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)

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