Pablo encuentra un tesoro // Pablo Finds a Treasure

author: Andreé Poulin

translator (Spanish): Yanitzia Canetti 

illustrator: Isabelle Malenfant

Annick Press, 2016 (English), 2018 (Spanish) Grades 1-5 

Latin American

On the cover are two children with dirty faces, behind what will soon be revealed as a mountain of trash. Slightly smiling, they invite young readers into their lives. The two represent the thousands of children who work as garbage pickers in parts of Latin America, and hundreds of thousands in parts of Asia and Africa.

These young garbage pickers comb the smelly mountains of trash, looking for anything that can be sold as recyclables—or even barely edible food—to bring home to their families. Going to school is a fantasy, as may be owning a book or a pair of boots. It’s filthy and dangerous, mind-numbing work: deadly accidents and robberies are everyday occurrences, and parents pray that their children will return home safe at the end of the day.

Pablo encuentra un tesoro and Pablo Finds a Treasure tell the story of a resilient young brother and sister who experience the impoverishment of thousands of anonymous children who live in unnamed slums and daily scour the dumps of Mexico (“pepenadores” is Mexican Spanish for “trash-pickers”) or one of the countries known as the Northern Triangle of Central America—El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. 

While Pablo works, he dreams of a better life, but his older sister, Sofía, is more realistic. When he finds un tesoro—a treasure of a torn-up book—and tells Sofía that he wants to learn to read, she’s not impressed: ¿Para qué? she asks. ¡La lectura no llenará tu estómago! (“Reading won’t fill your stomach!”) Later, Sofía finds “el segundo tesoro del día”: two carrots—soft but not yet rotten—which they eat quickly and silently: “En la montaña, es mejor comerse enseguida cualquier comida que uno encuentre, o alguien se la robará.” (“On the mountain, it’s best to gobble up any food that you find, or someone will steal it.”)

Pablo finds the third tesoro, a broken gold chain: “En su mano sucia, el metal precioso brilla como un rayo de sol”—whose precious metal, “in his dirty hand, shines like a ray of sun”—that has Sofía and Pablo fantasizing about what it will buy.

Pablo dreams of a book, a soccer ball, a new pot for their mamá, and an ice cream; and Sofía dreams of a chicken for dinner every day of the week, a bag of caramels, a new dress for their mamá, and gloves to protect their hands while digging in the trash.

But when “Cara-Sucia”—“Dirty Face,” one of the violent and menacing robbers who roam the dump, accosts the two children, he takes everything that they’ve worked for all day, and they return home, empty-handed.

Except not. After a scolding from his frustrated sister, Pablo opens his mouth—and reveals the hidden treasure. In the final illustration, the two children, relaxed and happy, are leaning against their casita. Pablo is looking at his tattered book, Sofía is savoring a caramel, and their dog is licking at a large bone. A well-deserved respite from a hard day.

Malefont’s smudged, dark gray charcoal illustrations, heavy with symbolism, effectively portray both the children’s harsh reality and their sometimes-hopeful expressions; while light splashes of pale color call attention to their successful treasure-hunting moments. Young readers will notice, for instance, Sofía’s waving a blue boot in the air, while the children’s brown dog runs to show them a newly killed rat. Their floating fantasies are in color as well: a red book, brown chicken in a pot, green gloves, cherry ice cream, and wrapped caramels.

Young children know about poverty, and Pablo encuentra un tesoro and Pablo Finds a Treasure provide an excellent opportunity for educators to introduce a conversation about poverty and power and the connection to their own lives; and about child labor and children’s rights. At higher grade levels, Pablo encuentra un tesoro and Pablo Finds a Treasure are invaluable in extended conversations about the roots of power and how it can build or destroy entire communities and even governments; and about community, national, and world movements to redirect power for the benefit of everyone. Pablo encuentra un tesoro and Pablo Finds a Treasure are treasures. 

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

—Beverly Slapin


Caravana al Norte: La larga caminata de Misael // Caravan to the North: Misael’s Long Walk

author: Jorge Argueta
translator (English): Elizabeth Bell 

illustrator: Manuel Monroy 
Groundwood Books / House of Anansi Press, 2019 
grades 4-up 
Pipil Nahua, Salvadoran

On the mostly black-and-white line illustration that wraps around the jacket, an anonymous group of people gathers in the Plaza Divino Salvador del Mundo. Most wear caps and lug drawstring sacks or backpacks or duffel bags or rolled-up sleeping bags, several carry toddlers or babies in slings, and one has a guitar. All of the people are brown and they face the same direction. Except for one man who is turned to the south, waving goodbye, all bodies and eyes are focused north.

