My Big Sister // Mi hermana mayor

author: Samuel Caraballo
illustrator: Thelma Muraido

Piñata Publications / Arte Público Press (2012) 

preschool-grade 2 (Puerto Rican)


On the cover, a young boy offers his older sister a small bunch of flowers he has just picked along the road. His eyebrows are slightly raised as he looks up at her. As their hands meet, she accepts his gift with a smile. 


In this gentle, bilingual story that centers the loving relationship between young Pablito and his big sister, the child shows and tells young readers all that Anita does for him while their parents work in a factory, where they “sew jeans for the whole world.”


Throughout an ordinary day, Pablito is full of enthusiasm.


Anita wakes him up, and applauds while he ties his own shoes “with lightning speed.” After Pablito gobbles up his “hot, creamy oatmeal with raisons,” Anita walks him to the school bus, where she “plants a kiss” on his cheek and he greets the driver. After school, Anita sits with him as he does his homework; then they play a round of soccer with some neighborhood boys, come home and have dinner, and get ready for a nighttime story (which happens to be Monica Brown’s Clara y la curandera, illustrated by Thelma Muraida) and bed. After Pablito falls asleep, his parents return and praise Anita for taking care of him, “because,” as Pablito says, “¡ella es era hermana mayor que cualquier hermanito querría tener!” (“She is that big sister that any little brother would want to have!”)


In working class Puerto Rican neighborhoods, it’s common that both parents have to work at low-wage factories while older siblings care for the younger children. This is one way that they are allowed to demonstrate responsible behavior and it creates a strong family bond.


Since Pablito narrates his relationship with his big sister—his experiences—he doesn’t mention that Anita goes to school after she puts him on the bus and picks him up on her way back. However, young readers will notice that Anita carries two backpacks—the bigger one is hers and the smaller one belongs to Pablito. 


Anita has a lot of responsibilities, but they do not include cooking. Rather, at dinnertime, she and Pablito enjoy a delicious, nutritious, and traditional festín de sobras—a feast of leftovers. 


Caraballo is a talented storyteller and poet who composes first in Spanish and then in English. Since every Spanish-speaking culture or region has its own dialect, including local names for plants and animals, people’s names, and the ways in which words or phrases come together, Mi hermana mayor is full of Puerto Rican modismos. For instance, while Pablito picks “buttercups” for Anita, in Caraballo’s Puerto Rican Spanish they’re “botoncitos de oro”—little gold buttons. 

Muraida’s full-bleed, earth-toned pastel and colored pencil illustrations reflect the warm relationship between the young boy and his older sister, who cares for him while their parents “sew jeans for the whole world.” 


On the first spread, expressionless images of a line of factory workers at their sewing machines recede into a rounded earthy background that gives the impression of “the whole world.” Across a “road” is a sketchy image of a town with faceless inhabitants. They are all wearing jeans. 


Mostly single page illustrations on the right and spare text on the left—with the English and Spanish texts separated by spot details—depict Pablito’s and Anita’s day. By their expressions, it’s clear that the two are devoted to each other. And on almost every page, their tiny Chihuahua accompanies them.


It’s important to note that, although Pablito and Anita’s parents work at low-wage jobs, the family is not impoverished. They live in a tree-lined Puerto Rican neighborhood of small, single-family houses, they have curtains on the windows and furniture and books and family photographs.


Samuel Caraballo’s engaging bilingual story of a day in the lives of loving family members, and warmly illustrated by Thelma Muraida, will appeal to young readers—both Spanish- and English-speakers. My Big Sister / Mi hermana mayor is highly recommended.


—Beverly Slapin

(published 12/27/20)


Míl gracias a mi amiga, Judy Zalazar Drummond, who is also a great fan of Samuel Caraballo’s.



La selva de Zonia // Zonia's Rain Forest

author: Juana Martinez-Neal 
illustrator: Juana Martinez-Neal
Candlewick Press, 2021 
all grades (Asháninka)


[Reviewer’s note: La selva de Zonia // Zonia’s Rain Forest is reviewed in two parts. The story and the back matter are discussed separately.

—BHS]














La selva de Zonia // Zonia’s Rain Forest: The Story


Young Zonia’s rain forest home is calm and beautiful—everything is “green and full of life.” A hammock hangs between two trees, and the presence of metal pots, a woven basket, a gourd and wooden bowls signals to young readers that this story takes place in the present. As Zonia looks on, her mom contentedly nurses her baby brother. Green grows all around, and a blue morpho butterfly flits around them.


