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.