Marcus Vega Doesn't Speak Spanish

author: Pablo Cartaya
Viking, 2018
grades 7-up
Puerto Rican

Narrated by a six-foot-tall, 180-pound eighth-grader, Marcus Vega is variously known as the “Mastodon of Montgomery Middle,” the “Springfield Skyscraper,” the “Moving Mountain,” the “Terrible Tower.” You get the picture. “Most kids clear out of the way when I walk down the hall,” he tells readers. 

Knowing how hard his single mom works to support him and his younger brother and how she worries, Marcus uses his size to build what becomes a booming “profit center”—for a small fee (which he secretly stashes into his mom’s Cookie Monster jar), he provides a “walking service,” protecting a group of kids from bullying as they go to and from school. 

Marcus for sure does not fear bullies and, in fact, makes a point of not taking short cuts in order to avoid them. This does not sit well with a notorious bully, who particularly aims his ire at the seemingly most vulnerable, including Marcus’s younger brother, Charlie, the first kid with Down syndrome to attend Montgomery Middle. When the bully pushes Marcus to the brink by calling Charlie the “R” word, Marcus slams him—and gets suspended.

Marcus and Charlie are very close, and Charlie is a refreshingly well-developed character. Like many children with Down syndrome, he is outgoing, cheerful, likes to joke around with his friends and relatives, has favorite stories and TV programs, and is liked by his teachers and the other students. His mixed program of general education and special education classes includes speech therapy, occupational therapy, physical education and art; and while Marcus does homework during his brother’s sessions, he does not hover.

Marcus’s and Charlie’s mom works as an airline gate agent, sometimes morning and sometimes night shifts. While she refers to her sons as her “all-star team,” she stresses about income and not having enough time with them. 

In order to “regroup,” mom decides to take the boys to Puerto Rico for spring break—where the boys were born, and to reconnect with their absent dad’s side of the family. For Marcus, it may be a chance of finding and getting to know his father. (Unanswered emails are an indication for readers that this reconnection may not go well, but they’re no clue for the ever-hopeful Marcus.)

Unlike his dad’s Puerto Rican relatives, and his mom, who is not Latina but is a fluent Spanish-speaker, Marcus, who was born in Puerto Rico but doesn’t speak Spanish, wonders if where he’s from determines who he is.

As mom and Marcus and Charlie reconnect with their large, exuberant Puerto Rican farm family, they see “corridor after corridor” of gardens everywhere, and each garden has its own story: when and why it was built, whose responsibility it is, what it grows—tomatoes, yucca, a guanabana tree, achiote. Or, as Marcus notes, “the theme is weird-looking fruit no one has ever heard of … Nobody in my school would go near these.”

Here, the boys learn about the realities of farm life—everyone works hard and there are few complaints. Tío Ermenio explains, for instance, that when the toilet is flushed, the shower turns freezing cold.

And when a problem arises, everyone knows what has to be done and someone does it. After a sudden, loud gunshot “cracks the air and echos through the mountains,” Tía Darma returns, hands her large pistol to someone, and comments about the weather before she matter-of-factly tells the stunned children that she has just “said good-bye to a sick cow.”

Yet, despite the incomparable beauty of the land and the generosity and humor of his Puerto Rican relatives, our city-boy Marcus remains non-plussed: “A sleepover at our cow-murdering great-aunt’s farm in the middle of nowhere with little singing frogs ‘co-keeing’ everywhere. What’s not adventurous about that?

Marcus’s father turns out to be the reason no one talks about him. He’s a self-involved jerk who probably never thought twice about abandoning his family. 

Five days later, Marcus, Charlie and mom have returned. As Marcus pores over the many photos he had taken and emails them to a friend, he chooses a file name: “Familia.”

Marcus is changing. His familia has changed him. He’s more thoughtful. He likes to “visit the bodega next to the train and say hola to the lady at the counter. She speaks Spanish too fast, but I’m learning to understand her better.” He takes photos of “everything that makes up this tiny town that’s forty-five minutes from a big city and four hours away from an incredible island.”

I think of the book Charlie picked up at the airport, Proud to Be Boriqua. The author writes about the little singing frogs that I heard on Darma’s farm. The coquí. He says, “Soy de aquí como el coquí.” It literally means, “I am from here, like the coquí.” From Puerto Rico. He belongs somewhere. I’ve been feeling the same way. I won’t be croaking songs into the night like the tiny little frogs do. But it’s nice to feel like I’m finally part of something that’s way bigger than me.

