Surprise for Teresita / Una sorpresa para Teresita

author: Virginia Sánchez-Korrol 
illustrator: Carolyn Dee Flores 
translator: Gabriela Baeza Ventura 
Piñata Books / Arte Público Press, 2016
grades 1-4 
Puerto Rican

On the cover is a Nuyorican child named Teresita. Her head is slightly thrown back and she is laughing. Her laugh is so big that young readers can see the mixture of both primary and permanent teeth. Her outfit is a rainbow. The piragua in her hands is a rainbow. The background is a rainbow. And—Teresita is a rainbow.

Today is Teresita’s seventh birthday. She’s a big girl now—she can dress herself, help her mamá water the plants on the fire escape, lead her friends in “Red light, green light, 1, 2, 3,” and be trusted to stay in front of their building. But as the day goes on and she watches for Tío Ramón, she begins to worry that the barrio’s beloved vendedor de piraguas has forgotten her birthday surprise. (Young readers may intuit that Mamá knows what surprise Tío Ramón has for Teresita, but no one’s letting on.)

Flores’ intense, textured art—deep, rich oils on raw cardboard with an overlay of Liquin—is perfect. Her technique, she told me, is painstaking and time-consuming.

“I add one drop of paint directly from the tube,” she said, “and dip my brush into Liquin, mixing my colors right on the canvas. After each drop, I clean my brush, and start all over again.” The Liquin, she said, is a blender that also acts as a dryer. So, while the oil seeps into the cardboard and can take months to dry, the surface dries relatively quickly.

It’s the representation of these joyous and exuberant young Nuyorican children of the rainbow—and the neighborhood that their families have transformed into a “tropical island” whose colors are superimposed on the brick, stonework and facing of 19th Century brownstones—that appears to have fired Flores’s imagination and her bright palette of piragua colors that illuminates this sweet story.

A word about illustrating skin tones: Most of the time, the perceived darkness or lightness of our skin is determined by whether we’re in the shade or in the light. In addition, the insides of our arms and hands, for instance, are lighter than the outsides. Flores beautifully captures this phenomenon in the children and adults here, especially with Tío Ramón, who—since he moves around a lot in this story—appears darker on some pages and lighter on others. I don’t know any other children’s book illustrator who consistently reflects this kind of reality.

Baeza’s colloquial Puerto Rican Spanish translation is rhythmic and appealing. She uses, for instance, “jugo de china” rather than “jugo de naranja” for orange juice because, in Puerto Rico and Santo Domingo, oranges are called “chinas.” And hablantes will enjoy hanging out with Teresita and her friends as they jump “la doble soga” and “agua sube—agua baja” (“Double Dutch” and “High water—Low water"). Baeza also used a single term in English followed by the Spanish—“Teresita…fue a la ventana que abría el fire escape o salida de incendio”—to introduce a concept that a lot of kids might not fully understand.

She told me that when she works on translation, she takes care to create something that sounds natural to native speakers. For example, she said, certain grammatical constructions in English may not have corresponding structures in Spanish, so when they are translated word for word or even phrase for phrase, the result sounds awkward in Spanish. She said that her translation and editing process always includes reading the text out loud to herself and a translation committee, and working closely with the author to select the terms that best respect the characters and communities portrayed in the books.

To me, when Baeza translates, she centers hablantes who are reading the Spanish version. This is different and more effective—for both Spanish and English readers—than translating for English readers only, which is more often the case in “bilingual” children’s books.

Unlike too many other “multicultural” stories for children, readers here will not find any belabored expositions of language, food or music. Rather, author, illustrator and translator have seamlessly woven together the elements of a warm story of family, friends and community, where Nuyorican children of the rainbow find joy in each other’s company and little things—like hugs from loving parents, like running through the spray of an opened fire hydrant in the summertime, like jumping rope with friends, like waiting for the piraguas vendor and choosing which color and flavor of ice cone to buy—and where a child’s only worry is what will be her birthday surprise. (Spoiler Alert: It’s alive, it’s very cute, it has a green-and-white collar just like Tío Ramón’s piraguas cart, and its name is Piragua.)

