Julián Is a Mermaid

author: Jessica Love 
illustrator: Jessica Love
Candlewick Press, 2018
Dominican American

On the front endpapers, young Julián, wearing red swim trunks, joins his abuela and her friends as they swim in the local pool. While the adult women hold on to the pool’s wall, Julián swims like a fish, happily blowing air bubbles. On the back endpapers, Julián’s abuela and all her friends—still wearing their swim caps and patterned bathing suits—have become mermaids, the pool has become open water and all of them are submerged and blowing bubbles. At the forefront is Julián, a purple mermaid with a long yellow tail, his hair loose and flowing. He’s looking directly at the readers, inviting them to join the party. 

In an exemplary model of “show, don’t tell,” Love limits her-matter-of-fact text (“This is a boy named Julián. And this is his abuela. And those are some mermaids. Julián LOVES mermaids.”), and employs her luscious art to welcome young readers into Julián’s world. 

As the story begins, we meet Julián and his abuela, returning from the beach and headed towards the subway. Julián is holding a large picture book about mermaids that his abuela has given to him. When the two sit down, Julián turns to his abuela, his eyebrows raised, questioning. Soon after, three fabulous turquoise mermaids board the train and one waves at the entranced Julián.

In a dream sequence inspired by the pictures in his book and by the three mermaids, the train fills with water as Julián strips down to this tighty-whities and transforms himself into a fabulous mermaid with long, flowing hair, a purple lower body and yellow tail. In a sea of gorgeous turquoise-green, he swims with a variety of sea creatures, and accepts a necklace from a large blue fish with white patterned scales. Hold that thought, and look for the blue-and-white pattern later on.

Copyright © 2018 by Jessica Love. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.

Abuela wakes him. It’s time to go. Julián and the mermaids wave to each other. On their way home, he asks Abuela if she had seen the mermaids. “I saw them, mijo,” she says. As the two reach their front door, Julián tells her that he is also a mermaid. Now, having come out to her, Julián’s posture has changed. He’s standing tall now, relaxed and smiling. 

While Abuela takes a bath, Julián has an idea. He strips down to his tighty-whities again, creates a headpiece with wavy fronds from Abuela’s potted fern and flowers from her vase and a mermaid’s tail from a gauzy, flowing curtain, and finishes the look with Abuela’s purple lipstick. He. Is. Fabulous. As he reaches for a hanging philodendron, Abuela comes out, looking upset. Uh-oh. She retreats to the bathroom and soon emerges—in a blue dress with white patterns. And she gives Julián a necklace. Together, they walk to the Mermaid Parade, where she tells the shy little boy, “Like you, mijo. Let’s join them.” And they do. In the parade are many of the sea creatures Julián had swum with in his dream sequence and, at the head of the line are the three mermaids who had been on the train. Julián waves. They wave back. Everyone is fabulous.

Love skillfully uses vibrant watercolors, gouache and ink in mostly double-spread, full-bleed illustrations whose vivid details virtually glow against the soft matte background of brown kraft paper. She lovingly depicts the broad range of complexions and body types and ages of the community’s women; and attends to small but important details, such as Julián’s raised eyebrows when he’s trying to figure out Abuela’s expression, or a slight slump of his shoulders when he’s not sure of something, or his chin held high when he becomes part of the parade. There is also not-so-hidden symbolism, such as the relationship between Abuela and the giant blue fish, or that between three girls joyfully playing at an open fire hydrant and the three mermaids Julián meets on the train. In addition, many of the full-bleed, double-page spreads are wordless, so child readers can discern the action without being told exactly what’s happening. 

And not least importantly, it’s refreshing to see Spanish words that are not italicized.

In giving Julián this picture book about mermaids, Abuela is both acknowledging and encouraging his emerging self. In this sense, it’s clear that both Julián and Abuela have agency. Throughout, their relationship is strong; he questioningly looks to her for guidance, and her loving affirmation feeds his spirit and enriches his life. 

