Uncle Nacho’s Hat / El sombrero del Tío Nacho

author (English): Harriet Rohmer
author (Spanish): Rosalma Zubizaretta  
illustrator: Mira Reisberg
Children’s Book Press / Lee & Low, 1989
kindergarten-grade 3 

I have an old, dirty tan shirt with two gray-and-white dolphins painted on it from the San Diego Zoo. I’ve had it for a long time, won’t part with it even though it’s too stained and too small for me to wear. I think Uncle Nacho in Uncle Nacho’s Hat / El sombrero del Tío Nacho feels the same way about his hat, which is old and filled with holes.

When his niece gives him a new hat, Uncle Nacho tries to find a use for his old one or a decent person to give it to; but, somehow, that hat keeps coming back. Finally, when he stops worrying, a simple solution occurs.

Uncle Nacho’s Hat / El sombrero del Tío Nacho comes from an old Nicaraguan folktale as performed by the Puppet Workshop of Nicaraguan National Television. Harriet Rohmer, who adapted the story, says that it is about old habits and change in the new Nicaragua. This story teaches that old habits are hard to get rid of and new habits are hard to learn.

I like the brightly colored, outlined illustrations, and I like the fact that the book is bilingual. Children who speak Spanish or English can enjoy the story in their own language. Perhaps they can learn each other’s language, too.

I think this book is especially good for people who never seem to be able to get rid of things or break old habits. Uncle Nacho’s Hat / El sombrero del Tío Nacho is highly recommended.

—Carlos Albizu Ramos-Slapin
(published 12/25/16)

Editor’s note: My son, Carlos, wrote this review in 1989, when he was 11 and in the sixth grade. It was originally published in the New York Times Book Review. We both still like this book a lot.

—Beverly Slapin

Bike Like Sergio’s

author: Maribeth Boelts  
illustrator: Noah Z. Jones 
Candlewick Press, 2016 
kindergarten-grade 3

“Every kid has a bike but me,” says our sorrowful young narrator, who longingly watches his friends having the fun he is denied. Ruben especially dreams of having a bike just like that of his oblivious friend, Sergio, who rides his new one while Ruben breathlessly runs alongside. But since he’s poor, he says, “I know that wishes won’t make money appear.” At the grocery store, while Sergio purchases a pack of football cards, Ruben buys only the loaf of bread his mom wants.

When he sees that the woman in a blue coat ahead of him in line has dropped what he thinks is “just” a $1 bill, he pockets it, and when he gets home, Ruben discovers that it’s really a $100 bill. He dreams of finally being able to purchase a bike, but there’s a decision he must make. This moral and ethical dilemma takes up most of the story. When Ruben thinks that he may have lost the $100 bill, he retraces his steps “from school to bike shop to home.” It’s raining, and “rain and tears feel the same.” This defining moment before he recovers the money lends him a measure of empathy, and finally, young Ruben decides to return the money to the woman who had dropped it. But still, he doubts his choice: “I am happy and mixed up, full and empty, with what’s right and what’s gone.” Ruben is poor, then rich, then poor again.

This narrative, for all young readers to digest, implies that Ruben and other children in his low-income community are instinctively drawn to thievery in order to gain material objects.

Jones’ digitally assembled watercolor-and-pencil illustrations, with ethnically ambiguous characters, complement the ethnically ambiguous story. All we know is that most of the characters are some kind of brown-tinted, and someone in Ruben’s family may be some kind of white, as hinted by the tiny framed picture on Ruben’s family’s wall of a group of white people.

What’s centered here, in text and illustration, is poverty. The “bike like Sergio’s” symbolizes all that Ruben doesn’t have. Rather, what he has is a scuffed-up apartment with lock and chain on the door, a sink full of unwashed dishes, items thrown around, drawers left open, and a mother who’s apparently too busy with four children to teach any of them how to put away their stuff. The neighborhood is scuffed-up as well, but Ruben’s beautiful (and ethnically mixed) classroom is well furnished and spotless. And the math class is working on—let’s hammer the point home in case nobody gets it—problems involving money. Even though Ruben’s dad has a job that requires him to wear a suit and tie, mom crosses items off her grocery list because this week, apparently, they can afford only a loaf of bread and a quart of orange juice until Saturday. And Ruben dreams of—having a bike just like those of his friends.

