Un Nuevo Hogar // A New Home

author: Tania de Regil 
illustrator: Tania de Regil
Candlewick, 2019 

In much of the world, moving from place to place is a common experience. For children, it can be strange and exciting: there may be “new” things to see and do, “new” people to meet, “new” cultures to encounter, “new” languages to learn,“new” foods to taste. For some, it’s a world of wonder and imagination.

Told in a single narrative accompanied by complementary illustrations of a young boy who is moving with his family from New York to Mexico City and a young girl who is moving with her family from Mexico City to New York, Un Nuevo Hogar and A New Home are a straightforward and gentle discussion of what it may be like for a child to relocate and acclimate to a strange place. 

De Regil’s artwork, rendered in ink, colored pencil, watercolor and gouache, feature different palettes—mostly blues, grays, and yellows for New York City, and browns, reds and greens for Mexico City—that lend complexity and merit to the simplicity of a well-told story. As well, in the airport scene, where both the boy and the girl and their parents (he is holding a teddy bear and she is holding a Mexican peasant doll) briefly encounter each other, it’s refreshing to see the natural interaction among people of differing ethnicities and skin tones.

Each spread holds both similarities and differences for young children to observe and ponder. In one spread, for instance, the streets in both cities feature musicians, tail-wagging dogs, and taxis. Both moms wear ponytails and both grandmas wear eyeglasses. The girl waves to one musician and the boy smiles at another; the boy waves to a snack vendor and the girl smiles at another. As well, observant younger people will notice challenging issues in both cities—such as poverty and homelessness—with empathy: “Sé que mi ciudad puede ser difícil para algunos.” (“I know that my city can be difficult for some.”) While their moms look on approvingly, the boy pets a destitute man’s dog and the girl gives a coin to an elderly woman on the street.
© 2019 by Tania de Regil. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.
This combination of straightforward and empathetic language and appealing art demonstrates the similarities of children’s relocation without the trauma of being stereotyped and used as a political ploy. For instance, a spread showing an illustration of the boy looking through his apartment window in New York and the girl looking out from her balcony in Mexico City expresses the same trepidation about moving: “(Pero no sé si quiere irme, porque voy / a extrañar muchas cosas de mi hogar.” (“But I don’t know if I want to leave, because I’m going / to miss a lot of things from my home.”) And another spread reads: “Y también voy a extrañar / jugar con mis amigos.” (“And I will also miss / playing with my friends.”)

On one spread, for instance, the two children are thinking about some of the things they will miss on their way to school in the morning: listening to the street musicians playing their favorite music; and on their way home in the afternoon, stopping to get a delicious snack from a street vendor. 

However, adults who present this little book as a “travelogue” will be missing the point and losing an opportunity. For older readers, there’s a helpful section of thumbnail illustrations and text that provides historical and cultural information about the peoples and places encountered by our young newcomers—as well as a brief, accurate and age-appropriate discussion of poverty and its causes in both cities. 

Since this lovely little book portrays the newness of relocating through the eyes of two young people with the same initial worries, I would like to have seen it as a bilingual flip book. Maybe next printing. 

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

[Note: Un Nuevo Hogar and A New Home represent only one of millions of stories about immigration and relocation and should not be read as the immigrant story. For these two middle-class families, air travel from Mexico to New York and from New York to Mexico—and relocation from one country to another—go without difficulty, as such events should for everyone. But in these harsh and punitive times, their experiences are not typical for those desperate immigrants, migrants, and asylum-seekers from Mexico and Central America who attempt to cross the US-Mexico border and establish new roots here.]

—Beverly Slapin
(published 1/30/19)

Luca's Bridge / El puente de Luca

author: Mariana Llanos
illustrator: Anna López Real
Penny Candy Books, 2019

In these harsh economic and political times, there are as many immigrant stories as there are families who immigrate, migrate, or seek asylum. Luca’s Bridge / El puente de Luca is an engaging story of a Mexican family’s trying to make the best of a terrible situation. Mami and Papi, who are not documented, are being deported, and their children, brothers Luca and Paco, are US citizens. They have the “choice” of staying on this side of the border—with their school, their friends, and everything they know—but without their parents; or accompanying their parents to a place they don’t know. The family decides, of course, to stay together.

It appears that Llanos wrote this story in one language and then in the other. Young hablantes see a Spanish version that is at least as authentic and beautiful as the English, a poetic interpretation rather than a translation, with much symbolism and metaphor. For instance, Llanos interprets the English beginning: “Sometimes the only way to go back home is to fly…” as “Hay veces en que volar es la única forma de volver…” In this case, there’s a word play in the Spanish between “volar” and “volver,” and the sentence literally translates as, “There are times when flying is the only way to get back.” And in Luca’s Bridge, Luca is, indeed, a migrant, flying home in his dreams, accompanied by the migratory Wilson’s warblers on just about every page. 

As he looks out the window, Luca imagines himself flying with the flock: —¿Estarán yendo a casa?—he asks himself. Are they going home? 

