Feathered Serpent, Dark Heart of Sky

author: David Bowles

illustrators: Christian and Ramon Cardenas (“LxsDos”)

Cinco Puntos Press, 2018

grades 7-up (Mexican, Mesoamerican)


In the US schools, Mexican history and the cultures and belief systems of the Indigenous peoples of Mesoamerica—if taught at all—are generally relegated to a paragraph or two, and fraught with egregious historical and cultural erasures. Here’s a typical example:


Quetzalcoatl was a deity-king, kind-hearted (he didn’t believe in human sacrifice) and wise (he was said to have invented the Aztec calendar, books, and writing). The people’s affection for Quetzalcoatl made the rival gods jealous. They acted together to trick him. One day the Evil One went into Quetzalcoatl’s palace holding a mirror. When Quetzalcoatl looked in it, instead of his own reflection, he saw a bearded, long-faced person. He knew that if his people saw him like that, they would be terrified. He had no choice but to leave. He went down to the seashore with his servants and made a raft of serpents. He told his servants that he would leave them, too. The servants wept, but Quetzalcoatl told them not to grieve. He promised that one day he would return and be their king again. Then he sailed away in the direction of the rising sun. (1)


Here is a deconstruction of the paragraph, above:


• His actual name was “Ce-Acatl” (first name, “One Reed”), “Topiltzin” (“our beloved prince,” what the people of Tollan and the rest of the Toltec Empire called him), “Quetzalcoatl” (his title, probably from the Toltecs). 


• Quetzalcoatl was Toltec, not Aztec; so, of course, he did not “invent” the “Aztec calendar, books, or writing.” 


• There was no rival-god-jealousy or tricking. Throughout the reign of Quetzalcoatl, his twin brother and principle rival, Tezcatlipoca, along with the other priests, had lost power and were angered by the elimination of human sacrifice.


• Calling Tezcatlipoca the “Evil One” is a cultural erasure, since Mesoamerican religions didn’t and don’t pit good versus evil. Rather, the struggle was and is between chaos and order.


• Quetzalcoatl did see his own reflection in the mirror. He had been so dedicated to worship and rule that he had not noticed that he was aging. Understanding himself to be mortal and weak, he worried that people would despise him. 


• Before he sailed away “in the direction of the rising sun,” Quetzalcoatl spent years traveling through Mesoamerica, founding new cities, and teaching people respect for the gods and to avoid human sacrifice. Then he left, promising to return.


All this is to say that these traditional stories from Mesoamerica are not simplistic. Unlike European “fairy tales,” they do not pit “good” against “evil.” Rather, they are complex. They are about the struggles between chaos and order—the struggles to find balance.


With Feathered Serpent, Dark Heart of Sky: Myths of Mexico, David Bowles, scholar, historian, linguist, storyteller, Chicano activist—and damn good writer—sets out to correct the record. And he does. All of it. As the well-used idioms go, he pulls no punches and leaves no stone unturned. 


On the stunning cover, executed by “LxsDos’” (Christian and Ramon Cardenas, “street artists from El Paso”)—together on a pen-and-ink drawn, digitally colored, textured dark-blue background representing the cosmos, the dark heart of sky—sit the Dual Gods, the complementary halves, Ometeotl. In the Nahua language, they are lovingly called “the grandparents,” each half enjoying the company of its other half. Surrounded by the feathered serpent, Ometeotl dreams “a vast world and multi-tiered sky, peopled with creatures so diverse and wonderful that the very thought of them brought joy to our grandparents’ hearts.”


Lxs Dos created the interior illustrations with pen and ink on paper. They play around with imagery, and each is symbolic of the contents of a chapter and a hint of what is to follow. And they are all gorgeous. In “The Fifth Age and the Reign of Demigods,” for instance, readers will see an Indigenous woman, kneeling over a large metlatl to grind up—not corn, which is an essential life metaphor, but skeletons. Over her right shoulder flits a tiny butterfly and over her left shoulder, a hummingbird hovers. Both are signs of rebirth and life. It is the Fifth Age, remember? “The present era. Our time.” This Indigenous woman—the Divine Mother—is creating, from the old bones, a new and better race of people. 



In Feathered Serpent, Dark Heart of Sky, every story is a treasure that younger readers (and adults alike) will enjoy reading and rereading—as each reading becomes a new and exciting experience. Each story in a theme (“The First Three Ages of the World,” “The Fourth Age and the Hero Twins,” “The Fifth Age and the Reign of Demigods,” “The Toltecs and the Rise of Civilization,” “Tales of the Maya,” “Aztecs Ascendant” and finally, “Conquest and Courage”) naturally follows the one before, and each section begins with a thoughtful “convocation”—helpful for adult readers, and accessible to younger readers as well—that introduces the theme and discusses the content. The “convocations,” David Bowles told me, are what he feels thinking about his children and grandchildren down the road, whom he loves so much that he wants these stories to be part of their lives. He imagines himself sitting on a mesquite stump, he said, “sharing stories and songs and trying to be whole.”