The story is a first-person narrative. So why does the title center the name of a material object (“a bike”) belonging to a minor character (“Sergio”), while disappearing the name of the narrator? Can this have something to do with the agency—or lack of it—of a child of color?

The major reviewers had only positive things to say about this story:

From Booklist: “…[A] friendly urban setting with just the right amount of detail to allow the important interpersonal dynamics to be front and center.”

From Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books: “Sure to elicit discussion among kids, this is a morality play that strikes at the heart.”

From Horn Book:“[I]t leaves plenty of room for talking about what is most important in life from an authentically childlike perspective.”

From Kirkus: “Embedded in this heartwarming story of doing the right thing is a deft examination of the pressures of income inequality on children.”

From Publisher’s Weekly: “… Ruben’s ethical dilemma and emotional turmoil without preaching, and his struggle and journey toward the moral choice…(are) both dramatic and genuine.”

From School Library Journal: “This title hits on the issues of poverty, peer pressure, and self-control…. Parents of all economic backgrounds can use this selection to start a conversation about right and wrong.”

From Wall Street Journal: “…Boelts captures the agony of a moral dilemma…. In this rewarding tale, …Jones’s expressive, naïve illustrations reinforce the sincerity of a boy’s valiant struggle with temptation.”

Here are two alternate scenarios. Rather than poverty, what’s centered here are Ruben, his family and his community. (Since Ruben and Sergio could be Latino names, I’ll insert a few appropriate Raza cultural markers.) 

Scenario One

Rubén and Mamá and younger sibs go to the bodega to buy some masa and a bag of oranges. While Mamá’s back is turned, Rubén sees some bills fall out of Sra. Rodríguez’s purse. He picks up the bills and runs over to return them to her. Sra. Rodríguez gives Rubén una sonrisa y un abrazo and says, “¡Ay, Diós te bendiga, mijito!” Rubén, excited and happy, runs over to Mamá and tells her what has occurred. She gives him una sonrisa y un abrazo and says, “Estoy orgulloso de ti.” They all go home and, when Papá returns from work, Rubén tells him the story and receives una sonrisa y un abrazo. When Rubén goes to bed, he counts all the sonrisas y abrazos he has received this day.

Scenario Two

When Rubén comes home from school, Mamá asks him to go to the bodega and buy some masa and a bag of oranges. Outside the bodega, Rubén sees that a woman in a blue coat has dropped her purse. She picks it up, but she doesn’t notice that some money has fallen out. Rubén picks up five $20 bills and turns around to give them back to the woman, but she has gone! Rubén goes home with the money and tells Mamá what happened. Rubén and Mamá, with baby Elena in tow, return to the bodega and ask Sr. Martínez if he had seen a woman in a blue coat a little while ago. Sr. Martínez says that, yes, Sra. Rodríguez was just here and she lives somewhere on the next block. Mamá and Rubén (and baby Elena) start knocking on doors. Finally they find Sra. Rodriguez, and Rubén returns her money. Sra. Rodriguez is surprised and happy. She gives Rubén un gran abrazo and says, “¡Ay, Diós te bendiga, mijito!” And Rubén and Mamá and Elena soon find out that Sra. Rodriguez is about to take some fresh-baked cookies out of the oven….

No grinding poverty and no pining for something that’s unobtainable. No pretending that stolen money is found money. No contrived moral and ethical dilemmas and no sociopolitical metaphors about being poor and then rich and then poor again.

A Bike Like Sergio’s is a white construction of an economically marginalized family of color and their neighborhood. And it’s a white construction of the “ethical dilemmas” of a child of color—not to mention the sadness after having made the right decision: “I am happy and mixed up, full and empty, with what’s right and what’s gone.”

A Bike Like Sergio’s is not recommended.

—Beverly Slapin
(published 12/20/16)

Gaby, Lost and Found

author: Angela Cervantes 
Scholastic, 2013 
grades 4-6 
Honduran American

Sixth-grader Gaby Ramirez Howard loves cats and storytelling. When an ICE raid breaks out at the factory where her mother works—resulting in her mother’s deportation back to Honduras—Gaby is left in the care of her father, whom she does not know well and who does not seem too interested in parenting.