When Julián quietly tells his abuela that he is also a mermaid, the little boy is telling her that he’s finding his place in the world. And, on the end papers, when he joyfully swims with his own abuela and the community’s other abuelas—all of whom are also mermaids—he’s claimed his own identity and has found his place. 

While Dominican American children who live in Brooklyn will recognize the people, the neighborhood, the G train to Coney Island, and, of course, the annual Mermaid Parade, the author wisely leaves the door wide open, so to speak, as an invitation for other children to enter the story as well. 

Throughout this delightful, life-affirming picture book, young readers will see young Julián growing into the person he was meant to be. Full of love and joy, Julián Is a Mermaid is for all questioning children and children who may not conform to the “norms” of their genders—and for everyone else as well. Julián Is a Mermaid is highly recommended.

—Beverly Slapin
(published 5/13/18)

[Note (9/29/18): Please see “Another look at JULIAN IS A MERMAID” here]

Míl gracias a mi coleja y amigo, Noam Szoke. You’re FABULOUS!

(Y gracias a Candlewick Press for permission to reprint the illustrations in the body of this review.) 

Juana & Lucas

author: Juana Medina 
illustrator: Juana Medina 
Candlewick Press, 2016 
kindergarten-grade 3 

In her almost-breathlessly dramatic narrative, a smart, active, Colombian fourth-grader introduces herself, all the people and places and things important to her, and the issues in her life. Young Juana doesn’t just like things—she LOVES them. She LOVES Brussels sprouts (“more than cheese and chocolate and ice cream”). She LOVES her dog, Lucas (who is her “absolutely-no-single-doubt-about-it best amigo). She LOVES living in Bogotá, Colombia (the city that’s closest to her heart). She LOVES drawing and reading and playing fútbol—and she LOVES Astroman, who glides from galaxy to galaxy in his shiny, intergalactic suit. 

And she has great fun with her very good friend, Juli, because they always have mucho to talk about while Juli shares her most extraordinario and delicioso watermelon gum, blowing bubbles as big as their cabezas—which Seño, the bus driver, definitely doesn’t find entertaining.
But there are also things that Juana STRONGLY DISLIKES. She STRONGLY DISLIKES her uncomfortable PE uniforme, which, like her school uniform, becomes heavy and hot (“like, very hot-celery-soup hot”), and itchy and sweaty and stinky. She STRONGLY DISLIKES accidents, like the tragedia, in which she crushes her favorite kitty-and-rabbit lunchbox and loses her strawberry yogurt, which has explotado. But most of all, Juana STRONGLY DISLIKES surprises. Like when Mr. Tompkins announces that the class is about to have a TON OF FUN:
When a grown-up says something is going to be a ton of fun, it means there will be NO FUN AT ALL. Not even a single bit of fun. Nada de fun.
“My little mischiefs,” he says, “today I’m going to begin teaching you something that will knock your socks off. Prepare for your lives to change…for the better! Today you are going to begin learning the English.”
Julie whispers, “No entiendo nada,” and Juana whispers back that she doesn’t understand a thing, either. Instead of Mr. Tompkins’s promised “ton of fun,” Juana’s first day of school “has become the worst of all first days of schools possible.”

Copyright © 2016 by Juana Medina. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.

Medina’s ink-and-watercolor cartoon art, on a palette that’s sometimes bright and sometimes subdued, hilariously complements Juana’s pearl-clutching, hyperbole-driven narrative and leaves lots of white space to accommodate often-varying font styles and type sizes. 

And, in the best practices of “show, don’t tell” (especially in an early chapter book), Medina’s illustrations show young Juana’s family members, friends, neighbors and teachers, as culturally and ethnically diverse; and the mix of colonial Spanish-style edifices and modern apartment buildings, large houses and small bodegas show both a geographic and cultural diversity as well.

