That’s Not Fair! Emma Tenayuca’s struggle for justice / ¡No Es Justo! La lucha de Emma Tenayuca por la justicia

author: Carmen Tafolla
author: Sharyll Tenayuca 
translator: Carmen Tafolla
illustrator: Terry Ybáñez 
Wings Press, 2008 
grades 2-6 
Mexican American

 Born in 1916 in San Antonio and raised by her grandparents, Emma Tenayuca was an activist since childhood. Her grandfather, who read newspapers with her and took her to rallies that confronted issues of poverty and hunger, fed the young girl’s own hunger for learning and social justice. By the time she was 16, young Emma had already been jailed several times. “I never thought in terms of fear,” she later said, “I thought in terms of justice.” A brilliant orator, activist and educator at a time when Mexican and Mexican American women were not expected to speak out, Emma became known as “La Pasionaria,” and took on one battle after another. In 1938, Emma was asked to lead the strike of some 12,000 pecan shellers, most of them Mexican women; and in fewer than two months, they forced the factory owners to raise their pay. This historic victory was the first significant win for Mexican American workers in the struggle for political and economic justice.

Co-authored by Emma’s friend, Carmen Tafolla; and her niece, Sharyll Tenayuca, That’s Not Fair! is a coming-of-age story of a child who is moved to action by the poverty and injustice she witnesses all around her. Such as hard-working people denied their pay. Such as hungry children subsisting on a few pecans, dropped from a tree. Such as migrant farm worker children denied an education. At first, young Emma gives her apple to a hungry boy and her new sweater to a thin, shivering mother and baby, and begins to teach a girl how to read. But she soon realizes, as she sobs to her grandfather: It’s not fair!

How Emma the child, learning from her gentle grandfather, matured into Emma the organizer who led the mostly Mexican, mostly women pecan shellers (nuceras)—who “worked so many hours that they were coughing and sick, and still they did not earn enough to feed their children” while factory owners “had so much money they would throw away…food that the workers wished they could give their children”—is a story that will resonate with young children.

Tafolla’s idiomatic Spanish translation reads smoothly and works, both orally and in print, for hablantes; and an afterword that contains photographs of Emma Tenayuca and biographical information completes the story.

Ybáñez’s full-bleed double-spread illustrations, rendered in watercolor and pen-and-ink on a palette of bold, flat colors with bright highlights, are reminiscent of traditional Mexican murals. While Emma’s red sweater on almost every page focuses the reader’s attention on the subject, the pecan trees and branches that frame each illustration focus the reader’s attention on the issue. I especially like that, while the people’s faces are generally stylized, their complexions are realistically varied.

While the reading level for this excellent story might begin at about third or fourth grade, younger children will be drawn in as well. I’d like to see a copy of Emma Tenayuca’s inspiring story gifted to all refugee children being held in the border-town detention facilities. An important book about a child’s confronting injustice and growing up to make a difference, That’s Not Fair! Emma Tenayuca’s struggle for justice / ¡No Es Justo! La lucha de Emma Tenayuca por la justicia is highly recommended.

—Beverly Slapin
(published 11/28/15)

Charro Claus and the Tejas Kid

author: Xavier Garza 
illustrator: Xavier Garza 
translator: Luis Humberto Crosthwaite 
Cinco Puntos Press, 2008 
kindergarten-grade 4 
Mexican, Mexican American

¡Orale! Did you know that Santa Claus has a Mexican cousin? ¡De veras! Pancho, young Vincent’s tío, is Santa’s primo! He can speak Spanish and English and sings like a mariachi. Pues, Santa is getting older, the border along the Río Grande is too long—and he needs help. So when Pancho agrees to help his primo deliver gifts to all the children living in towns on the US-Mexican border, his raggedy, ill-fitting mariachi outfit is transformed into “a gold jacket with matching sequined trousers, rattlesnake-skin boots with silver spurs, a big sombrero covered in gold sequins and blinking Christmas lights, a great big cape and a golden mask.” He becomes—¿estan listos?—the great Charro Claus, and his nieto,Vincent, who jumps out of his tío’s magic sack of presents, becomes Charro Claus’s assistant, the mask- and cape-wearing Tejas Kid!

With their broken-down wagon turned brand new, a sack filled with magic dust, and their incredible Flying Burritos—decked out in lucha libre masks and tiny capes—suddenly rising up in the air, Charro Claus and the Tejas Kid are off! And, on this particular Christmas Eve, on this magic night, nothing can keep the two from delivering toys to all the children who live along the border.

Not even rain or cloudy skies or walls or wire fences keep them from crossing back and forth to El Paso and to Ciudad Juárez, to Roma and to Miguel Alemán, to Río Grande City and to Camargo. On that big starry night, there’s no town or city, no matter how big or small, that the newly named Charro Claus forgets. How could he? The border is his home!

The English and Spanish texts are attractively laid out close together, either on the same page or opposing pages, offering opportunities for hablantes and Spanish learners to read or follow along in either or both languages. And Spanish words are occasionally sprinkled into the English text, the way that bilingual people speak.

