Pancho Rabbit and the Coyote: A Migrant’s Tale

author: Duncan Tonatiuh 
illustrator: Duncan Tonatiuh
Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2013 

There are far too few picture books for children that depict refugee families or families of undocumented workers in such a way that young children can see reflections of their own lives. Some of the best include Jorge Tetl Argueta and Alfonso Ruano’s Somos como las nubes / We Are Like the Clouds (Groundwood, 2016) and Jaime Buitrago and Rafael Yockteng’s Dos conejos blancos // Two White Rabbits (Groundwood, 2016)—all of which have been previously reviewed here—and one published earlier, Duncan Tonatiuh’s Pancho Rabbit and the Coyote (Abrams, 2013).

While Argueta’s and Buitrago’s stories are achingly beautiful and loaded with symbolism, Tonatiuh’s evocative fable, with familiar animals as characters, lightens the symbolic load a bit. Still, it takes young readers and listeners into an ominous world that forces undocumented migrants to leave their families and communities and risk their lives for a chance to earn enough to survive until the next harvest season, when they will have to cross again. While children of undocumented workers will easily relate to this story, it also builds empathy and invites children who may never have thought about what it is to live these lives to imagine how they might deal with the harrowing circumstances portrayed here.

When the rains do not come, Papá Rabbit, Señor Rooster, Señor Ram and some others from the rancho head out to work the “great carrot and lettuce fields” in El Norte. Several harvests later, they haven’t returned, and Pancho Rabbit, the eldest, is worried. Late at night, he fills his backpack with mole, rice and beans, “a heap of still-warm tortillas, and a jugful of fresh aguamiel” and embarks on a journey to find Papá.

Following the stars north, Pancho meets a coyote who offers to guide him—for a price, some of the food he has packed for Papá. As their dangerous trek continues—atop a moving train, across a river, through a tunnel, and into the scorching desert—the coyote demands more and more food. When it’s gone, the coyote tells Pancho that he is about to become the next meal. But just in time, Papá Rabbit, Señor Rooster, and Señor Ram, who have heard the little one’s cries, come to the rescue. Pancho learns that Papá and the others had been stranded in the desert after being attacked by a gang of crows who took all the money they had earned. And after a long embrace, Pancho guides them home to their joyous families and friends. 

Hand-drawn and then digitally collaged illustrations, which Tonatiuh has adapted from the style of the old Mixtec codices, are rendered on a warm palette of mostly flat browns and greens that beautifully frames the story. As well, by incorporating the many textures of fur and feathers, train wheels and gears, cactus spines, denim jeans, canvas backpacks, bandanas, plaid shirts, and borders of papel picado, he brings together the “past” of the codices with the “present” of the Rabbit family’s difficult life. Although the faces are represented in profile, there are expressions. Here are the Rabbit children, holding hands and sadly waving goodbye to Papá Rabbit and his compañeros. Here is Pancho, terrified after losing his balance atop a speeding train. Here are Pancho and the coyote, sweating and panting, about to collapse in the scorching hot desert. And here are Pancho and Papá, joyously hugging each other, while the coyote, his tail between his legs, flees from the fury of Señor Ram and Señor Rooster.

The animals on Pancho’s perilous journey mirror the terrible exploitation that undocumented migrants are forced to endure. The nasty, threatening coyote represents, of course, the human smugglers who extort exorbitant amounts to bring migrants to El Norte (and often take the money and run before reaching the border); the menacing, bribe-taking border guards are appropriately depicted as rattlesnakes; and a “gang of crows” (not depicted) represents the bandits who accost defenseless migrants on the road and take everything they have. 

Finally reunited (for now), the Rabbit children try to convince Papá Rabbit not to leave again. But child readers and listeners soon find out that a happy ending is not guaranteed; as in real life, Pancho’s rabbit family does not know what the future holds for them. They can only hope that there’s enough rain for the crops next year. 
“I don’t want to leave you,” said Papá Rabbit, “but the crows took all our money. If it doesn’t rain enough again this year, and if there is no food or work here on the rancho, what else am I to do? I will have to leave again.”

Pancho Rabbit and the Coyote had an immediate and strong impact on middle-schoolers Amelia Edosia and Maribel Linda, who recognized their own parents in the Rabbit family and themselves in the Rabbit children. This is what they  had to say:

Amelia: “My dad is a migrant. He walked all the way here from Mexico. He told me he walked by himself. Pancho Rabbit and the Coyote makes me think of dad and when he leaves and mom doesn’t know where he is and when he’ll come back. ‘Pancho’ is like my little brother—or all of us."

Maribel: “A lot of Mexican kids would understand this story because they may have parents who are farm workers who work really hard. And sometimes the parents have to go to other places to work and their kids miss them and feel sad.”

