Maya’s Blanket / La Manta de Maya

author: Monica Brown
translator: Adriana Domínguez 
illustrator: David Díaz 
Children’s Book Press / Lee & Low, 2015 
kindergarten-grade 4

In the old Yiddish tale I know, a poor tailor finally saves enough to buy some cloth to cut and sew into an overcoat. As decades pass, his coat wears out, so he cuts and sews what’s left variously into a jacket, a vest, a cap, a button and finally—a story. In the song, “Epes fun gornisht,” the refrain is “Makhn vir epes fun gornisht azai,” “That’s how we make something from nothing,” and in the end, he makes a song. The unstated teaching is about poverty, thrift, repurposing, determination, and perseverance.

Although Maya’s Blanket / La Manta de Maya contains some elements of the traditional Yiddish story—involving the recreation of an item into one that becomes smaller and smaller until nothing is left—its characters, scenarios, particular rhythmic pattern and cumulative word structure are Brown’s own. Here, Abuelita sews a blanket, imbued with a touch of magic, for baby Maya. As young Maya matures, she and Abuelita cut and sew what’s left of the blanket into other creations, all with a touch of magic: a dress, then a skirt, then a shawl, then a scarf, then a hair ribbon, and finally a bookmark, which Maya eventually loses. Coming full circle, she creates a picture book called Maya’s Blanket, exactly like the one young readers hold in their hands.

In her cumulative word structure, Brown incorporates the Spanish term in italics for each creation and the English translation for the last on the list: “So with her own two hands and Abuelita’s help, Maya made her bufanda that was her rebozo that was her falda that was her vestido that was her manta into a cinta that she loved very much. Maya wore the ribbon tied around her long, brown hair…”

Domínguez’s Spanish translation is idiomatic and reads naturally. As she did with Brown’s Marisol McDonald Doesn’t Match / Marisol McDonald no combina, I would like to have seen the Spanish terms on the English side flipped into English on the Spanish side, like this: “Así que, con sus propias manos y la ayuda de Abuelita, Maya convertió su scarf que había sido su shawl, que había sido su skirt, que había sido su dress, que había sido su blanket, en una ribbon que quería mucho. Maya usó la cinta mágica para recogerse el largo pelo castaño…”

Young readers and listeners will enjoy the entirety of this warm little story. Maya’s Blanket / La Manta de Maya is recommended.

—Beverly Slapin
 (published 9/24/15; paragraph redacted and note added 2/15/18)

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

Dancing Home

author: Alma Flor Ada
author: Gabriel M. Zubizarreta
Atheneum / Simon & Schuster, 2011 
grades 3-5 
Mexican, Mexican American

Dancing Home utilizes elements of “A Margarita” (“To Margarita”), a lovely poem penned by the great Nicaraguan poet, Rubén Darío, and skillfully interpreted in English by Rosalma Zubizareta.

In alternating third-person narratives, readers learn the perspectives of fifth-graders Margie, born in Texas of Mexican parents; and Lupe, Margie’s Mexican cousin, newly arrived in the US. Margie, whose voice predominates, is proud to be “American,” does not speak Spanish, and is embarrassed by her cousin’s Mexican ways that seem to invite negative attention.  At the same time, Lupe, whose voice is clearly secondary, does not speak English, knows that her cousin is uncomfortable with her and is embarrassed at not knowing what is expected of her in this new place—“What she really wanted was to crawl under the desk, or better yet, to run all the way back to Mexico.” Meanwhile, Margie, who sees her life as becoming more difficult, is resentful of her parents’ positive relationship with their niece, with whom they communicate in “enthusiastic Spanish.”

In order to portray Lupe as sufficiently grateful that she is here with her “American” relatives, there is a long description of Mexican family life that contains just about every stereotype there is: Lupe’s school is regimented and uninteresting, her family is impoverished, her undocumented father abandons them, her depressed and emotionally distant mother neglects her, and her new stepfather is drunk and abusive.

Yet, as a secondary character, Lupe does not express any particular needs. Rather,

Lupe felt so grateful for this new home she had that she could not bear the thought of her own joy causing anyone else pain. She hoped that Margarita knew that in sharing her own parents, she was not losing anything. If need be, Lupe would find a way to help her see that.