And, asleep, Lucas dreams he is napping on the moon, flying back home on a bridge of papel picado, playing his trumpet and leading a marching band, and laughing, laughing, laughing. 

Luca’s Bridge is a story of hard choices that should not be necessary: to break up your family so that your children might have a better, maybe safer, future without you; or stay together and live in uncertainly and quite possibly, poverty. As Luca plays his trumpet, “(His family’s) eyes sparkled. And for a moment, their sadness seemed to fly away through the open window.” / “los ojos les brillaban, y por ese momento, su tristeza salió por la ventana.” In their imaginations, they’re together, with each other, with the migratory warblers, at home in two places. 

López Real’s artwork, using graphite and colored pencil on acid-free paper, visually interprets and complements Llanos’s timely and bittersweet story while focusing on a subdued palette of mostly charcoal grays and blues with bright highlights in yellows and golds. As the family approaches the bridge they must cross to get to Mexico, readers see a forbidding gray fence and a formation of gray clouds above—“Everything had turned gray and scary, even the guards.” 

In almost every illustration, observant readers encounter bright images of yellow-and-black Wilson’s warblers—sometimes tiny and sometimes large, sometimes in a flock and sometimes alone, and sometimes reflected as wings on Luca’s trumpet or in the design of several beautiful papel picado. There’s even one perched on the back of a chair, right near family photos on a wall. These birds are migrants without borders—their habitats ranging with the seasons all the way from Alaska to northern South America—and their presence here will especially resonate with young people whose families also move back and forth. 

As well, young readers will notice the subliminal messages carried in López Real’s colorful spot images. On one page, for instance, there’s a patch of wildflowers growing just outside the window of Abuela’s little house. A sad, pensive Luca is leaning out the window while a tiny warbler perches on the sill, keeping him company and possibly offering consolation. 

There’s so much more to tug at the heart. At supper, for instance, Abuela mentions a dicho—“Donde come uno, comen dos” (“Where one eats, two eat”)—and then has to translate it for Luca and Paco, who don’t speak Spanish. 

Without didacticism, without polemic, Llanos’ and López Real’s intent in Luca’s Bridge / El puente de Luca is to spark discussion among the youngest children about what it might be like to experience immigration and deportation, and that sometimes—only sometimes—there might be hope in what appears to be hopeless situations. 

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

[Note to educators: If there are young immigrant or migrant children in your classroom, please use caution. Some young children may not be free to talk about their lives, their families, their experiences or their countries of origin.]

—Beverly Slapin
(published 1/30/19)

Conversation with Mariana Llanos and Anna López Real

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? Ana, 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!

ML: ¡Y gracias a ti también!

ALR: ¡Míl gracias, Beverly y Mariana!

(published 9/28/19)

The Poet X

author: Elizabeth Acevedo
HarperTeen, 2018
grades 8-up
Dominican American

Written by an acclaimed slam poet, The Poet X is the verse novel of 2018—winner of the National Book Award and the ALA/YALSA Printz Award. Acevedo’s young adult debut is the story of a girl who finds her voice through poetry. Xiomara is the big, unattractive, less academically gifted, less obedient, female twin in a conservative Catholic Dominican immigrant family:

I am unhide-able.

Taller than even my father, / with what Mami has always said / was “a little too much body for such a young girl.” / I am the baby fat that settled into D-cups and swinging hips / so that the boys who called me a whale in middle school / now ask me to send them pictures of me in a thong.

Her parents forbid her to interact with boys even though the boys whistle at her and try to talk to her on the street, and one boy in particular, the kind, music-loving Aman is paired with her in biology class. And her mother makes her attend confirmation class every Tuesday afternoon, which conflicts with the poetry club her favorite teacher, Ms. Galiano, has started.

Xiomara struggles with Catholic teachings and with the characterization of women, via Eve, as weak and vulnerable to temptation, thereby justifying the harsh restriction of women and girls. Set in New York City, where teenagers have freedom and temptations are everywhere, Xiomara struggles against her mother’s strict rules bordering on fanaticism. Her mother grounds her, beats her, and attempts to destroy everything that Xiomara values. Xiomara is already late in getting her confirmation, to her mother a sign of her sinfulness and failure and to her, a big part of her growing self-doubt and questioning of everything she has been taught:

“Mami, what if I don’t
Do confirmation?
What if I waited a bit for—”

But she cuts me off,
her index finger a hard exclamation point
in front of my face.

“Mira, muchacha,”
she starts, “I will
feed and clothe no heathens.”

While many verse novels use visual images as their point of reference, Acevedo’s novel uses music—the songs of Nicki Minaj, Drake, and other R&B stars. This works well with Xiomara’s decision to perform slam poetry, and her verse captures the musicality of the R&B genre as well as the code switching among English, Spanish, and Dominican slang—as, for instance when she shows the Dominican men “finishing their dominoes tournament with hard slaps / and yells of “Capicu!

Running throughout this story of coming of age, first romance, and discovering a beloved brother’s deepest secret, is the central theme of a young woman coming of age, coming to terms with her sexuality, and finding her voice. For Xiomara, who chooses to perform her slam poetry under the name “The Poet X,” free verse is the freedom to be herself, to say what she wants, to make her choices, and to come to terms with her own version of faith.