In an interesting afterword, Garza relates family stories about and childhood experiences with individuals who adopted the persona of Santa Claus’s Mexican cousin, “Pancho Claus,” bringing gifts to the neighborhood kids. Garza later wrote this version for his young son, Vincent, changing “Pancho” to “Charro” and modeling tío and nieto after themselves.

Garza’s expressive characters, in bold, full-page, graphic novel-type illustrations, heavily saturated and thickly drawn in acrylic on paper—and his warm, bright palette of mostly reds and oranges with dark blue star-lit skies—will easily draw young readers into the magic of the story.

I’d like to see every child living in the towns on both sides of the outrageous, forbidding, miles-long barb-wired fence—and especially, every refugee child held in the border-town detention centers—own a copy of this book. They could all use a little magic, right about now. Charro Claus and the Tejas Kid is highly recommended.

—Beverly Slapin
(published 11/27/15)

Canta, Rana, Canta / Sing, Froggie, Sing

author: Carolyn Dee Flores 
illustrator: Carolyn Dee Flores
translator: Natalia Rosales-Yeomans 
Piñata Books / Arte Público Press, 2013 
preschool-up 
Mexican

In a gentle, loving reworking of a traditional Mexican children’s song heard all over Latin America, an iconic, gesticulating Froggie gathers everyone together to sing. In Spanish followed by an English translation, the cumulative song begins with Froggie’s being hushed by a fly, who is hushed by a spider, who is hushed by a mouse; in each verse, a larger insect, animal—or human—arrives to hush the one before. But unlike the creepy and misogynistic “Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly,” this song’s outcome is joyful and unifying.

The large, easy-to-read print is variously black or white, and back matter includes the full lyrics in Spanish and English, with guitar chords and a note about the song’s tradition.

In the Spanish, the next-to-last line in each stanza ends with “se puso a” and a verb ending in “ar,” so as to rhyme with “lo” or “la” followed by “hizo callar”—“shushed him (or her) up.” In the English, the next-to-last line in each stanza ends with “out loud,” and rhymes well enough with “hushed his (or her) mouth.” Since the English translation keeps the rhythm and rhyme of the Spanish, this scheme works well for both young hablantes and English-speakers.

Flores’s art—rendered on a cool palette of mostly Froggie-friendly “water” colors of aquas, greens and blues—uses Prismacolor pencil for intense pigment and core-opened Verithin pencil for smooth, delicate outlines. Her design, on large, double-page spreads, brings Froggie together with hyper-expressively drawn insects and animals balanced by photo-realistic impressions of Mamá, Papá, Abuela and Bebé. As Froggie appears on most of the illustrations, happily conducting the multi-species chorus of her opera, youngest listeners and singers will readily suspend any disbelief they may have had.

While I was momentarily annoyed at the spread in which Papá, holding a cell phone, is shushing Mamá while she’s singing to their crying Bebé, the next page made me laugh. Here, Papá, apparently having been handed Bebé—along with Mamá’s unseen and unspoken reply: “Pues, you take him!”—is spread out on a bench, fast asleep and loudly snoring, his arm draped around Bebé—and Abuela is shushing him up. (This adorable scene of both Papá and Bebé, wearing similar stylish khaki-and-blue outfits, while Abuela shushes and Rana happily snores nearby is, as a certain credit card adman intones—“priceless.”)

The other versions I’ve seen of this traditional song are unimaginative, not to mention mean, violent and ugly, and often contain stereotypical images of Mexican people. Here, Flores and Rosales-Yeomans have gifted us with a “new” tradition for our children: a fun cumulative song unified by an enthusiastic Froggie, surrounding herself with insects and animals, big and small—including humans—who just love to sing. On the next-to-last pages, Papá sings next to Mamá, who holds a newly awake, groggy Bebé, who watches as Froggie, sitting on a lily pad and joined by Abuela and the dog, calls out to everyone: “¡Comienza de nuevo!”

Youngest children will love this song’s quick-paced memory challenge, the race to identify the insects and animals, and even a quick “¿Dónde está Ranita?” But besides the fun and perhaps more importantly, Flores, Rosales-Yeomans and Arte Público have given us mirrors in which Raza children and families can see themselves in community and in the world. Canta, Rana, Canta / Sing, Froggie, Sing is highly recommended.