Despite the bullying she experiences at school, Gabby is convinced that her mother will soon return. But she is distraught when her mother tells her the journey back to Kansas City is too expensive and too dangerous. Young readers will see that Gaby has been bottling up her feelings regarding her mother’s deportation and her father’s inability to take care of her; and, while her burst of emotions is not entirely surprising, it’s heart wrenching to read her outpouring of anger and frustration aimed at her mother:

“No, Mom! I’ve been patient. I’ve been patient for three months! And stop calling me your princesa. If I were your princesa, you’d be here. You said before that I was worth the journey. I’m your daughter and I want you to come back! You promised!”…. The silence that followed sent a sharp pain through Gaby’s whole body. How could she hang up on her mom? She ran out the front. Her father yelled after her, but she wasn’t stopping.

Gaby’s outburst reveals that her mother’s absence—even though it is certainly not her fault—has ruptured the unspoken expectations between parents and their children. Parents are expected to take care of their children and, at this moment, Gaby blames her mother for her inability to do so. I found this particular scene painful to read because it’s the broken immigration system that thrives on separating families and making it extremely difficult for parents to parent. As a result, the children are left feeling abandoned and unworthy. And while Gaby is furious, she is also sensitive to her mother’s difficult situation and feels a sense of responsibility to keep herself together for her mother’s sake.

This separation of mixed status families changes their dynamics and roles: Children are often forced to mature early and parents who have been deported must find new ways to parent. Because of this dynamic, Gaby does not let her mother know how much of a hard time she is actually having; and rather, she becomes a nurturer.

While dealing with her own family situation, Gaby, as part of a class project, volunteers at an animal shelter. She becomes responsible for creating flyers with stories about the shelter animals in hopes that someone will read them and give the animals a home. When Gaby encounters a cat abandoned by her neglectful owners, she steals the cat from the shelter and takes it home with her. Gaby, who feels abandoned herself, vows to nurture her new cat the way she wishes someone would nurture her.

Cervantes's narrative details Gaby’s downward spiral due to her mother's deportation, which has stolen the child’s sense of security and has traumatized her. After the deportation, Gaby sleeps by the door with the phone under her pillow so she doesn't miss her mother's return. She is not eating well, and she begins to push her friends away. But by the end of the novel, Gaby is in a much better state of mind: She has a better understanding of how dangerous it would be for her mother to attempt to cross Guatemala and Mexico to get to Kansas City, and she finds comfort in knowing her mother is safe and in knowing that her mother will love her despite the distance.

As xenophobic immigration laws have negatively impacted many, many mixed status families, Gaby’s story remains painfully relevant. Since 2009, more than 2.5 million people have been deported. Indeed, President Obama has deported more immigrants than has any other US President and the numbers continue to rise. In addition, the Supreme Court’s deadlock on DAPA has left many more families vulnerable.

Cervantes’s novel does not attempt to provide a solution to the fraught immigration system that has taken Gaby’s mom away; nor does the author give Gaby a neat, happy ending. Rather, Gaby, Lost and Found presents a realistic telling of the fear, anger, and pain involved when a child’s parent is deported. While immigration continues to be a prominent theme within Latinx children’s and young adult literature, many books focus solely on Mexican experiences—and even then, most of them involve “legal” immigration. Luis J. Rodriguez’s América is Her Name was the first Latinx picture book I read that has an undocumented protagonist; and Jorge Argueta and Rene Colato Lainez continue to be the leading authors writing Latinx children’s books that center Central American experiences. There’s a clear need for a broader discussion of immigration in Latinx children’s literature in order to capture and represent the multiplicity of migrant, immigrant and refugee experiences.

Gaby’s narrative gives hints to her life with her mother before she was taken away and, clearly, she has other interests. She’s a complex character—a fun, cat loving, regular girl. And it’s also evident that her mom’s deportation will impact the rest of her life just like it does for real Latinx children whose parents have been deported or face deportation.

Gaby, Lost and Found is the first Latinx children’s literature novel I’ve read where a parent is deported and does not return. It’s compelling because it captures the reality impacting many young Latinx living in mixed status homes. And, while providing an ending in which Gaby and her mom are happily reunited might have been satisfying for many young readers, my concern is that such “happy endings”—by resolving everything at the end—might serve to minimize the severity of the issue and to alienate children whose parents have not and cannot return. Here, by staying away from a too-neat and too-happy ending, Cervantes points out the long-term implications for families that have been separated by an immigration system that fails our families.