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

—Lyn Miller-Lachmann
(published 1/28/19)

Whiskers, Tails & Wings: Animal Folktales from Mexico

author: Judy Goldman 
illustrator: Fabricio Vanden Broeck 
Charlesbridge, 2013 
grades 3-up 
[“Mexican,” “Tarahumara” (Rarámuri), “Seri” (Comcáac), “Huichol” (Wixáritari), Triqui, Tseltal]

Goldman derived and attributes each of what she refers to as “animal folktales” to a historical anthropological rendition from a particular Indigenous nation in Mexico. From a perusal of the back matter, it’s apparent that she pored through collections of stories compiled by mostly Mexican scholars and cultural anthropologists, who themselves relied on historically sourced material. Along with source notes for her versions of these stories, she includes a bibliography of works in Spanish and English, and a list of web resources.

Vanden Broeck’s detailed, full-bleed acrylic-and-watercolor paintings on heavily textured papers faithfully conform to Goldman’s retellings. Each illustration forefronts a particular story, and realistic picture-postcard vignettes on the information pages that follow portray the Indigenous people of each region, all modeling traditional dress.

On the inside back cover is this: 

Judy Goldman is in love with Mexico, its people, animals, colors, traditions, and ancient stories. In her travels she’s always on the lookout for more stories, especially those about animals, that she can retell in her own way.

∽ ∽ ∽ ∽ ∽ ∽ ∽ ∽

Lois Beardslee: Mining anthropological sources that created the genre of “folktales” is a European American tradition of storytelling that wasn’t in our original Indigenous oral versions. Within this genre was the creation of a sub-genre of simplistic “animal stories,” (1) which tends to look at our environments objectively—without the feelings or perceptions or interactions that reflected on our own humanity. In other words, they’ve taken out all the human sophistication.

In our traditions, stories featuring animals are actually people stories. They wouldn’t have been stories told by people if they weren’t about people and people’s needs. Our people stories utilize animals as part of our environments and part of our everyday experiences. “Animal folktales,” on the other hand, are a fabricated genre utilized by people who write children’s literature that enables a superordinate group to silence a subordinate group.

Joe Bruchac: Brilliant, Lois! That’s a perfect way of describing this problem.

Beverly Slapin: Yes! This reminds me of how Anne described her asking a young audience if they knew what raccoons ate, and someone said, “garbage!” Anne responded, she said, not with a correction, but by beginning her story with, “In the days before garbage…” because she wanted them to understand that raccoons (and humans, by extension) eat what is available to them.

On the CIP page, Goldman acknowledges and thanks several individuals “for taking the time to read the nonfiction information, making comments, and correcting it.” Failing to acknowledge and thank any of the Indigenous peoples who own the millennia-old cultural capital to their stories strongly implies that she has neither asked for nor received permission from the actual owners of the stories to “retell them in her own way”—and to publish them. 

Her story-mining is unapologetic and clear. Goldman’s introduction, entitled, “Welcome to Mexico!” reads, in part: 

Mexico, a fascinating country made up of a unique blend of ancient customs and modern ways, is rich with such tales. Different native groups passed these tales from generation to generation. Though many people know about the Aztecs and the Maya, most have never heard about the other indigenous people of Mexico. Today there are sixty-two different native groups that speak as many languages, plus variations. The animal stories in this book are narrated by five of these groups: the Tarahumara, the Seri, the Huichol, the Triqui, and the Tseltal.

By referring to Mexico as a “fascinating” country, using the past tense to refer to its inhabitants, and implying that they gave her permission to “retell” their traditional stories—Goldman’s dismissal and diminishing of the Native peoples of the south convey a sense of otherness and is cultural shorthand for colonial superiority. She writes: The lifestyles of these indigenous groups vary from member to member: Some continue to live as their ancestors did, while others have modern conveniences in their homes. Here, she ignores the fact that Indigenous peoples can and do generally live in both traditional and contemporary ways. But her either/or paradigm better suits Goldman’s über-romantic narrative than the realities of traditional peoples’ contemporary lives.

Finally (and this is all from her introduction), there is this: 

Due to poverty some members of these groups have emigrated to [sic] big cities (and even to other countries) seeking work. As a result of being so far from home, they have lost some of their traditions. But others, especially those who still live in small towns and on farms in their native territories, strive to maintain their language, customs, and way of life. They love the land and what it produces…. Telling their stories is also a way of holding on to their traditions. 

Lois: Goldman is taking stories that have been written down, not necessarily written down accurately, and not conveying the traditional information that may have been present in the original. She’s imposing her own intent over all of the stories. 

In her own words, she conveys that her intent includes perceiving the Indigenous peoples of the south as simplified, distant, disconnected from their own cultures. She doesn’t see Indians living in cities that are on the sites of ancient cities where they have lived for millennia. “Due to poverty”—they just happen to be poor. And, she’s implying that Native peoples who live in big cities forfeit their right to cultural capital.

