Niños: Poems for the Lost Children of Chile

author: María José Farrada 
illustrator: Maria Elena Valde 
translator: Lawrence Schimel 
Eerdmans Books for Young Readers 
grades 3-up 

On September 11, 1973, a U.S.-led coup d’etat assassinated Chilean President Salvador Allende and overthrew his populist government; and installed in its place the fascist regime of General Augusto Pinochet. For the next 17 years—until democracy was restored—Pinochet ruled with an “iron fist”: imprisoning, torturing, murdering and “disappearing” thousands of Chilean citizens. Among these 3,197 desaparecidos, 34 were children. 

In Niños: Poems for the Lost Children of Chile, Chilena author María José Ferrada and illustrator María Valdez remember and honor those disappeared children whose names and ages are listed on a final page. Each poem and illustration, titled with a child’s first name, is a gift to the children and their parents—and to the people of Chile, who still mourn and remember.

That none of these short, beautifully illustrated poems mentions Pinochet or the despicable things that he did is a metaphorical payback to him and to dictators in general. All children’s lives should be full of love and beauty, and, in a sense, Ferrada’s tender poems and Valdez’s soft illustrations name and remember these children as their lives should have and would have been. In imagining these children’s lives without violence, they’ve returned to these niños desaparecidos the lives and childhoods that the fascists stole from them. 

Here, young readers meet, among others:

Alicia, who releases her birthday balloons to give a gift to the wind

Jaime, who learns to sing from a bird nesting nearby

Soledad, who writes a symphony from the sound of raindrops on the roof

Paola, whose heart buzzes when she sees an insect for the first time

Eduardo, who watches the flight of the first leaf of autumn 

Jessica, who leaves a gift for the ants disappearing over the edge of a table

Felipe, who turns a light bulb on and off like a miniature sun

Jose, who invents his own dictionary

Orlando, who draws insects to march in single file

Sergio, who plants words in a flowerpot so he can watch them bloom

Valdez’s double-page spreads of soft-edged artwork—accomplished in watercolors, charcoal, graphite, and pastels, on a muted palette of grays, greens, blues, and browns with touches of yellows—are serene and beautiful. They complement the gentleness of the poems and the imagination of the children.

In her dedication, Ferrada, who works as the children’s editor of Memoria Chilena (Chilean Memory), a digital resource center of the National Library of Chile, writes:

This book is an homage to those thirty-four Chilean children, who in these pages play, dream, and listen to the voices of their mothers. Because this is what we think children should do. But this book is also a reminder, an alarm. For we tell this story knowing that at this moment, many children feel afraid, suffer tragedies, and even lose their lives because of political violence. To those children, and to the memory that helps us defeat monsters, we dedicate this book. 

Towards the end is a list of the full names and ages of the 33 children, victims of Pinochet’s fascist regime. Some were only a few months old. The final poem, opposite a blue sky with animals leaping in the clouds, is for a child named Pablo:

When I grow up I’ll be a tree, a cloud,

a wave,

a snail.

And all those shapes

that can be seen in the clouds I’ve learned to stare at.

A tree, a cloud, a wave, a snail.

When I learn to speak,

these words will be the first things I’ll say.

Below this poem, there is another name: “Pablo” is Pablo Athanasiu, who had been disappeared as an infant and was found, alive, as an adult:

Niños is also dedicated to Pablo Athanasiu, who had been part of this list until August 7, 2013, when the Abuelas of the Plaza de Mayo found him alive. We dedicate this book to him and hope the stars always shine for him.

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

—Beverly Slapin

(published 2/25/21)


In its previous edition, Niños received recognition from the Academia Chilena de la Lengua (Chilean Academy of the Language) for the best literary work published in Chile, the Premio Municipal de Literatura de Santiago (Municipal Prize of Literature of Santiago) in the category of youth literature, and was chosen to represent Chile in the catalog, La Organización Internacional para el Libro Juvenil (International Organization for Children’s and Young People’s Books; in English, from IBBY, or International Board of Books for Young People). 

For older students (high school-up) and their teachers, I highly recommend the documentary film, The Judge and the General, which chronicles the investigation by Chilean Judge Juan Guzmán, a former backer of the Pinochet regime, of the mysterious disappearances of countless political opponents—and his own personal and political transformation—BHS

13th Street Series

Book 1: Battle of the Bad-Breath Bats

Book 2: The Fire-Breathing Ferret Fiasco

Book 3: Clash of the Cackling Cougars

Book 4: The Shocking Shark Showdown

author: David Bowles

illustrator: Shane Clester

Harper Chapters, 2020

grades 1-3 

(Mexican American)

In this fast-paced action series, young readers join Mexican American cousins  in South Texas—Malia Malapata, Dante Davila, and Ivan Eisenberg—as they engage with ghoulies and ghosties in the strange and dangerous world of “13th Street.” Malia’s la fregona—the boss, Dante’s the computer genius, and Ivan’s the bookish, sensitive one.