Amelia: “Pancho Rabbit and the Coyote is kind of like Two White Rabbits, where the little girl and her dad are traveling to El Norte so he can find work. There are mean-looking coyotes in both stories. Pancho is being used by the coyote: he’s bad, he’s dishonest, and after he takes everything Pancho has, he tries to kill him. It’s obvious that coyotes like to eat rabbits, but in real life, this coyote (the smuggler) would have left Pancho in the desert to die.”

Maribel: “The snakes represent the border patrol: they strike, they have fangs, they can be poisonous. It makes me think about how dangerous it is for my father and what if he didn’t come back. Not a lot of parents always come back.”

Amelia: “It’s tough for the family because you don’t know when they’ll come back or if they’ll come back.”

And the verdict: 

Beverly: “A well-deserved Pure Belpré Honor Book, Pancho Rabbit and the Coyote speaks to children of migrant workers as few children’s books do. Along with an extensive author’s note about the difficult lives of migrant workers and the dangers they face, and web-based research and resources for older readers, it’s highly recommended.”

Maribel: “Pancho Rabbit and the Coyote is highly recommended because it teaches Mexican kids what their parents could be going through when they have to leave them to go to work. Respect your parents because you don’t know if they’ll come back.”

Amelia: “Pancho Rabbit and the Coyote is highly recommended because kids who don’t have parents who are migrants will learn how dangerous the lives of migrant farm workers are, and they might learn to care more about other people. And it also helps the Mexican kids feel better.”

Maribel: “And Trump is not gonna finish his wall!”

Amelia: “Yeah!”

—Beverly Slapin, Maribel Linda, and Amelia Edosia
(published 6/22/17)

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

(Note: For more info about Pancho Rabbit and the Coyote, see this excellent review by Lila Quintero Weaver, in Latinxs in Kid Lit ( It contains information about the author and a reference to his TED talk, a section about the characteristics of Mixtec art, and teaching suggestions.)

The Long Journey of Mister Poop / El Gran Viaje del Señor Caca

author: Angéle Delaunois
illustrator: Marie Lafrance
translator: Daniel Zolinsky
Cinco Puntos Press, 2007

Here, our wolf-guide—sometimes wearing a lab coat and stethoscope, sometimes sporting a chef’s toque, sometimes waving a pointer—takes young readers on a tour of the human body from the inside, pointing out and explaining the bodily processes that transform food into poop. Lafrance’s hilarious pastel illustrations—on a bright palette of mostly yellows, reds, greens and, um, browns—complement Delaunois’ kid-friendly scientific text that even contains the sound effects of digestion! Zolinsky’s Spanish—sometimes placed above and sometimes placed below the English—is a hoot as well.

My young granddaughters (who are excited about reviewing for DE COLORES), middle-schoolers Amelia Edosia and Maribel Linda, couldn’t believe their eyes: A book about poop? Caca? Popó? Really? Maribel laughed because she initially thought that “el gran viaje del Señor Caca” was about “someone named ‘poop’ who was going places.” (The faceless Señor Caca is carrying a satchel and wearing a hat, which is actually a piece of apple core.) And Amelia thought it was funny because “we don’t usually talk about this stuff.”

As they started reading, they saw Doctor Wolf offering an apple to a little girl and telling the teeth to get to work (¡Vamos, dientes! ¡A trabajar!). Maribel noticed that each double-page spread contains both dialogue from Wolf to the little girl, as well as an informative sentence in Spanish and English that explains the particular process. Both reviewers were initially grossed out (“ugh!”) at the illustration of Chef Wolf stirring vegetables in a stomach but began to be impressed at the sight of little enzyme-fishes gobbling up the food and changing its texture. Maribel remarked that “the enzymes turn the food particles into a sort of compost and the stomach is like a compost bin, sucking out the good stuff.”

And now, for the evaluation.

Amelia: “I think El Gran Viaje is important because you can learn something about your body. And it’s funny, too, especially the Spanish. I think the words ‘popó’ and ‘caca’ are funnier than ‘poop.’ I like the drawings because they show things like the intestines being measured off. It’s sort of like a big ruler so you get the idea that the intestines are very long. I like that better than just telling you a fact, like the intestines are very long.”

Maribel: “I think this book is good because you learn about things you didn’t know like how your body actually turns food into poop. For example, you eat something and maybe a few days later it comes out and stinks because it’s been up in your body for days and all the good stuff has been sucked out and used. Poop is what your body doesn’t need.

“I think the drawings are very good because young children can look at them and see what’s in their bodies. I like the pictures of Chef Wolf—he’s leading the story like a teacher and a guide leading you on your journey. For instance, he’s in the stomach and he’s got scuba gear, and he’s grocery shopping in the intestines while the blood and organs take what they need.

“I also like that It’s really funny because it’s teaching real things in a cartoon way and textbooks are boring. I understood this stuff when I read about it in a textbook, but that’s because my teacher went over it a hundred times. But I like this one better because I just studied the digestive system and this was easy and fun.”

