Grandma’s Gift

author: Eric Velasquez 
illustrator: Eric Velasquez 
Bloomsbury USA Children’s, 2013 
Puerto Rican

Eric Velasquez is the award-winning illustrator of more than 25 children’s books, including three that he wrote. In Grandma’s Gift and Grandma’s Records (Walker, 2001), he brings to life childhood moments that illuminate the warm and meaningful relationship he enjoyed with his grandmother, a native of Puerto Rico and resident of El Barrio (Spanish Harlem).

In a category where such books are woefully rare, both of Velasquez’s Grandma stories represent positive images of Afro-Latino children and their families.

Although the story in Grandma’s Gift takes place inside a few square miles of contemporary New York City, it also casts a spotlight on a long-ago historical figure. Juan de Pareja was an enslaved man of African descent who worked in the studio of 17th-century Spanish master Diego Velázquez and who became a painter in his own right. When the author was a boy, Velázquez’s luminous portrait of de Pareja was acquired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art for a price exceeding $5 million.

Grandma’s Gift contains two additional distinguishing aspects: elements of Puerto Rican culture passed down by the boy’s grandmother, and contrasting views between two physically proximate but culturally distant worlds, represented by El Barrio and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

As the story begins, Eric is leaving school for Christmas break, in the company of his grandmother. His school assignment, to be completed during the holidays, is a visit to the Velázquez exhibit. But first, grandmother and grandson go shopping at La Marqueta, once a central feature of El Barrio, composed of bustling shops tucked under a railroad trestle. At La Marqueta, it’s evident that Eric’s grandmother is a respected and beloved member of the community. Not only do butchers and greengrocers call her by title and name—Doña Carmen—they are also familiar with the high standards she expects from every cut of meat and vegetable she purchases. When the shopping is done, Eric and his grandmother return to her apartment, where she launches an elaborate preparation of traditional Puerto Rican holiday dishes. Here, she is clearly in her element, deftly handling each step of the cooking, filling, and rolling of the pasteles, much to the admiration of young Eric.

Nearly all of Doña Carmen’s dialogue is parenthetically translated into English, immediately behind her Spanish words. While this solution is not particularly elegant, it reflects the challenge that authors and publishers face in including authentic representations of a Spanish-speaking environment within an English text. The story translates greetings in Spanish by shopkeepers, words of wisdom spoken by the grandmother, and details relevant to the story, such as the names of the root vegetables used in making pasteles: calabaz, yautía, plátanos verdes, guineos verdes, papas.
El Barrio is a place that Eric’s grandmother comfortably navigates day after day. Here, her native tongue predominates, and everyone is a shade of brown. But when she and Eric head for the museum, a short bus ride away, they leave behind that familiar environment and land before the facade of the Metropolitan, cloaked in cultural status and imposing architecture. As Eric notes, there’s no one “from Puerto Rico on the streets and no one was speaking in Spanish.” At this point, Eric becomes her guide in this English-speaking world, translating the signs and captions that they encounter, stepping into a role that second- or third-generation immigrant children often play in their elders’ lives.

The highlight of the story arrives when Eric comes face to face with the portrait of Juan de Pareja, hanging in its gilded frame in one of the august exhibition halls of the museum. As a young person of color in the 1970s, Eric has never seen any of his own people elevated to such a status: “He seemed so real—much like someone we might see walking around El Barrio. I couldn’t believe that this was a painting in a museum.” Eric is amazed and proud to learn that Juan de Pareja eventually achieved freedom and became a painter in his own right. For Eric, this discovery is a revelation that sparks an artistic fire. On Christmas Eve, after everyone enjoys a traditional holiday dinner, Eric sits under the Christmas tree and opens his grandmother’s gift. It’s a sketchbook and a set of colored pencils. He immediately begins to draw a self-portrait. Through this gift, Eric’s grandmother expresses confidence in her grandson’s dreams, underscoring that he, too—a child of El Barrio, an African Latino—can follow in the footsteps of Juan de Pareja.

