Un tren llamado Esperanza / A Train Called Hope

author: Mario Bencastro

illustrator: Robert Casilla

publisher: Piñata Books, 2021

grade level: 3-up

(Central American, immigration)

For many immigrants from Central America, part of their journey might be on top of a dangerous, speeding train. They often refer to the train as “La Bestia” (“The Beast”), and pray that they arrive in one piece. Un tren llamado Esperanza / A Train Called Hope is one person’s memory of that train ride. 

On the cover, a young child is stretched out on his bed. As he plays with a toy train—a gift from his mother—that crosses “the mountain of (his) pillow into the valley (on his) bed,” the boy dreams about faraway places: big cities, mountains, the Statue of Liberty. The boy we see here is a young adult now, and this toy train was his first present. He imagined then that “the girl in the window looked just like (his) sister.” 

Now, this young man is about to ride on a real train to meet up with his family, who are working “in far off places.” Not in a train, but on top, traveling with several hundred strangers—children, women with babies, young men—all sharing the perilous journey and little else. When they reach the border, all of them “leap down from the train and hide in the thick brush to wait for night to fall.” Now he “begs the moon to rise and illuminate the border”—

Ahora ruego a la luna que salga

y nos alumbre la frontera

para llegar a mi madre 

que con alegría me espera.

It’s not unusual that people fall from these trains and are killed. Casilla’s brilliantly detailed illustrations—created with watercolor, pastel, and colored pencil on cold press watercolor paper—show the shocked faces of five “passengers”—their fear and horror—as they ride atop the dangerous train and witness an almost fatal accident. A woman covers her face in prayer, a man squelches a scream with his hand, another woman’s shocked expression asks: “Why is all this happening?”

As a young adult, the young man and his mom finally embrace (he imagines)—they are together. He names his remembered toy electric train “Esperanza” (“Hope”)—because, unlike the dangerous train whose top carries agricultural workers from Central America to here, “it will cross the planet freely / uniting sons and mothers / carrying and bringing the happiness / that all children dream of.”

Pienso llamarlo “Esperanza”

porque recorrerá libre el planeta

uniendo hijos y madres,

llevando y trayendo la dicha

que todos los niños sueñan.

As Bencastro and Casilla transport young readers back to the childhood of a son of migrant farmworkers—the son who narrates as a young adult—, poet and artist together portray a deep and important story. Beautifully told and illustrated, Un tren llamado Esperanza / A Train Called Hope is not only about one family. It’s a call for justice for those who labor in an unjust society and have to ride atop dangerous trains to get to work. Although it’s accessible for young readers, Un tren llamado Esperanza / A Train Called Hope is not “just” for children. 

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

—Beverly Slapin

(published 8/24/2021)

Note: a companion book recommended for children is Dos Conejos Blancos (Two White Rabbits) by Jairo Buitrago, Rafael Yockteng, and Elisa Amado, which takes place on an actual journey. Its review can be found at decoloresreviews.blogspot.com dosconejosblancos.


ABC El Salvador

author: Holly Ayala

illustrator: Elizabeth Gómez

Luna's Press Books, 2021


El Salvador, Salvadoreños

On the front cover, raised lettering in glossy relief—large ABCs on which two Indigenous children climb—invites young readers to touch the painted block letters similar to the wood block letters that El Salvador is known for. And as they “visit” the country and towns in El Salvador, the carefully crafted ABC format shows them aspects of rural life and some history as well. 

Within the country of El Salvador, the author highlights the city of San Salvador and the town of Santo Domingo de Guzman (Witzapan). Here, youngsters from el Norte will get to meet Xiomara and her familia—and learn about some history and culture of El Salvador. 

In the voice of Xiomara, a young Indigenous Salvadoreña, this beyond beautiful abcdario is about and especially for the children of El Salvador, who will see themselves reflected here. The child’s mixed family has darker and lighter complexions. 

The author highlights the city of San Salvador and the town of Santo Domingo. When she is in the city, Xiomara wears an orange shirt with a green skirt. When she is in the town, she wears a blue shirt with a red skirt. And a few times, she is in athletic clothes. Kevin wears his soccer outfit with ES and A for Alianza (his favorite soccer team). 

Forefronting the Indigenous-influenced Salvadoran Spanish with the English translation below, Xiomara introduces young readers to her relatives, her friends and her neighborhood. The Spanish and English, as well as the illustrations, are personal and cultural, and community specific.

[In a personal communication, the author told me that she based the words and illustrations on her own experiences. For instance, “atol” is her favorite beverage; and for “quesadilla,” she remembers that, “when I was little, my father’s friend, Doña Aida, would always make me quesadilla. I still have her recipe!”]

