Cinco de Mouse-O!

author: Judy Cox
illustrator: Jeffrey Ebbeler 
Holiday House, 2010 
kindergarten-grade 2 

It’s the fifth of May, and an anthropomorphic mouse, immediately identified as Mexican because his bed is an “Auténtica Lotería” box and a Lotería card is pinned to the wall, is awakened by “spicy smells that tickle his nose—beany, cheesy, ricey smells.” And although rice, cheese and beans are everyday Mexican fare, Mouse guesses that there’s a party going on—a “Mexican fiesta. ¡Fantástico!

Dressed in human clothes and following the aroma, Mouse determines that it’s not coming from inside and, unaware of “greedy Cat” (who is not dressed in human clothes) stalking him, Mouse runs through the streets to the city park, where there’s a busy street festival going on. He knows it’s a Cinco de Mayo fiesta because there are bright Mexican flags, papel picado, “sombreros, serapes, and bright paper flowers,” vaqueros on horses, mariachis, women dancing, children playing, and people eating—and a large banner that says ¡CINCO DE MAYO! (Apparently, Mouse can read.)

All of a sudden: 

His eyes grew round as he beheld a confetti-covered piñata, stuffed with candy and shaped like a burro, hanging in a tree above the plaza. “I must have that for my fiesta,” he said to himself. 

OK, let’s get relatively real here. Piñatas are not covered with “confetti”—they’re made with fringed and wrapped crepe paper. Even though Mouse is anthropomorphic, house mice are scavengers. They’re also prey animals, so they are very careful to avoid predators, such as cats (who, by the way, are not “greedy.” They kill to eat, and also for the fun of the hunt.) With all the food around a fiesta—“tacos, tamales, chorizos, and flan”—why would Mouse put himself in danger, trying to reach a piñata, “swaying high above the plaza”? And why is Mouse planning his own “fiesta”? None of this makes any biological or cultural sense—even for an anthropomorphic Mexican rodent.

The rest of the story is about Mouse, trying to reach the piñata while avoiding Cat. Someone steps on Cat’s tail, Cat runs away, Mouse sadly looks around and—finds an overlooked lemon drop, which he picks up and takes back to his “hidey-hole.” Here, Mouse, wearing a sombrero and dancing with the lemon drop—amidst papel picado, dried chile peppers, paper flowers, and a Mexican wood carving of what appears to be a cat—and sings out: “¡Cinco de Mouse-O! ¡Qué felicidad! The End.

Ebbeler’s heavily saturated, full-bleed, mostly double-spread illustrations—created with acrylic paint, pastels, and colored pencil on paper—portray scenes of the festivities from a variety of perspectives, including one spread in which Mouse is eyeing the piñata. Since mice have non-stereoscopic vision, the piñata appropriately appears twice, on both sides of Mouse’s head. He’s seen in other spreads as well, eyeing the festivities almost in proportion to the humans, such as running over a dancer’s foot, hiding in a mariachi’s sombrero, and riding the piñata like a vaquero. As well, the people—dancers, musicians and vaqueros in “fiesta” outfits, while everyone else wears street clothes—are done well, and Ebbeler portrays the Mexican community as ethnically diverse. 

In one scene, though, an elderly woman is cooking and a younger woman is serving. The older woman is holding a pair of tongs. Apparently bemused, both women are looking directly at Mouse, who is happily carrying away a tamal, a taco, an entire flan on a plate, and some beans that the server has dropped. He is stealing their food and probably making a mess as well. One of the women would have immediately chased him off, but doesn’t. This is insulting to Mexican people, and particularly to Mexican women.

And that Mexican cultural artifacts, such as the piñata, papel picado, and Oaxacan folk art carvings, foreground the actual fiesta, and that Mouse’s wearing regalia and celebrating something that’s referred to only in a brief introductory note on the CIP page, is offensive as well.

Cinco de Mayo has historical significance. By ignoring the history—and using a Mexican celebration as the backdrop for a story in which a mouse is the central (actually, only) character—diminishes the festival and diminishes the Mexican culture itself. Further, transmogrifying Cinco de Mayo into “Cinco de Mouse-O” implies that adding an “o” to the end of a word makes it Spanish. To do so mocks the language. 