Later, while Margie comes to enjoy speaking Spanish and learning about Mexican foods, dances and holidays, Lupe puts her own interests aside and selflessly adapts:

Having to be constantly moving forward, faster than she could take in all of the new experiences coming her way, was not a good feeling. Yet Lupe smiled. Even bad feelings got better when you understood where they were coming from. 

In case readers hadn’t realized that Margie’s voice is more important than Lupe’s, the final chapter practically shouts that the story is, indeed, all about her: “As the poem ended with the poet saying goodbye to the girl to whom he had dedicated the poem, it seemed to Margie as though the words were being addressed directly to her, as though she herself were the Margarita in the poem.”

Lupe’s father reappears towards the end of the story, describing the horrible life of an undocumented worker, “acknowledging his own errors, making a sincere effort to free her from carrying the burden of his own mistakes, and encouraging her to be fully in charge of her own life. Standing before her as a brave and fallible human being, he was doing his best to make amends.”

In one of their many digressions from the story, the authors describe the US Bracero Program in this distorted way:

The program had started when many of the old family farms were bought up by large agricultural enterprises. These new factory farms needed many seasonal workers. Since few people in the United States were willing to do this kind of low-wage work, laws were passed allowing growers to bring men from Mexico to do farmwork in the United States and then return to Mexico.

The reality was that there was no shortage of domestic seasonal workers. Rather, The Bracero Program brought in men from one poverty-stricken group (low-paid Mexican farm workers) to compete against another poverty-stricken group (low-paid domestic farm workers) for the benefit of the agricultural corporations, which greatly profited from the impoverishment and desperation of both groups.

The story lacks subtlety; its messages of acceptance and uniqueness are heavy-handed and didactic, telling young readers what to think rather than showing them how to develop critical thinking skills. Margarita’s acquisition of Spanish and respect for her cultural heritage, and Lupe’s linguistic and cultural adaptation to her new country come all too easily to engage young readers, especially young readers who may have similar issues. Dancing Home is not recommended.

—Beverly Slapin
 (published 9/20/15)

Love, Amalia

author: Alma Flor Ada
author: Gabriel M. Zubizarreta  
Atheneum / Simon & Schuster, 2012
grades 3-5 
Mexican American

When sixth-grader Amalia’s best friend, Martha, announces that she and her family are moving to California, the girl is so upset she doesn’t even want to say good-bye. But she receives solace and advice from her wise and gentle abuelita. As they cook together, she takes in Abuelita’s family stories about life, about change, about loss, about grieving. 

And then, suddenly, Abuelita is gone, too. There’s not even a chance to say good-bye; and, as Amalia’s large family comes together to celebrate Abuelita’s life, the pain seems unbearable.

Later, when Amalia’s mother gives her Abuelita’s treasured olive-wood box—full of cards, letters, and drawings from family members over the years—Amalia sees a way to hold on to her memories, deal with Abue’s passing and, finally, say good-bye to Martha. 

Unfortunately, the cultural content in Amalia’s story is clumsily presented. Although the authors attempt to weave in some Spanish words and phrases, their efforts appear contrived and stilted. Here, for instance, Amalia discusses one of her mother’s dichos:
She wouldn’t even finish listening to the latest possible disaster before simply repeating one of her favorite sayings: No hay que morirse la víspera, which means the same as “We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it,” but it sounded so much more graphic in Spanish: “Don’t die the day before your death.”
Actually, a more idiomatic interpretation might be, “Don’t die before your time.” The quote above implies that Amalia’s mother is using dichos—a tradition in many Latin American cultures—to instruct her daughter. It also implies that Amalia’s mother learned dichos at her own mother’s lap. Yet this is the only dicho in the story, and it’s called a “saying,” rather than a dicho. Apparently Amalia—whose attitude is dismissive and disrespectful—doesn’t recognize the value of traditional teaching, probably because her abuela, the one person whose wisdom guides her, doesn’t teach through dichos.

