¡Corre, Pequeño Chaski! Una Aventura en El Camino Inka // Run, Little Chaski! An Inka Trail Adventure

author: Mariana Llanos

translator: Mariana Llanos

illustrator: Mariana Ruiz Johnson

Barefoot Books, 2021

all grades 

(Inka)


On the cover, a llama, a vicuña, and the Inka sun (Tayta Inti) watch as a young chaski—on his first run on the Inka Trail as a messenger to the Inka royals—tightly grasps his khipu, the rope and hanging knotted threads that will communicate an important message he must deliver. On a cord around his neck hangs a pututu—a conch, the giant seashell that is used, even today, to call everyone together. In Inka times, chaskis blew on the shell to let people know they had arrived at their destination.


Born to a family of chaskis, this boy has been taught that, to become one of them, he must be strong, swift, and sharp—but most of all, he must never be late. As Little Chaski” begins his run to carry a message from the Qoya (the Queen) to the Inka (the King), observant young readers will keep their eyes on the khipu.


First, the young chaski accidentally knocks down a chinchilla, and stops to apply first aid. Then, he rescues an allqu (a Peruvian wild dog), who has fallen into the river. As the boy resumes his run (and young readers will see the chinchilla passing the khipu to the dog), he spots a condor, trapped in a tree. Taking care not to get hurt, Little Chaski frees the condor (whom young readers will see in a tiny illustration, accepting the khipu from the dog). It’s getting later and later, and Little Chaski is getting more and more worried. Finally, “he shoots through the temple doorway just as Tayta Inti’s last rays sink behind the mountains.” 


The Inka and some of his people are there—impatiently waiting for the khipu—and the boy realizes that it’s gone! But. Just when everyone expects the worst, his three grateful friends appear—and drop the khipu into the boy’s hands! Of course, Little Chaski is relieved, and after he relates the story, the Inka honors him for his kindness and generosity. Not only is he now an official royal messenger, he also has a new name to suit him: Big-Hearted Chaski.


There is so much to enjoy about this heartwarming story, both the Spanish and English versions. (The author wrote them simultaneously, so there’s no word-for-word translation and readers can enjoy one or both interpretations.) For instance, when the boy is little more than a toddler, his male relatives advise him: “


“Be sure to be strong,” says Brave Chaski, his older brother. 

“Be sure to be swift,” says Big Chaski, his father. 

“Be sure to be sharp,” says Wise Chaski, his grandfather. 


And in the Spanish:


—Sé fuerte—le recuerda el valiente Chaski, su hermano mayor.

—Sé veloz—le recuerda el gran Chaski, su padre.

—Sé astuto—le recuerda el sabio Chaski, su abuelo.


(In the English version, they tell him and in the Spanish, they remind him.)


Inka iconography is represented throughout. Especially notable is the Inka sun—Tayta Inti—who has his own personality. Young readers will see him—fully or in part, with varying facial expressions—on virtually every page or spread that depicts daylight. At dawn, for instance, Tayta Inti yawns—it’s time to wake up and light up the world. Next, a concerned Tayta Inti peeks through a trapezoidal window as the Qoya hands the youngster an important khipu to bring to the Inka. Tayta Inti is worried as he sees animals in trouble—and relieved when the human youngster stops to help them.


As the young chaski runs—and Tayta Inti keeps an approvingly watchful eye on him—he trips over a chinchilla and bandages his paw, rescues an allqu (a Peruvian hairless dog) stuck in the river, and (very carefully) frees a condor, trapped in a bush. When he finally arrives at the Inka’s temple, he finds to his horror—and the Inka’s rage—that the important khipu is lost. 


In a parallel story—half-hidden in the illustrations—the animals whom the young chaski had rescued find the dropped khipu and pass it to each other. The stories merge as the “three grateful friends soar from the clouds” and drop the message into the youngster’s hands. The boy is relieved and the Inka is impressed—so much so that he proclaims the child an “official Chaski of the Tawantinsuyu,” and in recognition of his kindness, the Inka names him “Big-Hearted Chaski.”


“Everyone cheers,” the story ends, “And Big-Hearted Chaski’s smile glows brighter than Tayta Inti.”


