My Very Own Room / Mi propio cuartito


author: Amada Irma Pérez
translator: Consuelo Hernández
illustrator: Maya Christina González
Children’s Book Press / Lee & Low, 2000
grades 2-up 
Mexican, Mexican American

When we were kids, we slept four in a bed; the girls slept in one bed and the boys in another. Living with ten people piled into a small house was just our reality. For me, there was no place to be by myself, to read, to do my homework; it was a common occurrence to see my homework stuck to the table or with milk spilled on it, and there was no such thing as quiet in our house.

For a large traditional Mexican family such as ours, it was a matter of both culture and economics: family and friends came and went, and people either shared space with relatives or lived in made-over garages. There wasn’t much room, so children usually slept together in one or two beds and sometimes on the couch or on the floor.

My Very Own Room reminded me of my impossible wish. The narrator is a nine-year-old girl who shares a room with five brothers and imagines her own space “with my own bed, table, and lamp—a place where I could read the books I loved, write in my diary, and dream.” How she transforms a storage closet into a perfect, private space shows, not only her own determination and resourcefulness, but how her family joyfully pitches in and helps out. Here’s a bed from Tío Pancho, who is returning to Mexico. Here’s a white ceramic glass lamp from the Blue Chip store, for redeemed Blue Chip stamps. Here are several paint cans, each with a little paint in it that when blended, makes a gorgeous magenta color for her walls. And here are lots and lots of books, borrowed from the library.

González’s art, in oil pastel on a rich palette of bold, warm colors, complement the story. I especially like the image of the whole family licking Blue Chip stamps, the swirls of the paint colors coming together, and finally, “the luckiest, happiest little girl in the whole world,” falling asleep under a blanket of books in her very own room.

Hernández’s idiomatic Spanish translation reads as well as the English, so both hablantes and English-speakers can enjoy this warm story of a little girl who is part of a loving family and finds a way to acquire her own space. Based on the author’s own family story, My Very Own Room / Mi propio cuartito is highly recommended.

María Cárdenas
(published 3/27/14)

My Aunt Otilia’s Spirits / Los espíritus de mi tía Otilia


author: Richard García
translator: Jesús Guerrero Rea
illustrators: Robin Cherin, Roger I. Reyes
Children’s Book Press / Lee & Low, 1986
grades 2-up 
Puerto Rican

My Aunt Otilia’s Spirits reminds me of the stories of spirits and ghosts told to us as children. These stories are common in Latino cultures; children have a fascination with ghosts and spirits and because of the oral tradition of telling ghost stories, some for teaching lessons, some for preventing bad behavior. As a teacher, I read this story around Halloween and el Día de los Muertos until the classroom library copy became too worn to use.

Here, Tía Otilia comes to visit. Our reality is that, when people show up and there’s limited space, you just have to move over; so Aunt Otilia sleeps in the bed with her nephew. And every night that she’s there, there’s a shaking and knocking on the walls. “It’s just my spirits,” she tells him. “Go to sleep, Demonio.” (It’s sometimes misunderstood by cultural outsiders, but we often use derogatory-sounding nicknames such as “Demonio,” “Gordo,” “Flaco,” and even “Burro” as endearments with our children.)

One night, Demonio puts gum in his ear so he won’t hear Tía Otilia’s voice and he can stay awake. He hears a rattling noise and here are Aunt Otilla’s bones coming out of her body and flying out the window—but her body remains in the bed! When he jumps out of bed, he knocks the pieces of her body to the floor and she flies out the window.

In Latino cultures, there are always spirits hanging around; there’s always a family member who hears voices or talks about spirits or has some kind of otherworldly gifts. So it’s not unusual for unusual things to happen. As Garcia writes, “[M]y Aunt Otilia was accompanied by bed shakings and wall knockings wherever she went. However, this was not regarded as unusual in my family, or a cause for much concern. The supernatural had a natural place in our life.”