Teresita is a real little girl in this sweet little story with excellent Spanish translation and luminous art; and everything about it is real. A Surprise for Teresita / Una sorpresa para Teresita is highly recommended.

—Beverly Slapin
(published 10/29/16)

Míl gracias to Carolyn Dee Flores and Gabriela Baeza Ventura.

One Minute Mysteries: More Short Mysteries You Solve with Science! / Misterios de un minuto: ¡Más misterios cortos que resuelves con ciencias!

author: Eric Yoder 
author: Natalie Yoder
translator: Esteban Bachelet 
Science, Naturally! (2016) 
grades 4-8

This fourth in the One Minute Mysteries series, and the first in both Spanish and English, contains most of the short mysteries found in the previous three English editions.

The project began, as the foreword describes, as a series of father-and-daughter activities in which Eric wrote, Natalie rolled her eyes, Natalie wrote, and the two wrote side by side. Eric’s vision was “to emphasize (science’s) widespread, real-life applications,” and Natalie’s was “to (keep) the behavior and dialogue of the characters authentic.” Natalie writes that their technique involved, in part, “(staring) at a dead spider on the ceiling above my dad’s desk for hours and hours.” This approach apparently worked—very well.

For youngsters, these challenging problems open up both discoveries and potential for curious, inquisitive minds. And that these 45 pint-sized “mysteries”—covering Life Science, Earth and Space Science, Physical and Chemical Science, General Science, and including a Mathematics Bonus Section—are both encountered and solved by children themselves make this volume both fun and accessible.

Among my favorite brain-teasers is “And They Call This a Fair / Feria de cuadritos,” in which Kendall and Ruby construct a game for the science fair, in which they lay out 20 cardboard rectangles measuring 2” x 3” each. The problem is to arrange the rectangles in a way that will cover the most area. (This one stumped me for a minute, until I figured out that “area” does not necessarily mean “contiguous area.”)

But my hands-down favorite is “Think Outside the Box / Piensa fuera de la caja,” in which Axel has forgotten that his science project—“to construct and label a model representing either a plant or animal cell, describing the functions of at least four parts of the cell”—is due in ten minutes! And all he has is pizza scraps and an almost-empty pizza box! Can he do it? Of course he can! (Although this kind of construction is not easily replicable—you’d need to have the right kind of pizza, eat almost all of it, leave the correct scraps and use every second of your ten minutes—it’s a hoot!)

The book design is clear and the text is readable, without illustrations or clues to detract from each “mystery.” The problems are presented in English on the left and Spanish on the right and generally headed by puns in each language to grab attention. The images—black-and-white photos and drawings—are appropriately reserved for the “solution” pages: those on each two-page spread are related to each other so young readers can intuit more than one connection between image and solution. While it’s obvious that the authors used great care in choosing the photos of both children and adults who represent a diversity of age, ethnicity and gender, I would like to have seen representation of children and adults with disabilities and the spectrum of family configurations as well.

Bachelet’s colloquial Spanish translation reads well, and this layout of the mysteries and solutions enable English-speakers, hablantes, and bilingual students to work in the language in which they’re most proficient, and look to the other side for corresponding words, phrases, and particular idioms that interest them.

Engaging and fun for both science- and math nerds (and their parents, if permitted), as well as  youngsters who could benefit from some time away from video games, One Minute Mysteries: More Short Mysteries You Solve with Science! / ¡Más misterios cortos que resuelves con ciencias! is highly recommended.

—Beverly Slapin
(published 10/25/16)

Dos conejos blancos // Two White Rabbits

author: Jairo Buitrago
illustrator: Rafael Yockteng 
translator: Elisa Amado 
Groundwood Books / House of Anansi Press, 2016 
all grades  

On the cover is a little girl, comfortably lying down with her head resting on her papá’s leg. Her body is relaxed and her eyes are wide open; she’s happily playing with her toy bunny. Papá is sitting upright, leaning on his backpack. He’s looking warily into the distance. 