Mariana Ruiz Johnson accomplished her bold, vibrant, intensely-colored “digital collages” by first hand-painting the textures, using pencil, scanned paper, acrylics, and gouache; then scanning them and creating the illustrations using Photoshop. That her characters are stylized, yet individualized—complexions vary among the human characters, for example—is unusual and refreshing in a picture book such as this one. Observant young readers will especially notice—and call attention to—the series of rescued animals holding onto and passing the khipu to each other. 


In addition to the full-page illustrations and gorgeous iconography—such as the patterns on clothing and vases, for example—Ruiz Johnson’s beautifully decorative endpapers hold miniature versions of the animals interspersed with khipus.


Back matter includes a helpful glossary of Quechua words, a map of the Inka empire superimposed on a partial map of South America, accessible information about the Inka Empire, the Inka Trail, animals in South America, and use of the spellings, “Inka” and “khipu” as opposed to “Inca” and “quipu.” Another section poses and answers questions about the Inka and the important work of the chaskis.


“Small” details, such as the author’s use of the Quecha spellings of the people’s name,“Inka,” rather than the colonial Spanish spelling,“Inca”and “khipu” rather than “quipu”—signals that the people are reclaiming their languages, changes the narrative and, for older readers, opens up conversation about Indigenous peoples and Indigeneity.


¡Corre, Pequeño Chaski! Una Aventura en el Camino Inka and Run, Little Chaski! An Inka Trail Adventure are playful, historical fiction picture books. And they are much more. 


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


—Beverly Slapin

(published 6/28/2021)


A Thousand White Butterflies

 

authors: Jessica Betancourt-Perez and Karen Lynn Williams

illustrator: Gina Maldonado Charlesbridge, 2001 

preschool-grade two (Colombian)


It is snowing outside. A young girl, wearing an orange sweater and brown braids with matching orange hair ties, rests her elbow on the windowsill. Next to her is a hot taza de café to keep her warm. She is looking out at the reader, deep in thought, imagining her first day of school in this new country. On the outside, another young girl—a red-haired white child with eyeglasses—holding a snowball and bundled up in cap, coat and boots, glances at her and walks by. 


Young readers will learn that the girl’s name is Isabella and she has immigrated here with her mom. The two are staying with Abuelita, while Papa waits in Colombia for permission to travel. Today is Isabella’s first day of school in the United States, and her excitement is palpable. Until it starts to snow—“Mariposa wings dance in the sky. It looks like a thousand white butterflies”—and school is cancelled for the day.


Isabella narrates the story in English, and speaks Spanish in dialogue with her family. Without clunky translations that often litter children’s books, both languages here are accessible to young readers, who will easily understand who’s speaking and what they’re saying.


For instance, 


“¡Levántate!” Abuelita calls.

But I am already awake.


Maldonado’s digitally-colored illustrations, textured with crayons and acrylic paint, are excellent. Family members—Isabella, Mama, Papa and Abuelita—have varying brown complexions and hair colors and textures from curly to straight. The other children are shown as a mixture of ethnicities, both darker- and lighter-complected. And in comparison, everyone contrasts with the weather forecaster on TV—a blonde-blonde, whose skin is ghostly-pale. 


Although school has been canceled for the day, Isabella makes a new friend—a pale-faced red-haired English-speaker with eyeglasses (the girl who walked by her on the cover) who shows her how to make snow angels. “I don’t know all her words,” Isabella narrates, “but I understand enough.” 


That evening, Isabella draws a picture to send to her Papa: it shows herself and her new friend and their “snowman with its smile the colors of Abuelita’s beads.” When Papa calls her she says that she will tell him that “La nieve es hermosa.”


“Tengo una nueva amiga,” I whisper in the dark.

Tomorrow I’ll go to school. With my new friend.


The back matter contains authors’ notes, “more info” about immigrants and refugees, and a glossary of Spanish words. Sharing a page is an illustration of Isabella and her new friend at school. They are both smiling, and Isabella waves to the young readers.


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


—Beverly Slapin

(published 6/26/2021)

Me Oh Maya // You Wouldn't Want to Be an Aztec Sacrifice!