In the group’s center is a young boy. With one hand, he holds a duffel bag and with the other, he grasps his father’s hand. While everyone else is depicted in white and is outlined in black or blue inks, this child wears a red t-shirt and his gaze is directed at the reader. He is the only one depicted with a mouth. His name is Misael Martínez, he is nine years old, he is part of the caravan to the north, and this is his story.

Through narrative verse in a voice that will resonate with young readers, Misael tells them why he and his family are leaving for the north. 
Hemos decidido
porque en mi pueblo
ya no se puede vivir.
No hay trabajo
ni oportunidades.
Lo que hay
es violencia, maras.
We decided to leave
because you can't really live
in my village anymore.
There's no work.
There's no way to get by.
What there is,
is violence, gangs.
As the families walk the 2,500 miles through Central America to the Tijuana border where they hope to cross into the US for a life that that will be safe and secure, Misael remembers his home—the good times and the beauty of simple things:
Yo quiero mucho
pero mucho a mi país.
Me encanta
hacer siembras,
ver crecer el maíz
y los frijolitos
I love my country
so, so much.
I love to plant
the fields,
see the corn come up
and the little beans sprout.
Readers also hear the voices of Misael’s parents. When they talk about the gang violence, their hearts are full of empathy for “those poor babies,” nobody’s children anymore but the gang’s. They talk about a neighbor’s son, killed by the cops.
Pobre cipote, se murío llorando
y llamando a su mamá.
A uno de tata, eso le duele.
Poor kid died crying
and calling for his mamá.
As a dad, that really hurts.
Misael remembers the good things about their home, the beautiful things: 
Cuando cantan
las gualcalchillas
canta mi corazón
y yo sé que canta
el corazón
de nuestra Madre Tierra.
When the gualcalchillas
my heart sings
and I know
our Mother Earth’s heart
is singing too.
Each short chapter begins with a title and a black-and-white line illustration that sets the scene for the narrative that follows. For the interior illustrations, Monroy used a calligraphy pen and Chinese ink on rustic rice paper, and for the cover, he processed the illustrations digitally to add color. This technique works beautifully with the spacious book design, hinting at detail and leaving room for readers’ imaginations—encouraging them to pause, examine and reflect—and identify with young Misael, his relatives, and the other asylum seekers.

Through these simple line drawings and beautiful narrative poems that need no interpretation, young readers will see the impossible conditions, the violence that is continuing to drive thousands of refugees into the mouth of the shark. And they will also see the impossible beauty of the land that young Misael has left—and the warm arms of his relatives and the beauty of the countryside and the beauty of a kernel of corn sprouting up, breaking the soil and saying “hello.” 

As they walk, the young refugees dream about what they’ll do when they reach the border. Misael fantasizes bathing in warm water and having a washing machine. Another boy wants to work and send money home to his mamá. Another’s ambition is to become a lawyer or a doctor, and yet another is happy to settle for just getting to the north. 

On their long, difficult journey, the refugees are often met with kindness from strangers along the way. In Chiquimulilla, Guatemala, 
Aquí nos regalan agua y comida.
Lo más sabroso son las sonrisas
de la gente.
They give us water and food.
The smiles that people give us
taste best of all.
And in Mexico City, a man at the shelter makes pupusas for everyone:
¡Vaya, las pupusas!
¡Pupusas revueltas de sueños,
pupusas revueltas de arcoíris,
pupusas revueltas de cantos,
pupusas revueltas de amor!
“Come get your pupusas!
Pupusas filled with dreams,
pupusas filled with rainbows
pupusas filled with song,
pupusas filled with love!”
But when the large caravan finally reaches the US border they are confronted by the foreboding barbed wire-topped wall. Suddenly, cops and soldiers descend on them, attacking the families with tear gas and batons. The screaming, panicked, choking, people run every which way. 