In addition, the authors use some code switching that is also contrived, and dialog in which English translations immediately follow the Spanish. This technique is not meaningful to English readers, it’s confusing to Spanish readers, and besides, nobody talks like this:
She heard over and over, people telling her, “¡Ay, querida! Oh, sweetheart.” Her aunt and uncles hugged her, and Tía Graciela insisted on kissing her. “Lo siento tanto. I’m so sorry.” “Lo sé. I know,” she would say to remove herself from almost any situation.
Love, Amalia also minimizes the real struggles of the most exploited, most impoverished workers both in the US and in Mexico:
… Abuelito’s father, our great-grandfather Nicolás, had arrived as a farmworker but then decided to open a store. Abuelito’s mother, María, had been working in a garment factory. But it was hard work in those sweatshops, and Abuelito felt that if they worked together in the store they could make it succeed. And they truly did.
And the story contains too much info-dumping, extraneous information that takes the reader out of the story. For instance, there’s a very long sentence that describes Martha’s “new understanding of the plight of recent immigrants, who like immigrants of the past, contributed with their hard labor to develop and support this country, but unlike them are not received by a Statue of Liberty with a flaming torch and the words she had memorized for her history class: “Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…”

In another place, after a mention of Zapata’s mustache, there’s an unnecessary explanation: “Emiliano Zapata was the leader of the Mexican Revolution whose photo Amalia had seen in a book about the history of Mexico.” And there’s an almost two-page description of the history, geography and population of Mexico City that reads like it was plucked from a travelogue.

Finally, the authors rely on platitudes that “tell” rather than “show,” such as: “It all seemed very unjust, and it filled her with anger just to think about it,” “Her eyes were still moist with tears, but there was a new warm feeling in her heart,” and “Moments like this made their friendship so special.” Love, Amalia is not recommended.

—Beverly Slapin
(published 9/16/15, revised 9/22/15)

Tía Isa Wants a Car // Tía Isa Quiere un Carro

author: Meg Medina
illustrator: Claudio Muñoz 
translator: Andrea Martinez-Wells (Spanish version) 
Candlewick Press, 2011
preschool-grade 3 
Cuban American

“Tía Isa wants a car.” That’s the refrain on almost every page uttered by our young Latina narrator, who lives with Tía Isa and her brother, Tío Andrés, in a small apartment building in the city. The car she wants is a huge 1950s gas-guzzler with no air conditioning and a bad radio. But it’s un pisicorre “the same shiny green as the ocean that lapped outside my bedroom window,” says Tía Isa. It’s un pisicorre to take them to the beach, and large enough to hold all three plus Mami and Papi when they arrive here from their island home. But Tía Isa, who has a low-paying job and sends “helping money” to the family, has little hope to purchase this “dream car.” This is a close community, however. Neighbors provide odd jobs for the child—stacking oranges in the fruit store, feeding la vieja María’s semi-feral kitties, secretly teaching the librarian some Spanish—and before long, her “secret money sock has grown into a giant money sausage,” with enough to purchase their dream car.

Our narrator, Tía Isa, Tío Andrés, and their neighbors, are familiar people with whom young readers will easily identify. Medina seamlessly incorporates Spanish words and phrases into the story, reflecting the language mix of first-generation English-learners. For instance, Tía Isa says she wants “un pisicorre…to take us to the beach.” When her young niece presents Tía with the money she has saved, Tía “leaves two pink lip marks on my forehead from her besito.” Even their new pisicorre “speaks” Spanish—when Isa revs it up, the “motor cranks with a puff of genie smoke,” and rather than hearing the sound, “vroom, vroom, vroom, vroom” the two hear, “arroz, arroz, arroz, arroz.”

Medina’s vivid imagery—Tía Isa smells of lemon pies from the bakery in which she works, Tío Andrés’s work boots are “muddy like ogre shoes,” the air on Tía’s island smells of "wet palm fronds and mud,” the used car lot smells of tar—provide evocative detail that will engage young readers and listeners. Muñoz’s soft illustrations, in pencil, watercolor and ink, on a subdued palette of tinted pastels, complement the lively imagery of the story itself. I especially like the details of the car, and the expressions on everyone’s faces are priceless. No less importantly, Muñoz’s art mirrors the story rather than extending it, so that both beginning readers and hablantes, perhaps with some help, can easily follow the narrative.

Unfortunately, Medina’s adept and sometimes playful combining of Spanish and English in Tía Isa Wants a Car is not reflected in the Spanish version, Tía Isa Quiere un Carro, which seems to be flattened. Rather than following the code switching of the English version (“Un pisicorre,” she says, “to take us to the beach!”), Martinez-Wells stays exclusively with Spanish (—¡Un pisicorre! ¡Para que nos lleve a la playa!).