But poverty is something that’s imposed, and it’s for the most part economic, not cultural. The question Goldman neither asks nor answers is this: Why are the Indigenous peoples of the south impoverished?

Beverly: Yes, Lois. The “why” is a crucial issue that Goldman ignores. For Native peoples of the south, this impoverishment is a result of economic and political violence, and sometimes both. (2) It drives people away from their homes, often to the US, “into the mouth of the shark.” But being far from home does not necessarily cause loss of tradition, and Native peoples who are forcibly displaced do not love their traditional lands less than those who are able to stay.

Lois: Talk about appropriation! Goldman seems to perceive herself as a cultural interpreter, yet she paints these people in such deprecating terms. They’re acceptable to her only as country people who live up to her stereotypes, as opposed to urban people, who have “lost” their cultures.

Goldman’s introduction notwithstanding, cultures adapt to include immigration and migration, and urban living with modern appliances; and to assume that these cultures “can’t” successfully adapt to modernity trivializes them, lessens them, diminishes them. 

Goldman misses all this—or she chooses to erase it. The book screams “outsider cultural superiority.” That’s what the early cultural anthropologists did. Purposefully or not, they alluded to the subjects of their studies as inferior, which justified exploitation. 

Traditional stories, when written down, read as if they’re being told. Goldman’s dismissiveness of the people in the descriptive material is carried through in the stories themselves. They are reduced to something simple, devoid of both modest humor and compassion. Is she in love with the notion of docile Indians who graciously give away their cultural capital to people like her to “retell”?

Joe: Yes, “folktales” are the marketable outsider’s term that devalues traditional stories. People who have a genuine cultural context call them “stories.” 

Beverly: Goldman’s disparagement of the Indigenous peoples of the south is unmistakable. She handily dismisses the identities of the Native peoples whose stories she refashions as “folktales.” For instance, she writes: “The Tarahumara call themselves the Rarámuri. They live in the northern part of Mexico in the Sierra Tarahumara mountains…” Throughout the section, she refers to the people as “Tarahumara,” mentioning only in the glossary that it’s a “name ‘given’ to the Rarámuri by the Spanish conquerors.” 

Joe: In doing this, she’s diminishing the right of people to name themselves. She’s opting for the language of either the enemy or the oppressor.

The analogy that comes to my mind is quoting a bunch of Russian authors about Russian folktales as American folktales. These writers do not recognize the distinction between one Native nation and another as having the same significance as the difference between European traditions. Their cultural backgrounds are just not the same. One thing that many people do not realize is that the Grimm fairytales, in a number of cases, are not even German stories but were based on other cultural traditions, particularly Slovak. So the story of “Rumpelstiltskin,” for example, appears as a Slovak story, far before the Grimm brothers published it. So you see, that sort of cultural appropriation between dominant European cultures and other less powerful European cultures occurred well before this was done with our Native traditions. It’s a pattern repeating itself. 

Lois: In addition, using “animal stories” in this way gives Goldman a sort of “get out of jail for free card” that ignores the humanity of the peoples who created and continue to use these traditional stories and to avoid socioeconomic realities that include usurpation of these people’s cultural capital. 

Joe: It would have been much more difficult for Goldman to quote actual living people from those traditions. They might have had something different to say. That would have spoiled it all for her.

Beverly: Yes, probably, Joe. By describing the Indigenous peoples in the past tense, she seems to give herself permission to take and make over what she considers leftovers: “Different native groups passed these tales from generation to generation.” Further, the ownership of these tales, she implies, can never be known and so she need not seek anyone’s permission: “Many native stories are so old that their origins are lost to time.” 

Lois: Goldman apparently doesn’t understand. She doesn’t have to understand, because she apparently doesn’t see any value in understanding. Rather, the value is in producing and selling her books.

Beverly: Anne, I know from first-hand experience that you’re a wonderful writer and even in our long telephone conversations, that you talk story in a way such that listeners hang on every word. Which do you prefer—to write the stories or to tell them?

Anne Dunn: Some of the stories I write are told stories that I put in my books to make sure that they survive. These stories could be lost if they’re not written down, so we preserve them as they were written but not necessarily as they were told. A story is different when it’s told: You have an audience and you’re relating to the people and you can see their expressions as they’re relating to the story and probably to the storyteller. At that moment when they’re listening to you, there is no story without the teller. I think that’s because, in a written story, you’re not relating with an audience, you’re not looking into people’s faces.

One of the reasons that I put them down in books is because I don’t want them to get lost. Maybe what I’m preserving is really a dead story. The story is only alive when you’re telling it. It travels on the breath of the speaker to the ear of the listener. It’s always the same story, but I enhance it for the specific audience. If I have children, I might ask them a question to involve them in the story. Sometimes I have to stop and talk to a child audience about a raccoon who is particularly hungry. I know some children don’t know what a raccoon likes to eat, so I get to expand on this: “There was a time before garbage…” and so we’re together again. 