Rea’s idiomatic Spanish translation reads as well as the English, so the story will resonate for Spanish-speakers and English-speakers alike. For instance, “I really caught a spanking for chasing my Aunt Otila away” becomes “me dieron unas buenas nalgaras por asustar a mi tía Otila,” which is a more visual statement.

Cherin’s and Reyes’ artwork is executed in acrylics and ink on a bright palette using lots of primary colors, and the bold handwritten text incorporated into the design adds to the book’s attractiveness. I especially love the picture of Aunt Otilia’s skeleton, carrying a handbag, flying out the window, while her suitcases have a spirit of their own; and I can just imagine Demonio’s anxiety as he tries to put his aunt back together after knocking her body parts off the bed. Kids break things, but not usually their relatives.

But all’s well that ends well: “[A] month later,” Demonio tells us, “we got a postcard from Puerto Rico. Aunt Otilia said she enjoyed her visit and was fine, although she felt a little mixed up.”

My Aunt Otilia’s Spirits / Los espíritus de mi tía Otilia provides the space to talk about children’s fears and nightmares, as well as ghost stories that children have heard in their families. For teachers, it’s an opportunity for class discussions about people’s beliefs about spirits in a positive way. It’s highly recommended.

—María Cárdenas
(published 3/27/14)

Spoon for Every Bite / Una Cuchara Para Cada Bocado


author: Joe Hayes
translator: Joe Hayes
illustrator: Rebecca Leer
Cinco Puntos Press, 2005
grades 2-up 
Mexican

In my family, we ate tortillas at every dinner meal, fresh off the comal. Sometimes we ate tortillas for breakfast and lunch as well. If there were any tortillas left over, we would reheat them for another meal, but my dad refused to eat them unless they were freshly made.

I was the oldest of eight kids and it was my job to help my mother make the tortillas. She and I cooked them as the family ate; we had to keep getting up to make more and I don’t remember ever being able to sit down for a whole meal. One day I decided that my younger sisters and brothers would only be allowed two tortillas per meal; that way I wouldn’t have to keep getting up. My dad, though, got as many as he wanted, so my idea was short lived.

There are many versions of the old Mexican joke involving tortillas. The one we were told involves an argument between Moctezuma and Cortés, but sometimes it’s between a peasant and a conquistador. Generally, the argument begins with one person saying to the other, “I know someone who eats each bite with a different spoon.” In any case, the underdog wins.

In Hayes’ hyperbolic morality tale, a young couple, so poor that they own only two spoons, asks a wealthy neighbor to be the godfather of their baby. Saving up enough to buy a third spoon, they invite him for dinner. But he mocks their poverty, bragging that he could use a different spoon every day of the year if he wanted to. When the couple tells him that they know someone who uses a new spoon for every bite, their obsessed neighbor buys so many spoons that he goes broke. The couple introduces him to their friends, who scoop up their beans with—tortillas. Having bested extreme arrogance with cultural common sense, the couple plans to sell the mean-spirited neighbor’s discarded spoons, thereby assuring themselves that “they would live the rest of their days in comfort.”

Hayes’ Spanish version reads as well as the English, so that both Spanish-speakers and English-speakers can learn and enjoy the idioms of the other language. Leer’s artwork is rendered in pastels on a palette that reflects the colors of Southwestern flora, fauna, and architecture. I especially like the facial details—the Mexican aristocrat’s out-of-control handlebar mustache and his look of horror when he finds out he’s been had, his servants’ bemused expressions at their boss’s extravagance, the couple’s loving and semi-conspiratorial glances at each other. Perfect.

Sometimes when a joke or a riddle is stretched out into a story containing characters and dialogue, the turns and twists become contrived. Here, my problem is suspending my disbelief that the poor couple doesn’t eat tortillas, because to do so would have given away the punch line. Maybe there are Mexicans who don’t eat beans with tortillas; I haven’t met any.

Nevertheless, the story resonates with me—arrogant rich people getting their comeuppance from poor people just makes me feel warm inside. A Spoon for Every Bite / Una Cuchara Para Cada Bocado is recommended.