That night, as Misael falls into a fitful sleep, he dreams that he’s flying, that he’s a song, that he’s a butterfly, that he’s a fish and a wave. And then he dreams 
el sueño más dulce:
en vez de llegar al Norte
llegué a El Salvador.
the sweetest dream of all
Instead of going to the North
I went back to El Salvador.
Although both Caravana al Norte and Caravan to the North employ language as spoken by a child, they don’t talk down to child readers. Argueta wrote this story in Spanish, and Elizabeth Bell’s spot-on English translation maintains both the poetic rhythm and Misael’s deep feelings. Monroy’s simple, evocative drawings, combined with the desperate narrative of a frightened child, show young readers what it is to be confronted with the real terror of the Central American asylum seekers desperately attempting to get to El Norte. 

*Highly recommended for home, library and classroom collections.

Argueta has a great talent and a gentle heart. Whether he’s writing in Nahuat, Spanish, or English, he knows his responsibility to the children of El Salvador and the children of the world—and he joyously takes it on. 

*Also highly recommended for home, classroom  and library collections are Argueta's Somos como las nubes / We Are Like the Clouds, translated by Elisa Amado and illustrated by Alfonso Ruano (Groundwood, 2016); and Dos conejos blancos and Two White Rabbits by Jairo Buitrago, translated by Elisa Amado and illustrated by Rafael Yockteng (Groundwood, 2016).

—Beverly Slapin
(published 10/5/19)

Gracias a mi amiga y colega, Lyn Miller-Lachmann.

Conversation with Mariana Llanos and Anna López Real

Note: On September 29, 2019, I had a telephone and email conversation with Mariana Llanos and Anna López Real. Mariana is the author of Lucas Bridge (Penny Candy Books, 2019), and Anna is the illustrator. I thank them both for their time and generosity and good spirits.—Beverly Slapin

The De Colores review of Luca's Bridge can be found at

Beverly Slapin: In her TED Talk, “The Danger of a Single Story,” Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie cautioned against the misunderstanding of others, and specifically, how decades of misrepresenting and stereotyping “the other” have dominated mainstream Western society. I was reminded of her presentation when I read your awesome children’s book, Luca’s Bridge / El puente de Luca, which I described as “an engaging story of a Mexican family’s trying to make the best of a terrible situation.”

Indeed, in these harsh economic and political times, there are as many different “immigrant stories” as there are immigrants, migrants, refugees, and people seeking asylum. Many, if not most, of these stories are about hard choices. Some end well and others don’t. Yet, children’s books about immigration, more often than not, tell a single story. 

What were your visions in the writing and illustration of Luca’s story? Was there something in your own lives that contributed to the telling in this way? 

Mariana, did you think about the problems involved in telling a “single story” or did this story grow on its own? Anna, what were your thoughts as you envisioned the illustrations?

Mariana Llanos: In my case, my immigrant experience, and also the fact that I have children who are born American citizens, were the reasons I wrote this story. I think all immigrants who have to go through the “legalization” process can relate to this kind of experience, the pressures and uncertainty: What if I don’t get a green card? What if they deny my application? What if? What if not? So this is what I am exploring in the story. In the case of Luca and his family, they are what is called a “mixed-status” family: Luca and Paco are US citizens while their parents are undocumented. There are many types of mixed-status families, where some family members are legal residents, others are naturalized citizens, others are American-born citizens, and others are undocumented. 

Anna López Real: I’m Mexican. I have lived in Mexico all my life, so I’m not an immigrant. But I know lots of people from my generation who are immigrants themselves, people I went to school with, some are legal residents and some are undocumented, but their children are growing up as American citizens. The families don’t have the freedom to come and go. I have a friend whose relative had died, and she couldn’t return to Mexico for the funeral because if she had, she was afraid that she would not have been permitted to come back to the US. I was reminded of all these stories and I also think that we have almost always been in motion in one way or another, and almost all people who come from somewhere else travel through Mexico, even people from as far away as Africa. Many of us who are not native were not born in a place we may now call “home.”

BS: Mariana, why did you decide to portray Luca’s family as mixed-status? I don’t think I’ve seen any other children’s story as having a mixed-status family.

ML: The story grew on its own. I did not set out to write a story about a mixed-status family. I started with a feeling, an idea. A car that felt sad and heavy. A family inside, their belongings packed. A child waving goodbye through the back seat window. I knew they were sad, but why? And where were they going? That is when I started finding pieces of their story and stringing them together. This is a story not often told, as you well mention, but it is very common among immigrant communities.

BS: Mariana, why does Luca not speak or understand any Spanish? Is there an unspoken backstory that you’d like readers to know or figure out? 

