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)

Ana María Reyes Does NOT Live in a Castle

author: Hilda Eunice Burgos
Tu Books, 2018
 grades 4-7 

Eleven-year-old Ana María (Anamay) Reyes’s surname means “kings,” but she, her parents, and her three sisters live in a too-small apartment in the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City, home to many immigrants from the Dominican Republic. Because Mami is pregnant again, the apartment is about to get even more crowded. And a baby will cost money, something the family doesn’t have much of, so budding classical musician Anamay is hoping that her performance in a piano recital will lead to a full scholarship at the posh Eleanor school, which her best friend, Claudia, attends. To Anamay and her sisters, the school “looks like a castle.”

My parents laughed. “Maybe we should live here then. We are the Reyes, after all!” Mami said.

Enter Tía Nona, visiting from the Dominican Republic with her fiancé, Juan Miguel. Tía Nona and Juan Miguel are fabulously rich, and they’ve invited Anamay and her family to the island for their wedding – all expenses paid. Though excited to go and spend time with her cousins, whom she hasn’t seen in years, Anamay worries about not being able to practice her piece for the big recital. At her aunt’s home, she notices glaring class differences. While everyone in Washington Heights seems to live at the same lower middle-class level, Tía Nona has servants, whom she doesn’t treat very well. Anamay quickly becomes disillusioned with her once favorite aunt:

I stood there and looked at the closed door. Tía Nona seemed different from the person I always thought I knew—a person who cared about other people and treated them fairly. How could I have been so wrong about her? And now that I knew the real Tía Nona, could things ever be the same again?

Ignoring her aunt’s warnings, the good-hearted Anamay befriends Clarisa, whom her aunt disparagingly calls “Cosita,” or “little thing.” Clarisa works day and night and cannot go to school, and when she gets a day off, she returns to her family’s makeshift home in a grim shantytown. Anamay unwittingly contributes to Clarisa’s firing, and she doesn’t know how to apologize or help. But she doesn’t forget Clarisa, even when she returns to New York City.

Anamay’s year is full of ups and downs, friendships and misunderstandings, dreams attained and crushed. Like most preteens, she comes to see the fallibility of the adults in her world—not only Tía Nona but her unreliable alcoholic Tío Lalo, and even her parents as well. At the same time, she learns the importance of forgiveness, or cutting others—and herself—some slack. In the hands of debut novelist Hilda Eunice Burgos, Anamay’s story is endearing and real. Music is threaded throughout as she struggles with the emotion of her recital piece even after she masters its technical intricacies. Readers will cry along with Anamay, cheer her successes, and appreciate the warmth of family and friends who help her along the way. 

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

—Lyn Miller-Lachmann

Cuddled and Carried / Consentido y Cargado (“Beginnings” Collection)

author: Dia L. Michels
translator: Victory Productions (text)
translator: The Spanish Group (teachers’ guide / back matter) 
illustrator: Mike Speiser
Science, Naturally! 2018, 2019

A year after its publication, Cuddled and Carried / Consentido y Cargado is being re-released in a 6 x 8-inch edition, with a new teacher's guide and supplemental back matter. The book is also still available in a larger format in paperback and hardback.

Rather than pre-readers themselves, the target audience appears to be parents and preschool teachers. Rather than being geared to very young children, this series uses an adult framework. Even with illustrations, the vocabulary is far beyond what pre-readers can relate to. Words such as “grooms,” “guides,” “cuddles,” “snuggles,” “shelters,” “nurtures,” “nuzzles,” and “nourishes” lose pre-readers. 