Storytelling is a real art. It’s not just knowing the story—it’s the relationship between the story and the audience. I have the child audience in my hands. It’s a mental thing. I don’t want anyone to be lost—I want them to be with me. I’m an old woman who talks story. The community has to accept you as a storyteller and believe that you are a storyteller. 

Most of the stories that I know I’ve heard from other tellers, from my own family and even from my ex-husband. Every story that we tell is really part of an epic. I don’t tell any story verbatim from memory—I wait for my audience to respond and from their responses I find a way through the story. 

If I retell someone else’s story, I always ask permission first. I’m just a story-carrier. I once heard a Choctaw storyteller tell a story I really liked, so I asked his permission to retell it and he said, “fine.” But when I started to tell it to myself, the words stuck in my throat. His story didn’t want me to tell it. I couldn’t receive it.

Does Goldman feel like she’s serving any good? I would wonder what her purpose is. Does she feel that she could tell it any better than the Indigenous tellers? Is she promoting the culture or promoting herself? 

These stories are better served by being left in the hands of their own people. And if their own people publish these stories, they will be published respectfully, as good as they know how, in their own compassionate ways. 

The stories transmit values. And the values are in the stories. You shouldn’t have to translate them. If you are successfully telling the story, then the children are with you. They don’t get away from you if you’ve got them in your hands. For instance, children will know without being told that the muskrat is operating on pride and the rabbit is operating on jealousy.

All the storytellers, my ancestors, carried the stories forward a generation until they got to me, and I have to carry them forward to the next generation. And I have to do it in a good way. That’s why I feel that I have to tell the stories with compassion and commitment—commitment to my ancestors to tell that story that wants to be told, that must be told. As my mom would say, if you’re not prepared to give the story your best effort, don’t tell that story, just leave it alone. There has to be that give-and-take, that good creative energy flying back and forth when you’re telling a story.

Lois: In our traditional stories, everyone understands the characters. We talk about them every day, even outside of the context of the stories. They’re part of our lives, our humor, and how we see and manage the world. 

Beverly: What you said, Lois, reminds me of Jakaltek Mayan author, Victor Montejo, who is an amazing poet, storyteller, human rights activist and anthropologist. (3) In the preface of his book of traditional Mayan stories, (4) he writes:

For my mother, the teachings of the grandmothers and grandfathers and the village elders have intrinsic values and powerful meanings. …. Storytelling, then, occurs at every opportunity, and the elders usually use those events to instill moral values and open-mindedness in the audience.
These stories, despite their importance as moral teachings for Mayan children, are also expressions of a millenarian tradition that has come from the deepest soul of the Mayan people. Some of the stories… are very old, and they continue to be passed on while being shaped to suit the current historical situation. Other stories have been created in a more recent Mayan historical time and have incorporated western elements in their structure…. Since (the Spanish invasion), the Mayan storytellers have made use of these elements as material available to them in their collective creations. This creativity can show us that the present Mayans are also dynamic actors in the creation, recreation, and maintenance of their own cultural traditions.

Joe: I am glad you mentioned my friend Victor for a couple of reasons. The first is that he is an actual Indigenous storyteller from south of our American borders. The second is that when I first met him several decades ago, he was a refugee who was fluent in Jakaltek and Spanish, but could speak no English. Not only did he master the English language, he went on to earn a PhD in this country, write a number of brilliant books in English, and become a respected professor. I challenge those non-Native people who are colonizing our stories to prove that they have the same level of intellectual ability and tenacity by gaining — if not deep fluency in the actual languages in which those stories were first told, as Victor did with English — at least enough knowledge of those languages to truly appreciate their worldview and complexity.

Anne: What Victor wrote reminds me of how my mom saw how European values could creep into our stories, and she told us we had to be careful to avoid these “Cinderella tales.” 

Lois: I remember sitting next to a teddy bear on a couch, along with a four-year-old and I looked down at the bear and said, “Gawiin! Gegoh nmaadabikehn dbiishko mokwaa!” (“Don’t just sit there like a bear.”) The adults in the room laughed. They all knew that I was referring to multiple nuances about the implications of laziness, of sleeping in or being like a bear. Of course, this comment wouldn’t have meant anything to anyone who didn’t understand its cultural tie-in.

Goldman’s “retellings,” on the other hand, lack the cultural contexts in which they’re traditionally told. They lack any nuance that would tie them to their cultures. Rather, they have been reduced to the mere antics of their animal participants—a canned one-size-fits-all format in which the cultural context is removed and the bare bones of a lesson (if any) remain intact. lt’s like filleting a fish and throwing away the flesh. These stories got no flesh! 

Beverly: Exactly, Lois. For instance, in a traditional Rarámuri (“Tarahumara”) story (in this case, “How Señor Grillo Met Señor Puma”), it’s highly unlikely that Indigenous storytellers with their own language structures would have animals communicating with each other in their own languages and in Spanish (“¡Eres un cobarde!”), a foreign language—which Goldman italicizes, which calls more attention to the improbability. 