“Progress bars” mark the completion of chapters, and at the end of each story, young readers see how many chapters, pages and words they’ve read. Suggested activities (“Think! Feel! Act!”) encourage youngsters to work together in community.

Appearing as a barely visible safety check, a mysterious elder named Doña Chabela Aguilar kicks off and ends every story. In the fourth book, readers find out why she sends Malia, Dante and Ivan to alternate worlds to battle monsters. 

Book 1: Battle of the Bad-Breath Bats

In Battle of the Bad-Breath Bats, Malia, Dante and Ivan—while visiting their aunt Lucy for the summer—get lost somewhere on “13th Street.” As they work together to escape from the street that doesn’t exist, they must (with the aid of a friendly skeleton) battle a swarm of Snatch Bats—the “bad breath bats”—who can be defeated only by water guns firing “minty-fresh” streams of mouthwash.

Book 2: The Fire-Breathing Ferret Fiasco

In The Fire-Breathing Ferret Fiasco, the three cousins are back in their hometown, Nopalitos. When their school bus takes a wrong turn, everyone winds up back on 13th Street (the street that doesn’t exist), where they, together with the driver and their friends, brother Robby and his sister, Susana, encounter giant, fire-breathing ferrets from another dimension. Hiding inside a vacant warehouse, they meet a friendly nuclear family of Mictecah—Undead Folk, or zombies—who lead them to safety and a time portal to the past.

Book 3: Clash of the Cackling Cougars

In Clash of the Cackling Cougars, the cousins, on a ski trip, are sucked through another portal and accosted by joke-telling cougars: “Why did the human put its money in the freezer? It wanted cold, hard cash!” The cougars’ loud laughter and  horrid jokes sicken the cousins. Literally. But as they soon find out, the laughter also is a weapon of mind control.

Saved by a green elf with a glowing stone that heals Ivan’s heart and stops the revolting laughing echoes in his brain, Ivan rejoins his cousins, trapped in the Underworld with zombies, ghosts and skeletons. Using catnip powder to control the cougars, they escape, but must go back to rescue Micky’s dog, Bruno.

Book 4: The Shocking Shark Showdown

In The Shocking Shark Showdown, Doña Chabela reveals that she’s been sending our courageous young trio down the magical portals to rescue her grandson, Mickey—the “Quiet Prince”—who is trapped on 13th Street and needs their help to find Bruno and open the return portal. They have to figure out when and how to get there.

Finding themselves under 13th Street, they navigate a stinky sewer filled with a menacing Shiver of electric sharks until Bruno shows up and menaces them. Then they meet a bunch of raccoon-like talking pikos who play tumbling games in the water. (As everyone knows, sharks hate pikos and pikos hate sharks, and since Bruno’s been around, much of the Shiver seems to have gone elsewhere.)

It will all be over soon, thinks Malia. Mickey will return home with Chabela. No more 13th Street. 

But first they have to disable the sharks by salinating the water. Guided by a rhyming pico named Pecki, the trio of humans climbs through a manhole into an abandoned grocery store, fills sacks with salt, and gets menaced by razor-clawed rats whom they escape by finding an “impossible room” whose floor somehow “glitches” out of existence.

Back in the sewer, the trio encounters a boat that looks like the upside-down skull of a giant dragon, crewed by little elves called chaneks, and, standing at the front is—Mickey Aguilar.

Hinting at the next books in the series, Mickey tells the others that he’s called the Quiet Prince because “this place has a noisy queen, and she’s stealing human children.” 

And back through the portal, back into the world Mickey had left behind, go our heroes. Except for Malia, who first has to escape another shark attack before she returns to the aquarium to meet her teacher and class.

~    ~    ~    ~    ~    ~    ~    ~    ~    ~    ~    ~    ~    ~    ~    ~

Shane Clester’s digital black-and-white images, drawn on an electronic tablet, give these books a graphic novel appearance. Especially impressive is Malia’s expression as she’s about to vomit, nauseated at the cougars’ terrible jokes. 