With spot-on code-switching and non-italicized Spanish words and phrases, and with clearly transmitted dichos—traditional, usually rhyming, “sayings” that hold encoded teachings—Marcus Vega Doesn’t Speak Spanish is a deeply satisfying story of family relationships, of growing up, of coming to know who you are and where you fit in. Marcus doesn’t speak Spanish yet, but, in his time, he will. And for now, he understands it.

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

—Beverly Slapin

(published 8/22/20)

Abrazos a mi colega y amiga, Judy Zalazar Drummond.

Science Wide Open: Women in Biology // Las mujeres en la biología

author: Mary Wissinger 
illustrator: Danielle Pioli
series creator and editor: John J. Coveyou 
Science, Naturally! 2020
grades 2-5

Originally published by Genius Games, LLC (2016), the first of this series is republished by Science, Naturally! and two more are slated for next year. According to Genius Games, the Science Wide Open series “celebrates the true stories of women in science, while also teaching the basics of chemistry, biology, and physics,” with its goal being to “transform the narrative surrounding girls, women and science.” 

The publisher recommends the Science Wide Open series for ages 7-10. This is a mistake. Although the text and glossary are accessible for middle readers, second-graders for the most part do not yet have the skills to decode terms such as “metamorphosis,” “Linnaean system,” “transposons,” or “hypothesis.” As well, metaphoric text such as “Inside of every cell is an instruction manual called DNA” is bewildering to youngsters who take language literally (“You mean, we eat books?”) Similarly confusing is the anthropomorphizing of genetic material—DNA tells the body how to make cells and build body parts like muscles, bones, and skin. It also determines the color of your eyes and hair

Second-graders generally look at (and begin to read) picture books. Middle readers prefer chapter books. 

Pioli’s stylized, computer-generated art employs solid, flat backgrounds that hold bright-colored details and large, clear, readable text. However, the only contemporary character in the book is a cartoonish “inquisitive young girl,” questioning a behind-the-scenes scientifically knowledgeable narrator. The child has oversize eyeglasses and over-the-top “girlie” expressions. She’s excited, puzzled, worried, baffled. In the two illustrations that show her using a magnifying glass, she’s holding it over one eyeglass lens—which makes no sense and distorts her face. Portraits of the five women scientists are stylized as well, but they’re not as frightening as the young girl.

Of the five scientists, two are German and three are from the U.S. Celebrating the discoveries of European and American women—and consistently using the term “people” as “all (European) people”—erases everyone else.

Here’s an example:

Almost a thousand years ago, Hildegard of Bingen wrote about biology and medicine. Back then, people didn’t understand that they could get sick from drinking dirty water.

Hildegard figured out that water should be cleaned first, and this stopped people from getting sick. She also studied how plants could be used as medicines, and shared her ideas so people could have better health. (emphases mine)

And here’s what the author erased:

For millennia, Indigenous peoples have understood and worked with complex scientific concepts and methods. Indigenous peoples were building aqueducts to bring clean water in and filter dirty water out. The Aztecs, for instance, and the Mayans before them, built and utilized aqueducts and they also had indoor bathrooms with flushing toilets.

In short, as the sister of a friend remarked,

“Native people had running water when Europeans were still pooping in their bedrooms.”—Laura Martinez, Lipan Apache, historian, in conversation

And Indigenous peoples have identified and used plants for all kinds of things—including medicines—for millennia. 

Beyond the damaging erasure of millennia-old Indigenous scientific knowledge, Spanish and bilingual young readers are dealt further insult with inadequate translations. A good Spanish translation has to be able to capture the author’s style and intent, and the deeper feelings that the author is trying to convey. A good Spanish translator may have to move sentences around to convey the proper meanings and language idiosyncrasies. 

The unnamed translator here is The Spanish Group, a document translation service. Children’s book publishers that contract with document translators—rather than with talented bilingual translators who care deeply about their work—receive poor outcomes. For the most part, that’s what happened.

First of all, Spanish is a gendered language, so the title—“Women in Biology”—should have been translated as “biólogas,” rather than “Las mujeres en la biología” (literally, “The women in biology,” which makes no sense here.) 

There are lots of mistakes. “What makes a butterfly?” is translated as “¿Cómo se hace una mariposa?” (“How do you make a butterfly?”) rather than “¿Qué hace una mariposa?”

“So… biology keeps me from getting sick?” is translated as “Entonces...¿la biología hace que no me enferme?” (“So—biology makes me not sick?”) rather than “Entonces ... ¿la biología evita que me enferme?”

“Just look at Jane Cooke Wright!” is translated as “¡Tan solo mira a Jane Cooke Wright!” While this is a correct literal translation, the Spanish implication uses “tan solo” (“only”) for “just.” But, in context, the “just” in the English means, “for example…” so a better translation would have been “por ejemplo…”

There’s nothing redeeming here. Both Science Wide Open: Women in Biology and Ciencia Abierta: Las mujeres en la biología are poorly planned and poorly executed. They’re not recommended.