Bowles’ renditions of these traditional stories—which he translated from the fragmented oral and written mythologies of “pre-Columbian” Mexico and seamlessly pieced together—will enable readers of today to understand and appreciate both the stories themselves, their contexts, and their places and functions in history.


For instance: In most, if not all, children’s books about “La Llorona,” she is a vain, self-centered (Indigenous) young woman who, after marrying a wealthy Spanish nobleman and bearing two children, finds out that he has been cheating on her. So, in a fit of jealousy and rage, she drowns her children, and from then on, loudly mourns them: “¡Mis hijos!” she screams for eternity, “¡Mis hijos!” And Mexican children of today listen for her at night, and are frightened. 


But according to Bowles, there is much more to the story. “Lloronas” were a common occurrence in Nauhua lore, he says. In “The Anguish of Citlalli” (pp. 256-261), the Xoxchimilca woman bravely chose the only option available to her: to surrender her beloved children to the water rather than to surrender them to the horrors of colonialism. Although the Maya held out for a century or so, there was no place for the Nauhua people to go. 


In more contemporary history, this is not a unique occurrence, either. The “Llorona” story reminds me of Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Beloved, in which a family of formerly-enslaved people in Cincinnati is haunted by the ghost of Margaret Garner, who had killed her young daughter and attempted to kill her other children to spare them from being returned to slavery. (2)


Writing a complex yet accessible book such as Feathered Serpent, Dark Heart of Sky must have been a tough thing to accomplish. It involved familiarity with the historia and cuentos of what is now referred to as Mesoamerica, finding the fragments and pulling the translations together—and for each one, folding in the historical and political texture and finding the right voice. 


Perhaps most importantly, rather than focusing on the colonizers, the traditional stories here center Indigeneity. “The most we can hope for,” David Bowles told me, “is to center Indigenous lives, especially those stories of women that have not been told. We are heirs to the stories—last convocation.” 


“This is work we need to do as a community. We need to bring our history together in affirming ways. Every time there are chaos and destruction, a wave of creation follows. We cannot forget, we cannot allow it to be erased. We need to keep it alive.”


Every school in the Americas, at least, should have copies of Feathered Serpent, Dark Heart of Sky—and teach from it. It’s an invaluable resource, and is highly, highly recommended.


—Beverly Slapin

(published 6/8/2021)


[Note: Muchísimas gracias a mi amigo y colega, David Bowles, por su gran amabilidad y generosidad. I want to thank David Bowles for his kindness, generosity, and dedication to all the grandparents and their children.]


Footnotes:

  1. Yellowhorn, Eldon, and Kathy Lowinger, What the Eagle Sees: Indigenous Stories of Rebellion and Renewal. Toronto: Annick Press (2019), p. 18.
  2. Morrison, Toni, Beloved. New York: Alfred A. Knopf (1987).


Francisco X. Stork's Second Chance: An Interview


Authors don’t often get second chances. When a book is published, it’s published, with all its reviews—the good, the bad, and the mixed. Francisco X. Stork is a happy exception. This past May, his novel On the Hook came out from Scholastic, to great acclaim, including on this site (lynmillerlachmann.com). This 2021 book for teen readers is a reimagining of his 2006 YA novel Behind the Eyes. Today, Francisco visits the blog to talk about how his writing has evolved over the past 15 years and what has changed in Hector’s story from then to now. In addition to Behind the Eyes and On the Hook, Francisco X. Stork is the author of the YA novels Marcelo in the Real World (2009), The Last Summer of the Death Warriors (2010), Irises (2012), The Memory of Light (2016), Disappeared (2017, and Illegal: A Disappeared Novel (2020).



LML: You’ve talked about how you rethought and rewrote your earlier YA novel, Behind the Eyes, to turn it into On the Hook. How did that original story come about?


FXS: I wrote Behind the Eyes (some fifteen years ago) when my son and daughter were teenagers. They were living a comfortable life in the suburbs of Boston, headed to good colleges, and I wanted them to see a different side of life, so I wrote about Hector, a young man growing up poor and afraid in the housing projects of El Paso. Hector’s story was based on my own story growing up in El Paso. I lived in the same housing projects that are depicted in the novel and, like Hector, I lived with fear of getting noticed.




Why did you choose to rewrite an old, out of print book rather than leaving it behind completely?


I really love Behind the Eyes. I’m very proud of the book that opened the doors for me to the world of young adult literature. There is no doubt in my mind that it is the best book I could have written at the time. But a few years after it was published, I began to see that there was untapped potential in Hector’s story. Hector’s story was not reaching some of the young men who were caught in a cycle of hatred and violence. I am grateful to Arthur Levine who saw what I saw and gave me the opportunity recreate Hector’s story.



