Sleeping With the Light On

author: David Ungar 
illustrator: Carlos Vélez Aguilera 
Groundwood Books / House of Anansi Press, 2020
grades 2-4

In 1954, bombs rained down on Guatemala in a bloody coup d’etat.This first  covert CIA coup in Latin America overthrew the country’s elected President, Jacobo Árbenz, who had instituted agrarian reforms that gave land to impoverished peasants and ended exploitive labor practices. The coup greatly benefited the US agricultural giant, United Fruit Company, which traded in tropical fruit grown on Latin American plantations. The ensuing 36 years of what came to be known as the “Guatemalan Civil War” (1960-1996) claimed more than 200,000 lives, resulted in more than 45,000 missing, drove countless refugees to Mexico and the US, and wrecked the Guatemalan economy. 

For the terrified Guatemalan families, sleeping with the light on became their new normal.

Sleeping with the Light On is based on David Unger’s semi-autobiographical story, “La Casita: Forgetting Spanish,” first published in Spanish by CIDCLI Books in Mexico City (2012). Through the eyes of young Davico, it’s the story of a small Guatemalan family, how they deal with the terror of the unknown, and how the family’s tough choices land them in a new world where no one speaks Spanish, there’s plenty of food, and people sleep with the light off.

Davico, his slightly older brother Felipe, and their parents live on the second floor of La Casita, a small restaurant they are renting in Guatemala City in the early 1950s. Their life is typically middle class and, for Davico, something is always happening. Consuelo, the nanny, takes him to the market and prepares Sunday brunch. Augusto, the cook, and Otto, the waiter, play tricks on him that sometimes make him wet his pants. And Davico is fascinated with the restaurant’s huge glass tank of lobsters, each of whom he names: Don Quixote, Superman, Hannibal, King Arthur, and the largest, Genghis Khan. One by one, the lobsters disappear and are replaced. All but Genghis Khan. 

Suddenly, Davico’s family’s lives are interrupted. Airplanes are flying low overhead. Warning leaflets are raining from the sky. Sounds of guns and rifles are going off. Armies and tanks are filling the streets. Blackouts are taking place every evening. Davico’s and Felipe’s parents know exactly what is happening. They’ve survived “this nonsense” all before, in Germany. “This nonsense,” of course, is their child-friendly euphemism for the Nazi conflagration that the world had to end so those who survived could once again sleep with the lights off.

And because Davico’s family—along with thousands of others—recognizes this “nonsense,” they decide it may be time to pack up and leave everyone and everything they and their children know and love. As the boys bed down with their stuffed animals under the big wooden dining room table, Davico hears his parents whispering plans to go to “gringo-land.” The children will stay with an uncle while their parents take an airplane to this strange place to find work. 

When Davico goes downstairs to say goodbye to the lobsters, the tank has been drained and “all the lobsters are gone, including Genghis Kahn.”

“I should ask what happened to him,” Davico thinks, “but I don’t. Maybe someone bought him and ate him. I don’t want to know.”

While their parents are gone, Davico and Felipe stay with relatives. “We are in jail,” he says. 

We can walk around, but we can’t escape. We watch tons and tons of television, lots of Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd cartoons. But we don’t find them funny anymore.

Finally, the boys board an airplane to reunite with their parents. In Miami, the land is flat. There are no mountains or volcanoes. There are no roscas, espumillas or canillas de leche, the Guatemalan candies Davico loves. There are no black beans, yucca or plantains. The avocados are big and watery. And no one speaks Spanish. 

Davico promises his parents lots of things:

Not to speak Spanish at school.

Not to complain about the food.

To learn English.

And, before long, all he remembers of Spanish is:

Buenos días.

Tengo hambre.

Necesito hacer pipí.

Forgetting Spanish. This is what coming to the United States means to me.

Soon, Davico is “fitting in, learning to put ketchup on everything.” 

But, of course, he misses his home: “sleeping under the table when the lights go out,” “the blue and yellow papers (the warning leaflets) twirling in the sky and falling into the courtyard,” all the people who worked at La Casita. And he misses “the lobsters in the kitchen, with their warts and their hairy legs. Especially Genghis Kahn.”