It's no secret that I’m a fierce advocate for literary dignity and equity in publishing. I want to see many more books by writers from underrepresented groups (BIPOC, disabled, queer) published each year for kids and adults alike. However, some folks misinterpret that mission as an implied disavowal of any book written by someone outside the culture depicted in its pages. But I actually do think it’s possible (and for secondary characters, outright desirable) for an author to write about characters and communities that don’t perfectly align with their own lived experiences. 


The catch? It’s hard work. You have to put in the time. Research. Advocate. Uplift. Live alongside and be a friend and ally to people from the group in question. Then write with respect and pay a cultural expert from that community to review your manuscript and give you feedback (then incorporate their suggestions or corrections).


“Why, David?” I imagine someone asking. “What’s the worst that can happen?” 


The short answer? People can be insulted, deeply hurt, or perhaps even permanently scarred by mistakes you make.  


I want to take a look at two examples of authors writing “outside of their lane” and getting things horribly wrong. Mind you, anyone can screw up when writing. We’re human. But these are books from major publishers whose entire teams really dropped the ball in terms of literary dignity.


First up is Me Oh Maya, book 13 of Jon Scieska’s The Time Warp Trio. (It’s the volume that made my son Angelo abandon the series, by the way.) The three protagonists—friends Joe, Sam, and Fred—are yanked from their basketball game back in time to a Maya ballcourt. 


Let’s get something straight right away. Maya people still exist. Seven million of them, in fact, in southern Mexico and Central America, with tens of thousands more living in the US. So if you decide to write about pre-invasion Maya, you’re depicting living people’s ancestors, folks who still speak that language and preserve many of those customs. 


Which is why it’s so disappointing that Me Oh Maya jumps immediately to bloodshed and human sacrifice on the first page: “Explain yourselves or your blood will be spilled in sacrifice,” says a “short brown-skinned guy in a wild feathered headdress.” Two pages later, Sam explains “their habit of sacrificing humans,” adding that the high priest is “not kidding about that rip-your-hearts-out.”


By way of explanation, all of this is wrong. Strangers would not have been immediately sacrificed. The intermittent offering of human blood to the gods was a solemn religious ritual at particular times of the year that ensured the wheels of cyclical time kept turning. Those sacrificed were prepared and treated with dignity for many months. Their families were typically compensated after their death. A better analogy for Maya sacrifice would be soldiers who are sent on missions from which they know it’s unlikely they’ll return. That kind of sacrifice, not horror-movie, death-at-the-hand-of-a-slasher kind of death. To call that sort of patriotic, pious laying down of one’s life a “habit of sacrificing humans” by “short brown-skinned” people is problematic, to say the least. 


All that aside, for that to be the IMMEDIATE go-to image for the writer of children’s books when he thinks of the Maya? Gross. Indicative of some deep-seated privilege and ignorance. Imagine if every children’s book written about the US by people not living here featured gun violence. Yes, it’s a part of US life, but hardly the defining aspect of our existence.


But, of course, human sacrifice is the main plot contrivance of Me Oh Maya. The boys use basketball moves to wow the people of Chichén Itzá and win the game (the book mistakenly asserts that losers get sacrificed—imagine how impossible it would be to keep a game going for a year, much less centuries, if that were the case). However, the high priest, who they think looks like their Latino teacher Mr. Ramírez on a bad day, decides to sacrifice them anyway.


That’s when he reveals his name: “Kakapupahed.” The kids have a field day with this, and I’m sure the author and editor found it hilarious.


But making up a name that sounds like foolish words in English to mock a people’s language? That’s straight-up racist. (The invented word is also meaningless in the Itza Mayan language, which furthermore lacks the consonant “d.”)


The book makes some attempt at presenting life at Chichén Itzá as otherwise pleasant and fascinating (though frankly generic Mesoamerican in the details of cuisine, etc.). The boys find an ally in the high priest’s nephew, named “Jun,” or “One,” which is one half of a normal Maya name at the time—they consisted of a number from 1-13 and one of 20 day signs, so it would have been more realistic if the kid’s name was Jun Balam (One Jaguar) or something along those lines. 