But Goldman is not doing anything new. Her overlaying of this formulaic method of telling stories from the eyes of a cultural outsider has been used in children’s books for more than a century. It’s a throwback marketed today as multicultural children’s literature. 

Lois: Yes. By taking the bare bones information—how this or that physical characteristic came about, for instance—without fleshing out the characters takes the humanity away from the story. This simplification is transferred to perceptions about the Indigenous people who “told” this story. Even if the simplification had been done by a certain ethnographer rather than by Goldman, it probably would still have had the same effect—to make people look foolish. 

There’s certainly no shortage of Indigenous people on both sides of the border who can tell these stories and flesh them out in a way that demonstrates the beauty and dignity of the people who own the stories.

Barbara Wall: Remember, Beverly, several years ago, when you and I attended an educational conference that showcased “multicultural” children’s books? We sat together and listened to one of the speakers, a famed storyteller and artist who, by audience reactions, was adored by elementary school teachers. During Q&A time, I stood up and identified myself first by my name, then by my Native nation, then by my educational vocation, and finally, by the fact that my grandfather had been a survivor of the notorious Carlisle Indian Industrial School. I was shaking, and had to hold on to my seat to steady myself. I took a deep breath and asked this beloved author and artist a brief question, something like this: “What gives you the right to extract and erase what belongs to Indigenous peoples?” Without missing a beat to consider what I had just asked him, he answered: “Oh, so are you saying that Indians have cultural copyright”? I don’t remember the audience’s immediate reaction, but after his talk, conference participants lined up to talk with him and to ask him to sign their books.

Beverly: I remember this event well, Barbara. It was called “Reading the World,” and I wondered (to you) if it should have been called, “Reaping the World.”

Joe: Many non-Native authors and publishers know that traditional Indigenous stories are relatively easy to harvest and translate into something for non-Indigenous children and their teachers to read. Many times, they misname these stories as “fables,” “fairy tales,” “folktales,” “legends” or “myths”—all Western constructs (5)—and transform them into money-makers. 

The purpose of traditional Native stories is, for the most part, to portray the Original Instructions: to build relationships between all the beings of creation, to tell how things came to be the way they are, to teach right relationship between and among humans and the other animal people, and sometimes to model proper behavior by demonstrating improper behavior.

Lois: Yes. There’s nothing simple or “primitive” about traditional Indigenous stories. They’re often pragmatic and teach survival skills; they’re often grounded in sciences such as biology; and they’re often embedded with sophisticated knowledges.

Our traditional stories embody real teachings. I remember walking through the woods with my son (he was a preschooler then) and we saw a huge tree that had been struck by lightning and part of it was burned and broken off. He looked up at it with awe and asked, “Mom, did the Thunderbirds do that?” 

There are beautiful stories, gruesome stories, stories that are preventative in nature, stories that hint at responsibility, stories that meet the needs of the audience and their storytellers; and they’re varied with each telling. The stories Goldman’s written here meet her needs—rather than the needs of the communities who traditionally tell these stories. She doesn’t necessarily know these stories because she doesn’t have to. Rather, these “folktales” remind me of the old game of “telephone”—they’re removed from the people and changed so much that they’re no longer legitimate culturally connected stories.

Barbara: Our stories have different levels and meanings: a superficial level—literal or metaphorical (for young children), and a deeper meaning—philosophical or spiritual (for older listeners). It seems that Goldman is telling only the superficial level of these stories—which she has changed to “retell in her own way”—because from her colonial viewpoint, she neither has nor needs any understanding of the philosophical or spiritual components of these stories. And, even if she had understood the deeper components, she would probably have considered them unimportant to her project.

Beverly: Yes, writers for children such as Judy Goldman display blatant entitlement—they facilely admit to culture theft and seem to see nothing wrong with omitting anything they don’t particularly like or understand. For instance, take another look at her text on the inside back cover:

Judy Goldman is in love with Mexico, its people, animals, colors, traditions, and stories. In her travels she’s always on the lookout for more stories, especially those about animals, that she can retell in her own way.

In 1987, Ojibwe storyteller, writer and activist Lenore Keeshig-Tobias published an essay entitled, “Not Just Entertainment.” (6) It reads in part:

Stories are not just entertainment. Stories are power. They reflect the deepest, the most intimate perceptions, relationships and attitudes of a people. Stories show how a people, a culture thinks. 

Joe: Within the structure of traditional Indigenous stories there is often a distinction made between a story about an event the teller knows firsthand (“I experienced this”) or a story about an event the teller does not know firsthand (“This is a story that was told to me”). Although it would be obvious, for instance, that a story-carrier would not personally have experienced a creation story, or a “how-it-came-to-be” story, or a “trickster” story, the distinction would still be clearly noted. 

Beverly: While it’s clear that Goldman’s hunt included research (with several sources for her version of each story), her outsider bias is evident everywhere. In her index, for instance, she refers Indigenous names back to listings of their colonially imposed Spanish names (e.g., “Wixaritari, see Huichol”). Her sources are almost all in Spanish; and throughout, she presents Native peoples as “other,” consistently peppering her English-written versions with italicized Spanish words and phrases.