How did the novel change in the course of your rewrite? How much of the change had to do with your development as a writer and how much with changes in the outside world?


On the Hook takes some of the existing characters and settings and turns them into a new story. The characters that remain, while they retain their old names, are different, more complex and more real. It is no longer just Hector’s story, but it is also the story of Hector’s antagonist, Joey. There are relationships that were not there before like the friendship between Hector and Azi. Most of all, Hector’s character and actions are a balance of interiority and agency that was only possible for me to create after many years of writing, after the publication of six other novels. I hope also that I am wiser than I was fifteen years ago! I know for sure that I am more acquainted with the debilitating and destructive effects of hatred (both in myself and in society) than I was then.



How might On the Hook speak more to young readers today? What do you want them to take away from this book?


Hector’s story is a current story. It reflects the way that hatred has become prevalent and even considered “normal” in today’s world. I hope that the book becomes a meditation on violence and hatred, on how it grows and how we might see a way to take the energy of anger and hatred and put it into the hard task of finding common ground with others.



What’s next for your writing? Do you have plans to stay with young adult fiction or move into another category or genre?


I am working on a young adult novel now that will come out late next year. I’m switching gears a little and writing a love story. I don’t have any ideas for any fiction work after that. I’m open to writing another young adult novel if the inspiration comes. I’m happy writing about and for young people and am not interested in writing adult fiction. In the back of my mind there is the seed of an idea about writing a book about the practice of writing for young writers. So, maybe.



Thank you! I look forward to the new novel!



Lyn Miller-Lachmann


(Lyn originally interviewed Francisco X. Stork for her blog, lynmillerlachmann.com. Thank you, Lyn, for permission to share this interview on De Colores (decoloresreviews.blogspot.com.).


On the Hook


author: Francisco X. Stork
publisher: Scholastic Press, 2001

grades 6-up

(Mexican American)


Francisco X. Stork is an acclaimed author of eight novels for young readers. His most recent novel, On the Hook, is a reimagining of his debut YA novel, Behind the Eyes, which was published in 2006. We’re fortunate to have this second-chance book out in the world.


On the Hook is full of ethical dilemmas with characters about whom we deeply care. Sixteen-year-old Hector Robles is a chess enthusiast, an honor student, and devoted to his family, aware of his responsibilities ever since the death of his father from cancer several years earlier. He and his classmate Azi, an immigrant from Iran, are becoming close, and he ponders what it means to have a girlfriend and to be a good boyfriend. He wants to stay out of trouble, but in the projects of El Paso, Texas, trouble seems to follow him in the form of drug dealer Chavo—whose  one-time girlfriend is now engaged to Hector’s older brothe—and Chavo’s drug-addicted younger brother Joey. At least Hector’s older brother has turned his life around and is planning to move the family out of the projects and to safety once he fixes up a house belonging to his boss.


In one violent night, Chavo and Joey wipe out Hector and his family’s future. Hector and Joey are on their way to a military-style therapeutic boys’ school together, with Hector single-mindedly plotting revenge against Joey. Here, things become interesting. Hector had won an award for an essay about “happiness,” focusing on his father’s journey from Mexico to the United States, his hard work, and his close family, but now he sees that Joey is the one who’s happy. Freed from his brother and his drug addiction, Joey is thriving in the rigidly-structured environment of the school. Does Hector now want to snatch that promise of happiness away, the way Joey snatched his happiness away months earlier? What are the consequences if he does? And how can Hector find happiness again?


Stork’s novels for young readers are deeply thought-provoking, and this one is no exception. His third-person voice conveys a respect for teen readers without preaching, and the principal characters are multi-dimensional—the heroes of their own stories. The theme of happiness runs through the book in unexpected ways, as we see that even someone like Joey deserves a better life than the one he has had so far.


On the Hook is a great book for teen reading circles. Today, the questions it explores go beyond the personal—stories of individuals and families—to society as a whole. We are at a point in our country’s history where hatreds have turned murderous, and reconciliation needs to happen at all levels of society. We all deserve happiness.


On the Hook is highly recommended.


—Lyn Miller-Lachmann

(published 5/28/2021)


(Note: Lyn reviewed On the Hook simultaneously for De Colores and her blog, lynmillerlachmann.com.)


Brave in the Water // Valiente en el Agua

author: Stephanie Wildman 

illustrator: Jenni Feidler-Aguilar Spanish translator: Cecilia Populus-Eudave 

Lawley Publishing, 2021

grades 2-up


Young Diante desperately wants to play in the pool with the other children, but he’s afraid to put his face in the water. “I wish I could play like them,” he sighs. “They glide like fish. They don’t seem to mind water on their face.” 


[Note: There are three children in the pool, and one on the deck. None of them is swimming and there’s no water on anyone’s face. And, except for flying fish that propel themselves out of the water, fish don’t glide. They swim.]