It’s nice that Jun and his mother are key to the Brooklynites’ victory and return to the future, but all those moments are marred by the cultural insensitivity, obsession with the lurid or “exotic” aspects of Maya communities, and racist humor. A Maya or Mestizo (part-Indigenous) child reading this book will find their people stereotyped and mocked. How is that pain justifiable? 


A duo of British creatives (author: Fiona Macdonald, illustrator: David Antram) are the guilty parties responsible for the even more reprehensible book You Wouldn’t Want to Be an Aztec Sacrifice! Gruesome Things You'd Rather Not Know. (Scholastic, 2001). The reader is cast as a random Mesoamerican (presumably Nahua) from some far-flung conquered town who gets captured by “Aztecs” in a flower war and taken back to Tenochtitlan to be sacrificed. Now, flower wars certainly happened. The Triple Alliance—the Mexica, Texcoca and Tlacopaneca peoples now referred to as Aztecs—did require tribute and take warriors prisoner for sacrifice.


But the author has first of all decided to linger on all the lurid aspects of that interchange without noting that the OTHER side also took “Aztec” prisoners for sacrifice.

In fact, the book treats the unnamed protagonist as shocked again and again at “Aztec” beliefs and practices, even though the Triple Alliance was culturally Nahua just like most of the rest of Central Mexico, multiple nation states worshipping the same gods in essentially the same ways. 


The book also abounds with exotification and inaccuracy. Because of religious symbols on shields, they are referred to as magical: “Many soldiers believe the magic will protect them on the battlefield.” I can’t imagine the creators of the book saying the same about a cross on the shield of a British knight. The Aztecs are called “energetic and warlike,” “fearsome,” and “ruthless.” Captives are marched through a stereotypical northern Mexican desert to reach Tenochtitlan rather than the actual pine forests that once surrounded Lake Texcoco in the Central Highlands. 


Literally every page has at least one completely false statement, from the assertion that all priests stank because of putrid blood in their hair (only one sort of priest had this practice) to the baffling comment that some deceased Nahuas “make a long, miserable journey through the underworld before they finally perish in hell,” which completely miscasts the role of Mictlan (not to mention the fact that the Nahuas didn’t believe in hell). Wherever there’s a debate in scholarship, the creators side with the most extreme, titillating interpretation, as with the possibility of cannibalism (for which the evidence is mostly Spanish, post-Invasion, and in dire need of Indigenous religious context). 


As with Me Oh Maya, the inaccuracies and lies are especially harmful because today there are 2.5 million Nahuas (descendants of the “Aztecs” and the related nations they conquered) in Mexico and Central America plus thousands more in the US. In addition, many Mexicans and Mexican Americans of mixed heritage (we often call ourselves “mestizos”) are heirs to a syncretic culture that blends Nahua and Spanish traditions and language. We grow up proud of the accomplishments of the “Aztecs,” Toltecs, and other pre-Invasion Nahua peoples. 


For our children, You Wouldn’t Want to Be an Aztec Sacrifice! is a potentially damaging piece of overwrought nonsense from outsiders who have not done the work of living alongside us and considering the vital cultural heritage of the “Aztecs” that is kept alive in our communities.


Neither of these books promotes the literary dignity of Indigenous or Mestizo people in Mexico and the US. The writers, editors, and publishers should be ashamed of the harm they have done in the name of being clever and cute in that supercilious way that conveys to even the densest reader, “These people were bad and weird. It’s good that they’re gone. Western white culture is so much better, isn’t it?”


Such messages are simply unacceptable and must be fought. 


—David Bowles

(published 6/21/2021)

El Cucuy Is Scared, Too!

author: Donna Barba Higuera

illustrator: Juliana Perdomo 

Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2021, preschool-grade 3


In Spanish-speaking countries, everyone knows El Cucuy. He comes in many forms, all of them horrible. He kidnaps disobedient children—especially little kids who don’t stay in bed at night.


A cucuy lives with Ramón and his single mom in their new little house in the US. This cucuy shares a pot along with a cactus, and on the cover and title page, young readers will see him—black, gray and white—peeking out of the large clay pot. This cucuy is not scary—he’s scared.


As Ramón sits next to the potted cactus, his mom warns him to go to bed, or El Cucuy will come and get him. But Ramón can’t sleep—and neither can this cucuy, who jumps out of the pot and noisily knocks over Ramón’s table lamp and vase of flowers. 