—Beverly Slapin
(published 11/26/15)



Angelo the Naughty One


author: Helen Garrett
illustrator: Leo Politi
Viking Press, 1944, 1970
grades 1-3
Mexican


Set in colonial Mexico, Angelo the Naughty One is the story of a young Indian campesino who lives in a beautiful city with lots of water; and lots of water means everybody gets to bathe. But Angelo will do anything to avoid bathing, including running away from home. This presents a serious problem for his family and apparently, for everyone else. Angelo is afraid of water because he hates baths. Yes, really. He doesn’t hate baths because he’s afraid of water, which would be an anxiety disorder that, today, is known as “aquaphobia.” Angelo’s fear of water, though, because he hates baths makes no sense in any way. But rather than seeking out a traditional doctor to work with this kid, his parents and the townspeople just refer to Angelo as “The Naughty One.” Major bad parenting, not to mention public ostracism.
Yet Angelo, for no apparent reason, loves soldiers; in fact, he wants to be a soldier, and soldiers bathe regularly. At least in this story; the historical reality is way different: In places where there was water, Indians traditionally bathed regularly; soldiers and other settlers, on the other hand, did not. But let’s proceed. Angelo wanders into camp, a group of soldiers catches him, and, after having scrubbed him and dressed him in clean, second-hand clothes, the “handsome soldier,” who is about to marry Angelo’s sister, announces: “After the wedding, [Angelo] will be younger brother to a soldier and I am sure he will be proud and happy to take baths so that he won’t disgrace the army.” Having been scrubbed clean and dressed, Angelo’s whole personality changes: His fear of bathing and fear of water miraculously disappear, he attends his sister’s wedding, and Angelo now becomes known variously as “Angelo the Pride of the Family” and “Angelo the Brave One.” Not because he’s done anything heroic or especially wonderful, but because he’s no longer afraid of water.

Politi’s tempera art, on a drab palette of red, green, and white—the Mexican colors—complements the story. On the cover, four smiling, impeccably neat colonial soldiers surround our young, dirty and embarrassed campesino. The soldier with the largest smile points at him in gentle admonishment, and the boy is looking up at him. Behind them is an arch; on its flagpole flies the Mexican flag. On the frontispiece, Angelo’s frowning mother, with hand on hip, is berating the filthy little boy, who is a lot dirtier than he is on the cover. He’s crying.

Let's deconstruct this story. Angelo and his family are Indigenous people of the place known as Mexico. The colonial soldiers are Spanish. Here, in Angelo and the handsome soldier, we have a trope of “dirty Indians” or “dirty Mexicans” who have to be “cleaned up” by white agents of colonialism.

(1) Angelo is an Indian boy. He is a “naughty one” because he doesn’t bathe. (Read: Indians are dirty. They’re not civilized because they don’t bathe.)

(2) In order to get clean, Angelo needs to be caught and bathed by Spanish colonial soldiers. (Read: In order to become civilized, Indians need to be forced to adapt to the ways of white people.)

(3) Because he is no longer afraid to take a bath, Angelo is now called “Angelo, the Pride of the Family,” and “Angelo, the Brave One.” (Read: Colonial saviors are necessary to “convince” Indians that they need to become civilized.)
By perpetuating the myth that all Mexican Indian families not only accepted colonialism but, in fact, were eager to move up the social ladder by marrying colonial soldiers, this colonialist Anglo-centric story disparages the heritage of all Mestizo families, then and now. Needless to say (but I’ll say it anyway), Angelo the Naughty One should never have seen publication and is still way not recommended.

—Beverly Slapin
(published 11/23/15, revised 11/27/15)

Dale, Dale, Dale: Una fiesta de números / Hit It, Hit It, Hit It: A Fiesta of Numbers

author: René,Saldaña Jr. 
illustrator: Carolyn Dee Flores
Piñata Books / Arte Público Press, 2014 
preschool-grade 2 
Mexican American

“Dale, Dale, Dale” (“Hit It, Hit It, Hit It”), the traditional piñata-breaking song that Mexican and Mexican American children sing during birthday parties and other celebrations, is the focus of this endearing bilingual counting book.

As excited seven-year-old Mateo, with the help of his parents, prepares the decorations for his birthday fiesta, young readers count the party giveaways. First, there’s una piñata llena de dulces (one piñata filled with candy). There are also cuatro cajas llenas de regalitos (four boxes filled with little gifts), cinco máscaras de la lucha libre (five lucha libre masks), seis trompos (six tops), siete botellitas de burbujas (seven little bottles with bubbles), ocho bolsitas llenas de canicas (eight little bags filled with marbles), nueve carritos (nine little cars) and diez guitarritas (ten little guitars). When Mateo’s 11 cousins arrive, they happily pick up their gifts, play music, take photos, eat cake, and—as the birthday boy takes the first swing at the piñata—sing, “Dale, Dale, Dale.”

Flores’ full-spread illustrations are rendered in Prismacolor colored pencil and most of the images—decorations, presents, toys, birthday cake, and piñata, of course—are on a bright, richly saturated palette of reds, greens, blues, purples and yellows. These are artfully balanced by sharply lined photorealistic images of Mateo, his parents, his cousins—and his puppy. My favorite spread is that of Mateo trying on five lucha libre masks. With all his primos at the party, I hope Mateo gives one of the masks to the exuberant prima in the pink skirt. She definitely looks like she has luchadora potential!

On the pages, idiomatic Spanish precedes the natural English text. Some of the English, especially the song, is an interpretation rather than a direct translation; so both young hablantes and English speakers can go back and forth and practice some of each other’s language.

Dale, Dale, Dale, a festive party celebration in minimal text perfectly paired with vibrant, colorful art, is bright, fun and engaging, and is highly recommended. 