Lenore’s essay continues:

Such wonderful offerings are seldom reproduced by outsiders…. Cultural insight, cultural nuance, cultural metaphor, cultural symbols, hidden subtext—give a book or film the ring of truth. Images coded with our meanings are the very things missing in most “native” writing by non-Native authors. These are the very things that give stories their universal appeal, that allow true empathy and shared emotion.

Beverly: In the traditional stories I’ve heard or read, there’s a lot going on, way much more than Goldman and other tellers from outside the culture choose to represent. In fact, a perusal of Goldman’s cited sources reveals that they are much more sophisticated—even as recorded by anthropologists who are/were cultural outsiders—than the limited elements Goldman plucks out to “retell in her own way.” 

Just one example: In her “Tarahumara Tale”—which she names “When Señor Grillo Met Señor Puma”—not only does she insert italicized Spanish words and phrases into both the title and the text of an Indigenous story, but she takes what is, in effect, a traditional story that demonstrates the power of collaboration over physical strength and turns it into a “tale” of a battle between a puma and his army against a cricket and his army—and why crickets sing.—“And pumas are very careful not to upset them.” 

In her embellishment of this story, she writes, 

That night…Señor Grillo composed an epic poem narrating their triumph, and then he set it to music on the spot. Since then, crickets sing that song every night to remember Señor Grillo’s victory over Señor Puma.

Joe: Our Indigenous stories are often embedded in the natural world, so if you read a traditional story with natural references in it, it will probably be accurate—you recognize that certain things will happen in the natural cycle. But most of these people who are rewriting our stories know nothing about nature and as a result they can misinterpret or misrepresent the simple song of the cricket as an epic poem. Crickets don’t compose epic poems.

Beverly: I did not know that about crickets, Joe. In contrast to Goldman’s version—which trivializes both animals and humans—a Yaqui story in print (to which Goldman happens to refer as a source for her “Tarahumara Tale”) (7) ends like this:

The animals stayed in the water all day until night arrived. At last they came out,… all the people of the claw. They stepped very softly and quickly, going to the forest with no desires ever again to battle with the insects. 
Yaquis say that there is no small enemy. Everyone can defend himself. The cricket continues to sing,“chik chik chik.” He is not afraid.

It seems that there are more things going on in this story as recorded in Goldman’s source notes than she sees as worthy of including in “her own retelling.” The Yaqui version of the story—even written down by someone from outside the culture—seems to be about the Indigenous struggles against colonialism, about power and resistance.

Lenore’s essay continues:

What makes white Canadians and Americans think they are privy to the stories of First Nations people, anyway? And why is speaking for ourselves and telling our own stories so threatening to them? Because stories are power? They have the land now, or so they think, do they now want our stories, our voices, and our spirit, too?

Barbara: For the most part, I’d stay away from reviewing the content of Goldman’s stories here because these published versions—retold “in her own way”—have no cultural insight, no cultural nuance, no cultural metaphor, and no cultural symbolism. So, from the way they’re presented here, we have no way of knowing where these stories might actually have originated, in what seasons and to whom they might actually have been told, what they might actually have sounded like, what they might actually have meant, or what they might actually have taught. Based for the most part on Mexican resources written in Spanish, Goldman remodels fragments of what might well have once been traditional stories into sanitized “animal folktales,” which she then reduces further into “children’s stories.”

Beverly: A brief examination of Goldman’s references suggests that even the tribal affiliations of her stories are suspect. (For instance, she cites Yaqui Myths and Legends as a source for her “Tarahumara” tale.) Story-mining in anthropological journals is not the same as interacting with Indigenous peoples. That her presentations of the stories reflect her characters with stereotypical names and behaviors points to Goldman’s simplified perceptions of the peoples from whose cultures the stories originate. 

Lois: Yes, the sources she lists are many times removed from the cultures she purports to represent. Each of Goldman’s tales is canned, cute, a formulaic length, and illustrated to appeal to a certain (non-Indigenous) child audience. 

Beverly: That Whiskers, Tails & Wings has been praised by just about all the professional review journals—even given a starred review by one—belies the many problems here. All of these uncritically positive reviews focus on the product and not the process. It’s only the product that wows the reviewers, and there’s nothing behind the product. In focusing only on the material elements, there is no critical thinking about a colonial process that still continues.

There are numerous problems here that the reviewers apparently didn’t notice. For one thing, portraying all of the Indigenous people modeling gorgeous, traditionally hand-woven clothing erases their contemporary, often difficult, lives. As with her stories, Goldman’s Indigenous people are frozen in time.

There are some other questionable images as well. One is of two young women sitting on the ground. The older woman appears to have her legs tucked under, and the younger one is sitting cross-legged. Above them is the “shaman.” The text reads:

[The] Huichol take their obligations to the community seriously…. The assembly solves community problems and names people to special jobs. It is lead [sic] by prominent elders, known as shamans, who hold their job [sic] for life. Shamans are known as “those who know how to dream.” 