This touching, autobiographical story is richly illustrated in Velasquez’s photorealistic style, which authentically depicts settings and brings dimension to each character. He imbues his subjects with individually distinct physical characteristics, and lovingly paints his grandmother as a lady of dignified bearing and warmth, usually dressed in subdued colors. He often lavishes this humanizing treatment on background characters as well, such as fellow passengers on the train and a nameless guard at the museum. In most of the illustrations, he employs a wide and vivid range of hues, but like Diego Velázquez, he sometimes falls back on a deliberately limited palette. When the boy and his grandmother stand before the portrait of Juan de Pareja, most notably, the rich browns of the ancient oil painting harmoniously come together with the rich browns of the grandmother’s clothing, as well as the skin tones of all three figures. He puts this deft touch with a monochromatic palette to great effect in the story’s electric moment of revelation, as the child Eric looks on the portrait of Juan de Pareja and grasps a new possibility for his own future. Grandma’s Gift is truly a gift and is highly recommended.

—Lila Quintero Weaver
(published 7/26/17)

An earlier version of this review first appeared in Latinxs in Kid Lit ( We thank Latinxs for permission.

María Had a Little Llama / María Tenía una Llamita

author: Angela Domínguez
illustrator: Angela Domínguez
translator: Angela Domínguez
Henry Holt, 2013 
preschool-grade 2 

Here, Domínguez brings 19th-Century American schoolteacher, Sarah Josepha Hale’s nursery rhyme, “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” into modern-day Peru, where “Mary” becomes “María” and her faithful lamb is a llamita. Beautifully and conscientiously executed in intention, art and translation, María Had a Little Llama / María Tenía una Llamita is a picture book that “shows” rather than “tells” a particular child’s world that in some ways is the same as, and in other ways is different from, those of children who may be reading it.

María is an Inca-Peruvian girl who loves her pet llama and her pet llama loves her—so much so that, while the other llamas (and a few sheep as well) trot off the other way, Maria’s llamita follows her to school. The children are amused of course, but her beloved llama has to wait patiently outside (rules, you know), while the teacher explains the close relationship between the girl and her pet.

While the English text follows Hale’s original poem word for word, Domínguez’s Spanish translation is conversational and charming, and keeps a rhythm that will appeal to hablantes and young bilingual readers as well. 

Effectively employing mixed media consisting of watercolor, gouache, inks and colored pencil on an earthy palette, Domínguez reserves the more opaque inks and gouaches to center María and her bright red hat—as well as her solid white llama—while using the flatter watercolors for the backgrounds. This works especially well, for instance, in depicting the vast blue-green Andes mountains on all of the spreads that show the land.

Domînguez presents physical and cultural details in a subtle, organic way. As an Inca-Peruvian child, Marîa’s traditional outfit consists of a plain woolen poncho and skirt, a bright red chullo (a woolen cone-shaped hat with earflaps), and a pair of ojotas (sandals made from recycled tires). On her way to school, she also carries a bright purple cloth bookbag on her back. In the classroom, María’s teacher wears a traditional embroidered Quecha jobona (wool jacket) and montera (basket-hat). She also wears eyeglasses. On her desk are a stack of books and a globe, while the children sit at desks and write on paper with pencils. While these are important visual cues for young readers in the US to absorb, Domínguez’s illustrations do not depict cultural anomalies. Rather, they show an everyday mix of old and new in a rural Peruvian village.

Domínguez’s careful attention to detail shows throughout. Here are children and adults in a mixed-grade classroom who vary in age, dress and complexion tones. Here is María’s home village, with tile-roofed houses and an open-air marketplace. Here are the animals—llamas and sheep, free and corralled—of different sizes, shapes and colors. Here is a group of musicians in the background, who vary in ethnicity, gender and body types.

Some of my favorite illustrations: 

María’s llama is patiently waiting outside—“But still he waited near and lingered patiently about” / “Pero ella se quedó cerca esperando pacientemente…”—sitting on the grass, ever smiling as llamas do, while clocks float in the background to mark the slow passage of time. 

Domínguez depicts “everywhere” (“And everywhere that María went, the llama was sure to go” / “Y a donde María iba, la llama la seguía”) as a roughly drawn map of Peru that focuses on the Inca Trail: the Andes, Cuzco, the rivers and the sacred Machu Picchu. This spread spans the top half, while the bottom half shows María and her llamita, always together. This is María’s world. This is everywhere.