—María Cárdenas
(published 3/27/14)

Sammy and Juliana in Hollywood


author: Benjamin Alire Sáenz
Cinco Puntos Press, 2004
high school-up
Mexican American

The Hollywood of Sáenz’s first novel for young adult readers is a ragged barrio of Las Cruces, New Mexico, where Sammy Santos and his friends live in the year 1969. Toward the end of his junior year of high school Sammy begins to notice classmate Juliana Ríos, whose self-confidence in the face of racist teachers inspires Sammy. Juliana, however, hides a desperate home situation that results over the summer in her violent death.

Afterward, Sammy wonders if he will ever love another girl again. His mother died years earlier, and over the next year, Sammy endures more losses—a neighbor’s husband, a best friend drafted and then killed in Vietnam, another friend dead of a heroin overdose, two gay classmates brutally beaten and then driven out of town by bigoted whites. Along with the troubles, however, comes Sammy’s political awakening, when he and his friends campaign for a change in student government, organize a strike against strict dress codes, and pass out armbands against the war. These struggles give Sammy and his friends a sense of hope and purpose and bring him closer to his father as well.

Sáenz is an acclaimed poet, and his story sings in the language of young people who move effortlessly between English and Spanish and use both languages to understand their world. The emotions expressed are honest and powerful—true to the characters’ culture and time period, yet so deeply felt that teenagers of all backgrounds today can identify themselves and their friends in the unforgettable cast. There are many priceless moments when the teens stand up to authority figures, showing that resistance is possible and hope exists in the bleakest of circumstances. One of the most memorable is when Sammy, five weeks from graduation, stands up to a dictatorial school administrator, Colonel Wright, who tries to shut down the student protest against the war on Vietnam:

He grabbed my arm. I hated the warmth of his hand. “Pifas is dead,” I said. And he let go of me. He knew who I was talking about. He’d read it in the newspaper, he’d seen a picture of Pifas’ mother kissing his coffin, clutching a flag—clutching a flag instead of clutching a son. God. “Epifánio Jose Espinosa was killed in action. In Viet Nam. Epifánio. They brought him home. Not all of him, Colonel. They couldn’t find his hands. Blown clean off. His hands, Colonel, they stayed in Nam. His hands stayed there, Colonel. Say it. Goddammit! Say his name for me.” He grabbed my arm again and started dragging me toward the office. But I wasn’t going to let him. I pulled away from him. I was stronger. He knew I was stronger. “Epifánio,” I said. “His name meant epiphany. It’s what happens at the end of a story or poem when something is revealed. It means we’ve learned something.”

As I reread sections to finish up this review, I am in tears. Sammy & Juliana in Hollywood is that strong, that good. Highly recommended.

Lyn Miller-Lachmann
(published 3/26/14)

Grandma Fina And Her Wonderful Umbrellas / La Abuelita Fina y sus sombrillas maravillosas


author: Benjamin Alire Sáenz 
translator: Pilar Herrera
illustrator: Geronimo García
Cinco Puntos Press, 1999
preschool-up 
Mexican American

Grandma Fina just loves her tattered old yellow umbrella that keeps her cool on warm sunny days. As she walks through the community and chats with each of her neighbors, no one says anything about Grandma Fina’s umbrella because no one wants to hurt her feelings. But everyone’s thinking the same thing. Then, when her relatives and neighbors throw her a surprise birthday celebration, Grandma Fina receives—nine new umbrellas! Still favoring her old yellow umbrella, Grandma Fina takes the others to the community center and gifts them to her friends. 

Garcia’s cartoon illustrations, on a bright palette of mostly purples, greens, oranges and yellows, complement the story and add to its hilarity. And young readers and listeners will enjoy matching the umbrellas to their respective donors and trying to find the bluebird on practically every other page.

Herrera’s idiomatic Spanish translation follows the English text in simplicity, repetition and rhythm; allowing both hablantes and English speakers to enjoy the story. Each two-page spread contains blocks of English text in black print and Spanish in green. On two pages in the predominantly English blocks where Grandma Fina talks with her daughter, their endearments are appropriately in Spanish, the translation of which can be inferred.