Meanwhile, Grandma, who practices yoga, confides in her grandson that she is afraid to adopt the “peacock” pose, for which she’d have to be upside down. Grandma teaches Diante the basics of Pranayama, which she refers to as “special breathing,” and the two practice together. On his first solo try, Diante performs a perfect “peacock pose.”


[Note: “Peacock pose” (Pincha Mayurasana) is an advanced hand-balancing yoga pose—unusual and difficult, requiring strength, balance, and consistent practice and dedication that might take several years to perfect.] 


But when Diante holds his Grandma’s legs up for the “peacock pose,” she’s unable to do it, because she’s afraid, you know, of being upside down because she doesn’t want to fall over. “That’s okay,” the child mansplains to his silver-haired Grandma. “You tried.”


Now, having mastered the peacock pose (that, remember, could take years but took him only one try), young Diante is ready for the ultimate challenge: putting his face in the water. To accomplish this feat, he “remembers” Pranayama (the breathing technique that Grandma just taught him). Still, it takes him five pages to put his face in the water—of what appears to be a fairly shallow pool. 


Finally, 


“I did it, Grandma!” he laughed. “That wasn’t so hard. Now I know how a fish feels!”


A fish who overcomes its fear of water?



Feidler-Aguilar’s bright acrylic artwork complements the story. Except for the gorgeous cover, Diante, Grandma and the other characters are inconsistently and clumsily drawn, with out-of-proportion features, including facial and physical details. (On the cover, Diante appears to be about five years of age, and the interior pages portray him as veering between eight and twelve.) And an annoying peacock—a symbolic representation of the “peacock pose”—appears as a design element on almost every page.


Although Cecilia Populus-Eudave’s decent Spanish translation flows well, it contains the same logical flaws that undermines the English version. 


On every level, Brave in the Water // Valiente en el Agua is logically weak and likely to be confusing to children. It’s not recommended.


—Beverly Slapin

(published 4/16/2021)

Clap When You Land

 

author: Elizabeth Acevedo

Harper Teen, 2019

grades 9-up

(Dominican-American)


Two months after the 9/11 attacks in New York City, an American Airlines flight bound for the Dominican Republic crashed shortly after takeoff from JFK Airport. Many feared another terrorist attack, and the determination of mechanical failure as the cause did little to assuage the trauma in the neighborhood where the plane crashed, in the Dominican Republic, and in the immigrant community of Washington Heights where Elizabeth Acevedo lived. This event became the inspiration for her third YA novel.


Like her acclaimed debut The Poet X, Clap When You Land is a verse novel. It’s told in the alternating points of view of Camino Rios in Sosúa, Dominican Republic, and Yahaira Rios in Washington Heights. Camino and Yahaira are half-sisters about the same age, but at the beginning of the novel, they don’t know it. All they know is their father died in a plane crash en route from New York to Santo Domingo. Camino receives money from her father that allows her to attend private school and harbor dreams of studying in the U.S. to become a doctor. Her father’s money also pays off a local gang leader to keep her safe, which she realizes when she flees her house of mourning and the gang leader pursues her:


I want nothing to do with the crowing roosters,

or the viejos lighting candles & Tía watching the news

& people crowding the patio,


& the prayer circles, & the watchful eyes, &

the whispers about Papi being dead.

But whatever it is El Cero wants from me


I know it will be worse

than the momentary discomfort at Tía’s house.

Because El Cero will attach conditions to his condolences.


Yahaira and her father share a love of chess and the bonds of family and friends…until she discovers a marriage license that belongs to him and another woman. The discovery drives a wedge between them, so that when he dies, Yahaira doesn’t get the chance to hear his side of the story or to say goodbye:


This other woman,

the reason my father left me,


left us broke trust ignored

the family he left behind.


& when he returned last summer,


I didn’t know how to look

him in the face & pretend.


So it was easier not to look at him at all.

When the only words I owned


were full of venom, it seemed better

to stop speaking to this man


since the only option was to poison us all.


For Camino, her father’s death has more practical consequences—the loss of her dream and the fear of violence and sexual exploitation without his protection. When Yahaira tracks down Camino on social media and then travels to the Dominican Republic with her father’s remains, she and Camino discover what they have in common and what they must do to salvage the best of their father’s legacy while accepting his flaws.


Acevedo’s novel is a moving account of disillusionment, grief, and reconciliation. Camino and Yahaira narrate in distinct voices—Camino in three-line stanzas that capture the slower cadence of life in Sosúa, and Yahaira in staccato two-line stanzas that depict her life in New York City. The novel shines brightest when the two sisters come together, their voices sometimes crashing against each other, sometimes intertwined, as they navigate their suddenly ripped-apart and reconstituted family. Secondary characters—Camino’s curandera aunt, Yahaira’s frazzled mother who discovers a newfound take-charge attitude, and Yahaira’s girlfriend and her family—add texture to the relationships and the story. Well-thought-out details of book design contribute to the reader’s understanding of Camino and Yahaira’s different worlds. Clap When You Land is highly recommended.