Despite the publisher’s thanking “Lena Burgos-Lafuente of New York University’s Department of Spanish and Portuguese for reviewing the Spanish in this book for accuracy,” the idea that Cinco de Mayo is a mouse’s personal fiesta, which he misnames—is racist. Cinco De Mouse-O! is not recommended.

—Beverly Slapin
(published 4/28/18)

Fiesta Fiasco // Count on Culebra // Tortuga in Trouble // Mañana, Iguana

In each of these formulaic picture books, the characters are all Mexican animals whose names are the same as their species—Iguana (iguana), Conejo (rabbit), Culebra (snake), and Tortuga (tortoise)—and who live together in the Mexican desert. Only the one female, Iguana, wears clothing (which happen to be dresses), and, interestingly, she’s also the only one with eyelashes. The few words in Spanish are italicized and almost immediately followed by their translations.

Like this: “You don’t fool me, amigos,” said Tortuga. “You may be my friends…”

Two of the stories are derivative fairy tales, one is a count-to-ten story, and the fourth is about a birthday party that goes awry. Each of the stories ends with practically the same line: “And they did” or “And they all did.”

Long’s artwork, created with watercolors and gouache on watercolor paper, incorporates geometric designs mimicking those of Mexico and eye popping colors—mostly fiery reds, oranges, yellows, and bright greens—set against white backgrounds. And the eyes of all of the cartoon-like characters actually pop out of their heads. Each book contains a glossary in which many of the words are pronounced faultily or the grammar or translation is wrong and—while Conejo’s, Culebra’s and Tortuga’s names appear in each glossary—Iguana’s is absent.

author: Ann Whitford Paul 
illustrator: Ethan Long 
Holiday House, 2007 
preschool-grade 3 

In this “creatively executed original trickster tale,” as a reviewer inaptly dubbed it, Conejo convinces Iguana and Tortuga to select the worst gifts possible for Culebra’s cumpleaños—a sombrero (because snakes don’t need shade from the sun), and a camisa and pantalones, which Conejo tells them will become useful as soon as Culebra grows arms and legs. After discovering that this was all a ruse, the friends disinvite Conejo from the party. Shamefacedly, Conejo slinks off and, while the other friends play “Pin the Tail on the Coyote,” “Cactus Statue,” and “Musical Rocks,” Conejo exchanges the gifts for other things: a balloon, a bowl and a book. How is that better for Culebra, who still doesn’t have arms? And, as Conejo looks forward to celebrating his own cumpleaños, Iguana, Culebra and Tortuga already know what his gifts will be. How many synonyms can we find for “contrived”?

author: Ann Whitford Paul 
illustrator: Ethan Long 
Holiday House, 2008 
preschool-grade 3 

Just as she’s about to make a batch of cactus butter dulces, Iguana stumbles on a stone and stubs her toe. In an effort to alleviate Iguana’s pain so that she can show her friends how to make the delicious dulces, but more importantly, teach English-speaking kids to count to ten in Spanish, “doctor” Culebra orders everyone to tie all the kitchen utensils (e.g., “ocho knives, nueve forks, diez spoons”) onto Iguana’s tail. When Iguana walks, the racket caused by all the kitchen equipment banging together causes her to forget her pain. This making one pain to get rid of another is all reminiscent of the old Warner Bros. cartoons, which weren’t funny either. So everyone makes dulces, and a lesson in counting in Spanish has allegedly been accomplished.

Count on Culebra contains 15 Spanish words: the written numbers for 1-10, the four characters (“Conejo,” “Culebra,” “Iguana,” and “Tortuga”) and the word, “dulces.”

In the book’s glossary, the author demonstrates her lack of basic knowledge of Spanish. Here, she explains: “When the number one is used as an adjective (such as ‘one rolling pin’), it is always un. When counting, the correct word is uno.” 

¡Ay, que no!

In Spanish, “one rolling pin” is “un rodillo,” which also means “a rolling pin.” That’s because “un” means both “one” and “a.” And “unos” is an adjective that means “some,” so “unos rodillos” means “some rolling pins.” And. Since Spanish is a gendered language, depending on the gender of the modified nouns, adjectives are either “masculine” (usually ending in “o”) or “feminine” (usually ending in “a”). One can count, for instance, “un libro” or “unos libros,” “un conejo” or “unos conejos,” and also “una culebra” or “unas culebras,” “una iguana” or “unas iguanas,” and “una tortuga” or “unas tortugas.” (Then there’s “un día” and “unos días.”)