The final spread opens to a scene of llamas looking on from inside a corral as musicians play traditional musical instruments, which include quena (flute), guitarrón, and arpa indígena (harp); and children, with smaller instruments, wave. In the background are the Andes and forefronted is María, playing her zampoña (pan pipe) and dancing, her llamita dancing beside her. Some of the children are wearing contemporary clothing and some are dressed traditionally; their hairstyles as well reflect their ethnic and cultural mixes. Everyone is smiling, llamas included. It’s a scene of pure joy, one to which young readers will keep returning. 

A well-deserved Pure Belpré Honor Book, María Had a Little Llama / María Tenía una Llamita is highly recommended.

—Beverly Slapin
(published 7/11/17)

Los Pollitos / Little Chickies // Elefantitos / Little Elephants

author: Susie Jaramillo 
illustrator: Susie Jaramillo 
translator: Susie Jaramillo
Encantos Media Studios, 
Cantícos series, 2016

Conceived for the youngest hablantes, and bilingual and non-Spanish speakers as well—these whimsical, engaging and impossibly adorable accordion-styled board books are too heavy for toddlers to chew up or throw across the room. Which they wouldn’t want to do, anyway. For everyone else, they are an artful, well thought-out and beautifully produced treasure, keepers for sure.
Jaramillo creates her art by first sketching in pencil, then painting with acrylics to bring out the characters’ textures and “plumpness,” and finally, overlaying with black ink to bring them to life. Each librito has its own bright palette that highlights one color: yellow for Pollitos, for instance, and gray for Elefantitos. Printed on smooth, heavyweight paper, each page contains a partially hidden pull tab or flap that adds surprise, life and motion to the characters. It’s an art style that’s both interesting and fun for the littlest kids for whom Jaramillo produces them. Her goal, she told me, is to create bright, fun, “cute little characters that kids fall in love with and want to hug.”

The rhymes—something not often seen in children’s books—are conceived in Spanish and interpreted rather than translated into English. Rhyming in Spanish and English, they roll off the tongue and capture the melody, spirit, and sense of humor of both languages, engaging hablantes and non-Spanish speakers alike. In addition, they carry a subtle message—not that everyone’s the same, but that everyone’s different and they all get along.

For instance, the Mexican folk song, “Los pollitos dicen,” goes:

Los pollitos dicen
¡pío! ¡pío! ¡pío!
Cuando tienen hambre…
cuando tienen frío.
La gallina busca
el maíz y el trigo…
les da la comida…
y les presta abrigo.
Bajo sus dos alas…
duermen los pollitos,
hasta el otro día.

And the English interpretation, “Little Chickies”:

Little chickies squeal
¡pío! ¡pío! ¡pío!
When they get so cold…
and when they want a meal.
Mama goes and gets them
corn, from the field…
serves them each their food…
and warms them head to heel.
Chickies sleep so yummy…
snuggled up with mummy…
And that’s just where they’ll stay,
until another day.

Similarly, the Mexican counting song, in Spanish:

Un elefante se balanceaba
sobre la tela de una araña,
como veía que resistía
fue a llamar a otro elefante.

is interpreted into an English version:

One little elephant balanced oh so elegant
right on the web of a spider.
Along came a friend from around the bend
and the elephant called to invite her.

One of the differences in Jaramillo’s version as opposed to the “traditional” one, is that the elefantitos are babies who have a lot to learn. Maybe. As the group grows in number, the first one's expression —then that of the second, third, fourth and fifth—grow from carefree to concern to a sense of imminent danger as they start to think that balancing on a spider’s web might not be such a great idea. And the little spider—whom Jaramillo portrays as a big-eyed black ball of fuzz—is becoming frantic as well. Since no one gets hurt here, kids can happily repeat the song until they get sleepy. Or the adults do.

Frustrated with the lack of beautiful, high-quality bilingual books that, as Jaramillo told me, “tell stories inspired by our cultures, in a simple format that’s accessible to very young children,” her family joined with another to found Encantos Media Studios. It’s a homemade small business, a public benefit corporation with a social mission, as Jaramillo told me, “to bring people together, to tell stories inspired by our cultures.” As a sustainable business that is also a force for good, Jaramillo says that Encantos gives away “lots and lots of books to the communities we serve. It’s a complete labor of love.”