—Lyn Miller-Lachmann

(published 4/12/2021)

Cave Paintings


author: Jairo Buitrago

illustrator: Rafael Yockteng

translator (from Spanish): Elisa Amado

Groundwood / House of Anansi Press, 2020

grades 1-4


As young readers follow a young (human) child’s journey across the universe—from deep space all the way to Earth—to visit his beloved grandmother for the summer holidays, they encounter galaxies, comets and planets, and all manner of travelers. 


This is not the first time the young narrator has traveled alone, “from planet to planet. Sun to sun.” On the flight, he encounters airline workers and passengers—lifeforms of varying shapes, colors and species—and when he disembarks, there is his grandmother, along with all kinds of quasi-human creatures. With his grandmother in the lead, the child crosses “one universe to explore another.” Donning headlamps, the two go sight-seeing, and the child is amazed as they examine the eons-old cave paintings (much like the ancient images of animals at Lascaux and Chauvet Cave in France) and finally, when the holidays are over, his grandmother gives him some presents that had belonged to his grandfather and, before that, his grandfather’s grandfather. The boy stares with amazement and joy—at the wonder of a box of colored pencils. “They were good for making marks on paper,” he says. “She gave me that too.”


As the boy waves goodbye to his grandmother and prepares to fly back home, he greets the pilot, a robot, a four-eyed man, a goat, and a sleeping woman. And he draws and draws and draws what he could see out the window—“because what I could see was infinity.”


Buitrago’s spare narrative text, combined with Yockting’s imaginative, double-spread digital illustrations incorporating varying styles of artwork capture the amazement of a child exploring his grandmother’s world on Earth. This seemingly simple story reveals a range of concepts—from the child’s laid-back attitude about intergalactic space travel to his wonder at its infinite expanse to his amazement at a box of colored pencils.


As with their other picture books (Two White Rabbits, Walk with Me), the team of Buitrago and Yockteng, with Amado translating, have created another outstanding story that will resonate with the youngest readers and listeners. Cave Paintings is highly recommended.


—Beverly Slapin

(published 4/10/21)

We laugh alike / juntos nos reímos: a story that’s part Spanish, part English, and a whole lot of fun

author: Carmen Bernier-Grand 
illustrator: Alyssa Bermudez 
Charlesbridge, 2021
pre-kindergarten-grade 3 


Six children are playing in a city park in an ethnically and linguistically mixed neighborhood that appears to be in Brooklyn or the Bronx. 


On the cover, the first thing young readers will see is a group of six young friends. Their varying skin tones, eye colors and hairstyles hint of their ethnicities, and they are laughing together. On the first few pages, the two groups of children haven’t yet met.


At the story’s beginning, the two groups are separate: three are hablantes and three are English-speakers, and neither understands the others’ language. The Spanish-speakers have a soccer ball and the English-speakers have a baseball. On beginning double-page spreads with the English-speakers (and text) on the left, and the hablantes (and Spanish text) on the right, both groups of children cautiously observe each other. As each listens to the words the others sing and watches the rhythms as they dance and jump rope—still not comprehending the words but noticing how alike the two groups play—they gesture to the others to join them. 


And they do. Soon, the text evolves as well: While at the beginning, each language is on a separate page that matches that of the particular speakers, as they begin to play together, both Spanish and English in the text come together as well. Towards the end, the children jump rope (“double Dutch”) and count from one to twelve in alternating Spanish and English. Afterwards, they’re thrilled:


¡Ja! ¡Ja! ¡Ja!

¡Contamos en inglés!

Ha! Ha! Ha!

We counted in Spanish!


¡Ja! ¡Ja! ¡Ja!

Juntos nos reímos. 

Ha! Ha! Ha!

We laugh alike.


One of the brilliant cultural markers here (and a clue to the care and empathy of the author, who may be writing from her own culture) is that the Spanish and English are not word-for-word translations of each other. Rather, Bernier-Grand presents the two languages as idiomatic: This is the way some kids think and talk in Spanish and this is the way some kids think and talk in English. So the title, for instance, “We laugh alike” becomes, in Spanish, “together we laugh.” If the translations from one language to the other here were literal, they would have “sounded” awkward.


In the beginning, English and Spanish text occupy separate pages, with each language “belonging” to the children who speak it. As the children begin to play together, Spanish and English texts also begin to come together. By the end, the children have become friends, their images fill the spreads, and the author flips the languages: the “English-speakers” wave good-bye with “¡Hasta mañana, amigos!” and the “Spanish-speakers,” with “See you tomorrow!”