—Beverly Slapin
(published 11/19/15)

Donkey Lady Fights La Llorona and Other Stories / La señora Asno se enfrenta a la Llorona y otros cuentos

author: Xavier Garza  
illustrator: Xavier Garza
translator: Maira E. Alvarez 
Piñata Books / Arte Público Press, 2015
grades 3-7 
Mexican American

In 12 blood-curdling contemporary short stories, young protagonists encounter the legendary Donkey Lady and La Llorona, along with creepy-crawly monsters, supernatural heroes, bullies, gangsters, and even the devil.

In the title story, an incredulous Margarito tries to escape the notorious rudas, Donkey Lady and La Llorona, who battle each other to claim him as her next victim. In “Holes” (“Hoyos”), a heroic, hole-digging dog helps Joe to defeat an invasion of green-skinned, red-eyed, havoc-wreaking duendes. In “Tunnels” (“Túnales”), another Joe witnesses a crime-fighting Chupacabras putting an end to a murderous team of narcotraficantes in a border-town cave. In “The Gift That Is a Curse” (“El don maldición”), Trino’s super-protective sister isn’t afraid to use her supernatural, super-gory ability to dispose of her brother’s nemesis.

What makes these gruesome stories particularly engaging for middle-school readers is their “first-person-terrified” narrative:

Instantly I am reminded of the stories Grandma Maya told me back when I was a child, about a creature she called the Blood-Sucking Beast. Why any grandmother would think it wise to fill a child’s brain with stories of a vicious green-skinned monster that preys upon unsuspecting victims by draining every single drop of blood in their bodies is a mystery to me. But she always said the Blood-Sucking Beast was real. That it stood as tall as a full-grown man and had razor-like claws that were as sharp as brand-new steak knives, like those ones you see on TV. I hear a hissing sound behind my back. Slowly, I turn to find myself face to face with the very creature from my grandma’s stories. Its glowing red eyes stare into mine. I want to run, I really do. But with every step the creature takes, I find it harder and harder to move. It’s as if the creature’s red eyes have some kind of mind control power over me that keeps me from running. The creature gets closer and closer until it is so close that the drool dripping from the monster’s mouth falls on my sneakers.

Garza’s full-color cover, in brightly toned acrylic on paper, shows several of the creatures our young protagonists will encounter; and interspersed in each chapter with bold, black-and-white art, rendered in pen-and-ink and brush, is a visually scary reminder to readers: Be afraid, be very afraid.

Alvarez’s smooth idiomatic Spanish translation reads as well as the English. The term, “finders keepers, losers weepers,” becomes the old dicho, “El que lo encuentra se lo queda.” Trino says of his sister’s witching powers, “She calls them visions. I call them a pain in the butt.” In Spanish, he says, in a tone that’s milder but no less exasperated, “Las llama visiones. Yo las llamo dolores de cabeza.” When a blood-sucking beast kills Victor’s girlfriend’s father’s dog, Victor describes Chip as “dead as a doornail!” And in Spanish, it’s “¡está más muerto que muerto!”

These Twilight Zone-creepy stories will appeal to bilingual readers who can read each one in Spanish and in English, hablantes who are learning to read English, English speakers who are learning to read Spanish, and high-energy reluctant readers in either language. For all children who love to be scared in a safe place, The Donkey Lady Fights La Llorona and Other Stories / La señora Asno se enfrenta a la Llorona y otros cuentos is highly recommended.

—Beverly Slapin
(published 11/15/15)

Quiet Place

author: Sarah Stewart 
illustrator: David Small
Farrar Straus Giroux, 2012
preschool-grade 3 
Mexican

The Quiet Place takes place in 1957, as young Isabel and her family move from an unnamed town in Mexico to what appears to be Detroit. The front endpapers, frontispiece and title page depict unhappy people, skinny dogs and a small wagon hitched to the back of the family’s battered car, which holds all their belongings—some chairs, a dresser and a few boxes. 

As they travel north and move into their new neighborhood, Isabel and her family encounter only friendly white people—friendly white border guards, friendly white parents, friendly white children, and a friendly white teacher who doesn’t speak Spanish but smiles at Isabel. Still, the girl, feeling sad and alone, retreats with her teddy bear into a large cardboard box, which she decorates and transforms into a “quiet place.”

Isabel loves her cardboard box; she feels safe and comfortable in it. The author and illustrator may not have intended for this to be a metaphor, but it is loaded with significance. Isabel’s box fills the entire book cover. On the blue flaps, she’s drawn Mexican designs of sun, moon, stars, plants and animals. The inside “walls” are bright yellow, as is Isabel’s dress. There’s an orange shining sun on top and a shuttered window drawn on the side. On the floor, there are books, crayons, and her teddy bear for company. From inside her “quiet place,” Isabel, with a book on her lap, is looking out and smiling.

There are no other Mexican families in Isabel’s new neighborhood, no other children who share her life, who speak her language, who play games with her. When a rainstorm destroys her “quiet place,” she is inconsolable. But soon, she’s able to accumulate more boxes, ones that had held presents for the white children for whom her mother has been catering birthday parties.

