Graciela: A Mexican-American Child Tells Her Story

author: Joe Molnar
Franklin Watts, 1972 
grades 3-up 
Mexican American

Graciela is the first of three “photo-and-tape” books by Joe Molnar, an elementary-school teacher who later decided to devote himself to photojournalism. Inspired by the civil rights movement, he created a series of books that told the lives of minority children in their own words. With portable tape recorder and camera, he traveled the country, meeting with families, shooting photos and listening to what the children had to say about their own lives.

Through a social worker in Brownsville, Texas, Molnar met Graciela and her large, hardworking Mexican-American family.* The text of the book, he writes, is based on tape recordings of conversations with Graciela. Most of the black-and-white photos, naturally lit, were not posed; and what makes this book important is that the words are clearly Graciela’s, with very little filtering by the author.

Twelve-year-old Graciela, her parents and her seven brothers and two sisters are a close-knit family who spend part of the year at home in Texas and part of the year in Michigan, working as migrant agricultural workers. Initial photos show Graciela hanging out with her family, working with her mother in the kitchen, and taking care of and playing with the baby. It’s clear that this family enjoys being together.

But Graciela’s family’s lives are difficult, sometimes harrowing. When her three-year-old brother is hit by a motorcycle, “the hospital said we owed them two hundred dollars and Abel would have to stay there until we paid. I got very upset when I heard that and thought the hospital was ignorant and mean. But later, on the telephone, the hospital said yes, we could take him home and we brought Abel home the next day.”

At the beginning of June, Graciela’s family heads north to Michigan, where they work the fields to try to earn the little that will sustain them when they return to Texas. “School isn’t over yet,” Graciela says, “but we have to go because we need the money. My little brothers will be able to finish their classes in Michigan for the month of June, but the rest of us won’t.”

When they get to Michigan, the large family has to live in a two-room house with only a two-burner stove and without an oven or even running water. Graciela matter-of-factly describes the work:

My mother and me, we go out to one field. My father, Eleazar, Irma, and María go to another field. They pick tomatoes, watermelons, beans, cucumbers, squash, and pickles. Pickles are the worst, because you have to be bending down all the time and get all wet, pickle plants have a lot of water. My mother and me, we pick cauliflower. We get a big bunch and separate them and put them in baskets.

We all start at seven in the morning and work until noon. Then we go back to the house for lunch or sometimes eat in the field. About one o’clock we start working again until four or five. We’re very tired when we finish and come home, our wrists hurt and our hands. We get paid a dollar fifty an hour.

While the townspeople in Michigan are more-or-less friendly to them, Graciela says, back in Texas her family has to contend with out-and-out racism at school, especially from teachers. And, opposite a photo of Graciela somberly looking on while her mother is talking on the phone, she describes her family’s financial worries:

Sometimes my mother and father worry a lot. They worry about sending us to school. They want very much for us to finish school and not to have to take us out just so we can work. They try their best to give us clothes and dress us up real good so we can go to school neat and proud. They worry about feeding our family too. And getting another bed so my little brother David doesn’t have to sleep on a mattress on the floor. So they worry about money a lot. Right now we have enough to pay our bills. We are paying off the house, and in two more years, it will belong to us. And we are paying off our truck, we’re almost through with that and it’s a big bill too, about ninety-five dollars a month. Our biggest worry right now is how to pay the hospital for Abel. But we’ll be okay. We’ll manage.

The photos and text in the rest of the book show Graciela and her sisters and brothers playing “chase and hide-and-seek and a lot of games that we think up ourselves,” dancing, and going to a carnival in Brownsville, a big town just across the border from Mexico. And on the last page, a smiling, almost laughing, Graciela is literally framed by her parents. “Sometimes I wish I was already in high school or I wish I was already a nurse and working,” she says. “Then maybe I could have a piano. I would study and learn how to play it real good. I would play happy music. Music like it would make me feel everything is okay, everything is going to be all right.”