Towards the middle of the story, readers will see that Papá and daughter are riding on the top of a train. They are refugees, fleeing for their lives, fleeing to El Norte, hitching rides on one of the old, rusted-out trains they call “La Bestia” (“the beast”), but this child does not know any of this. All she knows is that she’s with her papá who loves her, and that’s all that counts.

And she counts: “Cuando viajamos” (When we travel), she says, happily riding on Papá’s shoulders, “yo cuento lo que veo” (I count what I see). She sadly counts the hens and chicks, as she says goodbye; she counts the cows, being led away by a new owner; she counts “un burrito aburrido, y cincuenta pájaros en el cielo” (one little bored donkey and fifty birds in the sky), as she and Papá and a coyote watch people load all their belongings on makeshift rafts; she counts the people who live by the train tracks, as they wait for La Bestia to take them to El Norte; and she counts the clouds, which take on the many shapes of a child’s imagination. Throughout, the little girl is all energy and fascination, while Papá watches for danger.

The center spread shows the reason for Papá’s fear: Here, border patrol agents have stopped the train and are pulling people out. As they handcuff and arrest some, Papá and daughter and others—accompanied by the coyote—are running for their lives.

On almost every double-page spread, readers will see a coyote and sometimes more than one. They are “chuchos” (“mutts”), as Papá calls them. They represent the human smugglers who, for an exorbitant price, accompany the undocumented refugees, sometimes hundreds of miles and sometimes on foot—to reach El Norte. Sometimes coyotes bring the refugees all the way to a safe place and sometimes they abandon them, on their own, often without food or water, in the middle of the desert. The lives of refugees are far from safe and the trip is often deadly dangerous.

Yesterday, three youngsters who had a chance to read this book almost dropped it when they realized that the “chuchos” were coyotes. Their father was a refugee from Mexico, and their mother had told them who the “coyotes” are. Young children who are not part of refugee families—and even some who are—may not readily understand all of the symbolism in these illustrations. (The reviewer from Kirkus didn’t, either.) But all Maribel, Amelia, and Anthony needed was a brief explanation from their mother about “symbolism”—and they were off!

As they read the story and looked carefully at the artwork, the children noticed and were able to answer questions posed by the large details: “Now the papá and daughter look sad. Are they saying goodbye to their hens and chicks? Did they sell their cows to that white guy?” “Why are they talking to the “chucho”? “Where are they going on the rafts?” “Why do all those people live by the train tracks?” “Why are they climbing on the train?” “Why are the papá and daughter and their friends running away?” At first, Maribel had figured it out and explained it to Amelia and Anthony. But very soon, the younger ones “got” the symbolism and effectively explained them to each other.

The small details didn’t escape these kids, either: “Why is that cop (border control) grabbing that man’s wrist?” “Why does that woman look ashamed?” “Why are the people in handcuffs?” “Why do all the cops have rifles?” “Why are the cops being mean to everyone?”

When Papá and daughter stop at a grocery in a small Mexican town to get temporary employment and pay another “chucho” to lead them further, the daughter plays with the store owner’s son; and when it’s time to move on, the youngsters trade: her toy bunny for his two white rabbits, whose home is a cardboard box.

In giving up her toy bunny to her new friend, the little girl is trading in her uncertainty for the reality of the two white rabbits, who are going to be free on the other side of the wall. As she and her papá finally cross the border, the child releases the two white rabbits—who on the last double-page spread, with the border wall behind them, scamper off to freedom.

In many ways, the two white rabbits, now free, are symbolic of the courage that it takes for this refugee father and his young daughter to cross the desert and risk their lives in order to get to El Norte. Rabbits are survivors; they signify determination. They’re extremely strong and can leap great distances. They can squeeze under fences and—as Maribel, Amelia and Anthony noted—dig underground tunnels. Their sharp vision can detect predators from all directions. They have intimate knowledge of their surroundings and know how to forage for food.