As a read-aloud, this solid bilingual early reader—with its predictable plot and hilarious ending—will encourage youngsters to explore colors, friendships, relationships, neighbors, the meaning of “community,” and a host of other topics. I can see a teacher stopping every few seconds so that the children can yell, “Wonderful!” or “¡Maravilloso!”—the word that connects the ebullient Grandma Fina with the story and each of her neighbors.

In a society in which the mass media portray everything as disposable and old people as useless as torn umbrellas, Grandma Fina And Her Wonderful Umbrellas / La Abuelita Fina y sus sombrillas maravillosas is a refreshing replacement. Highly recommended.

—María Cárdenas
(published 3/20/14)

¡El Cucuy! A Bogeyman Cuento in English and Spanish


author: Joe Hayes
translators: Teresa Mlawer, María Cristina López, Sharon Franco, Honorio Robledo
illustrator: Honorio Robledo
Cinco Puntos Press, 2001
grades 3-up 
Mexican

When I was a girl, I used to tell scary stories to my younger brothers and sisters. I made a lot of the stories up, just for the pleasure of scaring them. But it never occurred to me to tell them a Cucuy story because Cucuy was real, out there somewhere.

Our parents would warn us of the Cucuy to frighten us into good behavior when we were misbehaving or about to misbehave: “If you’re bad, the Cucuy will come for you.” The Cucuy was also lurking in the dark, waiting to grab us up, so we would not want to be out alone at night or wander too far away from our parents. The lesson was that it’s dangerous out there—you’d better behave or else!

The power of the Cucuy is that it grabs you and takes you away—it separates you from your family forever. Sometimes, if it’s hungry and your behavior was really bad, it’ll eat you! But my parents never threatened to call the Cucuy to come and get us—and I can’t imagine any Latino parents who love their children doing this. What’s more, our parents never described the Cucuy; it was scarier that way. The Cucuy we feared never had a shape or form, except in our wildest imaginations; since it came from the oral tradition, it was more of a surreal “presence.”

In Hayes’s version, two lazy sisters refuse to help their dutiful youngest sister, who toils all day long, cooking and cleaning for their widowed father. After their father threatens to call the Cucuy on them if they don’t help, the girls, loudly dismissing the idea of Cucuy’s existence, become even more defiant. Their father makes good on his promise; the Cucuy arrives and takes the older girls away to his dark, spider-filled cave, where they have plenty of time to reflect on their bad behavior. A young goat herder rescues them, and the girls, scared out of their wits but knowing that their father and sister have also been searching for them, change their ways: “From that day on those two girls were the most polite and helpful girls living in that little town.”

This is not the purpose of a scary story. Scary stories, such as that of the Cucuy or bogeyman, frighten children into behaving. They don’t get a second chance. They don’t get to meditate on the error of their ways. There’s no time for remorse! They’re gone! That’s it!

The Spanish translation is idiomatic and poetic and very nicely done. For instance, while the English reads, “The boy put the girls on his burro and started down the winding path to the valley,” the Spanish reads, “El muchacho acomodó a las niñas en el burro y se fue rumbo al valle por la vereda retorcida.” Here, you can see the goatherd assisting the girls and helping them down the seriously winding path.

Robledo’s stylized acrylic illustrations, on a bright palette with background shading, aptly convey the terror of the grotesque Cucuy. Unfortunately, his other characters’ faces—also with bugged-out eyes and weird grimaces—are scary as well.

Besides the girls’ father actually giving them over to the Cucuy, my problem with Hays’ story is its artificially happy ending, done to “soften” the story. But many of our children hear and experience many scary stories—such as the threat of La Migra (ICE), a modern-day Cucuy that has nothing to do with bad behavior, but that often separates parents from their children. Scary stories are certainly not therapy, but they can give children an opportunity to talk with trusted adults and process their fears. 