It would be a mistake to assume that each “thought” that passes between the Spanish-speaking and English-speaking children is a translation of the other. While the two groups of friends come together and get to know each other, their initial narratives also voice their linguistic and cultural misunderstandings: 


As the English-speaking children watch the Spanish-speaking children jump rope, they think, “They know how to jump rope! But we don’t understand their rhyme.” And the hablantes think, “Nuestra rima los invita a saltar con nosotros, pero no nos hacen caso.” (“Our rhyme invites them to jump with us, but they ignore us.”) 


But as six kids start to interact, laughter and play become their “social” language—and they learn some of each other’s blended spoken language as well. 


Bermudez’s computer-generated art, using scanned textures and bold, bright colors, is perfect. On vivid green-grass or yellow backgrounds, the children’s joy is palpable. Chasing each other on the Merry-go-round, dizzily falling down laughing, making dandelion crowns, counting to twelve inside a spinning double-Dutch rope, laughing so hard they have to hold their bellies—it may be difficult for a moment for young readers to discern which kids are the Spanish-speakers and which ones are the English-speakers. Which is just the point. 


Unlike a lot of picture books, there is no conflict here that calls for resolution—and no adults are necessary to “teach” anyone anything. 


We Laugh Alike / Juntos nos reímos is a celebration of friendship across language and culture—and is highly, highly recommended.


—Beverly Slapin

(published 3/31/21)


[Note: Carmen Bernier-Grand is a talented bilingual poet and storyteller who understands and appreciates children. ¡Bienvenida, Carmen!]


Paletero Man

author: Lucky Díaz
illustrator: Micah Player
Harper, 2021
grades 2-up
(Mexican American) 


On the cover, a young Mexican American boy is daydreaming. With the L.A. skyline behind him, his thoughts are framed by a virtual rainbow of delicious paletas (fruit ices) of differing shapes and flavors. What a struggle it is to choose!


Paleteros are street sellers of paletas and helados, Mexican-style ice and ice cream pops in a variety of gelato and sorbet flavors. They’re sold from pushcarts called paleterías. Although the words don’t have English translations, paleteros and their paleterías are a beloved cultural icon in Mexican and other Latino communities across the U.S. and in many Latin American countries as well.


Paletero Man—the song and story—honors the paleteros, much like the song, Watermelon Man (written by Herbie Hancock and recorded by Oscar Brown, Jr.) honored the Black street vendors who sold fresh watermelon slices back in the day.


It’s the hottest day of the year in L.A. and, with his pocket full of change, a young child runs off to find the neighborhood paletero. Along the way, he greets friends, relatives, and other street vendors and shop keepers; among them, Tío Ernesto, who sells tamales; Ms. Lee, who sells Korean BBQ; and Frank, who repairs bikes. 


The youngster’s first-person narrative, in A-B-C-B rhyme and code-switching, is well done and a fun read. For instance, when he finally reaches Paletero José, the child says:


But today I’d like piña

Do you have that sabor?

He smiles a big smile—

“¡Claro! Para ti, ¡el mejor!”


But as he reaches into his pocket, the child finds that all the change he had saved up—is gone! Fortunately, Tío Ernesto, Frank, and Ms. Lee had seen the coins fall to the ground, picked them up, and returned them. And Paletero José, moved by their deed, gives everyone in the neighborhood a free paleta:


Whether it’s stormy

or whether it’s sunny,

whether or not 

you have any money,

I’ll always help out

an amigo in need.

Yo te prometo—

an amigo indeed!


Selling paletas is not a great money-making gig, so it would be a rare event for a low-income neighborhood paletero to give away his entire inventory. But it could happen—and especially, as an acknowledgment of generosity to neighbors who do the right thing. Paletero Man is a celebration of Mexican life and culture in the U.S.—and its as sweet as a paleta. 


In Paletero Man, Díaz recognizes a common experience grounded in goodness. While small deeds are rarely rewarded, youngest readers can share with each other the different ways that a community can come together in a time of need.


Players bright digital illustrations are vibrant and joyous, and complement the exuberance of a young child who—with his relatives, friends, and neighbors—live, work and play together in a multicultural, multiethnic, multigenerational community. Here, complexions, clothing and hairstyles vary, several men sport tattoos, and, in the  park, there’s a hijabi with her child.  


And worth noting is that, in this story, the Spanish words and phrases are not italicized. Rather, Spanish and English—like the people in the community—are mixed.


Paletero Man is Lucky Díaz’s and Micah Player’s homage to Mexican culture—both in Mexico and in the U.S. The story is as delightful as a juicy paleta de horchata or melón, and highly recommended. 


Warning to young readers and their adults who find the song, “El Paletero” performed by Latin Grammy-winning Lucky Díaz and his Family Jam Band on The Friday Zone on PBS (scroll down at luckydiazmusic.com): Make sure you have nothing else to do but dance all day. The song and rhythm are that catching. 


