Marisol McDonald and the Monster / Marisol McDonald y el monstruo

author: Monica Brown 
illustrator: Sara Palacios 
translator: Adriana Domínguez 
Children’s Book Press / Lee & Low, 2016 
kindergarten-grade 3 
Peruvian American

Marisol McDonald, for those who may have forgotten, is mismatched and marvelous, unique, different, and one of a kind. In Marisol McDonald and the Monster, our young Peruvian Scottish American narrator reveals that her favorite letter is “m.” She loves almost all things that begin with “m.” In Spanish and English, her favorite foods are mangoes, melocotones, and milk with miel; and her other favorite “m” words include magic, mustard, moon, monkey, mami, maíz, and magnífico. But the one “m” word that Marisol doesn’t like, at all, ever, in any way, is monster. In fact, she is so afraid of monsters that she keeps her family members up all night until she can fall asleep.

The many “monster-under-the-bed” picture books are primarily for children who sleep alone, and the parents are the ones who solve the problem. What’s unique about this story is that Marisol has agency—she figures out the problem and works it through. I would have expected no less of this resourceful little girl.

How our young narrator takes control is delightfully, marvelously, uniquely, differently and totally, Marisol. With Mami’s help and her “big and great and wild imagination,” she gathers markers, colorful yarn, old soccer socks, and whatever else she can find and makes her own three-legged sock monster who is “unique, different, and one of a kind”:

I dress her in a purple polka-dot skirt and a green striped shirt. I sew on three legs so she will be extra good at soccer. And I give her red hair, just like me, and blue fingernails!

So, while there’s still a monster under the bed, she’s Marisol’s own monster. Her name is “Melody,” or “Melodía” (of course), and it seems that she’s also scared to be by herself.

Palacios’ bright, colorful artwork, rendered in ink, marker, crayon, and cut paper, then digitally enhanced, engagingly balances the well-spaced text, which falls on solid-color or white backgrounds. Her not-so-scary monsters and subtly simple yet detailed illustrations also show what is not explicitly stated. Here, for instance, is Marisol, whose bright red hair matches that of her father and whose complexion is more like her mother’s; while her brothers’ ethnic mixes are shown by their varying complexions and hair colors as well.

In one my favorite double-page spreads, the whole family, exhausted, is slumping on two small living room couches. The boys are practically asleep, dad is yawning, mom is staring into space while holding Marisol’s little brother, and Marisol is trying to stay awake. The only one not in any way affected by their almost-stupor is Kitty the dog, chasing a ball around the room. (And readers who notice Kitty the dog’s exuberance on many of the pages might guess at his connection with the “monster” sounds that frighten our otherwise brave young protagonist.)

Domínguez’s idiomatic and rhythmic Spanish text is both translation and interpretation, so hablantes will enjoy the story as much as English-speaking readers and listeners. Besides having several words and phrases in Spanish italicized in the English text (which is common in some bilingual stories), Dominguez has “flipped” the parallel English words and phrases into the Spanish in a way that feels natural and without missing a beat. In addition, Dominguez uses the fact that plurals in Spanish end in “os” or “as” to add to the rhythm of the text. For instance, while the English reads, “I know monsters aren’t real, but when I think of them, I see scary eyes and wild fur and pointy claws and sharp teeth,” the Spanish reads, “Sé que los monstruos no existen, pero cuando pienso en ellos, me imagino ojos espantosos, cuerpos peludos, garras puntiagudas y dientes filosos.”

This teamwork of author, illustrator and translator have created the third in a series of fast-moving stories in a bilingual picture book format, in which a bicultural (at least), independent, resourceful, confident little girl invites hablantes and English-speakers to join her as she navigates her world. As with the first two titles, Marisol McDonald and the Monster / Marisol McDonald y el monstruo is highly recommended.