For young readers who are agricultural workers, Graciela is a treasure. For young readers who cannot imagine what material poverty is like or how their food arrives at the supermarket, Graciela can be an education in itself. In any event, I’d like to see Graciela together with other excellent picture books about the struggles of agricultural workers, such as Carmen Bernier-Grand’s César: ¡Sí, Se puede! Yes, We Can!, Kathleen Krull’s Harvesting Hope: The Story of Cesar Chavez, and Sarah Warren’s Dolores Huerta: A Hero to Migrant Workers.

Although Graciela is an older out-of-print book, it is available and highly recommended.

—Beverly Slapin
(published 7/25/15)

*Joe Molnar, telephone interview with Julia L. Mickenberg, May 29, 2006. In Julia L. Mickenberg and Philip Nel, Tales for Little Rebels: A Collection of Radical Children’s Literature. NYU Press, 2008.

When Reason Breaks

author: Cindy L. Rodriguez
Bloomsbury, 2015 
grades 7-up 
Puerto Rican

When Reason Breaks is the debut novel of Cindy L. Rodriguez, an important new voice in young adult literature. Set in the present, this story is about two girls and their English teacher, all of whose names have the initials E.D., and all of whom grapple with suicide and the poetry of Emily Dickinson.

Emily Delgado is the compliant daughter of a conservative Latino politician and a member of a close-knit circle of friends. While the family’s place of origin is not specified, the setting of the novel somewhere in Connecticut and the food and drink hint that they are Puerto Rican. Emily and her brother, Austin, speak with their parents in Spanish as well as English and the code switching is seamless—no awkward translations in narrative or dialogue and no need for a glossary.

“Mami, are you going to say anything?”
Que quieres que te diga?” she asked.
“I don’t know, something, anything to help me out here.”
“You’re old enough to fight your own battles,” said Mamá.

Emily’s Anglo counterpart, Elizabeth Davis, is a defiant Goth whose anger and previous suicide attempts have led her to become isolated and labeled. In many ways, she is the opposite of Emily, but assigned to work together on an English project, the two forge a fragile connection.

At the beginning of the novel, one of the girls attempts suicide and the other one along with Ms. Emilia Diaz tries to save her. But we don’t know which teenager sought to take her life on that Saturday morning in March. Rodriguez keeps us guessing until the very end, and in doing so, she explores the pressures the girls face and how depression works independently of how the girls may be treated by others. The smoothly executed dual narrative—in close third person alternating between Emily and Elizabeth’s perspectives, interspersed with letters written to Ms. Diaz—serves this story line well.  Readers observe the journey both Emily and Elizabeth take over the course of eight months, a journey that leads each of them to the breaking point. In truth, either one of them could have been the one to take her life.

Within this thoughtful and compelling story are a full cast of secondary characters, among them Emily’s boyfriend, Kevin, whose parents are two dads. Kevin’s parents are not an “issue” of this novel but rather part of the community just like everyone else.

Secondary characters have played an important role in many young adult novels that explore suicide, as they are the ones left behind to ask “why?” A number of novels, most notably Jay Asher’s best-selling Thirteen Reasons Why, place at least some blame on those secondary characters. And while bullying and other forms of abuse and cruelty can contribute to a young person’s decision to commit suicide, many people who commit suicide are loved and treated well, but they suffer from depression. Teens and the adults in their lives must learn to recognize the signs of depression and know how they can help their family member or friend.

When Reason Breaks builds awareness by creating characters—both main and secondary—about whom the reader cares. And through her complex, realistic, and sympathetic characters, Rodriguez addresses another prejudice that needs to be overcome—that of mental illness, so people young and old who experience depression can come forward and be assured of the understanding and support of family, friends, and neighbors. When Reason Breaks is highly recommended.