Amelia: “I like to look at this kind of book because it has information to read and the pictures show me what’s next.

“I learned about digestion, that the stuff you eat has to do with how you feel. We eat healthy because we want to be strong. Our bodies need all this stuff —vitamins and minerals—so we can live healthy. Mom gives us an option—a sandwich or fruit or vegetables, and once in a while, we eat junk like at McDonald’s and then I get a stomachache. I learned to eat healthier and not eat too much junk food.”

Maribel: “I’m on the wrestling team and losing or gaining weight depends on what you eat. You can eat some carbs but mostly you have to eat fruits and vegetables. Some foods make me feel crummy before a wrestling match. I can tell the difference when I eat certain foods. Eating pancakes before wrestling, for instance, doesn’t give me strength, but fruits and vegetables do.”

And the verdict:

Judy: The Long Journey of Mister Poop / El Gran Viaje del Señor Caca is highly recommended.

Maribel: El Gran Viaje del Señor Caca is highly recommended.

Amelia: The Long Journey of Mister Poop is highly recommended.

We’re all disappointed that this excellent, funny book is currently out of print, and encourage the publisher to bring it back!

—Judy Zalazar Drummond, Amelia Edosia and Maribel Linda
(published 6/15/17)

Sing, Don’t Cry

author: Angela Domínguez 
illustrator: Angela Domínguez 
Henry Holt, 2017 
Mexican, Mexican American

Ay, ay, ay, ay.
canta y no llores.
porque cantando se alegran,
cielito lindo, los corazones.

Ay, ay, ay, ay.
sing and don’t cry.
because singing gladdens
the heart, sweet lovely one.

When people think of a “Mexican” song, “Cielito Lindo" is one of the first that comes to mind. It’s a positive song, a unifying song, a song of hope and a new morning.“Cielito Lindo” goes back to the 1880s and remains the single most popular mariachi song in Mexico. In restaurants, mariachis enter singing it, and people stop eating and, swaying back and forth, sing the refrain.

My friend and colleague, Judy Zalazar Drummond, told me that her uncle had been a mariachi, and that “Cielito Lindo” was always the song that brought everyone together. She remembers her mother’s singing it all the time and, in Mexico, “someone always picked up the guitar and played it.” It’s an easy song and was the first song she learned as a child. It’s a pretty song, she told me, and always gave her a good feeling.

Domínguez’s story, she writes, was inspired by the refrain in “Cielito Lindo” and by her mariachi grandfather, who turned to music after a serious childhood accident. She centers this poignant story—narrated by a child who fondly remembers Abuelo and the lessons he taught his grandchildren during his annual visits from Mexico—on the healing powers of song and a positive outlook and love of family and community. 

Her artwork—pencil drawings on tissue paper on illustration board, digitally colored in Photoshop—beautifully complements the story’s gentleness. There are two different, both calmly subdued, palettes here: more sepia tones for  “past memories” and slightly brighter, mostly greens, blues, browns and yellows for “present moments.” And I’m impressed as usual by Domínguez’s use of varied skin tones and hair colors, as well as rich details such as bricks on buildings, leaves on trees, a banner of papel picado fluttering in the breeze, the fabric of a couch and balls of yarn in a basket. 

Domínguez has made sure that, although she doesn’t center Abuelo’s disability (he probably would not have wanted her to), it’s clear that it changed his life. So, in four illustrations placed throughout, is a story within the story. The first three are rendered in sepia tones, representing the past. Here is a worried mom, standing over her child’s bed. He is in pain. Here is the child, viewed from behind, leaning on crutches and looking out the window. His friends are waving to him, but he can’t go out. Here is a young man, joyfully singing and playing his guitar. A crutch leans against the couch. And finally, in full color, here is an older man—Abuelo—standing up, exuberantly holding his guitar and smiling at his grandchildren. They are hugging him and his arms are open wide in an exchange of love. 

Domínguez’ spare text virtually frames all of her illustrations and hints at their content: “Some things may be lost forever / it’s true.” / “But maybe that makes room / for new and wonderful / things to be found.” This story showing technique cannot help but engage young readers and listeners and encourage them to imagine, and maybe share their own stories. 

And finally, there’s this:

When you are misunderstood,
and when people are unkind,
remember—sing, don’t cry,
even if it is only in your soul.”

There is one problem—and it’s major: Domínguez’s lovely story and beautiful art, informed by a Mexican song, about a Mexican American family with a Mexican abuelo who is a mariachi, was published in an English-only format. It certainly should have been bilingual, and I hope that the next printing will be. In the meanwhile, just as a stopgap, perhaps Domínguez and/or the publisher will insert a translation into each book as it comes off the press. Nevertheless, Sing, Don’t Cry is highly recommended.

—Beverly Slapin
(published 6/7/17)