As Maribel, Amelia, and Anthony quickly figured out when I asked them who the white rabbits were, they said, almost in unison: “Papá and the little girl.”

Yockteng created the sketches in pencil, which he then scanned and digitally colored and outlined. The result is stunning, with a muted palette of mostly browns, blues and greens that create a sort-of sameness, complementing the story and highlighting the long journey on which all there is for the child to do is to count—and dream. Buitrago and Yockteng have intentionally left the place, which may be Mexico or anywhere in Central America, ambiguous. That’s because, as IBBY Foundation President Patricia Aldana writes in a brief Afterword, “close to a hundred thousand children from Central America make the very dangerous trip you see here to find safety and a way to survive in the United States,” and this small family could represent any of them.

Originally written in Spanish and seamlessly translated into English, Dos conejos blancos // Two White Rabbits is brilliant, profound and heartbreaking—and highly recommended. (Note: I listed this book as appropriate for all grades because it can be effectively read in preschool- through undergraduate levels, as well as in courses such as Early Childhood Education, Children’s Literature, and Library Science.)

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

—Beverly Slapin
(published 10/17/16)

Muchísimas gracias a mi amiga y colega, Judy Zalazar Drummond, who introduced me to her grandchildren, Maribel Linda, Amelia Edosia, and Anthony, and to their mom, Melissa—and to the children, for allowing me to see this beautiful story through their eyes.

Best Mariachi in the World // El Mejor Mariachi del Mundo // The Best Mariachi in the World / El mejor Mariachi del mundo

author: J.D. Smith
illustrator: Dani Jones 
translator: Eida de la Vega 
Raven Tree Press, 2008 
preschool-grade 2 

This title was published in hardcover and paperback, in English-only, Spanish-only, and what the publisher labels “Bilingual—with mostly English and concept words in Spanish formats.” (For those who may not know—apparently including the publisher—a bilingual book contains the complete text in two languages.)

Summary: “Gustavo wants to be in the family mariachi band [sic], but he cannot play the violines [sic], trumpets or guitars. He finds his place in the band with his singing talent.” The book’s message is something about a little kid (literally) “finding his voice.”

This book seriously downplays the role of nurturing in a large extended family. Mariachi groups are often family-based, cousins, uncles, aunts, grandmothers, grandfathers, all training the future generation of musicians. Think of the Trio Los Panchos—they’ve been around for over 50 years and are now composed of grandsons of the original mariachis.[1] This takes work and dedication and teaching from an early age. None of this is shown in Best Mariachi, and that is its fatal flaw: it totally negates the role of family in Mexican culture.

The story begins on this depressing note: “Gustavo was the worst mariachi in the world.” In the first illustration, Gustavo—dressed in a green t-shirt and brown pants, hands in his pockets, eyes cast downward—stands sorrowfully in the middle of his (male) relatives who are dressed in mariachi outfits and happily playing mariachi instruments: violín, trompeta, and guitarrón. The only one who acknowledges Gustavo’s existence is the dog at his feet.

Although Gustavo dreams of becoming a great mariachi, recognized and applauded by everyone, young readers find out that Gustavo is the “worst mariachi” because none of his mariachi relatives—his father, his uncle, his brother, even his cousins—will let him as much as touch their instruments, so he cannot even learn to play.

Let’s stop here for a moment. This story stretches credulity and completely obscures the reality. Any Mexican or Mexican American mariachi family (or any musical family) would be delighted to encourage their children to learn the music—as well as traditional, historical and contemporary songs—and to learn to play whichever instruments suit them. There would be lots of hard work to accomplish the goal of becoming a mariachi: lots of learning and lots of practice, probably after school and homework; and maybe even working a part-time job to save money to purchase the instrument and fabric for the outfit. The whole thing might become a family or community project in which the child learns many things about history, music, study, work, and economics. That would make a good story.