At the same time, plural “masculine” and “feminine” adjectives are not always consistent with what may be the actual gender of the specific noun. (So the term, “unos perritos,” for example, may describe a litter of male and female puppies, including those who have been spayed and neutered, which is always a good idea).

Using a Spanish modifier for an English word can be nothing but ungrammatical. And for Spanish speakers, as well as for English speakers who want to learn Spanish, it’s ridiculous and confusing. Count on Culebra was majorly not a good idea.

author: Ann Whitford Paul 
illustrator: Ethan Long 
Holiday House, 2009 
preschool-grade 3 

In this remix of Little Red Riding Hood, Tortuga gets the role of Little Red, an elderly Tortuga plays Tortuga’s abuela, Coyote plays Big Bad  Wolf, and Iguana, Conejo and Culebra follow behind Tortuga, hoping to get a taste of his canasta-filled supper of ensalada, tamales and flan. When Tortuga inexplicably stops to talk with the super-nasty-looking Coyote, the three amigos hide behind a cactus; and, as Tortuga reaches Coyote-as-Abuela—and notices what big orejas, ojos, and dientes he has—the three amigos make a racket that frightens Coyote and causes him to flee; thereby saving Tortuga from becoming soup. They free Abuela and share the supper that Tortuga had brought for her. 

A quick note about the illustrations here: While Tortuga has no hair on his head (of course), his elderly abuela sports a full head of hair, tied in a stereotypically old-lady bun. And, since she’s the only other female in this series, she wears a blanket over her shell to represent clothing. And Coyote is the only animal in this series who is painted purple, which is neither here nor there.

author: Ann Whitford Paul 
illustrator: Ethan Long 
Holiday House, 2004, 2014 
preschool-grade 3 

Mañana, Iguana reminds me of Peggy Lee’s popular hit song in the late 1940s and early ‘50s, which she sang with a stereotypic Mexican accent. Here’s one verse; readers who have the stomach for it can listen to the whole thing on YouTube

The faucet she is dripping and the fence she’s fallin’ down
My pocket needs some money, so I can’t go into town
My brother isn’t working and my sister doesn’t care
The car she needs a motor so I can’t go anywhere!

(chorus: Mañana, mañana, mañana is soon enough for me.)

But I digress. This picture book is a reimagined Little Red Hen, in which Iguana plans a fiesta to celebrate spring. Although her friends are excited about the party, they all have an excuse for not helping her. Each time she asks, her lazy Mexican friends each responds with “Yo no,” and gives her a species-specific reason: Conejo is too fast, Tortuga is too slow, and Culebra promises to help her mañana, when he grows a pair of arms. So, of course, Iguana (the only female in this series) does everything herself, throws a successful fiesta without her lazy Mexican friends who watch from the sidelines, and she goes to sleep. Feeling guilty, Iguana’s lazy Mexican friends clean up and, in the morning, a pleased Iguana says both “!Gracias!” and “Thank you!” and asks who will help her eat the leftovers. Conejo, Tortuga and even Culebra eagerly cry, “¡Yo sí! The End.

Of the four picture books, Mañana, Iguana may be the worst. 

While these picture books have all received raves from the major review journals, they are poorly conceived and abysmally written and illustrated. They’re not bilingual, they’re not examples of code switching, they’re predictably grammatically faulty, they don’t take into account young Spanish-speaking readers or listeners, and they’re not even useful for providing a fun context for teaching Spanish words to young English speakers. None of them is recommended. Punto final

—Beverly Slapin
(published 4/27/18)

Míl gracias a mi amiga y colega, María Cárdenas. Y además a Juan Camilo Prado.

Happy Like Soccer // El fútbol me hace feliz

author: Maribeth Boelts
illustrator: Lauren Castillo 
translator: unknown 
Candlewick Press 
English, 2012; Spanish, 2016 
kindergarten-grade 3

The game of soccer, also known as fútbol, is played all over the world, both professionally and just for fun. Anywhere there are patches of space—sometimes even in war zones—one can find children playing soccer. (One of my favorite middle-grade books is A Little Piece of Ground by Elizabeth Laird. In Ramallah, occupied Palestine, a boy risks his life to get out and play soccer with his friend.)