—Lyn Miller-Lachmann
(published 7/24/15)

A shorter version of this review appeared on The Pirate Tree (

Soap, Soap, Soap / Jabón, Jabón, Jabón

author: Elizabeth O. Dulemba 
illustrator: Elizabeth O. Dulemba 
Raven Tree Press, 2009 
preschool-grade 3 
Mexican American

The illustrator of Paco y La Planta de Chile Gigante / Paco and the Giant Chile Plant is back now with her own work. With the same structure as Paco, Soap is a modernized version of the classic Appalachian Jack tale written in English with Spanish words peppered throughout and highlighted in red, and primarily featuring Latina/o characters. Also like Paco, Soap is marketed as bilingual, which, of course, its not.

Here, Hugos mother sends her forgetful child to the market to buy soap. Although the market is only a short walk from his house, he chooses a roundabout path through the playground, down the sidewalk, past a ditch, through the schoolyard into the market. Sort of like the comic strip, Family Circus. Along the way he encounters multiple obstacles, neighbors, and misunderstandings, which sometimes lead to violence. Each time, he forgets what he was supposed to buy, but is reminded by something someone says until his next encounter.

Hugo slips and falls into a puddle of mud, his friend also falls into the mud puddle, an elderly neighbor drops her groceries and grabs and scolds Hugo, and a bully hurls him into a ditch. Finally, Hugo gets to the market, purchases the soap, jumps back over the ditch, past his fuming neighborstill yelling about her groceriesand through the playground to his house. His mother, agape when she sees her stinky, filthy child, marches him to the tub to bathe himself with his newly purchased soap, soap, soap.

Dulembas acrylic paintings on a palette of bright oranges, yellows, greens and earthy browns, are inviting; and the storys premise is silly but appropriate for the age range for which it is intended. However, Soap, Soap, Soap is a tour de force of racial and ethnic stereotypes.

Hugos mother appears to be single. Certainly, single mothers exist in all cultures and ethnicities, but it is exasperating to see Latinas consistently cast as women who must raise their children alone. In addition, both women hereHugos mother and the elderly, hotheaded Latina who drops her groceries and remains incensed for what could be hoursare heavyset with prominent derrières. Hugos young friend, an African American child, is named Jellybean, which is a racial slur for Black people [1]. And, as with Paco, there is not one actual cultural marker in this story [2], and the highlighting of a few Spanish words in red sends a negative and confusing signal to Spanish-speaking children while teaching English-speaking children little of value.

And, although Dulembas bright images make it appear that Hugo lives in a cheerful and safe neighborhood, he experiences violence multiple times while trying to run a simple errand for his mother. This plays out like the lives of minority young people growing up in impoverished and violent neighborhoods where at any moment they can get hurt, or worse, just for being at the wrong place at the wrong time.

Soap, Soap, Soap / Jabón, Jabón, Jabón is not recommended.

Lisette Silva
(published 7/12/15)

[1] “Jellybean,” as a name for Black people, is a racial slur that means, “no one likes the black ones.” (Racial Slur Database,

[2] The one Spanish expression used here, “Ay, caramba!” more likely befits “Pancho,” the not-so-bright sidekick of the 1950’s “Mexican” TV hero, “The Cisco Kid.” It was also the catch phrase of Bart Simpson.

Paco y La Planta de Chile Gigante / Paco and the Giant Chile Plant

author: Keith Polette  
illustrator: Elizabeth O. Dulemba 
Raven Tree Press, 2008 
preschool-grade 3 
Mexican American

Set in the Southwestern United States, Paco y La Planta de Chile Gigante is a re-imagined version of Jack and the Beanstalk, the classic English tale of a poor widow and her son who sells their dairy cow for magic beans. Upon learning of her son’s action, the outraged mother throws the beans on the ground where, overnight, they grow into an enormous beanstalk. Looking for treasure, Jack climbs the beanstalk to find a horrible, nasty, greedy giant who attempts to eat him, but ultimately Jack prevails in stealing the giant’s gold and other stuff and the giant falls to his doom.

In Paco, the English boy and his family morph into Latinos. Here, a poor, presumably widowed, mother sends Paco off to town to sell their dairy cow—which he does, for magic chile seeds. But rather than proudly presenting the chile seeds to his mother as Jack did with his beans, Paco plants the seeds himself to see what happens. The chile plant quickly grows up to the sky and Paco climbs it, looking for treasures.