As it stands, ¡El Cucuy! A Bogeyman Cuento in English and Spanish is not recommended.

—María Cárdenas
(published 3/15/14)

Los Tres Pequeños Jabailíes / The Three Little Javelinas


author: Susan Lowell
illustrator: Jim Harris
Scholastic, 1996
preschool-grade 3

In transporting the “Three Little Pigs” story from Europe to the American Southwest, “where Native American, Mexican, and Anglo cultures blend together,” Lowell morphs the pigs into javelinas and recasts the big bad wolf as Coyote.

Trotting away to seek their fortunes (mama isn’t even around to wave goodbye), the first little porker builds his house out of tumbleweeds and the second relies on somewhat stronger saguaro ribs. The hungry four-legged pursuer, of course, huffs and puffs and easily destroys both domiciles, and the piglets find refuge with their sister, who has resourcefully built her house out of sturdy adobe bricks. No one gets killed, no one even gets seriously hurt, the javelinas live happily ever after and Coyote is left to howl at night.

Harris’s artwork, executed in watercolor, gouache, and colored pencils on bristol board, uses an earth-toned palette that reflects the colors of the desert. As well, you can see practically every stiff, bristly hair on the cowboy-clad piglets, as well as the black-tipped guard hairs and narrow muzzle on skinny Coyote.

But rather than enhancing the story by moving its locale and inserting elements of Southwestern flora, fauna, and material culture, Lowell’s contrived literary treatment, including pronunciation prompts, disrupts the rhythm and confuses the story (italics below mine).

The second little javelina walked for miles among giant cactus plants called saguaros (sa-WA-ros). They held their ripe red fruit high in the sky. But they made almost no shade, and the little javelina grew hot.

Then he came upon a Native American woman who was gathering sticks from inside a dried-up cactus. She planned to use these long sticks, called saguaro ribs, to knock down the sweet cactus fruit.

The second little javelina said, “Please, may I have some sticks to build a house?”

“Ha’u,” (ha-ou) she said, which means “yes” in the language of the Desert People.


I’m baffled by the Spanish translation, which seems neither literal nor idiomatically authentic. The piglets’ refrain, “Not by the hairs of my chinny-chin-chin!” for instance, comes out as “¡Ni por las cerdas de mi bar-bar-barilla!” which means nothing. Some of the translations don’t quite connect, either. For example, “(The giant cactus plants) held their red, ripe fruit high in the sky” becomes “los gigantescos cactus saguaros que mostraban orgullosos sus frutas rojas,” which would translate as “the giant saguaros cactuses that proudly displayed their red fruit.” And, there are outright mistakes. When one of the piglets asks a brick-maker for “a few bricks” to construct her house, he responds:

“Si,” answered the man, which means “yes” in Spanish, the brick-maker’s language.

And the translation?

—Yes—le contestó el señor, que como saben, quiere decir “si” en ingles.

Well-told folk tales, even the most outlandish ones, have a “magical realism” that requires a suspension of disbelief. Children know, for instance, that javelinas don’t really dress in human clothes, speak English (or Spanish), leave their mothers and go out to “seek their fortunes.” At the same time, children allow themselves to believe, for the purposes of this story, that a javelina could build a particular kind of house in order to outwit a single-mindedly hungry coyote.

Lowell’s adding elements to the story that reflect the cultures of the Southwest—while leaving intact the story’s essential European underpinning—throws a “cultural blanket” over the European folktale. To try to attach so much specificity about peoples and their material cultures—without the cultural knowledge—makes it even harder for a story to work.

In introducing the three little javelinas’ pursuer, Lowell writes,

Then along came a coyote. He ran through the desert so quickly and so quietly that he was almost invisible. In fact, this was only one of Coyote’s many magical tricks.

So, the big bad pursuer of the three little javelinas is not just a coyote, a predatory animal who can run through the desert quickly and quietly and happens to have a thing for javelina meat, but Coyote, a Being who can run through the desert quickly and quietly because he’s full of tricks and magic as a device to embellish the story with more Southwestern cultural material. Except for the European literary rule of three.