Here, Sierra, our young Latina narrator, has been chosen to join a new (white, middle-class) suburban girls’ soccer team. Comparing her regulation uniform and equipment and this pristine soccer field with the deficits of her own neighborhood (including that anyone who shows up can play), she says,

My shoes have flames and my ball spins
on this spread-out sea of grass with no weeds,
fields with no holes, and real goals,
not two garbage cans shoved together
like in the lot by my apartment, 
where soccer means
any kid who shows up can play.

Sierra is a stranger in this new place; although everyone cheers for her, no one knows her name. She lives with her auntie in an ethnically-mixed urban neighborhood, where “no buses run.” Auntie works at Café Garcia, and is unable to attend her niece’s games. So, Sierra says, while “nothing makes me happy like soccer… nothing makes me sad like soccer, too.” One Saturday, when her auntie is finally able to take the day off and join her niece—the game is rained out.

So, convinced that her “auntie’s boss won’t do two favors right in a row,” Sierra convinces herself to ask her soccer coach if it would be possible to move the game to her neighborhood—just once and on a Monday—so her auntie could attend. Coach Marco—who, besides Sierra and her auntie, appears to be the only other brown person in the story—pulls it off. And in this game, Sierra is cheered on by people who know her name.

Castillo’s illustrations, in ink and watercolor with acetone transfer, accentuate the ethnic and class differences in the two areas. While the suburban neighborhood in which Sierra’s team plays contains a spacious green field with grass and trees and lots of white people, Sierra’s ramshackle urban neighborhood appears to consist solely of dark gray buildings, an empty lot, and few or no people. Even the neat and clean apartment in which Sierra and her aunt live is dark gray and very small—the two share a bedroom, there’s a tiny kitchen, and a phone with a long cord hangs on the wall. The only hint we have about the rest of Sierra’s family is an open photo album containing “old pictures,” that sits on the coffee table.

It’s clear that the uncredited Spanish translator put a lot of care and thought into El fútbol me hace feliz, giving this weak story a much better feel than its original English counterpart. For instance, the first lines in the English text read:

Nothing makes me happy like soccer—
picked for this new team,
with these shiny girls.

And the Spanish reads:

Nada me hace más feliz que el fútbol.
Estoy en un nuevo equipo
con chicas muy listas.

(Nothing makes me happier than soccer.
I’m on a new team
with girls who are ready to go!)

While Boelts allows Sierra a little piece of agency in bringing the team to her barrio for one game, for the most part the young narrator disparages her own neighborhood. I’d rather see a story in which a young protagonist happily plays fútbol in her barrio’s makeshift soccer field, with garbage cans or used tires as goal posts, a game in which “any kid who shows up can play.” As it stands, Happy Like Soccer has a condescending and patronizing feel to it and is not recommended. This is too bad, because the story’s strong Spanish translation, El fútbol me hace feliz, showed some promise.

—Beverly Slapin

Gracias to Juan Camilo Prado. 

Arriba, Abajo y Alrededor // Up, Down, and Around // Nuestro Huerto: De la semilla a la cosecha en el huerto del colegio // It’s Our Garden: From Seeds to Harvest in a School Garden

author: Katherine Ayres 
illustrator: Nadine Bernard Westcott 
translator: unknown 
Candlewick Press 
(English, 2007 // Spanish, 2012) 

There’s enough for everyone to share in a small, bustling garden of edible plants inhabited by crows and creepy-crawly snails, worms, caterpillars, butterflies, and ants—all smiling and inviting young readers to join them. A crow perches on a scarecrow’s arm and calls to the other crows, who happily feast on some tomato seeds. As a man waters a newly planted row, a rabbit observes and a kitty makes space for a cavorting puppy—and multiethnic children help and watch as the veggies grow up, down, and around. And on the final pages, everyone—yes, everyone—enjoys a feast prepared from their bounty.

Young readers and listeners will be entranced as they observe the processes of planting, watering, and harvesting veggies. Westcott’s cartoonish ink and watercolor illustrations—on an eye-catching, bright palette of earthy colors with lots of white space—complement Ayers’ spare text. As well, each Spanish and English set—“El maíz crece hacia arriba. Las zanahorias crecen hacia abajo. Y alrededor, los pepinos trepan, trepan y trepan.” // “Corn grows up. Carrots grow down. Cucumbers climb around and around”—has its own playful rhythm and an economy of words that echo the action. It's unfortunate that the translator is not named.