Six pages of back matter are presented in very small type, and text, illustrations and activities appear to be tailored to students way beyond preschool—more likely, at grades 5-up. The first part contains definitions and activities, including a list and description of  “Animal Classes / Clases de animales” (Bird / Pájaro, Reptile / Reptil, Fish / Pez, Mammal / Mamífero, Amphibian / Anfibio, and Arthropod / Artrópodo). This section instructs students to match the animals pictured in the book to its correct class, and identify which classes appear more than once, and which do not appear at all. Another section, “Care and Attachment / Cuidado y Apego,” includes Cache Mammals / Mamíferos que escondan, Follow Mammals / Mamíferos que siguen, Nest Mammals / Mamíferos que anidan, and Carry Mammals / Mamíferos que carman; and instructs students to “review the definitions provided here and try to match the mammals in this book to the way the mother cares for her babies.” 

Except for the excellent cover illustration, Speiser’s watercolor artwork is for the most part flat, with a limited range of colors and shades; and lacking texture and feeling. The animals in some are naturalistic and in others, exhibit human expressions. The design is awkward, with illustrations falling into the gutters and cutting off the images. (In one case, the mama elephant’s left ear is cut off and, on the other side, parts of the mama seal’s head and body are chopped off.) The full-bleed spreads, while somewhat better, still do not come together smoothly.

Almost all of the Spanish translations—in the text and the back matter—are either incorrect or presented in standard American English rather than standard or colloquial Spanish. Here are a few examples:

• “Consentido” means “consented” or “indulged,” not “cuddled,” which would be “acurrucado” or “abrazado.” “Cargado” means “loaded,” not “carried.” When a diaper is full, it’s said to be “encargado.” “Carried” would be “llevado.”

• “Mi mamá me limpia” means “my mom cleans me,” which is appropriate, but it’s not a translation of “My mama grooms me,” which would be “Mi mamá me prepara.” (Animals sometimes groom each other and humans sometimes groom their animals, but human moms don’t groom their young children, so this example in English is meaningless to pre-readers.)  

• “Mi mamá me mima” means “my mom pampers me,” not “My mama snuggles me.” That would be, as above, “Mi mamá me accurruca.”

• “Mi mamá me da calor” means “My mom makes me hot” or “My mom gives me warmth,” rather than “My mom cuddles me,” which would sound better as “Mi mamá me abraza.” 

The final two-page spread depicts a family, whose members are sitting together on a couch. In English, the text reads, “My family loves me very much,” and it’s translated as, “Mi familia me da mucho amor.” This is literal, word-for-word Spanish; no one talks like that. Rather, it would be “Mi familia me quieren mucho” or “Mi familia me ama mucho.”

And, finally, that everyone in a Black family (dad, baby, grandma,  mom, older sister) is depicted with the exact same complexions, eyes, eyebrows, noses, and teeth—and, except for one of them, the exact same facial expressions—is a racist trope.

Books that are presented as bilingual or multilingual must be faithful to both or all of the languages. Especially when they’re marketed as educational materials for children, there is no room for error. Cuddled and Carried / Consentido y Cargado does not meet this important criterion and is not recommended.
—Beverly Slapin
(published 9/11/19)

Míl gracias a mis amigas y colegas, María Cárdenas y Judy Zalazar Drummond.

Seven Pablos

author: Jorge Luján 
translator (English): Mara Faye Lethem 
illustrator: Chiara Carrer 
Enchanted Lion Books, 2018
all grades 
Argentinian, Brazilian, Chilean, Ecuadoran, Guyanese, Mexican, Peruvian

Dedicated to “the children of the world,” Lujän, Letham and Carrer gift us with seven evocative vignettes written in the third person narrative voice, each about a young boy named “Pablo,” each from a different country in the colonial world. Each Pablo has a story, and here, young readers will get a glimpse of their lives.

Seven Pablos is not something that youngsters will pick up and quickly put down. An oversize clothbound book with a black spine, it’s unusually heavy for a picture book—in content, design and actual weight—and will slow down readers as they absorb what’s happening in and around the lives of these children. 

Rendered in graphite pencil on a dark, somber palette with occasional spot colors of yellows and reds, some of Carrer’s drawings may appear to have been hurriedly drawn and colored in by children—perhaps by the Pablos themselves. But young children don’t often portray the depth of expressions or emotions seen here.

