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)


Alfredito Flies Home // Alfredito regresa volando a su casa


author: Jorge Tetl Argueta
illustrator: Luis Garay 
Spanish author: Jorge Tetl Argueta
Groundwood Books / House of Anansi Press, 2007 
grades 3-up 
Pipíl, Salvadoran

Alfredito and his grandma and parents are preparing to go home to El Salvador for Christmas—the first time they’ve returned since they fled as refugees and made their way to California on foot. This will be the first plane ride for them, and anticipation has little worms crawling in Alfredito’s stomach. The shopping for gifts for all the friends and relatives back home; the excitement of being on a plane “that jumps like a frog and leaves everything behind”; the joyful reunion with his sister and his aunts, uncles, cousins, friends, and new puppies; the visit with his grandparents who “live in the cemetery…so full of little birds and is nice and hot so my grandparents don’t feel so cold and alone”; and the good-bye piñata that no one wants to end—too soon it is over and Alfredito must fly home again, to California.

Argueta inserts Spanish terms into Alfredito’s narration and his family’s dialogue, reflecting a merger of two languages in a relaxed atmosphere. The Spanish version, Alfredito regresa volando a su casa, is idiomatic and flowing, so hablantes will enjoy the story as well.

On the cover, Alfredito is in his back yard pretending to be an airplane, while a real plane flies overhead. On the ground are the universal symbols of north and south—a football and a soccer ball—and both belong to him. Garay’s glowing, acrylic-on-canvas paintings, rich in color and detail, complement this warm story of the loving reunion of a boy and his large extended family.

Some young readers will be familiar with what it means to be so desperate to have to go with “any Señor Coyote, or run through the mountains, or hide in the trunks of cars” in order to get to el norte, where there may be the possibility of employment and the possibility of sending money home to relatives. These young readers know, as does Alfredito, that not everyone, for many reasons, gets to go back home. Alfredito Flies Home // Alfredito regresa volando a su casa bring to mind the wisdom, “¡Ningún ser humano es ilegal!”—To be human is never illegal. Both versions are highly recommended.

—Beverly Slapin
(published 10/17/15)

A Visit to Cuba // Vamos a Cuba


author: Alta Schreier
Heinemann Library, 2001
grades 2-4
Cuban

A Visit to Cuba and Vamos a Cuba are part of Heinemann’s “A Visit to” series of 24 titles, simple overviews that portray the land and people, and especially children, of various countries. As with the others, each page here contains a full-color photo accompanied by a two- or three-sentence description of the land, landmarks, homes, food, clothes, work, transportation, language, school, free time, celebrations, and the arts. Appended are key facts, a glossary and index. In addition, the English version contains a section of Spanish “words you can learn.”

In 2006, a group of vociferously anti-Castro Cubans in Miami objected to the contents of A Visit to Cuba and Vamos a Cuba, complaining that they contained deceptive information and wrongfully painted an idealistic picture of Cuban life. After a politically charged struggle—and against the recommendations of two review committees, the school board’s attorney, and the school system’s Superintendent—the Miami-Dade County School District removed A Visit to Cuba and Vamos a Cuba from school libraries. The ACLU filed a lawsuit, the US Supreme Court refused to hear it, and the board’s decision was upheld. Despite the fact that A Visit to Cuba and Vamos a Cuba were the only books in the series that had received a complaint, all 24 titles were removed from Miami-Dade County’s school libraries. The litigation expenses for the Miami-Dade School District totaled more than $250,000.

It’s worth noting that the Miami Cubans do not represent all Cuban communities in the US. When, how and why families came here are attached to different historical, economic, social and political issues. Many pro-Castro Cubans fled the anti-democratic Batista regime that supported the super-wealthy, organized crime, and US corporations, while impoverishing everyone else. Those who had been allied with Batista, along with others in the middle- and upper classes, fled the new revolution. Many worried families sent their children, who became known as “Pedro Pans,” to be raised by friends and relatives here. Many came for what they believed would be a better life, and, as the revolution progressed, many returned. Some immigrants hate Fidel, others adore him—it’s complicated. But, for the most part, Cuban communities in the US find the extremism of the Miami Cubans exasperating—they appear to be frozen in a time warp.

What infuriated the Miami Cubans about A Visit to Cuba and Vamos a Cuba is not difficult to see. Alongside short, easy-to-read statements—appropriately without political commentary—are clear photos that depict Cuba’s ethnically mixed people. Here is a group of young school children mugging for the camera. Here are children and their parents enjoying an outing. Here are large groups dancing at festivals. And here is what must certainly have enraged the Miami Cubans: joyous adults and children celebrating the Cuban national holiday called “Day of the Rebellion,” the day that marks the attack on the Moncada Army Barracks by Fidel Castro and his small group of revolutionaries on July 26, 1953. The caption simply states: “Cuba’s biggest celebration is called Carnival. It is held July 26. People dance and sing at this festival.”

However, since all of the images are stock photography inexpensively reproduced from Corbis, children will see a limited picture of Cuba. For instance, the photo on the page “homes” shows people walking down the street but not any housing. The page entitled “food” is heartbreaking. Rather than depicting a family enjoying dinner together—or an open-air market that showed the many different kinds of produce—here instead is someone holding a sad little tray of starches. While the “free time” page depicts people playing baseball, Cuba’s national sport; there is no depiction or even mention of anyone playing dominoes, the national game of Cuba. Finally, somewhere in all of the Corbis collection, there must be a beach shot that highlights the amazing turquoise water surrounding the island rather than this one puny little cove.

Unlike George Ancona’s amazing photoessay, Cuban Kids (Cavendish, 2000), many of the photos here don’t do the country justice. But considering that there are few basic—and accurate—introductory picture books about Cuba for early grades, that these depict happy and healthy Cuban children, and that they were the focus of a ridiculous right-wing lawsuit, A Visit to Cuba and Vamos a Cuba are recommended.


—Lisette Silva and Beverly Slapin
(published 10/16/15)