Arriba, Abajo y Alrededor // Up, Down, and Around are perfect for bilingual preschool classrooms—especially those with an “empty” space (even a very small one) in which to plant, care for and harvest seasonal veggies. They’re both *highly recommended for all home, classroom and library collections.

author: George Ancona
translator (Spanish): Esther Sarfatti 
Candlewick Press 
(English, 2013 / Spanish, 2016) 
grades 3-adult

The school bell sounds…and the classrooms explode with the noise of books closing, chairs sliding on the floor, and kids chattering. It’s time for recess! The students head outside to the school garden.

For children who have “graduated” from Arriba, Abajo y Alrededor // Up, Down, and Around—and for educators to dream about—comes the creation of multi-talented photographer and documentarian George Ancona, who takes readers on a year-long visit to the Acequia Madre Elementary School in New Mexico, where he watched and photographed young students working side by side with their parents, teachers and friends—including volunteer college students—on all aspects of their large community garden behind the school. In early spring, the youngsters cut out pictures from seed catalogs and, with guidance, decide which flowers, fruits and vegetables they would like to grow. Starting with building and maintaining compost piles from food scraps, to planting seeds in the greenhouse and later transplanting them into the garden beds, to watering, to raising butterflies from cocoons, to worms, bees and garter snakes, to making adobe bricks and constructing waffle beds, to writing their thoughts and experiences and creating leaf prints to decorate the greenhouse and the outdoor classroom—the children have so much to learn and do. As their school garden flourishes, it also becomes a shared experience and a gathering place for the whole school community.

Ancona’s gorgeous full-color photographs are laid out with lots of white space to accommodate his clear, accessible text and student art rendered in marker or crayon.

To celebrate the end of the harvest, there are lunches prepared with the garden’s vegetables, and they “become festivals of good food and fun.” And on the last community day of the year, students and families come together again to prepare the garden for its winter rest: “All is ready to be covered with a blanket of snow. Sleep tight, garden! Until next year!” 

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

—Beverly Slapin
(published 4/15/18)

Gift from Abuela

author: Cecilia Ruiz 
illustrator: Cecilia Ruiz 
Candlewick, 2018 

On the cover is a scene of an elder and child, with the Mexican countryside in the background. The two are embracing and smiling at each other. The scene is framed by a papel picado with non-traditional designs, including scissors. A close look reveals that the papel picado has been cut from an old Mexican peso.1

In December 1994, just a few months after NAFTA took effect, the Mexican economy tanked as the government devalued the peso against the US dollar. The peso suddenly became worthless, which sent inflation soaring and set off a severe recession, causing widespread unemployment and poverty among the Mexican people. 

This is the hinted-at backstory for Ruiz’s gentle, loving tale that focuses on Abuela and Niña, and how, through the years, they spend time together in Mexico City. In the first image of the two, Abuela sits in a rocking chair, holding the sleeping, swaddled Niñita on her lap. The next page—one of my favorites—depicts several stages in their lives together: Abuela with Niñita in a bib and onesies, dancing together; Abuela with Niñita as a toddler, spinning around; and Abuela teaching an older Niña how to make papel picado. Meanwhile, Abuela is putting away some pesos each payday to surprise Niña with a special gift.

Ruiz’s art is a combination of traditional printmaking and digital work. First, she told me, she carves all the shapes and textures within each image into rubber, and prints them with black ink. She then scans all the images and composes and colors them in Photoshop. The pleasing result here is a gently textured design on a light pastel palette of mostly gray-blues and golds, with some greens, browns and red-oranges for accent, and lots of white space. I especially like that, while the images may appear simple at first glance, they contain lots of symbolism and the faces portray the varied ethnicities of the Mexican people.

Abuela and Niña are getting older, of course, and their country is changing as well. In one illustration, Abuela and her granddaughter are bringing their groceries home. In the background are a butcher shop (“Carnicería ‘El Chato’”) and a gift shop (“Miscelánea ‘La Macarena’”). The workers, as well as bus passengers, are waving. And Niña is clowning around while Abuela laughs. “But their favorite thing of all,” Ruiz writes, “was a much simpler one. Every Sunday, they would sit quietly in the park, eat pan dulce, and watch the people pass by.”

A spread a few pages over shows the economy’s getting difficult: both stores have been gated shut, and the owner of the small restaurant next door sadly waits for customers. And Abuela’s pockets are empty.