—Beverly Slapin

(published 3/18/21)

[Note: Horchata and mélon are my favorite flavors.]


Not a Bean

author: Claudia Guadalupe Martínez illustrator: Laura González 
Charlesbridge, 2019
preschool-grade 3
(Mexican)

On the cover, a young child is astonished at having discovered a Not a Bean clicking and clacking on the desert floor. Above the child’s head, the book title appears to be in motion as well. 

González’s bright, naturalistic digital art, laid out on spacious double-page spreads, reveal the wide expanse of the northern desert mountains of Mexico—and its inhabitants—from early morning to night. It is here that seven young friends, with skin tones that reflect the varying ethnicities of the Mesoamerican peoples, explore the desert and find a bean that is Not a Bean


Young readers and listeners will learn that the Not a Bean is actually a small seed pod that combines into larger pods that grow on the yerba de la flecha, a desert shrub—and that each Not a Bean is the home and food source of a caterpillar who burrows into the seedpod.


The text consists of delightfully patterned code-switching in which Spanish words and phrases are accompanied by engaging illustrations that young Spanish-speakers will enjoy and young English-speakers will easily decode. (“At noon tres cascabeles slither from their nests among the rocks. Their tails rattle.”)


As a group of young girls and boys—“siete amigos”—explore “for treasures washed up by the rain,” they find a feather, an old boot, a piece of wood, and “nueve saltarines” (nine jumpers). They draw in the dirt “ocho óvalos” (eight ovals) which they surround to see how many saltarines will jump inside. They poke their saltarines with a stick, and cheer as the jumping beans roll into the ovals.


Days later, the amigos return and poke the Not a Bean with a stick, but it doesn’t jump because it’s busy spinning a cocoon. Finally, 


A majestic polilla burrows out. 

It is not a caterpillar anymore. 

It was never a bean. 

The moth spreads its wings

…and soars into the sky.


González’s limited palette of mostly greens, blues and browns virtually glows as it reflects the textures of the desert and the homes of its inhabitants. 


In addition to counting from one to ten and identifying animals in the Spanish-and-English glossary, the back matter contains an Author’s Note full of scientific and cultural material about Laspeyresia saltitans (female jumping bean moths) for students who want to learn more.


Not-a-Bean is an excellent read-aloud—and a joyous celebration of science, friendship, language-learning, and culture—all in a calm, beautifully illustrated “counting book” for the youngest readers and listeners (and everyone else). It’s highly recommended.  


—Beverly Slapin

(published 3/12/21)

Facing Fear: An Immigration Story

author: Karen Lynn Williams
Illustrator: Sara Palacios
publisher: Eerdmans Books for Young Readers (2021)
grades 2-4 (Mexican)

On the cover, Mamá and Papá embrace their daughter and son. The boy holds a soccer ball and smiles at the reader. In Tía’s Mexican kitchen, she sits at a table with Mamá and Papá. There is an altar to the Virgen de Guadalupe, a canary in a cage, and a bookshelf that divides the kitchen from the living room. It holds some books, Mexican art and a doll, a bread basket and some pots and pans. 


Palacio’s bright, naturalistic digital art, depicting a loving Mexican extended family, is beautiful and heartwarming. Her dead-on cultural details, which many artists might easily mess up, include the family’s Mexican haircuts and Papá’s goatee. 


However, Williams’ story is disingenuous, including its predictably happy ending.


Ten-year-old Enrique, born in the United States and therefore a US citizen, has a chance to play in his team’s big soccer tournament “across the checkpoint”—in Mexico—but it’s too risky for his undocumented family members, who could be deported. When his papá refuses to sign his son’s school’s permission form, Enrique is enraged—and forges his papá’s signature. 


Reality check 1: No kid in a family of mixed immigration status would consider crossing the US-Mexican border to play in a tournament. He would know how dangerous that would be, and he’d make an excuse to be “absent.” He might be on a soccer team, but he’d never think of crossing the border with his team. And it wouldn’t even occur to him to take a permission slip home for his parents to sign—much less forge a parent’s signature.


In a sudden sequence-switch, Enrique’s older sister, Rosa, grabs him, and together the family hurries to Tía’s house to spend the night because of “la migra.” There’s a rumor of a “roundup”: “Tomás was stopped for a broken taillight,” Papá says. “With no documents, look what happened.” Apparently, “what happened” is that Tomás was jailed and deported.


At Tía’s house, Papá tells Enrique the story of how the family got to the US. It was a dangerous journey with another family via coyote and van. During a raid, a crying baby “took la migra off (their) trail.” Everyone escaped and navigated north through the desert. After crossing the border, pregnant mom had her baby, so Enrique is a US citizen.


Reality check 2: “La migra” (ICE agents) work in the US, not Mexico. 