“Every morning, the rain forest calls to Zonia,” and, every morning, she answers. With the butterfly in the lead, Zonia greets the forest’s creatures: two-toed sloths, red Andean cock-of-the-rocks, and South American coatis. She takes a ride on the back of a jaguar and says hello to Amazon river dolphins, congratulates an anteater family on the arrival of their new babies, plays hide-and-seek with a spectacled caiman, hangs upside-down on a high branch with a boa constrictor, and visits with a group of Arrau turtles. And after Zonia’s visit, the butterfly guides her home—almost.


What she sees frightens her—much of the forest has been clearcut; all that’s left are stumps. Zonia’s animal friends are gone; only her butterfly guide remains. She runs home and tells her sorrowful mama that the forest needs help.


“It is speaking to you,” says Zonia’s mama.

“Then I will answer,” says Zonia, “as I always do.”


On the final spread, Zonia is no longer a carefree child. Her face is painted and she wears a patterned dress. With one hand on a remaining tree trunk, she looks forward. She is ready for the struggle ahead. With the butterfly circling around her and showing her the way, Zonia tells young readers:


“We all must answer.”


It’s no surprise that Martinez-Neal tells the Spanish version, La selva de Zonia, at least as beautifully as the English. Especially, in the Indigenous struggle to save the rain forest, her repetition of a particular phrase—“verde y llena de vida” (“green and full of life”) strikes an emotional chord, because, by the “end” of the story, young readers ascertain what’s coming and what has to be done—and that it is far from the end of the story.


Martinez-Neal sets every full-bleed double-page spread—rendered in acrylic, colored pencil, pastel, ink, and linocuts and woodcuts—on handmade textured banana bark paper, which she purchased from women paper artisans of Chazuta. In most of the illustrations, gentle rainforest greens frame Zonia’s bright yellow dress; and the blue butterfly on the right of each spread leads to the next page. Young readers see the soft textures and blending of art and story coming together in a gentle, satisfying whole.


On the acknowledgements page, Zonia’s guide—the blue morpho butterfly—circles around a statement issued by the United Nations International Labour Organization at the Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention in 1989:


The peoples concerned shall have the right to decide their own priorities for the process of development as it affects their lives, beliefs, institutions and spiritual well-being and the lands they occupy or otherwise use, and to exercise control, to the extent possible, over their own economic, social and cultural development. In addition, they shall participate in the formulation, implementation, and evaluation of plans and programmes for national and regional development which may affect them directly.


As this particular story—La selva de Zonia // Zonia’s Rain Forest—ends, young readers understand that this brave little girl knows who she is, what she comes from, and all that she has been given to do. And the story of all the “Zonias”—the struggle of all the Indigenous peoples who acknowledge the Amazon rain forest as their home—“green and full of life”—continues.


Told in a way that engages the youngest readers and listeners—and everyone else—La selva de Zonia // Zonia’s Rain Forest is a beautiful and important story that encourages compassion and activism. It’s highly recommended.


— Beverly Slapin

(published 12/12/2020)



La selva de Zonia // Zonia’s Rain Forest: About the back matter



“Todos debemos de responder.” // “We must all answer.” In the last few words of the story, Zonia acknowledges the Indigenous peoples who, for some five millennia, have sustainably managed the rain forest—and are now struggling to save it. And she calls out to allies all over the world to join them. 


Asháninka is the name of Zonia’s people, the language that’s spoken at home, and the language of one of the largest Indigenous nations struggling to save the Amazon rain forest. The author acknowledges and thanks the many people who worked to translate this story into Asháninka Satipo-Junin, and others who worked to vet it for fidelity and accuracy. So it’s unfortunate that the Asháninka version was relegated to one page in the back matter and accompanied only by an illustration of a sloth hanging upside down. 


Although Candlewick took the extra step of hiring a team to translate this beautiful story into the Asháninka language, no one who speaks or reads the language will benefit from its placement in any substantial way. Rather, Asháninka speakers will have to turn back to the illustrations to enjoy this story.


Since this book is set to be published in Spanish and English only—and the decision was made not to incorporate the Asháninka version into the story—I would like to see the story in Asháninka, perhaps in a limited print run, donated to the Asháninka people. As it stands, the inclusion of the Asháninka text on a single page, while a well-intended gesture of respect, is ultimately hollow and performative because it’s unlikely that anyone from that region will benefit from the translation of this story about their beloved rain forest in their own language.


The rest of the back matter is divided into seven  sections: “The Asháninka People,” “A Few Facts about the Amazon,” “Threats to the Amazon,” “Illegal logging,” “Farming,” “Mining,” and “Oil and Gas Extraction.” The back matter is limited and confusing. It contains numerous errors and is full of Eurocentric markers as well. 


Here are examples:


1. Text: Zonia is Asháninka, which is the largest Indigenous group living in the Peruvian Amazon… 


What’s wrong: Referring to an Indigenous nation as a “group,” rather than “people,” “nation,” or “society”—diminishes them. 