As the recession worsens, Ruiz symbolizes its terrible effect in three almost exact images of a Mestizo pan dulce vendor in the park. In the first, he’s calmly standing behind his wagon, waiting for customers to come along. The sign painted on his wagon says, “Pan Dulce, 10 pesos.” In the second image, the vendor is gesturing apologetically to Niña that the price has increased to 100 pesos, and what she’s holding out is not enough. And in the third, the price has again increased—to 1,000 pesos—and, while there are several people standing around, the vendor is calling out and no one is responding.

The recession also forces Abuela to “work twice as much,” which tires her out. And Niña begins to hang out with her friends more. “Sometimes life just gets in the way,” Ruiz writes. One day, as she plans to surprise Abuela by cleaning house for her, Niña discovers Abuela’s cache of now-worthless pesos. And together, Abuela and Niña create something out of nothing—they transform the pieces of paper into beautiful papel picado. 

The papel picado have become a gift from—and to—Abuela.

On the last spread, their “peso papel picado,” with traditional and non-traditional designs, are hanging across the room, and Abuela and Niña are laughing and laughing and laughing. And they still enjoy going to the park and munching on pan dulce and watching the people pass by.

With lovely illustrations that complement an economy of words, Ruiz’s semi-autobiographical tale is a gift to younger listeners as well as older readers who might enjoy looking at the art and deconstructing symbols. Attention, Candlewick: Please publish this story in a Spanish edition as well. 

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

—Beverly Slapin
(published 4/13/18)

1 Making papel picado is a traditional Mexican art that’s been passed from generation to generation. These beautiful, delicate cut-outs, usually created from colored tissue paper, are generally made in stacks and, over time, the tool used has changed from scissors to chisels to allow for greater precision in the detailing. In teaching children to construct papel picado, however, scissors are generally used.

The Disturbed Girl’s Dictionary

author: NoNieqa Ramos 
CarolRhoda, 2018 
grades 9-up 
Puerto Rican

Macy Cashmere MYOFB was named for a sweater her mother found in a department store shopping bag. She’s a tough, strong-headed 15-year-old Borinqueña who’s been diagnosed with ADHD and labeled as “emotionally disturbed,” “compulsive,” and “learning disabled.” She and one of her two besties, George, are stuck in a Special Education classroom that provides little actual education.The one good thing in Macy’s life is her main bestie, Alma, who’s in the Gifted and Talented Program and whom few know is perpetually exhausted because, after school and through the night, she is responsible for the care of her “babies”—siblings, step-siblings and cousins, including three infants.

Written in a vignette style reminiscent of The House on Mango Street, Macy’s narrative is organized as alphabetically arranged dictionary entries, with each letter and “definition” hinting at or revealing a part of her life: 

Answer (Noun and verb. Example: Ahnsuh me, bitch!”)
Disturbed (Adjective. Synonym: Me.)
Like the River (Transitive verb. Sam Cooke: “I keep running…”)
Agüeybaná II (Verb. Here comes the Sun, motherfoes.)

Macy’s story is not the sort of autobiography YA readers will expect, because she insists on using her own loud, inimitable voice—her own rough vocabulary and grammar and metaphor—to empower herself. She does this because she damn-well knows that no one else is gonna do it for her. And she never lets go:
Teacher Man glares at us. He is annoyed because our ignorant asses broke the school firewall again to check social media posts, but we can’t even pass a daily quiz.
Me: “Alma always never posts pics of herself. Even her profile pic is of one of her kids. Check it out. This girl is Alma’s mini-me. She always never—”
“Macy! George!” Teacher Man is staring us down. “Let’s talk about why we cannot use the words always and never in the same sentence.”“What do you mean by we?” I lean way back in my seat. People are always talking like that to me. Saying our and we
Teacher pops a cap off a black marker and writes the sentence I said on the whiteboard in Caps Lock.
He’s trying to turn this into what he calls a teachable moment. Like that time he made us proofread all the graffiti in the bafroom.
With a red marker, he crosses out the word always and rereads it. He says, “See, always is what we call superfluous. It’s clutter.”
Clutter? Like he knows my life.
Macy lets Teacher Man know that he is pissing her off. Teacher Man says he’s sorry that she’s “angry.” Macy shows him the difference between being pissed off and angry by taking out History of the American People and editing it by crossing out “all the pages about shit that’s got nothing to do with me.” Teacher Man’s nostrils begin to twitch. Macy asks him if he’s pissed off or angry. Teacher Man escalates with a threat. Macy throws her desk, loudly accuses Teacher Man of “depriving my ass of a education,” and takes herself to the principal’s office.