Reality check 3: By the age of ten, Enrique would not only know this story, but have it memorized because his safety depends on knowing that he’s a US citizen.


The following week, teammates attempt to convince Enrique to play in the tournament: “You’re a citizen—you don’t have to worry about the checkpoint…. It’s just your dad. He’s scared.” Enrique is angered because “in his heart he knew the real truth.” 


“My dad has courage!” he shouts at his teammates. “He and my mom walked across the desert with hardly any water, and men chasing them. They did it for me and Rosa. They protected us.” 


Reality check 4: Any family who crosses the border illegally—with or without the aid of a coyote —knows how dangerous it is. And children in mixed-status families do not argue with their parents or schoolmates about issues involving citizenship. They keep their heads down and their mouths shut.


All families everywhere who face danger from la migra or from the police have “the talk” when their children are young (e.g., how to walk, how to talk, how to interact at school), about the dangers in certain behaviors—way before the behaviors happen—to protect them. The family is at stake and the kids would know that. They learn to be careful so as not to endanger the family. 


[See The Talk: Conversations about Race, Love & Truth, edited by Wade Hudson and Cheryl Willis Hudson, Crown Books for Young Readers, 2020.]


This is not to say that immigrant kids don’t join school clubs for fear of being nabbed. They do join clubs. And they’re careful not to have conversations about their families.


The author has chosen not to look at this or any other mixed-status family or their structures. Apparently she has neither understanding of nor empathy for what these or other such families endure, how they fear for their children—and how they could be deported in a minute. Rather, the author has taken the main character out of his immigrant status by making him a “citizen”—which allegedly frees him from danger.

 

[For a real story about what it feels like to be an undocumented child, Alberto Ledesma’s Diary of a Reluctant Dreamer: Undocumented Vignettes from a Pre-American Life (Ohio State University / Mad Creek Books, 2017) is excellent.]


Williams probably attempted to write a story about how difficult it is to be an immigrant, but instead of doing appropriate research about immigrant families, she apparently chose to present her story as an empathetic pop. What is left is a story through the eyes of an immigrant Mexican child whose POV and behavior resemble those of a white child of privilege.


On Saturday, the day of the tournament, a despondent Enrique sits on his bed, wondering “what his father’s courage was worth if he couldn’t even go to a soccer tournament…. His friends were all at the big game. Maybe he didn’t even have any friends.”  


Wait, what? “What his father’s courage was worth if he couldn’t even go to a soccer tournament”? Here, the author (through the thoughts of a Mexican child whose family is undocumented) draws an equivalence between Enrique’s family’s surviving an incredibly harsh journey through the desert with the boy’s playing in a soccer tournament.


They hear a knock at the door. It’s the coach and Enrique’s soccer team. This multiethnic team has decided that if Enrique can’t go to the tournament, neither will they. 


“Papá looked at Enrique. ‘Tus amigos tienen valor, Enrique. You ask why we came here to this country. This is why we came to the U.S.’ ”


Enrique’s papá tells his son that Enrique’s American friends have courage because they’re willing to sacrifice the tournament for their friend. He adds, “You ask why we came here to this country. This is why we came to the U.S.,” he implies that the family has courage as well. 


Of course, Enrique’s parents were and are courageous—as are all immigrants who come here without papers and risk their lives in a strange place where they face deportation and worse so that their families can survive. 


Perhaps Enrique will eventually understand what his papá is trying to tell him. Maybe he won’t. Everything else about him signals that his behavior more resembles a self-centered American kid than a Mexican immigrant kid who understands the importance of what his parents have taught him. 


So what might be the author’s intended audience for Facing Fear: An Immigration Story? Not Mexican kids and their families. Or young children in mixed-status families. Or so-called “illegals.” Rather, her intended audience appears to consist of white kids and their parents and their teachers who seek some kind of “connection” with “the other”—as long as “the other” is just like them. 


And that “the other is just like them” has been accomplished. Here is a Mexican immigrant kid with no sense of survival; a Mexican immigrant kid who presents as a spoiled, self-centered white middle-class brat; a Mexican immigrant kid who is rewarded for his bad behavior while his Mexican immigrant father beams with pride. 


[According to her author’s note, Williams’s sources include “an FBI agent who worked along the border,” “a reporter who covered stories on both sides of the Mexico-U.S. border,” “border patrol agents,” and “a school social worker who worked both in Mexico and the U.S.” What’s missing are immigrant people.]


Finally, the title. It’s confusing about who is “facing fear,” what the fear is, and how it’s being faced.


Facing Fear is an immigration story about a mixed-status Mexican family, conceived and written through a white-privilege lens. Sara Palacios’ gorgeous art and the eye-catching book design are not enough to save it. Not recommended.


—Beverly Slapin

(published 5/5/21; revised 5/8/21)


Míl gracias a mi amiga y colega, Judy Zalazar Drummond.