“Pablo is eight years old and lives in Chile.” His father labors in a copper mine and, when he comes home, he quickly eats and falls into bed. Pablo softly puts his hand on his sleeping father’s chest, and “it feels like he’s touching the center of the earth.” On the left side of the double-page spread, readers will see two run-down, tin-roofed houses in the precariously built shantytown where this impoverished family lives. 

“There is also a Pablo living in Ecuador,” deep in the heart of the Amazon jungle, where his mother ekes out a living by picking and selling fruit. One day, they meet a group of traveling musicians, adding their songs to the trills of the jungle. Pablo’s mother runs after them to share an orange, and mother and son call out, “Don’t forget us!”

“Pablo is an Argentine boy who lives in Mexico.” His eyes show his sadness as he thinks of all his friends and relatives who have been taken away by the military dictatorship from which he and his family have escaped.

In school, Pablo attends a poetry workshop, and he has written this:

Stiff and cold, the soldiers march,
crushing the roofs
with their enormous boots.

The full-bleed, double-page spread that follows depicts the faceless, booted soldiers, standing stiffly in line, their arms pressed to their sides. Except for their hands, the entire spread is dark gray. Connecting with the text and Pablo’s poem on the previous page, readers will recognize what this horrifying spread represents.

Another Pablo, from Guyana and living in New York, confides in a guest poet that, when he grows up, he wants to be “a big guy in a uniform” so that he can “beat people up and get away with it.” After the poet quietly encourages Pablo to write down and draw his fantasy, the poet asks him if he would like someone to get away with doing that to him. And, “a few moments later, Pablo picks up the sheet of paper and rips it again and again and again.”

Pablo, the son of a teacher, lives in Peru. He thinks of his godfather, Frejolito, who used to be the mayor of Lima and would give cups of milk to all the poor children. Everyone remembers him, and Pablo thinks of how things might have been different if he had become president.

“Pablo also scavenges in a favela in Rio de Janeiro,” picking through an enormous garbage dump with other children, looking for things to sell. Each child is weighed down by a large canvas bag, filled with junk, hung over one shoulder. When a well-dressed journalist from the city (who carries an oversize leather envelope bag hung over her shoulder) asks him what he’s doing in the garbage and why he doesn’t go to school, he’s embarrassed and confused because she doesn’t seem to understand what’s obvious to him. 

Riding on the top of a speeding train with hundreds of other desperate refugees, another Pablo, who was born in Chiapas, is on the way to the US border. This is his third try; the other times, he was grabbed by the border patrol and sent back. This time, he wears his mother’s wedding ring around his neck. (These trains are collectively known as “La Bestia,” the Death Train, and travelers weigh the chances of arriving alive against being killed or maimed by accident or murder. Pablo carries his mother’s wedding ring in case he has to pay a gangster for protection.)

As each vignette ends, readers move on to the next while at the same time looking back. Luján relates the stories of the Pablos with care and respect for them and the young readers as well. He does not tell complete stories here because there are no easy answers; rather, he leaves room for child readers to search further and think deeply about the world’s children; the harrowing social, political and economic situations that confront them—and what we can all do to become part of the solution.

“There are many Pablos in the world,” Luján writes, “yet they are all one. Inside of each is a heart that beats and with the same rhythm as the ocean’s waves and the rotations of the planet.”

On the cover, Carrer has painted five smiling children, joining hands in a circle dance. And on the final spread, her evocative art shows 11 children, virtually bathed in yellow, some smiling, all looking directly at the reader, as if to say: “Here we are. Don’t forget us.”

Seven Pablos is complex and hard-hitting, yet at a child’s level of understanding and empathy. Luján, Carrer and Lethem are speaking truths to children about poverty, racism, militarism—and privilege—so that children can speak truths about power. 

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

—Beverly Slapin
(published 9/8/19)