In one scene, Tía Isa offers a fistful of dollars to a used car salesman. Her face and body language say that she’s struggling. His arrogant posture says he doesn’t care. The English version reads:

“How much, mister? How much?” Tía Isa repeats in the few English words she knows. She shows him her envelope. “Not enough,” the man tells us again, shaking his head.

And the Spanish version reads:

—¿Cuánto sale, señor? ¿Cuánto?—repite tía Isa en el poco inglés que domina. Tía Isa entrega el sobre. — No es suficiente—dice el hombre otra vez sacudiendo su cabeza.

By using an entirely literal Spanish translation, Martinez-Wells misses the opportunity to show how Tía Isa is both struggling with, and learning, English.

Although the struggles of immigrant families to reunify often have a lot in common, the issues of various immigrant, migrant and refugee groups—depending on countries of origin, histories, politics, and social and cultural dynamics—can be vastly different from each other. Although it’s not explicitly stated, it’s clear that Tía Isa Wants a Car is situated in the Cuban-American community in Miami, and the family’s “island home” is Cuba. I think it’s important that young readers—and even very young listeners—encounter stories that have specific contexts and settings so that they can be able to deal with the complexities in their own lives, their communities and their schools. 

Nevertheless, Tía Isa Wants a Car is an engaging story of hard work and resourcefulness; but most importantly, about love of family, being part of community, and never letting go of your dreams. It’s recommended. Unfortunately, the text of the Spanish version, Tía Isa Quiere un Carro, will not be as appealing to young hablantes.

—Beverly Slapin
(published 9/11/15)

Mango, Abuela, and Me // Mango, Abuela y Yo

author: Meg Medina
translator (Spanish version): Teresa Mlawer 
illustrator: Angela Domínguez 
Candlewick Press, 2015 
grades 1-up

Young Mia has a problem—her Spanish-speaking abuela has just arrived from the countryside to live with her and her family; and Mia, who speaks English only, cannot communicate as quickly and effectively as she wants to. Which means that, although the two are developing a warm, loving relationship, the bedtime stories Mia wants to hear will just have to wait. Mia, in her exuberance, has an idea that sort of works: she attaches English labels to everything in sight—even her pet hamster’s cage—and a the two play “hear and say.” And, as they go about their daily activities, Abuela teaches her some Spanish words as well. A slow process for a little girl, with limited success.

But wait! Abuela has brought with her a red feather, dropped by a wild parrot who lived in her mango tree back home—and Mia has an idea that just might work! Convincing her mom to purchase a parrot they meet in a pet store—whom they name “Mango”—soon results in a close relationship becoming even closer and a newfound almost-bilingualism in the household.

Domínguez’s artwork, rendered in a blend of ink, gouache, and marker—“with a sprinkling of digital magic”—is perfect. The warm and vibrant colors, on a palette of mostly pinks, blues, yellows and oranges, complement the warmth of the story; and, unlike too many picture books that feature Latina/o characters, Domínguez varies the skin tones to reflect those of a real family. I especially like the illustration of a bemused Papi in the background, scratching his head, while Abuela offers a piece of banana to Mango, and the three—Abuela, Mia, and Mango—happily chatter away in Spanish, English and Squawk-ish.

Athough Abuela’s little house, the seashore, palm trees and parrots hint at the Cuban countryside, Medina chose not to specify where she comes from. “For very young children,” she told me, “I like to offer them what feels familiar—a city, Abuela’s town, the pet shop, the school. I think that leaving room for the child’s imagination allows her to place herself more easily in the story.”

Mlawer’s outstanding translation (in the Spanish version) is idiomatic and warm, capturing the nuances of the story and setting, and of how this particular family speaks and feels. For instance, “She comes to us in winter, leaving behind her sunny house that rested between two snaking rivers” becomes, “Ella llega en invierno, dejando atrás su casa soleada que descansa entre dos ríos zigzagueantes.” When Papi tells Mia, “Abuela belongs with us now,” in Spanish it becomes, “Ahora el lugar de Abuela está con nosotros.”

This understated, evocative little story of patience and love, intergenerational relationships, bilingual language learning, and adapting to change, is a treasure that will resonate with the youngest listeners, who will want to hear it again and again. Mango, Abuela and Me // Mango, Abuela y Yo is highly recommended.

—Beverly Slapin
(published 9/3/15)