While Juana’s narration is not exactly code-switching, Medina judiciously plants some Spanish words and phrases throughout, most of which English readers can easily discern from their contexts. Since the Spanish is clear and italicized for emphasis only, Juana’s story will appeal both to English speakers who want to learn some Spanish, as well as to emerging bilingual hablantes who are learning the relationship between both languages.

Juana asks practically every adult she knows why it’s so important to learn a second language, and particularly one that emphasizes the impossible THs and the long and hard-to-say Ls,  and has so many homonyms:
Why are read and read written the same way but sound different? How can I know when people are talking about eyes or ice when they sound about the same? And what about left hand and left the room? So many words, so little sense.
No single person can give her a convincing answer, but despite Juana’s best efforts to resist learning a second language, the different perspectives of relatives, neighbors and others in the community support Juana in her struggle as she manages to learn the English. And when her Abue promises to take her to Spaceland in the US where, in order to meet her super-idol, Astroman, she must be able to communicate in English, well, that seals the deal: Juana works muy, muy hard to learn todo the English that (she) can possibly fit into the space between her pigtails.”  
Before Mr. Tompkins, Mami, the Sheldons, the Herrera brothers, Tía Cris, and my abuelos can believe it, I am a big and loud fountain of English.
What ensues at Spaceland may not be what Juana had been hoping for, but what she discovers segues into author and illustrator Juana Medina’s own personal story:
Because I can speak English so well, I’ve been able to have fun with a lot of new people and make a lot of new friends. And who wouldn’t like for that to happen all around the world? 
The number-two thing I’ve learned is that if I want to travel and make new friends, I will need to learn a gazillion more languages besides English and español!
Juana is a smart, outrageously funny little girl to whom youngsters who speak Spanish, English, or more of one than the other (and other language-learners as well) will easily relate. Juana & Lucas is *highly recommended for all home, classroom and library collections.

Note: Since Juana & Lucas has won a Pure Belpré Prize, I recommend that Candlewick publish a Spanish version as well, with some English words and phrases italicized throughout for hablantes who are learning English. Wouldn’t that be a hoot? And I guarantee it would sell well. ¡Qué good idea! ¿Pués, sí o no?

—Beverly Slapin
(published 5/9/18)

*Highly recommended for home, classroom and library collections. 

Diary of a Reluctant Dreamer: Undocumented Vignettes from a Pre-American Life

author: Alberto Ledesma 
illustrator: Alberto Ledesma
Ohio State University / Mad Creek Books, 2017
high school-up 
Mexican American

What is it like to define yourself as someone with a negative status? As something you’re not? As an “un”-something? Even now, more than 30 years after he became legally able to drop the “un” and become “documented,” Dr. Alberto Ledesma recalls his father’s words: “Mijo, it doesn’t matter how good you think your English is, la migra will still get you.”

Diary of a Reluctant Dreamer: Undocumented Vignettes from a Pre-American Life is a humble book born out of a humble life, a chronicle of Ledesma’s shifting identities over the years; a patchwork quilt of doodling and sketches, self- and family portraits, comic-satiric and overtly political cartoons, and heart-rending short pieces and longer essays about his and his family’s American experience(s).

It’s the stunning, hand-illustrated chronicle of Alberto Ledesma’s twelve years in undocumented limbo and the psychological toll those years exacted. Drawing—or doodling, as he often calls it— became of one Ledesma’s most reliable coping mechanisms for the stresses of living in the US without documentation. He began the doodling practice as a quiet act of defiance, since even privately acknowledging one's lack of papers broke a cultural taboo held by many insiders in Ledesma’s undocumented community. This taboo reached inside the very walls of his family home, where the fear of detection and deportation hung like a black cloud over their daily existence.