ML: I thought about Luca as being like my own children: they understand Spanish, but aren’t fluent when speaking. Sometimes, if a Spanish-speaking person speaks too fast or has an accent, my children have a hard time understanding. My middle child told me before we went to spend a month in Peru: “But I can't speak Spanish!” Even though he understands it, he doesn’t feel at ease with the language, perhaps just like Luca. Not all children of Spanish-speaking immigrants are fluent in their parents’ language. I wanted to walk away from what feels typical in a Latino family. Yes, this is a Latino child for whom Spanish is not his first language. I promote bilingualism, at home and at schools, but I understand becoming bilingual isn’t always an easy process. 

When I was researching for this story, I found some interesting material about American citizen children who lived in Mexico with their deported parents. They related how at school they were mocked for their accents. Some spoke in Spanish, but it wasn’t the same as being native Spanish-speakers. So in telling Luca’s story, I decided to add another layer: Lucas is worried about how he’s going to communicate and make friends. What is more problematic to a child than that?

BS: Mariana, both the Spanish and English are heartfelt and beautiful, and neither appears to be a direct translation of the other. That way, both hablantes and English readers can read whichever version they choose, and bilingual readers can read both and possibly note their differences. Did you write the Spanish first and translate it into English or write the English first or write them separately? What was your plan or did both the languages grow organically with the story?

ML: Although I was born and raised in Lima, Peru, I usually write picture book stories in English and poetry in Spanish. That is the way my bilingual brain works. But it wasn’t always like this. I have been a writer since I was a child, but when I moved to the United States I stopped writing. There was so much I had to deal with: a new country, a new language, a new culture. I became a mother, away from my family. I was on survival mode. When my second child was around three, I had an existential moment. I asked myself: “Who am I?” and “Who do I want to be?” And I remembered how much I enjoyed writing and how I had dreamed of writing a story. I tried to write, only to find the page in front of me always remained blank. I could not utter a sentence, much less tell a story. One day, a phrase came to my head—in English. The story seemed to unfold on its own and it was finished in a few hours. All in English. It was the way my brain had found to go around that big knot that was blocking my writing. And I embraced it. To this day, I write in English. Poetry comes at me in Spanish, it flows much easier, but it took some time for this process to happen, too.

So when I envisioned Luca’s Bridge as a story in Spanish and English, I threw my bilingual superpower into gear by imagining that I was writing poetry. 

BS: Anna, very often, the publisher separates the author from the artist in order, they say, to allow them their own visions. How did you come to work on this project? I’m especially impressed by how your illustrations beautifully complement the story; and also, how your limited use of color (mostly grays and golds with some blues and greens) moves the emotions of Luca and his family. What was your artistic vision behind the story? 

ALR: As I thought about and started working on the illustrations, I wanted to emphasize the emotional journey that Luca and his family were going through—their sadness, the loss of their home, the loss of their friends—but also how the power of love and family and the joy of doing what he loves could help lessen Luca’s ordeal. I tried to convey all of this with the color palette, with the grays and the blues representing the sadness and the darkness of his parents’ facing deportation, and then the yellows to signify the hope and the magic that is within him and in his family’s love. So even though Mariana and I did not work together, she had made the story so rich that I had a lot to work with. 

BS: Anna, I’m also impressed with the symbolism, especially the role of the migratory warblers who appear everywhere, even in the most unexpected places, such as the papel picado, on a windowsill, in Luca’s dream, perching on a chair or on a windowsill… Can you say more about why you chose to portray this little bird who knows no boundaries as a representative of this story?

ALR: Thank you for noticing that, Beverly. Luca imagines himself flying with a flock of birds, and I thought that it was just perfect that Mariana added that. When I read that I felt that Luca wanted himself and his family to be free like those birds, so those yellow warblers—who are migratory birds, free to come and go across the continent—became a symbol of freedom, companions to Luca in all of his journey and also a contrast to his family's situation. I added other bits of visual symbolism throughout the story as well: the ominous wall, the wilting flowers, because these symbols can be understood by everyone.

I also wanted to insert part of my own Mexican culture to the story without it’s being a cliché: the bridge is a combination of the patterns in Tenango embroidery from the state of Hidalgo; and Talavera, a traditional pottery painting from Puebla. I chose embroidery because, as we are humans, there is a thread that connects us all, there is more that brings us together than what separates us from each other, and the Talavera pottery because I associated it with being home and cooking. That’s why I added the birds in that form in the image of the bridge.