—Beverly Slapin
(published 7/25/16)

Mamá the Alien / Mamá la extraterrestre

author: René Colato Laínez 
translator: René Colato Laínez 
illustrator: Laura Lacámara 
Children’s Book Press / Lee & Low 
kindergarten-grade 3 
Salvadoran, Salvadoran American

In Mamá the Alien / Mamá la extraterrestre, young Sofía accidentally knocks over her mama’s purse, spilling out its contents. When a resident alien card drops out, the child discovers (she thinks) that mom must be an alien from outer space. Since her parents’ explanation doesn’t yield any usable information, the child does the research and the math and puts the puzzle together:

Mamá was an alien. Papá didn’t have a card, so he was not an alien. That meant I was half alien. I looked like a human girl, so my alien parts were hidden. But I needed to find out which half of me was hidden. Could I be alien from my head to my belly button? Or from my belly button to my feet? Could I be alien only on my right side or only on my left side?

It’s only after 23 pages that Sofía discovers the term “alien” has more than one meaning (“alguien de otro planeta o alguien de otro país”) and becoming a US citizen is easy and equally attainable by all. And that’s this story’s fatal flaw. While Colato Laínez’s writing is humorous and endearing, his Spanish translation is very good, and Lacámara’s bright, acrylic-and-collage artwork is appealing, the story ignores the inequities and dangers that immigrant and refugee children and their families must endure, and glosses over the issues of who gets to become a citizen and who doesn’t.

Mamá the Alien is sure to resonate with well-meaning teachers and librarians looking for picture books that are relevant to contemporary issues. And Mamá the Alien will surely be a hit as a read-aloud in bilingual early childhood classrooms. No doubt, refugee children will sit, heads down, confused and shamed and not understanding why.

We are living in a scary, dangerous time. Especially for undocumented children and their families, this fact cannot be disputed. Confused, scared, unaccompanied children who are running for their lives—to get to the “safety” of El Norte—more often than not find themselves in detention centers, waiting for strangers to decide their fates. And others may hide for years—sometimes with extended family members who live in the US—in fear of being caught and sent back. Their lives must be kept secret, even from their classmates and friends. The same issues come back again and again and again and again.

Immigrants with papers, on the years-long road to US citizenship, don’t have it easy either. Job and housing discrimination, and verbal and physical attacks by xenophobes, are common. Both documented and undocumented individuals and families are often insulted as “aliens,” and even, “illegal aliens.”

Children who are not enmeshed in this difficult life, whose citizenship has never been questioned, need to be taught to challenge these inequities. They need to be taught to recognize the pain and call out those who demonize immigrants and refugees, and to become allies in what might seem to be an impossible struggle. The conversation is necessary. It’s beyond excuses.

The publisher’s note enthuses, “The book’s bilingual text makes it an especially good fit for English language learners who may struggle to find books that reflect their experiences,” and Mamá the Alien has garnered raves from the major review journals. As the Booklist reviewer wrote, “[this] heartfelt and humorous story is perfect for primary-school readers, as well as a useful way for parents or educators to introduce the topic of immigration.” And the Kirkus reviewer called it “a delightful, original, clever, purposeful, multicultural alien tale.” Unfortunately, all are missing the point.

While I do not doubt the good intentions of the author and illustrator, both of whom are immigrants, Mamá the Alien / Mamá la extraterrestre trivializes the pain that so many children and their families undergo and makes light of migration issues that have yet to be resolved in this country. It cannot be recommended.

—Beverly Slapin
(published 7/21/16; revised 12/15/16)

Míl grácias a mi colega, Oralia Garza de Cortés.

Nueva Generación

Jóvenes muchachos
Niñas mujercitas.
Adolecentes todos.
Llenos de vida y esperanza.

¿Quien eres? te preguntan.
¿o Guatemalteco?

¿Mexico Americana?

American citizen?
Illegal alien?

¡Tantas preguntas!
¡Que confusión!
Solo venemos
con toda esperanza
buscando una vida
Mucho más mejor.

¿De adonde viniste?
¿De adonde eres?
¿Adonde naciste?
¿Adonde vas?

Busco a mi madre
quizàs mi padre
Trabajan duro
como burros,
o peor—esclavos.
Papá de obrero,
Mamá de gallinera.