Rather than beginning with “who I am” (which is more like an American English way of beginning this genre), the young narrator here uses the A for “atol” to describe what she likes: “Me gusta el atol de elote bien calientito” (I like my sweet corn beverage nice and warm). In this first illustration, as she holds the bowl of atol to show young readers, Xiomara is dressed in sandals, a red skirt and blue patterned blusa, her hair neatly tied with blue cloth. Behind her is a meadow with some corn growing, and flowers, birds and butterflies circling. 

The other letters of the alphabet name and show who and what Xiomara finds meaningful: “barro” (clay, out of which her grandma makes pans and pots); “cipotes” (the neighborhood kids who join her at play), “chucho” (her dog, whose name is “Chocolate”), “dulces” (her favorite candies), El Salvador, “farolitos” (her favorite lanterns), “garrobo” (a gigantic lizard who visits her backyard); “huacales” (the large and small bowls in her house). Readers also meet her relatives and the things she enjoys eating, the delightful rain, the music in the town plaza, the Nahuat language, and all the people, places and things that encompass her life. 

For “O,” there’s a painting on Abuelita’s wall of the beloved Archbishop Óscar Arnulfo Romero in the park, surrounded by children. Young readers will not learn here that he was an advocate for the poor who was assassinated while celebrating mass—and later, beatified—for his passionate voice against injustice. That’s a story for another time; but it’s an important part of young Xiomara’s and her family’s lives and El Salvador’s history.

Gomez’s art, done with gouche, has a rustic look, accomplished by sanding the colors down and uncovering a previous acrylic layer. What results is a bright “painting” of a small town in El Salvador and an invitation to celebrate Xiomara’s and her Indigenous family’s life, culture and neighborhood. ABC El Salvador is an extraordinary little book. 

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

—Beverly Slapin

(published 8/11/2021)

Isabel and Her Colores Go to School

author: Alexandra Alessandri

illustrator: Courtney Dawson

Sleeping Bear Press, 2021 


Mexican American

Young Isabel is lost and frightened. As a Spanish-speaker—an hablante whose language is made of “pinks and yellows and purples”—she’s about to begin kindergarten, where English—“with stormy blues and blizzard whites”—is the only language spoken. Her heart “pitter-pattering like a summer’s rain,” Isabel pleads with her mother not to send her, and her mother encourages her with a hug and a dicho: “Al mal tiempo, buena cara”—“To bad times, a good face.” 

As the anxious little girl enters this foreign place, her teacher welcomes her in Spanish:—“¡Bienvenidos!”—a greeting she understands. Still, in her new, mixed classroom, she struggles with this strange-sounding language; the easy communication among the children and between the children and their teacher. While she knows that, like her own language, these foreign words mean things, she doesn’t know which words mean what things. It’s all so confusing!

Over and over, Isabel misunderstands her teacher: When the children exercise and count “one, two, three,” Isabel joyfully counts “uno, dos, tres” and then realizes that the colors in her head are “crashing against each other like planets colliding in an explosion of stars.”

And when Sarah, a Black child, offers her friendship, Isabel doesn’t understand. She responds, “no entiendo,” and the miscommunication embarrasses both of them.

But things change slowly. When the teacher announces that it’s coloring time, Isabel recognizes that the word, “coloring” sounds like “colorear,” and she draws a picture of herself and Sarah together. The first Spanish word that Sarah learns is “amigas,” and the first English word for Isabel is “friends.”

And when the teacher holds up Isabel’s drawing, of the two friends, “the stormy blues and blizzard whites softened to a brilliant aguamarina—just like home.”  

Alessandri’s conversational Spanish translations, which appear both in the English narrative and on a bright box at the top or bottom of each page, are excellent. For instance, when Isabel’s mom comforts her daughter on the night before the first day of school, the English text reads:

“It’s OK to be scared.” Mama’s voice was soft and amber like a ripened mango. She gave Isabel a squishy, squashy hug.

And the Spanish reads:

“—Es normal tener miedo—dijo mami, con su voz dulce y dorado como el mango maduro. Ella le dio a Isabel un abrazo de oso. (“It’s normal to be scared,” Mommy said, her voice sweet and golden as a ripe mango. She gave Isabel a bear hug.)

Courtney Dawson’s vibrant illustrations perfectly reflect Isabel’s emotions as they transition from fear to confusion to understanding to confidence, and the colors in her head slowly change from the “stormy blues and blizzard whites” of English to join with the “pinks and yellows and purples of español.” 

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

—Beverly Slapin

(published 8/6/2012)