BS: Mariana and Anna, Luca’s Bridge is not only a well-told and beautifully illustrated story—it rings true to the tough decisions many families, especially mixed-status families, have to make.

ML: I’m grateful that there is a space for stories that can be uncomfortable but reflect the world in all its shades and colors. Luca’s Bridge describes a difficult theme, but it is also full of hope and love. Luca and his family find laughter and we see happiness and solace can sometimes be found even in situations that may be seen as hopeless. I think all of us, not only immigrants, can relate to this.

ALR: I just hope that when children and adults read this story, they get a sense of how difficult most immigrant experiences are. My hope is that this story helps children become more empathetic. In Mexico and everywhere else, we need more compassion and empathy for those whom we see as being different from us.

BS: Mariana y Anna, ¡Muchas felicidades y míl gracias for this beautiful story!

Mariana: ¡Y gracias a ti también!

Anna: ¡Míl gracias, Beverly y Mariana!

Fuego, Fueguito / Fire, Little Fire / Tit, Titchin

author: Jorge Tetl Argueta
illustrator: Felipe Ugalde Alcántara 
translators (English): Jorge Tetl Argueta and Madeline Maillet, 
translators (Nahuat): Jorge Tetl Argueta, Genaro Ramírez, Pacita Paz Pérez, Valentín Ramírez, Carlos Cortez 
Piñata Books, 2019 
Pipil Nahua, Salvadoran

In just about every Indigenous culture and language, there are millennia-old teachings about fire and water. Wherever and whenever these teachings are spoken or sung, children learn from their elders that, without air, fire and water, no living thing can exist. 

In this breathtaking trilingual poem that complements their earlier Agua, Agúita / Water, Little Water / At Achipiga At (Piñata Books, 2017), Argueta and Ugalde Alcántara team up to gift youngest readers and listeners another chapter in the story of life.

Narrated by a little one who likes to be referred to as “la chispita” or “little fire” or “titchin,” Fueguito is born from a tiny spark “on our Mother Earth / beneath our Father Sky” and flits around like a firefly. On a journey everywhere, Fueguito becomes bigger and smaller and bigger again and can be seen “in the volcano / in the mountain / in two sticks of wood / rubbing against each other.” Now Fueguito is on a stone striking against another stone, now in a bolt quickly flashing across the sky, now burning wood to provide heat—and always singing, laughing and dancing:

Yo, Fuego, Fueguito 
soy llama, llamita.
Chispa, chispita,
soy la alegre energía de la vida.

Fire, Little Fire,
I am a flame, a little flame.
A spark, a little spark,
the joyful energy of life.

Ugalde Alcántara’s gorgeous, stylized full-page bleeds, using watercolor and acrylic on paper and then finished digitally, complement Fueguito’s enchanting song. On a luminous jewel-toned palette of mostly reds, oranges and yellows, with occasional highlights of blues, turquoises, and greens, the artist vibrantly depicts Fueguito’s many forms and responsibilities. 

On one page, for instance, as Fueguito sings “among the stones,” Alcántara Ugalde shows readers the breathtaking Tse’Bii’Ndzisgaii, the Navajo Nation’s Monument Valley. Here, the angle of the sun behind them lights up these enormous, sacred sandstone formations that span Utah and Arizona. 

The Spanish and English texts on the left-hand pages fall on textured, sandy-yellow backgrounds, with each pair of texts divided by a small symbolic representation influenced by traditional Mesoamerican art. So while Fueguito sings, young discerning readers can take in the amazing design and color and movement on the right-hand pages, and they can also identify these stylized details and relate them to the images on the opposite page.

Argueta first wrote this awesome song in Spanish, his second language. Later, he wrote the English version, with neither being a direct translation of the other. In this way, both hablantes and English readers will appreciate the beauty and rhythm of whichever version they choose to read. As well, bilingual readers will see how a song can have subtly different lyrics and still maintain its wholeness and beauty. 