Mexican artist Carlos Vélez Aguilera’s cover art—using a combination of watercolors, colored pencils and digital color—is, at first glance, calm. On a peaceful blue background, the boys, clutching their stuffed toy animals, sleep comfortably in their bed. The night table holds a battery lamp with a revolving shade on which “sun, clouds and waves [roll] across the light.” But above the title, astute readers may notice the ghostly images of an armored tank and an airplane in the dark blue sky. 

The dark interior art, rendered solely in graphite pencil and black ink, reflect the tone of the story as well. In one especially somber piece, the young brothers are in “bed” under the wooden dining room table. While Felipe is sound asleep, a wide-awake and worried Davico holds on to his little stuffed pig and hesitantly peeks over the blanket. The dining room is meticulous: there’s a chandelier, framed art hangs on the walls, the curtains are open and the carpet is swept, and on the main table sit an untouched bowl of fruit and a vase of flowers. 

In focusing on one child’s narrative, Sleeping with the Light On effectively tells the story of the thousands of children who have been forced to leave their home countries to escape war and invasion. It would be a treat to read this story in its original Spanish. 

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

—Beverly Slapin

(published 9/28/20)

That Girl on TV Could Be Me!: The Journey of a Latina News Anchor / ¡Yo Podría Ser Esa Chica el la Tele! El Camino de una Noticiera Latina

author: Leticia Ordaz
translator: Leticia Ordaz
illustrator: Juan Calle
Immedium,  2020
grades 2-4 
Mexican American

Leticia Ordaz remembers when, as a young girl, she watched the news and began to question why no one on TV looked like her. With encouragement from her hard-working parentswho had left school after the sixth grade in Michoacán, Mexico, to support their families; and later, had immigrated here to give their own children a better life—Leticia begins to imagine that she could realize her dreams and work as a newscaster.

Colombian illustrator Juan Calle’s brightly colored manga-influenced art (which has been trending with young people for years), digitally “painted” in Photoshop, transports the audience into the story. His illustration on the inside front cover, for instance, shows young Leticia, looking out at the reader. She holds a blank notebook and her expression radiates confidence. A sketch of a microphone floats nearby. Young readers know from the beginning that Leticia’s story has a positive ending. 

But it’s the images of Leticia’s family’s journey and hard work to encourage their children and give them a good life that especially stand out. In one, the family sits around a tiny dinner table as Papá, in work shirt and cap, tells the children stories about the difficulty of farm labor in Michoacán. 

In other images, Leticia tells readers about her timidity, her practicing to read out loud in front of the mirror at home, graduating from high school and enrolling at Sacramento State, breaking into broadcasting through an internship at a local news station, and how her dream career slowly unfolds. 

Here is Leticia accompanying reporters to snowstorms, practicing “standups” in rainstorms, covering Cowboy Poetry Day, becoming wrapped up by a snake at a country fair, being attacked by mosquitoes in an almond orchard, and covering the most destructive fire in California’s history. The first in her family to graduate from college, Leticia learns on the job to write, shoot and produce her own stories and on-air interviews. And when her dream job in Bakersfield opens up, she is home!

Ordaz’s non-literal Spanish translation is appealing. It’s the way people actually talk in their own languages. For instance, one of Leticia’s mentors, Lois Hart, tells the astonished young woman (in English):

“This is a tough business, and the starting pay is peanuts. On your first job you’ll have to be a one-man band, carry your own camera, and edit your own stories.”

In Spanish, Lois Hart’s warning is this: 

“Este es un negocio difícil y el sueldo inicial es apenas nada. En tú primer trabajo tendrás que hacer todo tú sola, llevar tu propia cámera y editar tus propios reportajes.” (“This is a tough business and the starting salary is hardly anything. In your first job you will have to do everything yourself, bring your own camera and edit your own reports.”)

Of course, Leticia Ordaz’s story is about overcoming obstacles. But, more than this, it’s about knowing who you are, acknowledging what you come from, and—with love and support from family and community—you just might go on to realize your dreams. 

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

—Beverly Slapin

(published 9/19/20)

Tiny Travelers: Mexico Treasure Quest // Tiny Travelers: Puerto Rico Treasure Quest

authors: Steven Wolfe Pereira and Susie Jaramillo
illustrators: Susie Jaramillo, Mei Li Tan and Magali Reyes McDonald
Encantos Media Studios, 2019
preschool-grade 3 
Mexican, Puerto Rican

Tiny Travelers is a fun series of board books for travelers of all ages. Aimed at young audiences from preschool-grade 3, readers voyage to different countries and are introduced to various cultural traditions, culinary histories and a sense of geographical places worth visiting.