But here, young, sad and alone, Gustavo goes out into the desert each night to sing. At first, he is hesitant, and then, little by little, he gets more confident and sings louder as “he sings all the songs that he knows as well as he knows his own name.” After a while, the townspeople hear his voice, loud and clear. They applaud. They say he is a “true mariachi—the best mariachi in the world.” His cousins carry “the best mariachi” home to an “enormous breakfast” consisting entirely of a huge plate of what appear to be plain tortillas. Served by someone wearing a chef’s outfit. Oh, well.

Jones’ gouache, oil, and colored-pencil illustrations complement the stereotypic story. With very small differences, all of her over-the-top cartoonish characters look alike—exaggerated, oversized heads and small bodies, dark complexions all the same shade of brown, expressions denoted by closed or bugged-out eyes and wide open or curved-downward mouths. As well, the limited palette of background colors—mostly bright turquoises and blues, browns, greens and purples—seems to be a weak, half-hearted attempt at Mexican sky, desert flora and fauna, and adobe.

Last year, I viewed an amazing 2013 performance by Mariachi los Tigres, students from Stephen F. Austin Middle School in San Antonio.[2] Here was a group of talented, disciplined, practiced, joyful young people, full of pride and community esteem, performing instrumental and vocal solos, revolutionary corridos and popular songs. Towards the middle of their performance, their teacher asked the parents and other adult community members to stand and receive applause for their hard work and dedication. Then all acknowledged the children for maintaining their grades and good citizenship before engaging in the “fun stuff” of playing mariachi music. Love spread all around. This is what community is about.

All of this is what’s missing from The Best Mariachi in the World // El Mejor Mariachi del Mundo. Mariachi family members who won’t let a child touch their instruments. A child left alone with no one to help him realize his dreams. So he accomplishes all this on his own. And becomes the best.

The “bilingual” version—from the title on (which, rather than “El Mejor Mariachi en Todo el Mundo, would correctly be, “El mariachi mejor en todo el mundo”)—is piled high with errors and inappropriate usage. Here are just two more examples:

            No one was there to play. But he had to stand up and sing. He had to cantar.[3]

Since “cantar,” above, is an infinitive, the (incorrect) English translation would be, “He had to to sing.”

“Hmm,” Gustavo thought, “I want to be in the band—in la banda mariachi. But what can I do?”

(1) The term, “mariachi,” is both singular and plural: A person who sings and plays mariachi music is called a “mariachi,” and the group is also called “mariachi.” (2) “Banda” refers to Mexican country dance music; it doesn’t mean “band,” as a synonym for a musical group. That word would be “grupo” or “conjunto,” followed by the name of the group. And finally: (3) Inserting Spanish words into an otherwise English text does not make a story bilingual. Mexican and other Spanish-speaking people do not talk this way. Mexican and other Spanish-speaking people do not even think this way.

Rather than reflecting Mexican children’s ways of speaking, ways of thinking, and ways of being in the world, the story is a deficit view of Mexican families, and the language is worse than stilted. Children who are hablantes or who are bilingual learn by working through meaning and concepts and nuance. But by using an English-dominant translation—using English as the literal point of transfer—the story obscures meaning, rather than bringing together two ways of meaning and two ways of seeing the world.

The Best Mariachi in the World / El Mejor Mariachi del Mundo is a culturally inappropriate story—about a young Mexican child who must, and does, go out alone to “find his voice” because his mariachi family doesn’t care enough about him to encourage his talent. The story contains inaccurate Spanish, amateurish and stereotyped pictures, and a fake “multicultural” overlay—all of which promotes a sort of  “bootstraps mythology” to be fed to innocent little kids. Despite its winning second place in the 2009 International Latino Book Awards for Best Children's Picture Book, The Best Mariachi in the World / El Mejor Mariachi del Mundo is not recommended.

—Beverly Slapin
(published 10/14/16)

Míl gracias to María Cárdenas, Judy Zalazar Drummond, Pat Enciso, Lyn Miller-Lachmann, and Ricardo Ramírez.

[1]Here they are, in a 20-minute compilation of six of their well-known songs: “Contigo,” “Si No Estás Conmigo,” “Flor de Azalea,” “Poquita Fe,” “Triunfamos,” and “Sabor a Mí.”

