” “defend.” In a dark coal mine, gray ribbons read, “pobreza,” “nunca,” “never,” “hungry,” “angry.” When Neruda is forced into exile, ribbons read, “patria,” “peril,” “disappear,” “peligro,” “hidden.”

In an author’s note, Brown gives more information about Neruda’s life and work; and there is a resource page for further research. Effective companion texts would be Pam Muñoz Ryan’s The Dreamer, along with Antonio Skármeta’s The Composition, about a child’s facing fascism in his country. Both titles are reviewed on this blog.

Together, Brown and Pashkis have created a stunning mosaic—in words and art—of the revolutionary genius Pablo Neruda’s life and work. Pablo Neruda: Poet of the People is highly recommended.

—Beverly Slapin
(published 11/8/13)

Marisol McDonald Doesn’t Match / Marisol McDonald no combina

author: Monica Brown
translator: Adriana Dominguez
illustrator: Sara Palacios
Children’s Book Press / Lee & Low, 2011

How can someone tell a child that she doesn’t “match”? Only things can’t match: colors, socks, bookends, chopsticks. Not children. But this is what happens—over and over—to Marisol McDonald, a happily non-conformist, self-assured little girl.

Marisol is a soccer-playing pirate princess who eats peanut butter-and-jelly burritos, wears green polka dots with purple stripes, and mixes cursive with print. She’s inherited a brownish complexion from her Peruvian mother and bright orange hair from her Scottish father, and everyone, she says, tells her she “doesn’t match.”

One day, young Marisol’s just had it with everyone’s negative comments, so she decides to tone it down. She dresses in clothes that “match,” eats foods that “go together,” plays soccer or pirate and writes either in cursive or print. ¡Ay, pobrecita! Marisol’s life becomes so sad and boring. When her teacher notices that Marisol’s spunk is gone, the child receives this note: “I want you to know that I like you just the way you are, because the Marisol McDonald that I know is a creative, unique, bilingual, Peruvian-Scottish-American, soccer-playing artist and simply marvelous!”

The next day, a smiling, ebullient Marisol dresses in a pink shirt, a brownish polka-dot skirt, orange-and-red tights, and her favorite hat that her abuelita brought her from Peru. ¡Ay, caramba! Marisol la fabulosa is back and loving it!

A common dilemma in bilingual picture books is how to present dialogue realistically. How would a Spanish translation, for instance, reflect that the character is speaking both English and Spanish? Here, the problem is resolved brilliantly: In the sentence or phrase in which one of the languages is dominant, the subordinate words in the other language are italicized.

Here, for instance, Marisol asks her parents if she can have a puppy. The English reads: “Can I have a puppy? A furry, sweet perrito?” I ask my parents. ¿Por favor?” And in Spanish: —¿Puedo tener un perrito? ¿Un puppy dulce y peludito?—le pido a mis padres—. Please?

This is one of the few bilingual Spanish-English picture books I know in which both languages are presented effortlessly and flawlessly, so that both English readers and hablantes can enjoy the story.

Sara Palacios’s engaging double-page illustrations—in mixed media that combine childlike crayon-and-pencil drawings with cartoons in acrylics, watercolor, pen, and newsprint collage—are perfect. I especially like the spread of young Marisol, in one of her riotously colored outfits, swinging on a tree branch. Joining her on the branch are two birds, one yellow and the other made of newsprint. Talk about diversity!

Marisol McDonald Doesn’t Match / Marisol McDonald no combina is an absolutely amazing little story that will resonate, not only with ethnically mixed youngsters, but also with LGBT youngsters and everyone else who dares to be different. Brava, Monica, Adriana and Sara! Highly recommended.