From inside these discarded boxes, Isabel writes home to her Auntie Lupita, who has taught her English. The entire narrative consists of these letters—all in perfect, grammatical English—in which Isabel describes her emotions and new experiences. A final spread shows Isabel, after having creatively decorated all of her boxes, joyfully celebrating her birthday with her family and some newly found friends. Some of these friends appear to be ethnically mixed, in that the artist has tinted their faces brown. In a final letter to Auntie Lupita, Isabel expresses her happiness and, rather than ending with “Missing you,” concludes with “Wish you were here.”

Small’s colorful mixed-media artwork, which includes several wordless spreads, highlights Isabel’s initial loneliness and her transformation into a joyful child who has successfully assimilated. The Quiet Place received rave reviews from The New York Times, School Library Journal, Booklist, Kirkus, and Publishers Weekly, among others. The reviewer from School Library Journal, for instance, wrote that the story “poignantly capture(s) the emotional hardships and triumphs of the immigrant experience.”

No, it doesn’t.

First, setting this story in 1957, when thousands of Mexican workers were being recruited to work in Chicago’s meat packing plants and Detroit’s auto and steel industries, is the author’s and illustrator’s convenient way of evading the racist and violent historical and contemporary realities for immigrant and migrant Mexican workers and their families—and presenting a feel-good story for the intended audience.

It’s clear that this intended audience does not include Mexican children. It does not include young children for whom Spanish is their first language. It does not include young immigrant or migrant children. And it certainly does not include young children of color. No one in this story speaks Spanish, not even a Mexican mother consoling her child. Indeed, the only Spanish words here are “salsa,” “tamales,” “guacamole,” and the phrase “muchas gracias,” which is immediately translated into English. Since young Isabel already reads and writes fluent English, she has no issues involving learning or adapting to a new language. In fact, in Isabel’s world, there are no issues—no violence, no discrimination, no racism, no bullying, no taunting, and no suffering—because author, illustrator, and publisher do not have to see any.

Suffering, like the children in crisis on the border. Now.

Terrified mothers and fathers are sending their young children to the north, because it’s too dangerous where they live. Sometimes in the company of smugglers, these refugee children are literally running for their lives. When they get here, they are picked up by the Border Patrol and brought to detention centers with no schools, no books, and no permission to be reunited with relatives in the US. None of these thousands of unaccompanied children coming from Mexico or Central America in the last few years has been given a visa. These lonely, frightened refugee children are living in limbo—they miss their parents, their grandparents, their aunts and uncles, their cousins, and their friends—and they have no idea of what will happen to them. 

Under the illusion of “diversity,” The Quiet Place portrays immigrant and migrant children as successful as long as they quickly and easily learn English and adapt to the dominant culture while discarding their own. Here, the author, illustrator and publisher have transformed Mexican and Mexican-American children’s real lives, experiences and problems into a feel-good, pain-free picture book about assimilation for young readers who have never been forced to face the enormous difficulties associated with immigration or migration. And in doing so—in giving a young Mexican girl a discarded box to live in—the author, illustrator and publisher have contributed to the public shaming of Mexican and Mexican-American children, as well as of all immigrant, migrant and refugee children in this country.

Imagine a teacher’s reading this book to a classroom of kindergarteners in, say, El Paso. Imagine the expressions on their faces. Imagine the shocked silence and the silent tears. What an awful thing to inflict on our children. The Quiet Place is not recommended.

—Beverly Slapin
(published 11/11/15)

Maximilian: The Mystery of the Guardian Angel, a Bilingual Lucha Libre Thriller // Maximilian: The Bingo Rematch, A Lucha Libre Sequal

author: Xavier Garza
illustrator: Xavier Garza 
translator: Luis Humberto Crosthwaite
translator: Carla González Campos 
Cinco Puntos Press, 2011 
grades 6-up
Mexican American

Lucha Libre is a battle between good and evil, between técnicos and rudos. The symbolism of Lucha Libre plays out in the realities of the streets of Mexico and the impoverished Mexican-inhabited border towns of southern Texas: the struggle between extreme poverty and extreme wealth, between honesty and dishonesty, between justice and injustice. Everywhere in the Lucha Libre world, the battle is the same, everyone understands the symbolism, and the masked, caped and costumed luchadores—the “social wrestlers”—are the superheroes of the community.

In both novels, artist, teacher and storyteller Xavier Garza, who lives in San Antonio, captures drama and everyday life along the border, in a way that will appeal to middle readers.

In Mystery of the Guardian Angel, soon-to-be sixth grader Maximilian, like many Mexican-American youngsters, is a Lucha Libre fan. He knows the names and stories of all the luchadores, collects the colorful masks of his favorites, and attends every such event he can. If Max had to name the one luchador in the world that he idolizes, this would be the iconic Ángel de la Guarda (Guardian Angel), the greatest of all Lucha Libre legends, the fearless luchador who has been taking on all rudos—in the ring and in movies—for some four decades. 