(Y no tienen papeles,
confiesas con una voz
casi silenciosa
como la de un ratóncito
en el sotano.)

Eso no importa, te contestan
y te invitan
a leer tu mundo nuevo, 
a cantar tu própio mundo
Lleno de sagradas alabanzas 
de esa poesía que es la nuestra: 
Neruda, Mistrál, Martí, Alarcón, Tafolla, Paredes, Carmona, Pérez.

¿Los conoces? te preguntan.
Ven. Acá. Acércate aquí
a este temple de voces sagradas
escritas especialmente para tí.  
En donde puedas acariciar 
la Palabra,
cuando sientes
que te habla.

Diles que quieres saber todo sobre
el mundo entero.
Que quieres leer
recitar y escribir tu mundo
como cuando primero
se creó el Quinto Sol. 

Ven, jóven. 
a la féria de estos benditos libros.
¡Son tuyos también! 
Tus mejores amigos
Que te darán vida
Y toda esperanza 
para un mundo
mucho más mejor.

—Oralia Garza de Cortés

(published 7/18/16; revised 10/26/17)

Author's note: Nueva Generación was inspired by my work as Co-Chair of REFORMA's Children in Crisis Project, collecting and delivering books in Spanish for unaccompanied refugee children from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala detained at the border.    

© 2016 Oralia Garza de Cortés
All Rights Reserved.

Little Crow to the Rescue / El cuervito al rescate

author: Victor Villaseñor
translator: Elizabeth Cummins Muñoz 
illustrator: Felipe Ugalde Alcántara 
Piñata Books / Arte Público Press, 2005 

When a boy becomes frustrated because crows are stealing the chickens’ corn, he asks his father why the thieves fly off before he can catch them. So Papá, as usual, answers his question with a story. This one, passed down from the boy’s great-grandfather in Mexico, is about a crow who teaches his son the reason that birds fear humans, and to fly away when they see a human pick up a rock. As the young crow listens to and learns from his father, “he [thinks] really hard and [watches] the farmer and his son”—and “has the biggest, brightest idea that he had ever had!”

It’s not hard to imagine a classroom full of kindergartners shrieking with delight at the young crow’s father’s announcement of his son’s brilliance and everyone else’s joining in:

“My son is a genius!” he crowed. “He has taught me something new! From now on, when any human approaches any of us, fly, fly away as fast as you can even before he bends down to pick up a rock because he might already have it in his hand!”

“There’s a genius among us!” other crows crowed in loud, shrill voices…. This message was so bright and new and marvelous that from valley to valley all the crows shouted it, cawing with their best and loudest voices!

Ugalde Alcántara’s brilliant color and bold images are reminiscent of the artwork of the early Mexican muralists. In the bright, sunlit fields, everything—from the blue-purple-black crow feathers to each yellow kernel of corn—is outlined in an opposing color against a subtly layered background, and the rows of crops in the fields become curved as they reach the horizon. A small image that reflects the story separates the Spanish and English passages on each left page. While most of the single-page, full-bleed illustrations on the right depict both human and crow characters, the two species are never shown in close proximity.

Cummins Muñoz’s colloquial Spanish translation flows smoothly and effortlessly, following the English in its storytelling rhythm. In some cases, the Spanish is actually preferable in its pacing to the English. For instance, when the farmer throws a rock at the crows, the English reads: “The big stone came flying fast and hit the tree the crows had been sitting on with a bang!” And the Spanish reads: “La piedrota voló bien rápido y ¡zas! chocó con el árbol donde habían estado sentados los cuervos.”

Towards the end of the story, the young narrator says, “Like many of his stories, Papá had learned it from his mother, Doña Margarita, who had learned her stories from her father, a powerful Indian from Mexico.” The facing illustration shows Margarita as a child, looking up adoringly at her strong Indian father. My guess is that Villaseñor never knew his great-grandfather’s name or tribal nation, and I would like to have seen something about this in his biographical note.

