If My Mom Were a Platypus: Mammal Babies and Their Mothers // Si mi mamá fuera un ornitorrinco: Los bebés mamíferos y sus madres

author: Dia L. Michels
illustrator: Andrew Barthelmes
translator (Spanish): The Spanish Group, LLC
Science, Naturally! 2014 (English), 2019 (Spanish) 
grades 3-6

Each of 13 short sections begins with an attractive full-bleed double-page spread of a particular mammal with her young at home in their environment. The final section depicts a human family. The text on the right and a first-person heading connect young readers with each particular mammal: “If my mom were a platypus…I would have hatched from an egg!” (English edition) and “Si mi mamá fuera un ornitorrinco…¡yo hubiera salido de un huevo!” (Spanish edition).

Barthelmes’ detailed naturalistic animal portraits, in thick oils on gesso paper, are colorful and inviting: a soon-to-be-mama platypus about to prepare her almost-hatched eggs, a mama elephant protecting her newborn calf with her trunk, a mama koala on a eucalyptus tree with her joey on her back, a mama giraffe with her calf peeking from between her front legs. Opposite each portrait the baby mammal is asked, “How were you born?” (“¿Cómo naciste?”) 

Details highlighted in pen-and-ink and brown-tinted watercolor sketches of various aspects of the mammal and her baby fill out the next two pages. There are three more questions: “How did you grow?” (“¿Cómo creciste?”), “What do you know?” (“¿Qué sabes?”), “And what do you eat?” (“¿Y qué comes?”), followed by a third-person “Fascinating Fact” (“Un hecho fascinante”).

This premise requires young readers to suspend disbelief, which is a fairly easy thing for most of them to do. It’s not a bad formula; rather, in some ways it’s engaging. Readers will look for similarities and differences between and among species of mammals to see how “mothers” do what mothers do. (This might have worked better had questions been posed that actually related to human children as well as other mammals—such as “Where do you live?” “What do you eat?” “How do you learn?” “Who are your friends?” “What games do you play?”)

But there are several major problems. One is with the Spanish edition. Good literary translators are interpreters who are skilled in capturing a story’s spirit, humor, and rhythm. But when publishers contract with translation companies, what they get are commercial rather than literary translations. Generally, this has a poor outcome, and that’s what happened here. While Michels’ text is evocative and young-reader friendly, the Spanish sections are clunky and contain mistakes.

For instance, this is part of the English version of the elephant sequence: 
Then the other elephant cows and calves gathered round, rumbling loudly, waving their trunks, and flapping their ears. I dropped to the ground from between my mom’s hind legs with a big thump.

This is how it was translated: 
Luego, los otros elefantes hembras y sus crías se reunieron, haciendo mucho ruido, moviendo sus trompas y aleteando sus orejas. Caí al suelo de entre las patas traseras de mi mamá, haciendo mucho ruido. 

This is the Spanish translation back to English: 
Then, the other female elephants and their young met, making a lot of noise, moving their trunks and flapping their ears. I fell to the floor between my mother’s hind legs, making a lot of noise.

In skimming over the “How Were You Born?” sections, several examples of poor translation jumped out.  

This is part of the English version of the golden lion tamarin monkey section: 
We all slept huddled together, enjoying each other’s warmth, companionship, and smell.

This is how it was translated: 
Todos dormíamos juntos, disfrutando del calor, la compañia y el olor de los demás.

This is the Spanish translation back to English: 
We all slept together, enjoying the warmth, company and smell of others. 

And this is the correct Spanish translation: 
Todos dormíamos juntos, disfrutando, el uno del otro, el calor, el compañerismo, y el olor.  [“Companionship” would be translated as “compañerismo” and “of each other” would be translated as “el uno del otro.”]

And this is part of the English version of Mexican free-tailed bat section:
My mom cradled me in her up-turned tail, nipped the umbilical cord, and licked me clean. Then I nursed while she gave me a thorough sniffing-over, squeaking constantly. I answered back in my high, clear voice.

This is how it was translated: 
Mi mamá me meció sobre su cola, que apuntaba hacia arriba, mordió el cordón umbilical y me lamió para limpiarme. Luego, me amamantó mientras me olió bien, chillando constantemente. Yo respondí usando una voz alta y clara.

This is the Spanish translation back to English: 
My mom rocked me on her tail, which pointed upwards, bit the umbilical cord and licked me to clean me. Then, she nursed me while it smelled good, screaming constantly. I responded using a loud and clear voice. [“Squeaking” is “chirriando.” “Screaming” is “chillando.”]

Although the publisher of Si mi mamá fuera un ornitorrinco assumes Spanish-speaking children as its readership, it’s clear that it was not translated with Spanish-speaking kids in mind and will not appeal to children who are hablantes (native Spanish speakers). Rather, the faulty Spanish and clunky translation are an insult to the intelligence of Spanish speakers—teachers and parents—who are expected to read this to children. 

The last section of this book—“But my mom is a human…and I was born in a birthing center!” / “Pero mi mamá es humana…¡y yo nací en un centro de maternidad!”)—is problematic as well. Switching from animal mammals (which have many different species but are pretty much the same within species) to human mammals (one species that contains at least hundreds of cultures and a variety of socio-economic classes) doesn’t work in the way it’s shown.

The illustration is of a white mother and father encircling their newborn baby. Mom, in bed, holds her swaddled newborn in her arms. She appears exhausted (of course) and dad, looking into her eyes, appears concerned. Behind them is a Black woman in a uniform. She appears to be balancing a scale to weigh the infant. 

Using a particular culture to refer to all humans—the “universal human experience”—centers and prioritizes the white Western nuclear family. All of the art and text in this section  marginalizes or erases all the many ethnicities, cultures, and socio-economic realities of our communities. To do this is not only inaccurate, it’s wrong to inflict this superiority on young readers. 

The final pages of this book—text and illustrations—could have accurately reflected the multicultural and multiethnic nature of the human family. Given Barthelmes’ talent, he might have created a full-bleed, double-page spread (or two) showing several families of varying cultures, ethnicities, gender identities, and structures. And given Michels’ talent, she could have created a text that would have brought the concepts of “mother” and “family” full circle. 

The Spanish translation could have accurately reflected the spirit and humor of the English text, the quality of writing and translation that was done for Science, Naturally’s first bilingual books, the One Minute Mysteries series. (See our reviews, https://decoloresreviews.blogspot.com/2016/10/one-minute-mysteries-more-short.html and https://decoloresreviews.blogspot.com/2017/07/one-minute-mysteries-short-mysteries.html).

If My Mom Were a Platypus: Mammal Babies and Their Mothers // Si mi mamá fuera un ornitorrinco: Los bebés mamíferos y sus madres could have been interesting and absorbing books that would have engaged young readers in an aspect of the biological sciences and with a human cultural component as well. As it stands, there’s too much lacking. It was a good idea without the imagination to make it work. Not recommended. 

—Beverly Slapin
(published 9/1/19)

Míl gracias a mis colegas, Judy Salazar Drummond, Lyn Miller-Lachmann and Noam Szoke.