Upon reaching the top, Paco harvests the chile blooms, enters a house of enormous proportions and meets the giant himself. Like the original tale, the giant is terrifying and tries to eat Paco; but unlike the original, he sees Paco as the savory filling for a thin, flat Mexican pancake of masa or flour:


In an attempt to save himself, Paco offers the giant his chiles de oro. The chiles burst in the giant’s strong grip and spray their juice all over his face. The juice is so hot that the giant begins to cry a river of tears. With each tear, he begins to shrink and shrink until he is the size of an average man. Once the crying and shrinking stuff stop, Paco recognizes the man as—his father! Yes, years before, the father-cum-giant-cum-father tells Paco, he had climbed a giant chile plant, also looking for treasures. When he got to the top, like his son, he found chiles de oro. But, rather than just picking them, he ate them—and turned into a terrible giant.

So Paco and his father clamber down the chile plant and chop it down as the mother comes out of their house to find her long lost husband with their son. And they live happily ever after.

Paco could be seen as a charming “Latino” rendition of the original, but the devil is in the details. Dulemba’s digitally rendered artwork—on a palette of mostly desert browns, yellows and greens—is designed to reflect a “beautiful desert setting in the American Southwest.” It does. But I couldn’t make sense of the time period(s) in which it’s supposed to be set. Paco and his father appear to be dressed as Mexican campesinos who look like they came out of an old Clint Eastwood movie set in the 1800s, while the mother’s clothing and hairstyle appear to be from the 1930s or 40s.

And Polette portrays his Mexican American characters (including the giant) stereotypically:

• A Latina mother who is single and abandoned rather than a widow

• A deceptive Latino child who plants the seeds himself, rather than an innocently precocious boy, who proudly shows his mother how he is “helping” her

• A Latino father who is a dimwitted dreamer looking for treasures in the clouds, who abandons his family, and who becomes a violent thug (before he changes back)

• And finally, Latina/os who eat hot chiles turn into monsters

Then there’s the language: Although there’s a vocabulary page in which each of the Spanish words is translated into English, Paco demonstrates the type of structure that is all too often falsely marketed as “bilingual,” as this one is. But it’s not a bilingual story. It’s not a story in Spanglish, either. Rather, it’s an English-language story with Spanish words casually tossed in throughout—and worse, each Spanish word is embedded in red type. This technique, according to the liner notes, aids in the fun and learning of both languages. But the reality is that it relegates the “other” language to second-class citizenry.

I don’t know what the purpose of Paco is. If it’s an attempt to teach Spanish to English-speaking children, it fails: A few words do not make a language. If it’s an attempt to teach English to hablantes, it fails as well. If it’s an attempt to change a well-known fairy tale into a “diverse” story, placing it in another time and locale and stereotyping the characters is exactly the opposite of what it purports to do.

Paco y La Planta de Chile Gigante / Paco and the Giant Chile Plant is not recommended.

—Lisette Silva
(published 7/7/15)

Can You See Me Now?

author: Estela Bernal  
Piñata Books / Arte Público Press, 2014 
grades 4-7 
Mexican American

On Mandy Silva’s 13th birthday, her father goes out to pick up her gift and never returns. Instead, a police officer comes to the door to tell her and her mother that a drunk driver had struck his car, instantly killing him. Consumed by grief, Mandy’s mother looks for someone to blame: “If she hadn’t insisted on that stupid watch for her birthday, he would still be alive.”

Mandy feels both guilty for leading her father into harm’s way and invisible in her own grief. Her mother takes on extra shifts at work, leaving Mandy in the care of her grandmother. And the school bullies cut her no slack—just days after she returns to school, they glue her skirt to the chair.

A local history project leads Mandy to Paloma, another “invisible” girl whose hippie parents, studious demeanor, and interest in yoga have also knocked her off the social radar. Mandy also realizes her own complicity in marginalizing other students when the house across the street from her grandmother’s burns down, and she discovers that Rogelio, the overweight boy who lives there, has been her classmate for years but she has never spoken to him. Now she does, and it leads to another friendship both with him and with his dog.