[2] Enjoy this wonderful community concert: The teacher is the guy in the back who’s playing the guitarrón and can’t stop smiling.

[3] In the book, the phrases in bold here are highlighted in red.

Out of Darkness

author: Ashley Hope Pérez 
Carolrhoda Lab TM, 2015
grades 9-up 
Mexican American

On March 18, 1937, a natural gas leak led to a deadly explosion and collapse of the all-white school in New London, a town in East Texas. Ashley Hope Pérez, who grew up nearby, mined her grandmother’s recollections, archives, and historical narratives to build a complex and memorable novel around this event, a novel that at its core explores love across hard racial lines.

Seventeen-year-old Naomi Vargas, now called Naomi Smith, is a misfit in New London—the dark-complexioned daughter of Mexican-American parents. Shortly after she was born, her father drowned and her mother married a handsome Anglo oil field worker. Henry Smith, though, proved to be a demanding and troubled husband, and when his new wife died after bearing twins Beto and Cari, Henry left the three children with their abuelos in San Antonio. But now sober and an evangelical Christian, he has brought the family to East Texas where they must follow the rules to fit into the white side of a Jim Crow society. They must also renounce their Mexican heritage. Here, Naomi prepares her half-siblings for school:

“That’s enough sass,” Naomi said when they caught up to her. “Let’s hear the rules.”

With a sigh, Cari said, “The main thing is, we don’t talk Spanish in the street or at school or anywhere. Which is stupid, if you ask me.”

“All right, then,” Naomi said. “Just remember. And what else?”

“We call Henry ‘Daddy,’” Cari said. She frowned. “And what about you? Do you have to even though he’s not your daddy?”

“Me, too, and you know it,” Naomi said. She crossed her arms over her chest.

Rule following goes by the wayside when handsome Black teenager Wash Fuller (who is not allowed to attend the Consolidated School but goes to the inferior Colored School, with shorter hours, a shorter school year, and cast off supplies) finds Naomi hiding from bullies in a tree and she introduces him to her seven-year-old half-siblings. Beto and Cari enjoy exploring the piney woods and fishing for their supper with Wash, and Naomi faces down her anxiety about sex—the result of Henry’s sexual abuse of her while her mother was dying—to become intimate with him.

But Henry, who has started drinking again, has designs on Naomi, who is now old enough to legally replace her mother in the marital bed. Surprisingly, most of the town, including the pastor and the Smiths’ churchgoing neighbors, think that such a union is acceptable—certainly far more acceptable to them than a loving, consensual relationship with peers of different races. It is in this volatile racial and sexual mix that the explosion happens.

Pérez’s eloquent third-person omniscient narrative focuses on Naomi, Wash, Beto, Henry, and The Gang, the group of white students who enforce the color line and gossip about Naomi’s beauty and desirability as they stereotype and torment her. Using the third person allows her to comment on her characters whose lives take on the dimensions of a Shakespearean tragedy, and to immerse the reader in a richly drawn setting that is itself a character.

They had been happy for a time, before the rules found them. Before the terrible price was exacted for their transgressions. For the crossing of lines. For friendship, for love.

Ultimately, this powerful novel asks: What are we willing to sacrifice for friendship and love? For defying an unjust society? For working to bring about racial justice? Out of the Darkness is highly recommended.

Lyn Miller-Lachmann
(published 10/3/16)

An earlier version of this review first appeared in The Pirate Tree ( We thank The Pirate Tree for permission.

Editor’s note: Toward the beginning of Out of Darkness, a classmate explains to Naomi his position at the bottom of the town’s social hierarchy: “Nah, I’m a low man on the totem pole.” Debbie Reese, founder and editor of American Indians in Children’s Literature, ( noted this culturally problematic term and called it to the author’s attention. Rather than being defensive, the author thanked Debbie and, in the next printing (paperback), author and editor agreed to replace this line with: “Nah, no suck luck.”