But Max’s world suddenly changes when he slips over the guardrail and discovers the identity of the Guardian Angel, someone closer to him than he ever would have imagined. And Max wants to be him.

Garza’s extended network of luchadores—among them the hated rudos Vampire Velasquez, la Dama Enmascarada, and the chain-collar wearing Dog-Man Aguayo; and the técnicos Aztec Princess, el Toro Grande, and, of course, el Ángel de la Guarda—in many ways mirror Maximilian’s extended family of parents, siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins. All are complex, fiery, and have each other’s back; and readers will find out that their personal boundaries often cross the guardrails as well.

There is enough fast-moving action here to hold the attention of the most testosterone-filled middle-grade boys. Here, despite the rules that mixed tag team matches prohibit men and women from wrestling with each other, the rudos are not above cheating:

A dazed Toro Grande turns and is instantly greeted by a clobbering left punch followed by a staggering right uppercut from la Dama Enmascarada. She then bounces off the ropes to build up steam and delivers a devastating dropkick that knocks el Toro Grande right down to the mat…. La Dama Enmascarada is going wild on el Toro Grande. She begins to stomp him with her feet. She goes as far as doing the Mexican hat dance on el Toro Grande’s back. It’s humiliating!

As well, there are life lessons. Years ago, when young Rodolfo, then new to the world of Lucha Libre, had complained about the intense training, retired luchador Joaquin Anaya told him:

You see that man over there?….His wrestling moniker is el Demonio. His real name is Alejandro. He left his job as a railroad worker to pursue his dream of becoming a masked luchador. He has a wife and six kids. One day your life could be in his hands. And vice versa. Every time you and your opponents go out into that ring, you’re completely dependent on each other. You have to work together. One wrong move, one missed fall or slight miscalculation can send both of you to the hospital or worse.

What young Maximilian discovers and how his discovery plays out is a coming-of-age tale in itself.


author: Xavier Garza
illustrator: Xavier Garza
translator: Francisco Vargas
Cinco Puntos Press, 2013 
grades 6-up
Mexican American

In Bingo Rematch, conflict reigns as Maximilian is beginning junior high, a challenge everyone who’s ever been to junior high will remember. In school, will the mean eighth-graders prevail? In the ring, there’s an all-out war between the técnicos and rudos, of course. Who will sacrifice himself to save a semi-conscious tag-team partner? There’s an almost all-out, “no holds barred brawl” between Tía Dolores and Tía Socorro, who both claim the Queen Bingo trophy. Will Father Martinez rig the lotería game in order to achieve peace? Will a moral lesson end a life-long feud? Maximilian’s love, Celia, “the girl of his dreams,” abruptly moves to California, and a new girl with a mysterious connection enters the scene. Will Max’s and Celia’s long-distance love last or will the newcomer's machinations have dire consequences? When Max comes to the realization that he belongs to Lucha Libre “royalty,” will he learn how being involved in Lucha Libre can devastate family relationships?

As in Guardian Angel, Bingo Rematch is an intense, quick-paced page-turner that will grab both English readers and hablantes, especially boys. As both Lucha Libre stories careen from action to hilarious telenovela and back again (in Guardian Angel, for instance, spurned girlfriend becomes ruda in order to tackle and humiliate ex-boyfriend who finds out too late that…), middle readers will also encounter often-explosive, yet enduring, family relationships and outside-the-ring, bonding camaraderie among Lucha Libre’s “sworn enemies.”

Garza’s full-color covers, in acrylic on paper, shows us a determined, young, die-hard Lucha Libre aficionado; and he begins each chapter with bold, black-and-white art—rendered in pen-and-ink and brush—that recaptures the feel of the old El Santo comic books.

One of the things that make these books outstanding is their careful Spanish translation, done at least as well as the English version; I’m especially impressed at the way the idiomatic English is interpreted into idiomatic Spanish. (In Bingo Rematch, for instance, Max’s mom lets his sister Rita know that she knows who broke the piggy bank. In English, Mom tells Rita: “Don’t lie. I caught you red-handed.” And in Spanish, it becomes, “No me eches mentiras, Rita…Te agarré con las manos en la masa.” In addition, the brilliant book design features parallel translations that facilitate bilingualism, so both English speakers who are learning Spanish and hablantes who are learning English can enjoy the story without having to break the action to locate the translation. 

Both Maximilian & the Mystery of the Guardian Angel and Maximilian & the Bingo Rematch are fresh, engaging bilingual novels, action-packed and sometimes over-the-top silly. Guardian Angel won Xavier Garza a 2012 Pura Belpré Honor Award, and both novels are highly recommended.