Beverly Slapin

(published 8/16/20)

Muchas grácias a mis colegas Judy Zalazar Drummond, Ricardo Ramirez, Kelly Reagan Tudor, y Noam Szoke.  

Gustavo, el Fantasmita Tímido // Gustavo, the Shy Ghost

author: Flavia Zorilla Drago
illustrator: Flavia Zorilla Drago

Candlewick Press, 2020



Gustavo is a young ghost. He enjoys doing all “the normal things that paranormal beings do”—he can change his shape, make objects fly, pass through walls, and glow in the dark. And he loves playing beautiful music on his violin. But Gustavo is shy beyond words, and making friends is, well—more than terrifying. 

He’s so shy that no one else in his ghostly barrio notices him—even when he’s right in front of them in any of his many different forms: a balloon, a lampshade, a surfboard, a soccer ball, a sheet drying on a clothesline, a soap bubble, and one of Diego Rivera’s unfinished paintings.

This child of mixed parentage (dad is a ghost and mom is a skeleton) is secretly in love with Alma, “the prettiest monster in town.” She is popular and so is her name (it’s Spanish for “soul” or “spirit”)—and appropriately headless (with eyeglasses in front of where her eyes would be).

Gustavo finally musters the courage to overcome his timidity and organize a violin concert at the Día de los Muertos party—“next full moon” at the local cemetery—and sends invitations to all of the monsters in town. 

But no one shows up. So Gustavo does what he loves most—his music makes him so happy that he literally glows. Soon, everyone is there. Gustavo’s concert is a success and all of his paranormal neighbors want to be friends with him. “And they never stopped loving him.”

Zorilla Drago’s multimedia artwork—combined with, as she notes, “a bit of digital sorcery”—has a childlike quality as vibrant and playful as her storyline, and is loaded with folk, mythological, and (refashioned) pop-culture figures. Her palette consists of mostly flat, neutral colors alongside touches of Mexican pinks (seen on art, design, clothing and buildings all over México) and bright oranges (for cempazuchitl, or “marigolds”—the national flower that decorates ofrendas and cemeteries during Día de los Muertos celebrations). These two colors frame the awesome book jacket as well.

Besides Diego Rivera as a zombie, youngsters will encounter Posada’s La Catarina as a vain young skeleton; the gruesome beheaded Ichabod Crane as an adorable pumpkin-head boy, the Gingerbread Man, Disney’s Milo the Fish, an anime Catgirl, and many others. And (this took some research): Zorilla Drago depicted the International fútbol (soccer) star, Roberto López Ufarte, nicknamed “the Little Devil”—as a little devil.

There are also small images and details that will engage young readers, such as Edgar Allen Poe’s ever-present raven, a goldfish skeleton swimming in a fishbowl, a tiny Indigenous ghost-doll, strings of papel picado skulls, an ofrenda, a floating teapot pouring tea into a floating teacup, a skeleton violinist on a poster advertising “Danse Macabre,” and drawings and portraits of ghost families lining the walls. 

Yet with all of these illustrations to pore over, nothing is crowded. Rather, Zorilla Drago’s art and book design maintain their physical integrity and every detail is allowed its space. And there is nothing frightening here. After all, this is Gustavo’s barrio—his neighborhood, his culture, his people. All of the paranormal characters are normal ghosts or skeletons, and they are all smiling.

Young hablantes and English-speakers will love how Zorilla Drago’s rhythmic story and playful art come together in a soft, satisfying whole. 

Both in Spanish and English, as well as in the art, Zorilla’s Drago’s humor shines. In the English version, for instance, an ice cream vendor’s cart is brightly painted “EYE-SCREAM” and in Spanish, it’s “HELADOS YETI” (or “Yeti ice cream”).

In the story as well, neither the Spanish nor the English version is a direct translation of the other; rather each has its own rhythm and syntax. For example, while an English passage reads, “More than anything, he wanted to make a friend,” the Spanish reads, “Más que nada, soñaba con tener un amigo” (“More than anything, he dreamed of having a friend.”)

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

—Beverly Slapin

(published 8/3/20)

[Note: Although this awesome story and art, in Spanish and English, depicts an aspect of Día de los Muertos, it is not solely about this important cultural holiday. Around Día de los Muertos time, educators who might not be familiar with Mexican culture might want to supplement Gustavo, El Fantasmita Tímido // Gustavo, the Shy Ghost with George Ancona’s beautiful photojournalistic essay, Pablo Remembers: The Fiesta of the Day of the Dead (Lothrop, 1993).