Cervantes’s novel addresses issues related to mixed status families including deportation, and Gaby is indeed a multi-dimensional character whose story extends beyond her mother’s deportation. Gaby, Lost and Found is a much-needed addition to conversations around Latinx literature and immigration. It’s an extraordinary story, and is highly recommended. 

Sonia Alejandra Rodriguez, PhD
(published 12/16/16)

An earlier version of this review first appeared on Sonia Alejandra Rodriguez’s blog: https://soniaarodriguez.com/2016/07/05/gaby-lost-and-found-expanding-the-conversation-on-latinx-kids-books-immigration/.

Rooster Joe and the Bully / El Gallo Joe y el abusón

author: Xavier Garza
illustrator: Xavier Garza 
translator: Gabriela Baeza Ventura 
Piñata Books / Arte Público Press, 2016 
grades 5-7
Mexican American

Seventh-grader Joe Lopez is a burgeoning young artist “who can draw anything,” but he has a special passion for roosters. He sketches “roosters, roosters and more roosters,” he tells his best buddy, Gary, because roosters are strong and brave and will always stand their ground, even when threatened by an animal bigger than they are.

When Joe intervenes to save a classmate from a lunch-money shakedown by the school bully and his friends because his “anger at the injustice being played out is more than (he) could stand,” they mark Joe as their next victim. Joe refuses to be a “snitch” and to let fear rule him, but after an encounter in which he accidently “depants” his nemesis under the bleachers in front of everyone, Joe is sure there will be a price to pay.

Joe’s mentor is his soft-spoken Grandpa Jessie, who is an accomplished artist. While instructing his grandson about new painting materials and techniques, Grandpa answers Joe’s questions about why his own paintings focus on struggle: for badly needed change, for human rights, for better wages, against unfair laws. “El pueblo unido jamás será vencido,” he tells Joe.

“Just one person can inspire,” Grandpa says, and can motivate and unite many to struggle for justice. History, he says, is full of lessons about people who were looked upon as being small and powerless, “but bravely stood up to those who were bigger than them. They not only stood up to them, but actually beat them.” People such as “César Chávez[1] and Emma Tenayuka[2] became inspirations that motivated countless people to stand up and say, ‘No More’ to the abuses they were facing.”

And standing up to bullies, Grandpa says, is the same thing. Together with his friends, including Kiki, a girl from his past, Joe does just that. And, with encouragement from his art teacher, Kiki, Gary, Grandpa, and others, Joe enters an art contest—after which he becomes known as Rooster Joe. There are several believable middle-grade issues here, but the main thing that preteens will remember is the necessity of uniting others in the struggle for justice.

Garza’s bold, black-and-white sketches of Joe and his friends—and, of course, the ever-present roosters—complement this short, fast-moving story. And Baeza Ventura’s colloquial Spanish translation in this bilingual flipbook is, as usual, extraordinary. Here, for instance, Grandpa tells his young grandson, in English:

“El pueblo unido jamás será vencido,” exclaims Grandpa Jessie. “That’s Spanish for ‘the people united will never be defeated.’ Even the tallest mountain will crumble when the people stand united against it.”

And Baeza Ventura’s Spanish reads:

El pueblo unido jamás será vencido—exclama. Hasta la montaña más alta se puedo derrumbar cuando la gente se enfrente a ella.

Rooster Joe and the Bully / El Gallo Joe y el abusón is a satisfying story about art and budding love interests and bravery and struggle and overcoming obstacles that will engage middle readers.

*Highly recommended.

—Beverly Slapin
(published 12/11/16)

[1] Some recommended picture books about César Chávez include: Rudolfo Anaya’s Elegy on the Death of César Chávez, Carmen Bernier-Grand’s César: ¡Sí, se puede! Yes, we can!, Monica Brown’s Side by Side: The Story of Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez / Lado a Lado: La Historia de Dolores Huerta y César Chávez, Richard Griswold del Castillo’s César Chávez: The Struggle for Justice / La lucha por la justicia, and Kathleen Krull’s Harvesting Hope: the Story of Cesar Chavez. All are reviewed in De Colores.

[2] An excellent picture book about Emma Tenayuca is Carmen Tafolla and Sharyll Tenayuca’s That’s Not Fair! Emma Tenayuca’s Struggle for Justice / ¡No Es Justo! La lucha de Emma Tenayuca por la justicia. It’s reviewed in De Colores.