Corrective: Zonia is Asháninka, which is the largest Indigenous nation living in the Peruvian Amazon.



2. Text: They have a long history of insisting on self-determination….


What’s wrong: “Insisting on self-determination” diminishes their continuous struggle, recognized by the United Nations. 


Corrective: They have a long history of struggling for self-determination and freedom—to exercise control over their own economic, cultural and social development. 



3. Text: Those rights continue to be ignored and violated, and harassment grows because of others’ impatience to develop, cultivate and mine the world’s tropical forests for profit. 


What’s wrong: Placing the Asháninka people’s difficulties into the passive tense—things that happen to them—rather than the active tense—who’s doing it and why—in a sense, blames the victim. 


Corrective: They are answering the call to protect the rain forest—their home—from the rapacious multinational logging and mining industries that continue to destroy the world’s tropical forests for profit. 



4. Text: The Amazon rain forest takes carbon dioxide out of the air and turns it into oxygen, producing more than twenty percent of the oxygen on our planet…


What’s wrong: This is a widely held myth that’s been debunked by scientists for years. See “Why the Amazon doesn’t really produce 20% of the world’s oxygen,” in National Geographic, 2019: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/2019/08/why-amazon-doesnt-produce-20-percent-worlds-oxygen/


Corrective: The trees in the Amazon rain forest filter and reprocess huge amounts of carbon dioxide, which helps stabilize climates locally and globally.



5. Text: The Amazon rain forest shrinks by 18.7 million acres every year, or the size of twenty-seven soccer fields every minute. It shrank 17 percent in the last fifty years alone. 


What’s wrong: This phrasing hints that “shrinking” is something that happens naturally. 


Corrective: Depredation and degradation caused by the rapacious logging and mining industries destroys some 18.7 million acres every year, or the size of twenty-seven soccer fields every minute. In the last fifty years alone, they have demolished some 17 percent of the rain forest.



6. Text: The Amazon rain forest is home to between four hundred and five hundred different Indigenous groups—some of which are isolated or uncontacted.


What’s wrong: Besides referring to Indigenous peoples as “groups,” the phrasing suggests that they can’t be found by anyone.


Corrective: In some of the larger areas, difficult access has allowed them to remain isolated from the outside influences of the settler society.



7. Text: Every day, the Amazon rain forest is being changed by development. Large infrastructure projects (dams, roads, hydroelectric power plants) and extractive industries (oil wells, mining) have transformed the lives of the people who live there, sometimes permanently and not always in positive ways.


What’s wrong: The infrastructure projects and extractive industries do not ever “transform” the lives of the people impermanently or in positive ways.


Corrective: Every day, large infrastructure projects (such as dams, roads, hydroelectric power plants) and extractive industries (such as oil wells, mining) destroy the land and endanger the lives of the Indigenous peoples who have, for millennia, lived and thrived in the vast Amazon rain forest. 



8. Text: Forests are being burned down and cleared to make room for pastureland on which to graze commercial livestock. Destroying the rain forest also destroys a key source of oxygen (which all living things need in order to keep on living).


What’s wrong: See #4.


Corrective: The Amazon rain forest is critical to the world because of its rich biodiversity, its enormous stores of carbon, and its effects on many species of plants and animals found nowhere else. Forest clearing for increased commercial agricultural development, such as cattle grazing, decimates the balance of the rain forest.



9. Text: While illegal gold mining is done on a small scale, its effects are anything but small. Illegal mining causes an increase in other types of crime. And, to find even trace amounts of gold, mercury is dumped into the rivers and streams, poisoning the water and all that lives and depends on it.


What’s wrong: Gold mining not only pollutes the rivers and streams, it significantly limits the regrowth of Amazon forests. 


Corrective: The extraction process of mining strips nitrogen from the soil and contributes to the presence of mercury within forests and rivers. This process not only contaminates food sources from the rivers, it also limits the forest’s important capacity to accumulate and store carbon. (See https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2020/06/200629090012.htm)



10. Text: Oil and gas exploration and extraction take place largely in Indigenous territories. Due to poor environmental practices by these industries, the ability of the people and the land to recover from such damage is severely limited.


What’s wrong: This section makes the assumption that the Indigenous peoples of the rain forest are helpless.


Corrective: Decades of oil and gas extraction have widely contaminated much of the Amazon rain forest in Peru. Other negative results of the pipelines include sharp declines in fish stock, interruption of seed dispersal and natural forest regeneration, and habitat destruction. In the last 15 years, protests by Indigenous organizations against the oil companies have exposed the toxic results of this contamination.

  

—Beverly Slapin

(published 12/12/2020)


Míl gracias a mis colegas David Bowles, Judy Zalazar Drummond, and Ricardo Ramírez.