It’s unfortunate that the Nahuat version—Argueta’s first language and the language of the Pipil Nahua, Indigenous people of El Salvador and Mexico—is given short shrift. Relegated to one page at the end of the book, with no illustrations except for the opposite full-bleed depicting a roaring blaze, the Nahuat version is impossible for children to follow. There are no visual cues, and no way to compare it with either of the other two languages. As well, the Nahuat title on the front cover is smaller than the Spanish and English, and there’s a small line at the bottom that reads, “Includes a Nahaut version.” Although it’s listed in the summary on the CIP page, there’s no other reference to it. Since Argueta acknowledges and thanks four Nahuat speakers for their assistance, this decision was apparently made by the publisher.

This book design—as with that of Argueta’s and Ugalde Alcántara’s previous work, Agua, Agüita / Water, Little Water, which had the same problem—could easily have accommodated the Nahuat version, and since this poem / song is a First Nations’ teaching, placing it in the primary spot would have empowered Indigenous young children to see an Indigenous language on par with two colonial languages. Nevertheless, for the great beauty and teaching that it encompasses, Fuego, Fueguito / Fire, Little Fire / Tit, Titchin is highly recommended.

*Highly recommended for home, classroom and library collections. 

—Beverly Slapin
(published 9/22/19)

Strange Birds: A Field Guide to Ruffling Feathers

author: Celia C. Pérez 
Kokila Books, 2019
grades 4-7

Some 150 years ago, wearable taxidermy—specifically, dead birds or bird parts affixed to women’s hats—were so popular among wealthy patrons of the high-end fashion industry, that they helped bring about the decline of several species, such as the snowy egret and the common tern. In the US, this problem was especially acute in Florida; and it took a particularly strong and vocal group of women to take a stand against this wholesale slaughter of the US wild bird populations. 

In 1886, American writer and poet Celia Laighton Thaxter penned an impassioned article that was later reprinted for the Audubon Society of the State of New York. Her piece, entitled, “Woman’s Heartlessness,” read, in part:

I would the birds could all emigrate to some friendlier planet peopled by a nobler race than ours, where they might live their sweet lives un molested, and be treated with the respect, the consideration, and the grateful love which are their due. For we have almost forfeited our right to the blessing of their presence.

But still we venture to hope for a better future, still the Audubon and other societies work with heart and soul, to protect and save them, and we trust yet to see the day when women, one and all, will look upon the wearing of birds in its proper light,—namely, as a sign of heartlessness and a mark of ignominy and reproach.(1)

In 1918, the struggles of these women activists bore fruit, and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act was signed into law. One of the first National Audubon Society’s victories, the MBTA has saved millions, and possibly billions, of wild birds. However, although it became illegal to hunt birds to feed the fashion industry, it was—and still is—legal to keep the “surviving” hats. 

Fast-forward to now. In the wealthy community of Sabel Palms, Florida, one of these hats—to wealthy white tradition-bearers, a symbol of the reverence for high fashion at any cost—becomes the focus of a new (or continuing) battle. A hundred years after the Migratory Bird Treaty Act became law, a Girl Scout troop called the Floras maintains a beauty pageant of sorts, in which the winner gets to wear the “Flora hat.”

During the summer before seventh grade, four girls—outraged at the notion that an antique woman’s hat, adorned with the bird feathers that symbolized and romanticized wealth and privilege in a bygone era, continues to be used as an icon in a beauty contest—learn about history, community involvement, activism, and social justice—and how their own stories connect with those of each other and with the community.

The girls, whose family histories are ethnically, culturally and economically disparate and yet whose realities are intertwined, see themselves as outsiders, “strange birds” who find each other and come together in this place and at this time in a quest for community change and social justice. And at the same time, the “Miss Floras Contest” and the “Floras hat” mean something different for each of them:

  • Budding investigative journalist Ofelia Castillo, whose parents are determined and proud OPCs (Over Protective Cubans), dreams of writing the exposé that will uncover the DiSanti family’s secrets and win her the Qwerty Sholes Journalism Contest. 
  • Rebel artist Lane DiSanti, whose millionaire grandmother insists on her joining the Floras, discovers that she must confront her own white and upper-class privilege in the struggle, while she tries to understand her parents’ impending divorce.
  • Innovative foodie Aster Douglas, the granddaughter of the first Black professor at Sabal Palms University and whose ancestors worked for Lane’s, mirrors her grandfather’s passion for social justice and researching the history of the Douglas family. 
  • Impassioned ornithologist and historian Catarina (Cat) García, a Floras defector whose discovery that the Floras hat is made of real bird feathers leads her to challenge her own privileged status and expose the violence of a beloved-by-some, innocent-appearing tradition. 