In this work, Alberto Ledesma offers a perspective of the American experience that few have written about, plumbing its layers of complexity through richly observed episodes, supplemented by striking text-and-image panels. His personal stories reveal troubling family dynamics, from the pain of feeling misunderstood to his father’s emotional unavailability and bouts of drinking. They also explore Alberto’s adolescent years, when the ache to free himself from the constant secrecy demanded by the family’s status was at its height. Stories of close calls render the fear palpable. In one vivid example, Alberto, his siblings, and their mother sit in a parked car next to a field while their father wanders into the undergrowth to pick wild cactus leaves. As cars occupied by white people pass by, some drivers cast suspicious glances at the Mexican family. When one of the sisters spots a no-trespassing sign, tension turns to panic and eventually to anger at their father for placing them in such a vulnerable position.

In 1986, the Ledesma family achieved legal status through provisions outlined in the Immigration Reform and Control Act, a law passed during the Reagan administration. But as Alberto explains, “though we were now ‘legal,’ those twelve years of conditioning did not disappear.” Long after his status is resolved, the fear of being hunted persists. He demonstrates the extent of that struggle through contemporary exchanges with his young daughter, Sofia, who peppers him with such questions as, “What does it mean that you were once illegal?”

Ledesma ultimately transitioned into academic life, earning a Ph.D and landing a teaching and administrative position at the University of California at Berkley. He connects his academic drive to the phenomena of “hyper-documentation.” Originated by Dr. Aurora Chang, this term “describes the effort by Dreamers to accrue awards, accolades, and eventually academic degrees to compensate for having been undocumented.” The burdensome effect of this impulse comes through in one of Ledesma’s most potent drawings, which shows a brown-skinned person dressed in cap and gown, pulling a file cabinet tethered by rope and bursting with award certificates.

In addition to its memoir sections, Diary of a Reluctant Dreamer includes dozens of serial and stand-alone text-and-image panels, which reflect on multiple aspects of undocumented life. An entire chapter, “The Undocumented Alphabet,” illuminates twenty-six poignant realities experienced by the community. They include:

“A” is for the ABUELITOS left back in Mexico and the knowledge that until you fix your status you can’t go visit them no matter how much you miss them.

“E” is for the EDUCATION your mother asked you to get so that you wouldn’t end up working at the same garment factory she did.

Crossing the southern border without papers is an act fraught with peril, but as Diary of a Reluctant Dreamer makes clear, it’s only the start of a long, precarious journey that plays out in the daily existence of millions of undocumented people in this country. At this writing, the future of many DACA recipients and other undocumented youth remains in limbo. Their fate is in the hands of elected officials who are playing political football with human lives. Alberto Ledesma’s account offers a strong and essential counterpoint to the racism and xenophobia infecting public discourse about US immigration. It brings penetrating light into the liminal spaces occupied not only by Dreamers, but all undocumented immigrants, and makes a convincing case that their stories deserve a chapter in our national narrative. 

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

—Lila Quintero Weaver
(published 5/1/18)

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

Chicks and Salsa

author: Aaron Reynolds 
illustrator: Paulette Bogan
Bloomsbury, 2005 
grades 1-3 

There can be only two possible interpretations of Chicks and Salsa: (1) It’s a children’s picture book about anthropomorphic barnyard animals personified as Mexican thieves, or (2) It’s a children’s picture book about anthropomorphic thieving barnyard animals pretending to be Mexicans. 

The chickens, ducks and pigs—denizens of the Nuthatcher farm—are tired of the same-old same-old. So, led by the rooster (who watched Mrs. Nuthatcher watching a cooking show on TV), they steal into the garden and filch all the tomatoes and onions they need to make salsa. (Note: you’d actually need to add chiles, cilantro and lime juice to produce decent salsa. This is something that most Mexican kids would know.) The barn mice, who appear to be working for the local crime syndicate, supply the chips—for a fee, of course. And the rooster, impressed with himself as roosters generally seem to be, says,“Olé!”

Inspired by the chickens’ work, the ducks get into the garden and steal cilantro and garlic and, purchasing a wagonload of stolen avocados from the gangsta mice, make guacamole (aka “quackamole”) and also say, “Olé!” The pigs follow suit, taking beans and chiles, and, after procuring the requisite cheese from those mice, make nacho cheese sauce. After which all the animals get gussied up as “Mexicans” and throw a—“FIESTA!”