Capitalized comic-book noises abound (“The bats couldn’t stop themselves. One by one they smashed into the closed door! BOOM! BAM! BASH!”). Or words are spaced to slow down the reader (“Lightning    flashed    overhead”) or italicized for creepy cultural capital (“¡Uy, cucuy!”).

There are giant doses of snark. For instance, Dante muses, “What’s most important is in our hearts,” to which Malia answers, “Gimme a break!”

There are biological and cultural impossibilities, such as “a calavera with friendly eyes” (uh, skulls don’t have eyes…) whose “bones made weird marimba sounds as he walked.”

And what would a series like this be without fart jokes?

Young readers will get wrapped up in Bowles’ and Clester’s creepy and hilarious 13th Street series, which continues. 

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

—Beverly Slapin

(published 2/21/20)

Mexique: A Refugee Story from the Spanish Civil War

author: María José Ferrada 

illustrator: Ana Penyas

translator: Elisa Amado

Eerdman’s Books for Young Readers (2020)

grades 2-up (Spanish, Mexican)

During the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), Generalísimo Francisco Franco led the fascist Nationalist forces—with the assistance of Nazi Germany and fascist Italy—in overthrowing the democratically elected Second Republic. From 1939-1975, his dictatorship—known as the “White Terror”—was marked by forced labor, concentration camps, assassinations and summary executions, leading to an estimated death toll of between 160,000-200,000. During this time, Franco’s deals with US corporations financed his war and the dictatorship that kept him in power. 

Mexique: A Refugee Story from the Spanish Civil War (originally published by Alboroto Ediciones, Mexico, in 2018 as Mexique: El nombre del barco (Mexique: the name of the ship) is an illustrated photo album from that time, depicting for young children the horrors of what it is to be alone and lost and not knowing what lies ahead. The story is based on interviews with some of the children—now adults—part of a group of 456 refugees whose Spanish Republican families sent them to the safety of Morelia, Mexico, aboard the Mexique at the start of the Spanish Civil War. Their parents were seeking something that most children don’t think about: a life without fear. The art is derived from photographs of the “Children of Morelia” and the ship that brought them to Mexico. The story is dedicated:

To the Children of Morelia. 

And to all those who are moving in search

of a life without fear.

Through the words of a frightened child, young readers will feel the fear of the unknown as the children try to sleep while a volunteer comforts them:

Some cry. Especially at night.

They say that they dream that the ground is crumbling.

The houses are crumbling, and their memories are blank.

Clara, Sonia, Eulalia, María wake us up.

They say it’s just a dream,

one that we all dream together.

Clara, Sonia, Eulalia, María, our sisters,

collect our tears in their handkerchiefs and in the morning

return them to the sea.

The story’s stark, sepia-toned illustrations—many offset with touches of peach and rusted red—complement the fears and uncertainty of the children on the Mexique and their parents, who will never see them again.

On the cover, a large group of children hang off the railings of the ship. Most look forward. With both hands on the railing, a young boy in a white shirt smiles directly at the reader. Many others have their fists in the air. Their expressions range from excitement to sadness to fear. One girl wears a bright red dress. Two boys hold hands. Young readers will see many of these same children, some identified from their clothing, portrayed in the book. 

The final illustration shows 12 adults standing in a semicircle, looking out at the young readers. These people represent some of those who defeated the Spanish Republic and transformed it into the violent and terrifying world that the children have fled. They are soldiers, a nun and priest, spies, businessmen, fascists, and government officials. Sprawled at their feet are tiny figures of dead people: revolutionaries, bloodied and mutilated. They represent the parents, whom the children will never see again. And overhead soar two buzzards. 

Mexique is a photo album of sorts. It is, as artist Ana Penyas (ana penyas libros) writes (in Spanish), “a story that recovers one of the first episodes of the Spanish exile, and at the same time, evokes the history of all the ships that cross the ocean every day, transporting human beings who have the right to a life without fear.”

Here is a mom giving a last hug to her baby. Here is a father embracing his young son for the last time. Here is another mom, handing her little girl over to a stranger as her eyes plead: We trust you with our life’s blood. And here is the stranger, walking up the ship’s ramp with the little girl, looking down at her mom for the last time. 

Elisa Amado is an amazing storyteller and translator, and she pulls no punches here: 

War is a very loud noise. 

War is a huge hand that shakes you 

and throws you onto a ship.

Of course, young children will not understand the violent roots of fascism, how easily it can take hold, and the destruction it leaves in its path. What they will understand, through text and illustrations, is, as the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 3) states: “We all have the right to live in freedom and safety.” 

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

—Beverly Slapin

(published 2/17/21)