Coyote is not just a trickster. Coyote is a religious/spiritual Being, a cultural icon who demands respect. There is always the knowledge—a cultural backdrop from the teller to the audience and back—of who Coyote is and what Coyote represents. Without this depth of comprehension and cultural understanding, Coyote becomes a buffoon—a big bad wolf turned into a “trickster” who gets his comeuppance from a trio of young pigs. When you take an important part of someone’s spiritual and cultural heritage without acknowledging it, it’s called “cultural appropriation” and it’s never OK.

Los Tres Pequeños Jabailíes / The Three Little Javelinas is not recommended. For an awesome alternative, pick up Bobbi Salinas’ The Three Pigs: Nacho, Tito, and Miguel / Los Tres Cerdos.

—Beverly Slapin
(published 3/14/14)

My Colors, My World / Mis colores, mi mundo


author: Maya Christina González
illustrator: Maya Christina González
Children’s Book Press / Lee & Low, 2007 
preschool-grade 3 
Mexican American

Unless they actually live in the desert, young children are likely to think that this environment is harsh, hot and dusty and its flora consist entirely of cacti and tumbleweeds.

My Colors, My World is a refreshing, poetic, beautifully illustrated bilingual “concept book” that invites youngest readers and listeners to explore colors, shapes, science, geography, and how people live in their environments. 

As an exuberant little girl thinks about the colors in and around her desert home in the Mohave Desert, sometimes everything seems to be relatively monochromatic, but on close examination, everything becomes a brilliant riot of colors, tones, shapes, and textures. While young Maya shares her day of simple pleasures—from standing in the wind, to swaying on her swing, to having tea with the flowers, to greeting her Papi as he comes home from work, to watching “the hot pink sky turn into a dark blue night”—she invites young readers into her world.

Introducing a new color on each page with the words of the colors painted in those colors, González’s acrylic-on-paper illustrations, in the rich colors of the desert, are big and bold and imaginative and joyful. And the Spanish translation is as simple and elegant as the English.

This lively and colorful little book uses magical realism to draw in young children who see life in everything. Here, the sun and the moon have faces, a little bird closes its eyes to the wind, houses lean to one side, and Maya invites purple irises to be her guests for tea—offering them a pastry that she’s made out of a mud pie, a marigold flower, a stone and a leaf.

My Colors, My World / Mis colores, mi mundo is an engaging way to introduce children to all the colors of the desert world and to inspire them to look at their own worlds as well. It’s highly recommended.

—María Cárdenas
(published 3/12/14)

Tales of the Amazon: How the Munduruku Indians Live


author: Daniel Munduruku (Daniel Monteiro Costa)
translator (from the Portuguese): Jane Springer
illustrator: Laurabeatriz
Groundwood Books / House of Anansi Press, 1996
grades 3-up 
Munduruku, Brazilian 

On the cover we see a young Munduruku boy, secure in his Amazon rainforest home, clearly a part of his Indigenous world. He knows what he comes from and his smiling, confident expression—along with the monkey comfortably perched on his head—invite the young reader to visit.

Tales of the Amazon: How the Munduruku Indians Live is divided into three parts—each told differently, and each related to the others.

In Part 1, “The Tale of the Boy Who Didn’t Know How to Dream,” the pajé (healer) names an infant boy Kaxi—“the moon that shines on humanity,” and will groom him to be the healer and spiritual guide to his people. In his training, Kaxi learns to “listen to the voices of our ancestors who speak to us in dreams.” He also learns about the importance of the struggle against outsiders who are damaging the rainforest. Finally, through a prophetic dream he learns how to “guide his people toward their future.” Young readers might giggle at the illustrations of people without clothes on; this could be an opportunity for teachers to challenge all kinds of assumptions.