In this beautifully illustrated, captivating story within a story that begins and ends with the same question and answer—and examines the interdependence of humans and animals—the message that will especially resonate with young readers is how children can sometimes teach their elders a thing or two. Little Crow to the Rescue: El cuervito al rescate was awarded the 2007 Lacapa Spirit Prize.

*Highly recommended for all home, classroom and library collections.

—Beverly Slapin

A Mystery Bigger than Big: A Mickey Rangel Mystery / Un misterio más grande que grandísimo: Colección Mickey Rangel, Detective Privado

author: René Saldaña, Jr. 
translator: Carolina Villarroel 
illustrator: Mora Des!gn Group 
Piñata Books / Arte Público Press, 2016 
grades 3-6 
Mexican American

Mickey Rangel is the real deal, a smart, wise cracking fifth-grader; an honest-to-goodness detective with an identification card in his wallet and an on-line certificate on his wall to prove it. And he’s already solved several cases—The Case of the Pen Gone Missing / El caso de la pluma perdida (2009), The Lemon Tree Caper / La intriga del limonero (2011), and The Mystery of the Mischievous Marker / El misterio del malvado marcador (2013).

In this new mystery, everyone’s talking about Natalia, who’s just arrived at school. She’s too skinny. Her clothes are worn and shabby. At lunch, she eats too quickly. She sits at her desk too quietly. She doesn’t interact with anyone, never smiles, and never even looks up. Who is this skinny, raggedy, quiet girl? Where is she from? What is she hiding?

Rumors are flying: Maybe her parents were Russian spies who ended up in Siberia. Or maybe they were killed in a plane crash and she was the sole survivor. Or maybe her father was a Mexican drug lord and she’s in the Witness Protection Program. Or maybe she’s an escapee from the circus or from some kind of asylum. She could even have been abducted by aliens and eventually returned. What’s her real story? Mickey, goaded on by his arch-nemesis, Bucho, is determined to crack the case. 

Mora’s attractive pen-and-ink illustrations complement the text and add to the suspense. Here is the sad, too-thin Natalia, sitting at her desk, staring off into the distance. Here is Mickey, studying Natalia, daydreaming about solving the mystery, and eavesdropping on conversations. And here is Bucho, the school bully, confronting Mickey. Without sacrificing the detective’s hard-boiled narrative, Villarroel’s engaging Spanish translation in this bilingual flipbook maintains the pace and suspense of the English.

While the earlier Mickey Rangel stories are fun and appealing, what makes this fourth mystery different from the others is the immediacy and importance of the subject and how effectively it is relayed to intermediate readers.

When Mickey first sees a news report about children from Central America who left their families behind to come to the US, he’s perplexed. How can children just leave? How can their parents allow them to? What happens to them? How is any of this possible? “Times are desperate,” his father tells him. Soon after, in a class discussion, Bucho relates a heartfelt story about his grandfather’s difficulties when he came here from Mexico. And Mrs. Garza, after reading a picture book to the class about a harrowing journey of a boy and his father, discloses to her students that her father also came here. Those were difficult passages and desperate times, just like now. And Mickey makes the connection between the skinny new girl and what she is going through: Natalia has become one of the countless, unaccompanied children from Central America, fleeing for her life to the uncertainty of El Norte.

Soon after, when Natalia—the sad, skinny, mysterious girl who appeared one day—suddenly disappears, Mickey (encouraged by, interesting enough, Bucho) makes an important decision:

She had left family behind, I’m sure of it. She had traveled such a long and hard way already. And I was certain her journey was not over yet.

Thinking about her and my silly attempt to discover her identity, I hoped for two things: one, that she would one day get to the place where she might eventually begin to smile again; and two, that she understood I was sorry for having hurt her like I did.

Sometimes some mysteries are best left unsolved.

In the context of a well written, fast moving school mystery, A Mystery Bigger than Big / Un misterio más grande que grandísimo is an excellent discussion about the difficulties of immigration and the dangerous lives of children—often without their parents—struggling to get to a safe place. It’s highly recommended.

—Beverly Slapin
(published 7/2/16)