As the four girls, who call their secret group “An Ostentation of Outsiders and Others,” (2) come together in the struggle and take a look at themselves and how and where they’re positioned in their communities, they—and readers—soon realize that, in deciding to become visible activists, some are more at risk than others. And sometimes—as is common with institutional racism—it’s up to one of them to educate the others. Aster tells the others, for instance:

My grandpa says people find reasons and ways to oppress other people based on color and language and anything else that makes us different from one another. It’s how the rich and powerful stay that way, by dividing people.

And, part of being an activist is this: “Knowing when to stop depends on how much you’ve done, how much you care, and how much you’re willing to risk.” And later, he says, “Sometimes the desire for change is bigger than anything else. It has to be.”

In this fast-moving and satisfying adventure story in which plans sometimes go awry and chaos sometimes ensues, Pérez gives each girl her own character arc and friendships become strong. For middle readers, Strange Birds opens up an important and nuanced discussion of race and racism, class and classism, and a deeper understanding of the relationship between intersectionality and activism. And, no less important, as Pérez writes, it’s about “four individuals discovering truths about the world, about themselves, and about friendship.” 

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

—Beverly Slapin
(published 9/21/19)


(2) In ornithology, a flock of peacocks, peahens and peachicks is collectively known as an ostentation.

Estrellita se despide de su isla / Estrellita Says Good-bye to Her Island // Estrellita en la ciudad grande / Estrellita in the Big City

author: Samuel Caraballo
illustrator: Pablo Torrecilla
Piñata Books /Arte Público Press 2002, grades 3-6
Puerto Rican

Both of these stories transported me back to Puerto Rico. Years ago, as our plane began its descent into San Juan Airport, almost everyone began singing, “En mi viejo San Juan.” This beautiful song, written by Noel Estrada in 1943, begins, “En mi viejo San Juan, cuantos sueños forje en mis noches de infancia,” which means that Puerto Rico never leaves us, not even in our dreams.

The first story, Estrellita se despide de su isla, is a poem, a love song from a child to her island. From the window of the giant plane, the sorrowful child says, “¡Adiós mi preciosa isleta, pedazo de mi corazón!” (“Goodbye, my precious little island, darling piece of my heart!”) In the detail on the left and full illustration on the right, the child’s green eyes and brown hair reflect the rich greens of the land and the browns of the mountain, and the blue wisps and tendrils of her hair hold the blues of the sea and sky. 

As readers turn the pages, the airplane is high in the sky, shrinking, going north. And the child is storing in her memory her home, her town, the beach, the coquis (national frogs) in her hands and her hair and on her bed, the rooster, the wind drying the laundry on the line, the hibiscus flowers and the little white goat in the mango tree. And being with her friends, and the street musicians and people dancing plena and the aroma of hot coffee. 

The child’s name is Estrellita. It means “little star.” She doesn’t know when she will return, but she will always remember “tus cielos, tus ríos, tus encantos / con los que el pintor sueña, / y las gloriosas notas de mármol / de tu exquisita canción caribeña.” (“Your skies, your rivers, your charm / All of which the painter dreams, / And the glorious marble notes / Of your exquisite Caribbean song.”)

And most of all, she will hold in her memory “el tierno, angelical abracito / de mi abuelita Panchita / quien, como tú, es mi amorcito, / mi luz y mi valiosa perlita!” (“the tender, angelic hug / Of my grandma Panchita / Who, like you, is my little love, / My light and my precious little pearl!”) Here, as they hug, grandma’s dress is patterned with hibiscus on a background of blue, and the blue highlights in her hair reflect the sky and the sea. 

author: Samuel Caraballo
illustrator: Pablo Torrecilla
Piñata Books /Arte Público Press  
grades 3-6
Puerto Rican

In Estrellita en la ciudad grande / Estrellita in the Big City, the child and her dad have arrived in Brooklyn, “la ciudad grande.” Estrellita hasn’t unpacked yet, because she has something more important to do. In the small hotel room, she’s covered the bed with a brightly colored quilt that she has brought from home, and a small hibiscus plant—in a pot—sits on the window sill. Now, sitting at the edge 
of the bed, Estrellita looks down at the telephone she holds in her hand. She’s waiting and waiting. The phone finally rings, and lágrimas de felicidad (“happy tears”) flow from Estrellita’s eyes. 