Part 2, “The Indigenous Peoples of Brazil,” reads like a textbook. Short sections include, among others, “Indigenous Lands,” “Linguistic Diversity,” “Cultural Diversity,” “Marriage,” “Music,” “Work,” “Political Organization,” and “Indigenous Rights.” This material is by no means a thorough exploration of any of these issues. But since students at the 6th-grade level (and even below) are especially interested in non-fiction about how people live, these sections can be used as a starting point for student research.

Part 3, “Chronicles and Testimonies,” are brief stories about Munduruku’s life, most of it away from his people. Our favorites include Munduruku’s listening to his grandfather’s stories and knowing that “those ancient myths say what cannot be said”; witnessing a debate between a Christian pastor and a young Guarani man about the nature of God; overhearing two women on a train arguing about whether or not he is a “real Indian”; and responding, both to a teacher who asks him what he does with mosquitoes, and to a child who wants to know if Indians eat people.

Portraying the luminous beauty of the Amazon rainforest and the interdependence of the animals and humans who live there, Laurabeatriz’s richly textured, pastel-on-canvas paintings, on a palette of browns, greens and blues, are dramatic and gorgeous.  

Weaknesses in the text include loaded terminology such as “hut,” “brave,” “warrior,“ “fire water,” and “hostile.” This may have been a function of the translation from the Portuguese. And the suggestions for further reading are dated and unhelpful.

But for the most part, Tales of the Amazon is engagingly written, beautifully illustrated and nicely designed, with lots of information that will resonate with young students and lead them to further research. Recommended.

—Beverly Slapin and María Cárdenas
(published 3/11/14)

Mr. Mendoza’s Paintbrush


author: Luis Alberto Urrea
illustrator: Christopher Cardinale
Cinco Puntos Press, 2010
grades 8-up 
Mexican


If you happen to live in the green, wet village of Rosario, Mexico, in the state of Sinaloa, “almost bubbling with humidity and the smell of mangoes,” a place where the river goes on a shopping spree and grabs up turtles, chickens, cows, old cars and washing machines; where mummified monks occasionally pop out of cathedral walls; where vast sections of silver mines are known to collapse and take part of the village with them; and where the village’s inhabitants have no discernable conscience—if you happen to live there, you’d better watch out: Mr. Mendoza, the man with the paintbrush, has come to visit.   

The self-proclaimed “Rey de Graffiti de Todo Mexico,” Mr. Mendoza, in perfect cursive script, paints messages all over the village: on the city-limits sign (“No intelligent life for 100 kilometers”), on its bridge (“Upend hypocrites today”), on the wall facing the street (“Turn your pride on its back and count its wiggly feet”), and even on its inhabitants. Yes, Mr. Mendoza has been known to “graffito malefactors as though they were road signs.”

After what may have been a celestial apocalypse, there is found, among other things, the ghastly remains of a mummified monk—obviously an evangelist, as signified by the way the bones of his second finger point heavenward—and painted on his chest is this warning: “How do you like me now? Deflated! Deflate your pomp or float away!” Yes, Mr. Mendoza, with his paint-dripped commentary, is everywhere.

Indeed, Mr. Mendoza has set himself up as the conscience of a conscienceless community, whose residents don’t know what to make of him—or maybe they do and they’re just not saying. Far from afraid of offending, he chugs a bottle of beer and lets out an enormous belch, “the cry of the water buffalo, the hog.” “I give it to you,” he shouts, “because it is the only philosophy you can understand!”

The unnamed narrator of Mr. Mendoza’s Paintbrush is a young man who tells stories about his village when he was a boy—and a particular story about the humiliating punishment he and his friend suffered and the lessons they may or may not have learned. After he catches the two boys ogling some young girls who are bathing in the river, Mr. Mendoza grabs them (the boys, not the girls), tears off their clothes, paints on their faces (“pervert”), their chests (“Mother is blue with shame”), and their rumps (“This is what I am” and “Kick me hard”), and forces them to run through the town. The tables have been turned: “I suddenly realized that the girls from the river had quickly dressed themselves and were giggling at me as I jumped around naked. It was unfair!”