—Beverly Slapin
(published 11/7/13)

Xochitl and the Flowers / Xóchitl, la Niña de las Flores

author: Jorge Tetl Argueta
translator: Jorge Tetl Argueta
illustrator: Carl Angel
Children’s Book Press / Lee & Low, 2003
Pipíl, Salvadoran, Salvadoran American

Newly transplanted from El Salvador to San Francisco, the hard-working Flores family struggles to transition from one culture to another and to adapt to a new urban environment. As in their homeland, Xóchitl and her mother decide to sell flowers in the city; and when her father locates an apartment to rent in a building with a garbage-laden vacant lot, the family and a few neighbors clear it and build a plant nursery. But, as an unfeeling landlord demands that it be shut down, the nursery’s fate is uncertain. How everyone comes together and softens the landlord’s heart is the crux of this tender story of family and community.

Argueta, a talented poet, infuses the story with the imagery of the immigrant experience: days going by slowly as turtles, ants circling their world of dwarf lemon trees in just a few minutes and snails carrying their little homes on their backs. The Spanish text reads beautifully and is particularly expressive; it seems likely that Argueta wrote it first and then translated it into English, which was then edited.

Here, for instance, Spanish-speaking children will easily identify with Xóchitl, as she practices English:

En la escuela, ya puedo decir varias oraciones en ingles. Cuando estoy sola las practico y parezco loquita diciendo: —How are you? My name is Xochitl. Do you like flowers?

But some of the English text will confuse Spanish-speaking children. Here, Xóchitl is telling, in English, how she practices some simple sentences in English:

In school, I can already say a few sentences in English. I practice them when I’m alone; I probably seem a little crazy when I ask myself, “How are you? My name is Xochitl. Do you like flowers?”

Angel's acrylic and colored-pencil illustrations of the characters seem flat, but his background images, including photo collages, are bright and vibrant and will hold the attention of the youngest readers.

The story’s conflict is too easily resolved; I would rather have had it more closely reflect the actual community struggle—as neighbors and local organizations came together to convince the City Planning Commission that the family’s nursery was an asset—as Argueta describes it in his endnote. Still, Xochitl and the Flowers / Xóchitl, la Niña de las Flores, is an evocative story of a hard-working immigrant family from Central America, and is highly recommended.

—Beverly Slapin
(published 11/3/13)

Featherless / Desplumado

author: Juan Felipe Herrera
illustrator: Ernesto Cuevas Jr.
Children’s Book Press / Lee & Low, 2004
kindergarten-grade 3
Mexican American

Tomasito, a child with spina bifida, feels out of place and frustrated at his new school where everyone asks him why he’s in a wheelchair. His father brings him a caged parrot for a pet; the bird has a “pebble foot” and no feathers. “He was born a little different, like you were,” his father says, and suggests that Tomasito call him “Desplumado.” Tomasito’s new friend, Marlena, encourages him to join the school soccer team and—although his hands become “red and sore from zigzagging (his) wheely across the hot field”—Tomasito makes a cabeza goal and scores for the team. At home, Tomasito tells Desplumado that he can be a flyer, too: “There’s more than one way to fly!”

Herrera is an amazing poet; his Spanish version reads much better than the English. For instance, as Tomasito’s father surprises him with the little bird, he says, “¡Una sorpresa, Tomasito! ¡Mira, es para ti!” But the English takes all the feeling out: “A little pet, Tomasito! For you!”

Unfortunately, Cuevas’s acrylic illustrations feature heavy black lines surrounding characters that sometimes resemble Anime cartoon figures and sometimes show lumpy, distorted bodies—and a creepy-looking bird in a too-small cage. It’s also unfortunate that the heavy-handed metaphor compares a disabled youngster who uses a wheelchair to a featherless bird who is “confined to” a cage.

Nevertheless, Desplumado is about a youngster with a disability who, with the support of family and friends, finds a way to push himself beyond his physical limitations. As such, it’s a good story to begin conversations about disability and inclusion; and about how people are generally more similar than different. Most important, a disabled child in the classroom would probably ignore the metaphor and enjoy the story. Recommended.

Note: Teachers can extend this kind of discussion with short films of wheelchair sports, such as basketball, soccer, tennis, and handcycling. 

—Beverly Slapin
(published 11/3/13)