On the other end is Estrellita’s abuelita, and their conversation is deep. In PR, abuelita is still selling fritters to pay her bills and still going fishing, she jokes—to keep herself young! Estrellita tells her abuelita that her dad is out with Tío Carlitos and Tía Luisa for a job interview, and hopes to find an apartment soon. She can’t wait, Estrellita tells her abuelita, to have her own room—“¡Para acostarme en mi cama y soñar con el día en que te vuelva a ver¡” (“To lie in my bed and dream of that day when I get to see you!”) But before her abuelita begins to cry, Estrellita tells her her “New York stories.” These include seeing the at-first unreadable signs and billboards, the Verrazano Bridge, the skyscrapers that look like giant mirrors, the elevators and escalators, and even giant food—“Los perros calientes medían un pie de largo. Los pretzels eran tan grandes como las panderetas y ¡los vasos de refresco eran más grandes que la cubeta que usas para la carnada!” (“The hot dogs were one foot long, the pretzels as big as tambourines, and the cups of soda bigger than your bait bucket!”)

Caraballo wrote both stories in Puerto Rican Spanish with Puerto Rican references. The language is good and authentic, informal “people” language, el sonido de la gente. Later, Caraballo wrote the English versions, and neither is a direct translation of the other. Either way, children and those who read the books with them will feel “at home” and comfortable. 

Estrellita’s description of the city is detailed. It’s what a kid would say or write, noticing facts that everyone would be interested in. When she’s in the subway, she notes that there are candy bars and clothing and shoes for sale, and there are people playing kettle drums and congas. 

While Estrellita describes the sights and sounds of the city to her abuelita, young readers can look to the visual details separating the Spanish and English texts on the left-hand page—most are of Abuelita on the phone, sitting on her old cane-woven seat on the beautiful Puerto Rican beach, quiet and peaceful—looking out at the sea and talking with her beloved nieta. This contrast is what the song is about—even though you leave and you’re in a new place, you’ll always have the memory of the hibiscus, the beaches, the coquís. 

Both Estrellita se despide de su isla and Estrellita en la ciudad grande place the Spanish title above the English on the covers and position the Spanish text at the upper part of each left page, with the English on the lower part. The languages inside are separated either by a detail of the illustration that appears on each facing page (in Estrellita se despide de su isla), or a detail that represents a contrast between “home” and “away” (in Estrellita en la ciudad grande.) This technique signals to young readers that Estrellita and her family are Spanish-speakers, that the English is a translation—and that home is never far away.

Torrecilla’s full-bleed paintings, rendered in marker and opaque-toned gouache, complement the Spanish and English texts and convey shades of meaning as well. In Estrellita se despide de su isla, he uses swirling colors to accentuate the brightness and beauty of Puerto Rico’s symbols: the hibiscus, (the national flower) the coquí (the national frog), and the beaches (the national treasure). Torrecilla’s artwork also portrays the everyday joys: musicians playing on the streets while folks dance, the laughter and fun, the rich smell of coffee—the real feel of beauty and life in Estrellita’s PR. 

And in Estrellita en la ciudad grande, his “New York” colors are more subdued and shadowy—the huge rectangular buildings with people on the ground, looking up; or on a roof, taking photos. And the darkened underground subways, with people running to catch their trains. And the musicians, of course. The illustrations here show the contrast between the full-bleed on the right, and the detail that divides the Spanish from the English text on the left. When Estrellita is next to the Empire State Building, the insert on the left depicts a house on the beach or small fishing boats. In contrast to the Puerto Rican countryside, Torrecilla captures the complexity and intensity of the city. Everything’s bigger in the city. But when they are walking around Brooklyn to get to know the city, she eats empanadas de carne, una papa relleno y una croqueta, just like in PR. And when she goes into a music store, she teases her grandmother, asking her what song they are playing. After two guesses, Estrellita tells her: they’re playing “En mi viejo San Juan”! 

The beaches and beach-front homes, both in the bleeds and in the inserts, seem to flow from the artist’s hands. Estrellita is leaving her beloved abuelita and everything she knows and loves; at the same time, although Estrellita longs for her PR home, in Brooklyn she finds a multiethnic, intergenerational place where she can laugh and dance and be happy—and still be free to long for her home. 

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

—Judy Zalazar Drummond
(published 9/20/19)