And then, one day—maybe the day the villagers had been praying for—Mr. Mendoza decides he has had it with them all: “Social change and the nipping of complacent buttocks was my calling on earth,” he announces, and a few days later, “with a virtuoso’s mastery,” he leaves. Dramatically, magically, in a way no one would have or could have suspected, but to everyone’s applause. Have the villagers learned their lesson(s)? Probably not.

Cartoonist and muralist Christopher Cardinale’s detail-rich illustrations, in a woodblock style of dark, muted earth tones, with lots of shading and thick black lines, enhance the surrealism of the story. There’s more than enough gore and grit to grab adolescents—especially boys—who don’t especially enjoy reading but are drawn to graphic novels.

In a high-school classroom involving adolescents of both genders—or even with younger students—this part horror story, part morality play, part pure grisly fun, can catapult a discussion about how boys treat girls and the consequences of behaving badly. Mr. Mendoza’s Paintbrush is highly recommended.

—Beverly Slapin and María Cárdenas
(published 3/7/14)

Juan Verdades: The Man Who Couldn’t Tell a Lie/ El hombre que no sabía mentir

author: Joe Hayes
illustrator: Joseph Daniel Fiedler
Cinco Puntos Press, 2001
grades 3-5
Mexican

Hayes’s story is a revision of a European variant of “The Faithful Servant,” and also draws on versions from New Mexico. In this telling, which appears to be set in colonial Mexico, a wealthy man bets his ranch that his foreman is so honest that he could not tell a lie. In order to win the bet, the beautiful daughter of the other rancher conspires to seduce the foreman into stealing all the apples from his employer’s “manzano real”—“royal apple tree”—and lying about how the apples disappeared. Foreman steals the apples yet maintains his integrity, foreman and daughter fall in love, ranch is lost but remains in the family, and everyone celebrates.

Rather than enhancing the story, Hayes’s “literary treatment”—assigning names to the characters, softening the plot, and inserting a lot of dialogue to “carry the narrative and clarify the characters’ motivations”—raises questions about the story’s cultural content:

• Why does the rancher’s daughter demand that the foreman strip the apple tree and bring all its fruit to her? It would have made more sense had she demanded that a prized animal be slaughtered and its meat brought to her. But in “softening” the story so as to avoid the scene of an animal’s being butchered, Hayes erases the story’s cultural logic.

• Why would the foreman agree to pick all the apples? Even if he were in love with the rancher’s daughter, he’d know that a whole wagonload of apples would benefit nobody. They’d spoil before they were consumed.

• Why would wealthy Mexican ranchers care so much about apples? Among apple aficionados, there might be some competition, but not to this extent.

• Why would a wealthy rancher’s daughter fall in love with the foreman, and continue to conspire against him?

• Why does the rancher’s daughter, an upper-class colonial Mexican woman, appear as a “barefoot seductress” in every illustration of her: inside, outside, even at her own party? Besides “gang girlfriends,” this is a common Hollywood stereotype of Latinas.

• Finally, in the English text, the rancher wants to know who picked his apples: “Some fool picked them?” And the honest foreman begins to explain: “The father of the fool is my father’s father’s son.” But in the Spanish text, he says, “El abuelo de ladrón es papá de mi papá” (The thief’s grandfather is my father’s father). This is totally different. Why is he a “fool” in one language and a “thief” in the other?

Fiedler’s oil paintings, on a palette of bejeweled earth-toned colors, are darkly depressing. Especially so is the one of the worried rancher riding away after having bet his ranch. It reminds me of James Earle Fraser’s 1915 iconic sculpture, “The End of the Trail,” in which a dejected Indian guy slumps over his equally dejected horse. I mean, really depressing.

Had Hayes decided against a contrived “literary treatment,” infusing his version with culturally logical content instead—and way fewer words and dialogue—Juan Verdades: The Man Who Couldn’t Tell a Lie / El hombre que no sabía mentir could have been an entertaining story. As it stands, it’s not recommended.

—María Cárdenas
(published 3/5/14)