“It’s so important,” Jaramillo says, “to impart to kids both language and culture so that they can be proud of their families and bond with their grandparents.” 

Each accordion shaped book in the Cantícos series comes in a sturdy box for added protection, and there’s a free app, so the littlest ones can sing along. These absolutely adorable, good-natured, hilarious, and virtually indestructible (except for the pull tabs and flaps) little-kid books—in Spanish and English—are highly recommended.

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

—Beverly Slapin
(published 7/8/17, revised 7/10/17)

One Minute Mysteries: Short Mysteries You Solve with Math! / Misterios de un minuto:¡Misterios cortos que resuelves con matemáticas!

author: Eric Yoder
author: Natalie Yoder 
translator: Yana Alfaro Villalobos
Science, Naturally! 2017
grades 4-8

This fifth volume in the Yoders’ One Minute Mysteries series, and the second in both Spanish and English, is the sister book to the science mysteries titles. As the publisher, Dia Michels, wrote to me, “Doing a bilingual math book brought with it a whole new set of challenges.”

The original project began as a series of father-and-daughter activities in which one wrote and the other edited, or both wrote together. Eric’s vision was, as he writes in his part of this foreword, to “show real-world applications of academic subject matter, using mystery as the vehicle,” and Natalie’s vision was to be able to figure out “everyday problems that could be solved using math.” Together, their aim was to make math more accessible and enjoyable. 

As with the science volumes, these challenging problems open up both discoveries and potential for curious, inquisitive minds. And that these 40 pint-sized “mysteries”—covering Math at Home, Math Outside, Math at Play, and Math Every Day, and including a Science Bonus Section—are presented as encountered and solved by children themselves, actually make math both approachable and fun.

As with the science volumes, the book design here 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. 

Among my favorite brain-teasers is “Pancake Mix-Up,” in which Meg has to figure out exactly how many single-serve packages of pancake mix to combine with milk, using several different kinds of measuring cups. All she had to do, she says, was to find the smallest number that was a multiple of both ounces of pancake mix and ounces marked on the measuring cups. As someone who’s math-challenged, to say the least, my solution would have been to make scrambled eggs.

But my hands-down favorite, probably because I was able to figure it out, is “Ice Cream, Anyone?” in which 21 energetic middle-school girls, celebrating the end of their field hockey season, visit Cora’s Ice Cream Parlor and request that each them get two different flavors of ice cream—and that each get something different from anyone else. But Cora has only 12 flavors.

Villalobos's colloquial Spanish translation reads well, and this layout of the mysteries and solutions enable hablantes, bilingual students, and English-only speakers to work in the language in which they’re most proficient, and look to the other side for corresponding words, phrases, and idioms that particularly interest them. And his puns are hilarious; for instance, his version of “Pancake Mix-Up” is “Manos en la Masa.” For those who don’t know, the interpretation would be “caught you with your hands in the cookie jar,” which, of course, has nothing to do with this math problem. I’m betting that it’ll cause both hablantes and bilingual kids to laugh out loud.

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 a representation of children and adults with disabilities and the spectrum of family configurations as well.

Also missing was a diversity of income levels. The problems feature predominantly middle- to upper-income families taking private golf lessons, staying at a dude ranch (in which they’re required to take part in the daily chores), or figuring out which kind of new car to purchase. One problem that was particularly problematic for me was this one:

Jada and Michelle’s school was closed for a winter teacher training day, so their parents decided to take a day off from work to take the family skiing. They were glad to see when they got there that there were no lines at the chair lifts.

With those suggested changes in mind, One Minute Mysteries: Short Mysteries You Solve with Math! / Misterios de un minuto:¡Misterios cortos que resuelves con matemáticas! is engaging and fun for math nerds (and their parents, if permitted), as well as youngsters who could benefit from some time away from video games. It’s recommended.

—Beverly Slapin
(published 7/4/17)

(Note: In this review, we originally credited Esteban Bachelet as the translator. Esteban translated One Minute Mysteries: More Short Mysteries You Solve with Science / Misterios de un minuto: ¡Más misterios cortos que resuelves con ciencias! And Yana Alfaro Villalobos translated this one. Sorry for the error.)