Throughout, Macy empowers herself while she endures the chaos and danger of an impossible social and economic situation—her father’s in prison, her mother takes in “guests” by the hour and sometimes by the night, and her younger brother has been nabbed by CPS and put up for adoption. Macy’s hungry enough to steal anything edible and semi-edible from the grocery store and from anyone who’s not looking, and she carries a slingshot thong as a weapon. And she bluntly and honestly addresses readers and aggressively smacks down assumptions they may have about her: 
I opened the fridge and pulled out the butter and syrup. In the cupboards was a shitload of Sudafed and I pulled out two bottles. I pulled the medicine cups off and made our favorite recipe. Inside the cups I squeezed a swirl of sugar, butter, and pancake syrup, the only things in the fridge. (What? You thought I was going to say I drank up all the Sudafed, didn’t you? You stereotyping motherfoe.)
Macy uses “MYOFB” almost as a surname, especially when she’s trying to keep control, when she senses a contradiction between self-revelation and maintaining some semblance of privacy. In some ways, she hides her family while she exposes them.

Ramos paints a few characters with a broad brush—Macy’s classroom teacher, for instance, who insists on “correct” grammar that eschews the complexity of the street. The white couple who’ve adopted Macy’s younger brother, and are relieved to find that he has “only” Asberger’s rather than an intellectual deficit. Another teacher, a white woman who genuinely cares about Macy—and then packs up and leaves town. On the other hand, readers will get to know some secondary characters, including a sex worker whom Macy befriends, a woman who clings to survival in a place in which survival is not a given. And of course, there is Alma, whom readers may have hoped and expected would emerge unscathed. 

Macy Cashmere MYOFB exists in a cray-cray world of racism, poverty and dysfunction, a one-size-fits-some educational system, and dysconscious white-savior wannabes. She fears nothing and no one. With both hands on the machete her great-grandma had used in the sugarcane fields, hidden in her pocket an antique silver pen she’s stolen that’s “sharp enough to cut out someone’s heart,” and with her spirit focused on Agüeybaná II, the Great Sun, this brave young Borinqueña named after a department store is at war. She takes crap from no one and nothing—not the “educational” system that fails young people who can’t or won’t conform, not the mental health institution that medically enforces passivity, not the white “savior” families whose self-involvement trump emotional attachment. Rather, Macy Cashmere MYOFB knows who she is, what she comes from, and that, somehow, she will survive.

The Disturbed Girl’s Dictionary is empowering for YA readers who may never have seen themselves and / or their difficult lives honestly and compassionately portrayed—by a protagonist-narrator who takes charge of her own life and her own story. 

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

—Beverly Slapin
(published 4/11/18)

A note about the Topics for Discussion section: The purpose of discussion topics and questions in general is to guide readers as they approach the issues raised in a particular story. In The Disturbed Girl’s Dictionary, NoNieqa Ramos raises issues of identity and culture, race and racism, material poverty and spiritual impoverishment, education and miseducation, and many more. Unfortunately, the questions in this section are inappropriate and off-base, eliciting quick, easily found “answers” rather than thoughtful responses. And requiring readers to “name the forms of sexual violence Macy experienced,” for instance, is not only beyond inappropriate, it’s triggering. Rather, asking readers to examine Macy’s language, for instance—her tone, her choice of words, her direct challenging of the reader—might lead students to change their ideas about what constitutes “correct” writing, and might inspire them to tell their own stories in their own ways. I strongly encourage the publisher to rewrite the Topics for Discussion in a way that will motivate readers to think more deeply about Macy and her story—and their own lives.

A note about the Acknowledgments section: Here, NoNieqa Ramos sends “much love to Titi Matilde for the entire set of Little House on the Prairie books that I pulled all-nighters to read.” While I understand Ramos’s childhood passion for the Little House on the Prairie series—one of the few series for children in which the protagonist is a young child—it remains one of the oldest and most hurtful, harmful, racist children’s series still in publication. A revised Acknowledgments section should remove Ramos’ reference to this series.