Joe: Oh, yes, Beverly, that’s entirely accurate. Indeed, it is well known that “Huichol” elders opt to call themselves “shamans,” much preferring a word originating from the Tungusic peoples of Siberia to anything in their own language. (I believe that the female “Huichol” elders likely refer to themselves as “shawomans.”)

As to sitting cross-legged on the floor—traditionally called “criss-cross applesauce” among all us Native folk—I have no comment other than to compliment the artist on his apt use of clichéd imagery. 

Beverly: Thank you, Joe. The most prominent image besides the cover is the title page, a full-bleed double-page spread that portrays the title and its elements: a puma’s face—close up and personal—with long, curling “whiskers,” his “tail” is curled almost around his face, and “wings” are represented by what appears to be an eagle feather, sitting on the puma’s nose—or maybe, piercing it. It’s hard to tell. Vanden Broeck’s art complements Goldman’s choice to retell the stories “in her own way.”

Lois: The issue here is not merely about each individual story. The issue is that Goldman is mining Indigenous stories, digging into and taking away the heart of a people—and being praised for it.

Barbara: What a mess!

Whiskers, Tails & Wings is not recommended. We can do better for our children.

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Interrogation by the Ancestors / Remembrance

“We, their descendants,
have been duped
so many times
by foreigners
ve specialized
in confounding
and jumbling up our histories.
We can neither take it lightly
nor accept it
because we,
the native peoples,
are the ones they disfigure.
Just think:
What can we say
to the ancients?”

Yet today we Maya
remain hushed up
and have even forgotten the message
that might inspire us to break the silence.
Thats why if our ancestors came back to life
they’d give us thirteen lashes
to cure the amnesia of centuries
which has made us forget our names.

Victor Montejo

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Author and illustrator Lois Beardslee was raised by wolves, the alpha female of whom was Lake Superior Ojibwe and the alpha male of whom was Lacandón, Maya. She grew up and raised her children between family farms in Northern Michigan and remote bush camps in Northern Ontario. She eats a lot of moose meat tamales and lake trout burritos.

Joe Bruchac is a traditional storyteller, educator and author, and a citizen of the Nulhegan Band of the Abenaki Nation. The author of more books than anyone needs to mention, he’s proudest of the achievements of his sons Jim—an outdoor educator, author and storyteller, and Jesse—who not only is a fluent speaker of their Abenaki language but has written several books in that Native tongue. (Even though the two of them regularly beat him up while they are training Brazilian jujitsu together.)

Anne Dunn is a grandmother, storyteller, poet and author, and a citizen of the Anishinaabe-Ojibwe Nation. She lives in the woods of the Leech Lake Reservation with her cat, Fred, who sleeps a lot in the winter and shares with her his myriads of great ideas in the summertime.

Beverly Slapin is a lifelong learner and education activist, who, for decades, has worked at deconstructing racism and stereotypes in children’s literature. Her cat, Zeytun, insists on occupying Beverly’s lap when she’s on the computer, causing innumerable typos.

Barbara Wall is a Bodwewaadmii Anishinaabekwe, mother, sister, daughter, auntie, Grandmother, grieving widow and land/water defender. She lives in southern Ontario where she is perfecting the art of productive procrastination by growing traditional foods, teaching, making maple sugar, and participating in book review conversations rather than finishing her dissertation. 

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We produced this collaborative review-essay through multiple telephone and email conversations. Thank you, all! 

And many thanks to Lenore Keeshig-Tobias (Ojibwe) and Victor Montejo (Jakaltek Maya) for your work.

(published 1/19/19)

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(1) Indigenous “animal” stories often demonstrate irony and humor; and may uncover profound character and personality traits, extreme actions, and sometimes terrible ideas. 

(2) For instance, The US-imposed economic policy known as NAFTA privatized communal Indigenous lands and flooded the Mexican market with cheap US corn, resulting in the impoverishment and displacement of tens of thousands of Native farm families, who were forced to immigrate to the US and become low-wage workers. 

(3) Victor Montejo is a retired professor of Native American Studies at the University of California at Davis. He is trilingual and tricultural (his first language being Jakaltek, one of 31 Mayan languages spoken in Guatemala, southern Mexico and Belize) and studies in depth his own Jakaltek Mayan people.

(4) For an excellent contrast to Goldman’s book, see Victor Montejo’s The Bird Who Cleans the World and other Mayan Fables. Curbstone Press, 1991. “This small collection of Mayan fables,” he writes, “serves moral and literary purposes, but it also represents ethnic conflicts, ecological concerns, communal life and respect for the elders.” (p. 18) 

(5) Let me be clear: The fact that these labels are Western constructs doesn’t mean that what’s inside a particular book labeled as such is always something to be tossed. It’s just a clue. 

(6) Lenore’s essay was first published in B. Slapin and D. Seale, eds., Through Indian Eyes: The Native Experience in Books for Children. New Society Publishers, 1987.

(7) Warner Giddings, Ruth, “The Cricket and the Lion,” in Yaqui Myths and Legends. Tucson, Arizona: Anthropological Papers of the University of Arizona, 1959.