For my own tiny travel, I chose to read Mexico and Puerto Rico. The authors and illustrators introduce both countries in captivating ways that invite youngsters to take in and embrace the cultures. Each spread contains information presented in one or two quatrains, along with a small “did you know?” fact and a “can you find?” question that engage young readers to connect more fully with the cultures. In addition, this design uses a minimum of space that allows plenty of room for the bright, vibrant digitally “painted” illustrations. 

Mexico begins with a map of the country and lets children know that the quest is not for gold “but another special kind.” Given Mexico’s colonial history, this is a subtle reminder of the past, something that older students can research. Moving forward in curiosity and celebration exhibits page upon page of bright illustrations with multiethnic children of varied complexions interacting in diverse parts of Mexico. Emulating the “Where’s Waldo?” concept is an indigenous dog—“xoloitzcuintli”—who can be found on just about every spread.

Youngsters learn about traditional foods, cultural icons, music and famous places in Mexico. (And it’s also refreshing to see tiny details that Mexican children will note, such as a girl mariachi.) Throughout the text, connections are made with various cities or regions that invite further investigation later. The final pages include a world map that puts Mexico in context with the rest of the world. This book was an engaging read for this aging “tiny traveler.”

From Mexico, this traveler flew to Puerto Rico. As with Mexico, readers learn easy Spanish greetings and are transported to the capitol, San Juan, for a celebration. The legendary monster, “Vejigante,” shows up a few times and, of course, everyone is partying and he’s one of the musicians. But just in case, the text reads “If you see a monster, don’t be afraid! People love wearing masks of the Vejigante…”

The repeating cultural motif—on every spread—is PR’s beloved national symbol, the tiny coqui (whose loud, chirping call sounds like its name), hiding out, partying, sunbathing at the beach, watching TV, flying a kite… I’m reminded of a dicho: “Soy de aquí como el coquí.” It literally means, “I am from here, like the coquí.” 

The nearby island of Vieques lends a note of local biological beauty with a bioluminescent bay. This occurrence is in direct contrast with the island’s colonial history of the United States military presence, so is a welcome natural beauty addition. The reader continues discovering beaches, “coco frios” (cool coconut juice), culturally relevant sports such as boxing and outdoor spots for kite-flying such as El Morro on San Juan Bay.

My one suggestion for this series is that the names of places visited be included on each map. Map searching is less important for the preschoolers, but second-and third-graders could happily cross-reference towns on the map.

Although both Mexico and Puerto Rico follow a formula in describing the places and cultures, there is little that is formulaic in the Tiny Traveler series. Rather, as these gorgeously illustrated board books introduce young people to each place and culture, they nurture a healthy curiosity and encourage youngsters to want to know more. As well, Mexican and Puerto Rican children will see themselves as belonging to a land that is part of their own rich heritage. 

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

—Rose Veda Berryessa

(published 9/10/20)

[Note: One of the “Did You Know?” entries tells young readers that “Puerto Rico has officially been a territory of the United States since 1898, making all Puerto Ricans American citizens.” This is true. However, the people of what’s currently known as Puerto Rico have been struggling for independence—first, from the Spanish Empire from 1493 to 1898, and since 1898, from the United States. In this review, I refer to Puerto Rico as a country. ¡Que viva Puerto Rico libre!--RVB]

Zorro and Quwi, Tales of a Trickster Guinea Pig // Love and Roast Chicken: A Trickster Tale from the Andes Mountains

Zorro and Quwi

author: Rebecca Hickox

illustrator: Kim Howard 

Doubleday, 1997 



Love and Roast Chicken

author: Barbara Knutson

illustrator: Barbara Knutson 

CarolRhoda Picture Books, 2004 


Andean, Peruvian

In the Author’s Note for Zorro and Quwi, Hickox writes that she based her children’s book on a cycle of tales called “The Mouse and the Fox,” which she found in Folktales Found Around the World (Univ. of Chicago Press, 1975). She rewrote four of the tales, in which she substituted a guinea pig for the mouse. In Peru, she writes, Quwi is the hero of many trickster tales, although a rabbit or mouse is sometimes used instead. Since I raised guinea pigs as a girl and now have a daughter who raises and shows them through her 4H cavy group, I couldn’t resist making this personable (though perhaps not quite so cunning) little creature the hero.