(Someone consistently forgot the initial inverted exclamation marks in “¡Olé!” and “¡FIESTA!” But that’s nothing compared to this picture book’s other problems.)

Reynolds’ whimsical, repetitive wordplay would be great fun if the context were not offensive: While “no one was quite certain” (“where the chickens got the chips,” “where the ducks got the avocados,” “where the pigs got the nacho cheese sauce”), everyone will see the mice, selling their illegally procured wares to the “Mexican” farm animals. And, although he directly states that Farmer and Mrs. Nuthatcher steal the rest of their own produce, yet just hints at the “Mexican” farm animals’ thieving actions (they “took” tomatoes, “uprooted” onions, “selected” cilantro, “gathered” garlic, “borrowed” beans)—the gang symbolism in the images of the shady-looking mice is an unmistakable signal that the behavior in which the “Mexican” farm animals are engaging is criminal rather than merely resourceful. The “Mexican” animals—or the animals as “Mexicans”—are stealing. And the “Mexican” animal thieves are celebrating their theft with a “Mexican”-themed party.

Bogan’s super-bright, saturated ink and watercolor scenes are reminiscent of the older Warner Bros. cartoons. In the double-page spread depicting the animals’ “FIESTA!” the hens wear skirts and serapes and one wears rosewood Mexican beads as well, the horse wears a sombrero and the bull dances on one, the female mice wear faldas (short Mexican skirts), embroidered Mexican blusas and gold hoop earrings, one of the male mice wears pantalones and a short-sleeved shirt, and another wears a vestido. There are woven blankets, a stack of tiny mouse-sized sombreros, painted wooden maracas and ribbons everywhere. They. Are. All. Mexicans.

However, despite all the Mexican colors, Mexican cultural markers, Mexican foods, and a smattering of Spanish vocabulary, neither the text nor any of the published reviews note that the animals are “Mexican” and that they are thieves. All of the published reviews from journals that librarians generally consult when making choices (in this case, Horn Book, Kirkus, Library Media Connection, Publisher’s Weekly, and School Library Journal) are positive, and, although the reviews name foods that are clearly Mexican (enchiladas, guacamole, nachos, salsa, tamales) and note the Spanish vocabulary (“fiesta,” “Olé!” “salsa,” “sombreros”), they all unquestioningly refer to the scenarios as “southwestern” or “southwestern-themed,” or, in one case, “culturally tapped-in.” Although one would think that this would be obvious, not one of the reviewers describes the barnyard animals or the theme as having anything to do with Mexican people, language, culture, or food. 

Again: Once the farm animals have stolen most the ingredients they need—and purchased the rest from a gang of mice—they all dress up as “Mexicans” and throw a rowdy “fiesta.” I would like to know the publisher’s rationale for producing a children’s picture book that portrays anthropomorphic barnyard animals personified as Mexican thieves.

Mexican or other Latinx kids who experience having these books read aloud in a classroom or library setting will be left embarrassed and confused, while for kids who are not Mexican or Latinx, this exercise will heighten any sense of superiority they may have. Our young children do not deserve this kind of disrespect. No one does. Chicks and Salsa is not recommended.

—Beverly Slapin
(published 5/1/18)

P.S. In addition to all the offensive racial elements in Chicks and Salsa, there’s also an obnoxious gender cliché in three aesthetically revolting images of Mrs. Nuthatcher, who wears an unsightly sleeveless green dress, ugly pink flip-flops with stockings rolled up to her knees, bright red hair covered with pink rollers, way too much dark red lipstick and lots of rouge, and pastel-blue 1950s-era cat-eye eyeglasses with pink flowers on the tips. To the right of one of the images is a huge pair of bloomers hanging on the clothesline, probably to call attention to Mrs. Nuthatcher’s extremely large size.