Both Ramón and his new friend miss their old casita in Mexico, and, Cucuy adds, “the desert wind and the coyotes singing.” He’s especially afraid of the night noises which, Ramón tells him, are “only the new sounds of where we live now.” The place called “school” is different as well. There’s no quiet place for Ramón to read and there’s no “small, dark place” where Cucuy can hide. But Ramón is protective of his new friend, offering to ask a teacher or librarian to show them a safe place should his friend need one. As Ramón worries about not fitting in—something that worries all immigrant kids—Cucuy worries about not having any amigos, and that no one will know to be afraid of him.


When they get home, Ramón consoles his little monster-friend: “Eres fierce…and brave,” and tells him that he will have to show the other kids that he is “strong and valiente.” The two think about the times that each was afraid of the other, and how they worked out their fears in order to become fast friends. 


Perdomo’s digitally created illustrations are bright and appealing, with each double-page spread having its own background color. The dialog between boy and monster is honest and engaging as well, with touches of Spanish words and phrases seamlessly woven in (and not defined or italicized). This warm story is of two friends—one human, one monstruo, sort of—who share their immigrant experience.  


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


—Beverly Slapin

(published 6/20/2021)


Pura's Cuentos: How Pura Belpré Reshaped Libraries with Her Stories

author: Anette Bay Pimentel
illustrator: Magaly Morales
Abrams Books for Young Readers
grades 3-up 
Puerto Rican


On the cover, a tiny green coquí sits on the floor in front of an exuberant, multiethnic group of young children. All eyes are focused on the new librarian, Pura Belpré, as she performs traditional Puerto Rican stories. They are stories she had learned as a child from her Abuela, and, since they had not been published, she transmits them as her Abuela did. In the upper corners, Perez the Mouse and Martina, the beautiful cockroach who loves him in one of Belpre’s stories—are also watching her perform. 


Before Pura Belpré arrived in Harlem, during “storytimes” in public libraries full of books for children, librarians showed the books and read the stories. But there were no storybooks for children from Puerto Rico and none in Spanish. So the young librarian traveled the city, from Harlem to the Bronx to the Lower East Side, lighting her storytelling candle and performing her stories in Spanish and English. Hers may have been the first of library “storytimes” without books.


Magda Morales’ bright, digital full-color illustrations—including the title’s lettering—are joyous and inviting. On an interior double-page spread, an exuberant Pura practices grand gestures while she dances across the pages and sings to the animals in her stories—who join her. On another page, her characters watch from above as children surround her.


When the young librarian does not see Puerto Rican children in the library, she goes into the barrio to recruit. A double-page spread shows Pura in a park where Puerto Rican children are playing. Across the two pages, she calls out to them: “¡CUENTOS!”


That Pura’s Cuentos contains words and phrases—and some dialog—in untranslated Spanish, affirms the language and honors young Spanish-speaking readers as well. In one spread, an exhilarated young girl hands a stack of books to her mom and tells her, “¡Nos contó historias de Puerto Rico!” 


In this country, a large percentage of the population (roughly 25%) speaks Spanish and, like Pura Belpré herself, Pimentel acknowledges and affirms—and targets—her audience of Spanish-speaking readers and their cultures. Like Pura Belpré, she wants them to go to the library and read and learn more. As well, she pushes young readers who do not speak Spanish to gather the contextual cues to understand what has been said without having been told. 


On the next-to-final spread,—with a coquí on her shoulder and a crowing gallo at her side, Pura is writing the story of Perez and Martina. To her right, Perez and Martina themselves are dancing on the completed pages:


Abuela’s story… Pura’s story … the children’s story … becomes a book. Because Pura Belpré always knew that many stories worth telling aren’t in books. Not yet.


Many of Pura Belpré’s cuentos are still in print, others are anthologized, and still others are worth a search.


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


—Beverly Slapin

(published 6/19/2021)



[Note: The Pura Belpré Award, established in 1996, is presented annually to “a Latino / Latina writer and illustrator whose work best portrays, affirms, and celebrates the Latino cultural experience in an outstanding work of literature for children and youth.”]


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.


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


—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.).