In the Author’s Note for Love and Roast Chicken, Knutson writes that, in the two years that she and her husband lived in Peru, she “learned many stories, including trickster tales that reminded (her) of the ones (she) knew from Africa.”

Then she writes:

A trickster tale tells about a small animal (or a person) who uses brains instead of force to compete against bigger, fiercer characters. In the Andes, the trickster is often a little gray fox, but one story has a guinea pig hero. I have heard and read this tale many times in Spanish—in a lovely, old Bolivian book; from a Peruvian guide in a mountain town; in a Bolivian children’s magazine; and from our friend, Edwin Sulca, a Peruvian weaver. It was never told the same way twice! In this book, I have combined and rearranged my favorite versions.

To reiterate: Hickox switched the “hero” in her stories from a rabbit or a mouse to a guinea pig because she “couldn’t resist making this personable…little creature the hero.” And Knutson switched the “hero” in her story from a “little gray fox” to a guinea pig, and “combined and rearranged (her) favorite versions” of the stories she heard and read.

Here, as in many “trickster stories for children” written and published by cultural outsiders, the authors removed the stories from their cultural contexts and reinterpreted, trimmed and customized particular cultural concepts to fit their needs and those of their perceived child audiences.

But tricksters are not one-size-fits-all, not even within specific cultures. Some tricksters vary within cultures, depending on what a particular Indigenous storyteller is teaching. Some tricksters often use bad behavior to hint at good behavior. Some tricksters succeed and some fail. Some tricksters don’t try to overcome anything; they’re just deceptive characters.

Tricksters are not necessarily heroes. Some tricksters are downright dangerous and the lesson is to keep away from dangerous characters.

Some tricksters grow and some shrink. Some tricksters appear in human or animal form and some tricksters change forms. Some tricksters are half-human and half-spirit. Some tricksters can maintain more than one gender or switch genders.

A lot of what may currently be called “trickster” tales are actually Indigenous cautionary tales that have been passed down through the generations. Just about every culture has its own “bogeyman” or “cucuy” story to keep kids from misbehaving or wandering off. Children from within the cultures who hear these stories from their elders know, without being specifically told, that something’s up. 

For the most part, guinea pigs are prey animals. Their natural instinct is to hide, and they can be very fast. But they are not tricksters.

For authors who are cultural outsiders to read or hear some versions of particular “trickster tales,” take them out of their cultural contexts, keep some parts and toss the others, rearrange the events and mix in a few italicized Spanish words or phrases (such as “bueno,” mi amigo, and ¡ay, caramba!”)—and then overlay the values of their own cultural outsider versions onto the specific culture from which the stories originated (e.g., “from the Andes Mountains”)—is the definition of cultural appropriation. 

Zorro and Quwi, for instance, begins: “In the mountains of Peru there was once a fox called Zorro…” Children who speak Spanish will know that “zorro” is not the fox’s name—it’s the Spanish word for “fox.” (So, to a Spanish speaker, it would read like, “there was once a fox called fox.”) And “Quwi” is the Quechua word for “guinea pig.” Similarly, Love and Roast Chicken begins, “One day in the high Andes Mountains, Cuy the Guinea Pig was climbing up and down the paths…” Again, “Cuy” is not the guinea pig’s name—it’s the Spanish word for “guinea pig.”

Both characters—“Zorro the Fox” and “Tío Antonio the Fox” resemble Coyote from the old “Coyote and Roadrunner” cartoons, and Cuy / Cuwi, of course, are stand-ins for “Roadrunner.” As well, astute older readers will discern elements of Cuwi’s / Cuy’s tricks in “Brer Rabbit,” “Henny Penny,” “Billy Goats Gruff,” and probably more European tales. 

Although the bright, stylized artwork, composition and book design in both titles are vibrant and gorgeous and totally child-friendly, both Zorro and Quwi: Tales of a Trickster Guinea Pig and Love and Roast Chicken: A Trickster Tale From the Andes Mountains embody all the elements of cultural appropriation. They’re not recommended.

—Beverly Slapin

(published 9/5/20)