—Beverly Slapin
(published 11/1/15)

Olita y Manyula: El gran cumpleaños / Olita and Manyula: The Big Birthday


author: Jorge Tetl Argueta
illustrator: Alex “El Aleph” Sánchez
Luna’s Press Books, 2015
kindergarten-grade 2
Pipíl, Salvadoran

In this sweet little story, which has roots in Argueta’s own childhood, young Olita (Holly), who lives in the US, has come to visit friends and family in El Salvador, where it’s “green, warm and rainy.” On Sunday, Olita’s tía, cousin and two friends are taking her to Manyula’s big birthday party. Olita has no idea who Manyula is, only that she’s their “great friend” and her house is close by. The four excited children, with Tía not far behind, walk in the rain, jump puddles, stop at a bridge to admire the bubbly water of a river, and “pass through a river of food vendors.” And finally, they meet and greet the birthday girl—the great Manyula, the elephant who came to live in El Salvador more than 50 years ago, the elephant so treasured by all that the government made her a Salvadoran citizen.

While both the English and Spanish have a rhythm that will appeal to young readers, Argueta’s Spanish is the beautiful music of an accomplished poet who knows and loves the land of his birth and his childhood streets.

In English, for instance, we read:

[W]e see the San Salvador volcano. What a giant! It looks like it’s playing soccer with the winter clouds. It’s raining the way it rains around here: tik-tik, a little bit of rain; tok-tok. The sun shines and then hides again.
And in Spanish,

[V]emos el volcán de San Salvador. ¡Qué gigante! Está jugando fútbol con las nubes de invierno. Está lloviendo como llueve aquí: pin-pin un poquito de lluvia, pon-pon, más lluvia. El sol brilla y luego se vuelve a esconder. 
Sánchez’s acrylic art on canvas, on a bejeweled palette of mostly pinks, blues and greens, portray the lushness of the land and the ethnic mixture of the Salvadoran people. As the friends walk through the countryside, young readers will take in the ever-present raindrops, a giant volcano “playing soccer with the winter clouds,” a river’s “zigzag of bubbly water,” tall bamboo stalks swinging, a rainbow’s “path of colors in the sky,” and Manyula, of course, with her huge fruit-and-veggie birthday cake.

Since way before Manyula arrived in 1960, El Salvador has been plagued by US-financed and -supported death squads, assassinations, failed revolutions, gang wars, and ownership of the country by an oligarchy of 14 families who siphon the wealth, leaving behind fear, poverty and garbage. To the strong, enduring people of El Salvador, Manyula, in effect, unites the community; she’s a beloved symbol of survival and stability.

Olita y Manyula will resonate with young children on so many different levels. As a story for little ones, including migrant, immigrant and refugee children, it can be about appreciating all the beauty that, even in the toughest of situations, life can offer. It can be about living socially, outside the vast universe of Facebook or the Internet. It can be about issues involving immigration and traveling back and forth, and the nature of the place one calls “home.” Olita y Manyula: El gran cumpleaños / Olita and Manyula: The Big Birthday, Luna’s Press’s first bilingual picture book, is highly recommended. 


—Beverly Slapin
(published 10/20/15)

Sopa de frijoles: Un poema para cocinar / Bean Soup: A Cooking Poem

author: Jorge Tetl Argueta
illustrator: Rafael Yockteng
Groundwood Books / House of Anansi Press, 2009
kindergarten-grade 2
Pipíl, Salvadoran

In this elegant, bilingual free-verse poem that is also a recipe (or recipe that is also a poem), Argueta and Yockteng show a young child how to prepare a delicious and nutritious pot of bean soup—“una sabrosa / sopita de frijoles.” And in the gathering and preparation of ingredients—chopping, adding, mixing, stirring—as well as setting the table, there are gently inserted life lessons. All things are alive, all things have volition, all things are related, and all things will give back if you afford them care and respect.


From the beginning, instructing a child in this way: “Primero pones / los frijolitos / en el cielo de la mesa. / Los frijoles son estrellitas. / Los limpias / de cualquier basurita. / Los frijolitos al chocar / unos con otros / hacen  musiquita. / Tu también puedes cantar.” (“First spread / the beans / out on the sky of the table. / The beans are stars. / Throw away / any little pebbles. / When the beans touch / they clink a little song. / You can sing too.”)—slows down the process, as well it should. 


Yockteng’s paintings, rendered in watercolor on a muted earthy-toned palette of mostly browns, with some blues and reds, complement both the soup and the story. Here is a little boy, rising from his video game to try something else. Here he is separating the beans, dropping some on the floor, juggling with some while the rest cooks. Here’s mom in a support role, mopping up, drying onion-chopping tears, watching in case she’s needed, but not interfering. As the water “boils and sings” and “the beans dance together” (“El aguita hierve y canta. / Los frijolitos bailan unos / con otros. / El aguita se ha vuelto / morena como el color / de la Madre Tierra”), the wonderful aroma visually invites the child to dance as well.


It’s clear that Argueta first composed Sopa de frijoles in Spanish and then interpreted it into English. Although the English has rhythm as well, the lyrical, idiomatic Spanish bestows a kind of volition that the English doesn’t. For instance, “El fuego va a bailar / mientras los frijoles / se van ablandando / lentamente” translates to “The fire will dance / while the beans / slowly get soft.”

On the last page—¡Ayyy, que sabor!—the aroma of the bean soup has invited the whole family to the table. Sopa de frijoles: Un poema para cocinar / Bean Soup: A Cooking Poem is highly recommended.