In writing letters to her father, Mandy comes to terms with her grief and with the changes in her life. She realizes that many people feel invisible—including her classmates and the older people in her community—and in making the effort to reach out to others, she, too, heals.

Mandy, whose given name is Amanda, is Latina, as are nearly all the other characters in this middle grade novel that immerses readers in a small town in Texas populated by Latina/o residents who have lived there for many generations. Bernal’s vivid descriptions of “San Fulano” (the town’s name, which implies anonymity) give the setting depth, as if it’s a character in the story. It also challenges the stereotype of Latina/os as recent immigrants or having lived here for no more than two or three generations. In fact, there are many in the West and Southwest whose families have lived in that area since before 1848, when the United States seized those lands from Mexico.

The other Tejana/o characters are diverse as well, countering stereotypes. There are popular kids and social outcasts, people of all economic strata (though in this novel, Mandy and her friends are solidly middle- or upper middle income) and with a variety of interests from yoga to dogs. Still, heritage is important. Mandy’s teacher, Ms. Romero, is an outspoken opponent of a large development project that threatens to wipe out sites of historic value, and the class’s local history project leads Mandy and her friends to meet the town’s elderly residents and to learn about their lives. Can You See Me Now? is recommended.

—Lyn Miller-Lachmann
(published 7/5/15)

Summer of the Mariposas

author: Guadalupe García McCall
Lee & Low, 2012 
grades 7-up 
Mexican American

Following the success of her verse novel, Under the Mesquite, Guadalupe García McCall’s excellent second novel explores the Mestizo heritage of her characters through a story filled with mystery and magic realism. Fifteen-year-old Odilia Garza, the eldest of five girls living in a Texas town across the river from Mexico, has always thought of herself as descended from the Spanish conquistadores. Although her mother is darker, her father, who abandoned the family several years earlier, has the complexion of a European.

After Odilia and her sisters discover the dead body of a man floating in their favorite swimming hole, the ghost of La Llorona—the mythical woman who drowned her children and is doomed to wander the earth forever—visits her. Here though, La Llorona is mourning not only her own children but also the Aztec people who have lost their connection to their noble past. As La Llorona tells Odilia,
It is an eternal atonement, to watch over the children of the sun, the children of my people, the Azteca bloodline…Yes. You are descendent of a great people. 
La Llorona gives Odilia a magic pendent—the ear pendant of the Aztec Serpent God Cihuacoatl—and together with her bickering sisters, Odilia drives across the border to return the dead man to his family and to find her estranged paternal grandmother. McCall interweaves traditional legends, magic realism, and the hero’s journey to create a powerful tale of understanding and triumph featuring a resourceful and memorable heroine.

One of the major contributions of this novel is the reconsideration of the legend of La Llorona, who, like La Malinche, has been used for centuries to enforce patriarchy and the subjugation of women. Even Odilia has absorbed the myth that portrays women as weak and treacherous, needing protection from their own impulses:
I had heard so many awful things about Llorona that I couldn’t help it, I pulled away from her and took a few steps back. “But you . . . killed your children.” It was common knowledge, more than a legend. 
In Summer of the Mariposas, the male adults are the weak ones—the father who abandons the family and the dead man who needs the girls to return his body and spirit to his wife and children. As La Llorona explains to Odilia, 
“You were chosen for the goodness in your heart…. Like Juan Diego, the most humble of the Virgen’s children, you are noble and kindhearted. You displayed great courage when you jumped into the water to save my sons. Your sister was right when she said finding the body of the drowned man was not an accident.” 
Also memorable are the other sisters, each of whom has her own personality and strengths, as one of Odilia’s tasks is to get them to work together rather than against each other. Summer of the Mariposas is a gripping tale that is also a welcome commentary on going beyond what’s “common knowledge” to get at the truth, and the importance of discovering and appreciating one’s mixed heritage. Highly recommended.

—Lyn Miller-Lachmann
(published 7/4/15)