—Beverly Slapin
(published 10/18/15)

Light Foot / Pies ligeros

author: Natalia Toledo
author: Francisco Toledo 
translator: Elisa Amado 
Groundwood Books / House of Anansi Press, 2007 
all grades 
Zapotec

It all began when Death saw that all the humans and animals were having baby after baby but no one was dying, and the world was getting way too crowded. To put an end to this population explosion, Death challenges everyone to a rope-skipping contest and, being immortal, she thinks she is sure to win. One by one, Man, Toad, Monkey, Iguana, Coyote, Rabbit and Alligator keel over, and Death even manages to steal a pair of leather shoes from Man’s body. Then along comes Grasshopper….

Francisco Toledo, one of Mexico’s best-known contemporary Indigenous artists, created a series of engravings of Death skipping rope with the animals, and Natalia Toledo wrote the accompanying story in Zapotec. Interpreted into English by Elisa Amado, the story appears here in Spanish and English.

Young readers will giggle as each animal is enticed into Death’s game; and they will find out why you never hear Death when she comes into a house, and why Grasshopper never did stop jumping. Light Foot / Pies ligeros complements the celebrations of el Día de los Muertos. Highly recommended.


—Beverly Slapin
(published 10/17/15)

Napí // Napí Goes to the Mountain // Napí funda un pueblo / Napí Makes a Village

author: Antonio Ramírez
illustrator: Domi 
Groundwood Books / House of Anansi Press, 2004 
preschool-up 
Mazateca

At home on the bank of a river in Oaxaca, Napí loves to dream. She says she is poor, but that is belied by the richness of her land, her culture, and the community of which she is a valued part. In the shade of a pachota (ceiba) tree “that is so big, it protects our whole village,” Napí sits with her family; her naa (mother) braids her hair and her grandfather tells the old stories. In Napí’s world everything is alive, everything has volition and beauty; the afternoons dress themselves in greens, oranges and violets, and at night,  “the trees on the riverbank slowly bloom with herons.” 

With her umbilical cord buried in the roots of her beloved pachota, this Mazateca child is tied to the land in a very real way, and when she sleeps, the pachota brings her dreams of becoming a heron, flying along the river. Domi’s gorgeous acrylic paintings, on a rich palette of jewel-like tones, complement this quiet little story of an Indian child secure and at home in the loving arms of her family and her world. Also available in Spanish. Highly recommended.


author: Antonio Ramírez
illustrator: Domi 
Groundwood Books / House of Anansi Press, 2006 
preschool-up 
Mazateca

One evening, Napí’s namí (father) does not come home from working in the field, and his worried friends fear he might have been taken away. A nightlong search in the mountains yields nothing, so the next morning Napí and her little brother skip school and go to search for him. Upriver and in the jungle, they find themselves transformed into deer and are guided by turtles, storks, a coral snake, a bat, a mouse, and an armadillo mama, who tells them, “The family is finally together again.” Accompanied by the animals, who are “like brothers and sisters, children of the same mother, the Earth,” the children race home to a joyful reunification. “It was so good to see him,” Napí says, “that I forgot to worry about where he had been.” Again, Domi’s amazing paintings, her bold colors this time surrounded by large areas of brown wash, are perfect.

Had Napí’s father been taken by Chicón, the Lord of the Earth, or by el patrón and his thugs? We don’t know. As in Ramirez’ and Domi’s previous story, the impoverishment and terror of being Indian in Mexico (and in much of Latin America) is only hinted at, but it’s there. For many Indigenous children in the south, the threat of having your parents “disappeared” is a daily reality, and these stories, while not solely “about” this terrible situation, certainly place it in its political and social context. Also available in Spanish, Napí va a la montaña. Highly recommended.


author: Antonio Ramírez
illustrator: Domi 
Groundwood Books / House of Anansi Press, 2010 
preschool-up 
Mazateca

This third story in the Napí series is bilingual and based on Domi’s own life. Forced out of their ancestral homeland, San Pedro Ixcatlán, by the government, some 75 Mazateca families work together to build a new home. Here, Napí witnesses the “giving birth to Nuevo Ixcatlán, and that meant we had to make sacrifices.” The little girl fully understands the teachings of her elders and why her family decides to stay in this new, inhospitable land—“For us Indians, the best thing to do is to resist, to stay alive and to stay together.”

Domi’s bright, bold paintings of the lush jungle and Napí’s dreams are complemented by the browns and grays of portions of the land that the people have had to clear-cut for farming.

Told in matter-of-fact language that will resonate with young children, Napí funda un pueblo / Napí Makes a Village, without polemic, tells the story of what Indigenous peoples all over the world continue to face at the hands of rapacious and powerful governments. Highly recommended.


Ramírez and Domi continue to work for Indigenous rights, especially with the Zapatista movement in Chiapas through their Colectivo Callejero, the “streetwise collective,” an organization they helped to found.

—Beverly Slapin
(published 10/17/15)