WWW: Ancient Links between Día de los Muertos and Halloween

For our final World Wide Web post before the Día de los Muertos celebration, I would love to share a fantastic online teaching resource about the linkages between Día de los Muertos and Halloween.

You may notice that many of our materials on this blog caution you against doing exactly this.  Time and time again, we reiterate in different ways that Día de los Muertos should not be construed as the Mexican version of Halloween.

It’s true that, in a contemporary sense, the two holidays are two very different constructions with strongly contrasting purposes and practices.  Yet by turning to their ancient historical roots we can see a different interpretation…one which emphasizes their similarities.  If you are prepared to lead your students in a more advanced discussion of Día de los Muertos (and of Halloween, for that matter), then we have a wonderful resource to share with you.  If, however, you are only loosely covering the holiday, then we recommend not delving into this historical content with your class.

Without further ado, here is our highlighted website for this week: EDSITEment, a resource developed by the National Endowment for the Humanitities. Although the site overall has hundreds of curriculum materials, our focus today is on their guide to the “Origins of Halloween and the Day of the Dead.” This page touches on perhaps the most salient angle to teach students in the U.S. about Día de los Muertos, and that is revealing how this Mexican festival of life and death is deeply related to the US’ own coinciding holiday.

As students get ready to dress up in costumes and go out trick-or-treating, it is a fascinating moment to explain that Halloween is, in fact, rooted in an ancient Celtic holiday that celebrates the end of the harvest season by connecting the life and death of plants to our own human existence.  Although the Celts were thousands of miles across the ocean from the early Mesoamericans, they both followed the astrological and lunar cycles with extreme attention, and many of their most sacred beliefs revolved around these celestial systems.  It may even be neat to show the students how the earliest cities, both in Mesoamerica and Europe, were constructed in alignment with the sun and moon.  To show this visually, please visit this amazing interactive map of Yucatec Maya cities containing photographs of how the workings of the sky are incorporated into daily life.

As they state beautifully on the EDSITEment page:

Halloween has traditionally been associated in America with dressing up in costume and with consuming sweets; however, the roots of the holiday lie in late autumn harvest rituals that correspond to natural, seasonal changes and that are expressed in commemorations of the dying year. During this period of transition, cultures across the world remember those who have passed on by drawing an analogy between human death and the dark, cold winter months that loom ahead.

In this sense, Día de los Muertos is not so different from Halloween. Just as ancient Halloween practices were focused on agricultural cycles, so too were the ancient precursors to Día de los Muertos.  The Aztecs were the Mesoamerican peoples who first began the practices which have since evolved into Día de los Muertos.  Within their culture, agricultural cycles played an important role.  Many of their festivals emphasize the duality of life and death vis-á-vis the growth and decay of the natural world.  We can see this influence carried into the present day, as Día de los Muertos ofrendas frequently feature fresh fruits and flowers (though that may vary considerably depending on the local produce available in the community at the time).

This deep historical perspective serves well to remind us about our common roots.  Although our current practices are defined more by technology than by the passing of the sun and moon, ancient cultures were strongly attuned to these astrological processes.

It is a beautiful and inspiring notion, that in fact the entire world’s traditions can be tied together by the simple fact that all of them are in some way rooted in the basic systems of the sky, and our age-old desire to form a collective understanding and celebration of this amazing life on earth! Have a wonderful holiday and celebrate life!!!

Image: “Mexican Day of the Dead.” Reprinted from Flickr user Barney Moss under CC ©.

Book Review: The Tequila Worm

Tequila Worm - low bright-high contrastThe Tequila Worm
Written by Viola Canales
Published by Wendy Lamb Books, 2005
ISBN: 9780375840890
Age Level: 12 and up


Sofia comes from a family of storytellers. Here are her tales of growing up in the barrio, full of the magic and mystery of family traditions: making Easter cascarones, celebrating el Día de los Muertos, preparing for quinceañera, rejoicing in the Christmas nacimiento, and curing homesickness by eating the tequila worm. When Sofia is singled out to receive a scholarship to an elite boarding school, she longs to explore life beyond the barrio, even though it means leaving her family to navigate a strange world of rich, privileged kids. It’s a different mundo, but one where Sofia’s traditions take on new meaning and illuminate her path.


My Thoughts:

I needed this book. It was a pleasant break from the heaviness of the last two books we’ve featured, which isn’t to say that it’s insignificant or unimportant in any way.  It’s certainly not a ‘fluff’ book. It’s incredibly moving and meaningful, yet there’s still an air of lightness to it.  It’s infused with humor, even as you read some of the more serious sections.  This is the kind of book that you find yourself smiling through, or maybe even laughing out loud.

I couldn’t have asked for more perfect timing.  We’ve spent the last two months holding a variety of workshops on teaching about Día de los Muertos. In all of these workshops we talk about the importance of avoiding the “holidays and heroes” or multicultural tourism approach to teaching about cultures and cultural traditions.  Canales’ book shows how this can be done.  Through reading The Tequila Worm students learn about various celebrations and traditions, but there’s a depth to it – these things are conceptualized within what it means to be a family and a member of a community.   As teachers, we often have students research cultural traditions as class projects, but it can be difficult to do this in a way that’s meaningful, or so that it doesn’t come across as if it were written for a travel brochure.  Canales’ book offers a way to do this because the traditions and rituals are contextualized within family relationships.  In one article, Canales discusses her experiences and offers thoughts on the cultural importance of The Tequila Worm: “At one Texas reading for The Tequila Worm, a group of women were saying the most striking things, such as ‘I know there are a lot of Mexicans in Austin, but I didn’t not really understand the richness of the culture—and now I am feeling culture envy.’ Culture envy. . .That is where I want to go with this.  I want people to weep for the destruction of the Ninth Ward in New Orleans and to weep for the music lost, the recipes, the warmth, and the magic lost, the creativity gone.  I want them to feel the same appreciation for the Mexican-American culture” (p. 77).

I often talk about the books we feature as counter-narratives because I think this is such an important part of the need for diverse literature in the classroom. Too often I sat in the teachers’ lounge listening to colleagues talk about how the parents of our students of color just didn’t value education or family.  This book shows just how wrong that misconception is.  This is a story about a beautiful family whose love allows their children to become who they want to be, and in doing this prepares them to grapple with el otro mundo and still hold on to their own identity.  It is a book that celebrates the unique and the eccentric that make us the individuals we are, but that also allow us to be a community that loves and supports one another.

When I read a book, I almost always have a favorite character, maybe one I identify with more, one who resonates with me, or one who just makes me laugh.  I don’t with this novel.  I loved every single one of Canales’ characters.  Sofia’s relationship with her father is quite special, and it may be easier for students to see how important it is because it’s a little more overt.  Yet her relationship with her mother, her little sister Lucy, and her best friend Berta are just as important to her ultimate success.

By the end of the book, Sofia understands the beauty, strength and importance of her family, their history, and their traditions, but this takes her some time to come to understand.  It’s when she’s confronted with the cultural clash at Saint Luke’s boarding school that she comes to understand the value of her own community and what sets her apart from her peers.  This is a necessary conversation that we need to be having in our classrooms, where too often the dominant culture is judged to be right or the best.  Our students need to read stories that offer critiques of dominant culture, and show protagonists who critically and consciously evaluate this, and don’t necessarily go along with it.

While much of the story is based on Canales’ own childhood, the ending isn’t.  The beautiful plaza that Sofia returns to doesn’t exist except in Canales’ imagination: “The placito is metaphorical.  To change an outlook, you have to be shown something that is positive, that is beautiful. . .We all need a better world right now.  America is stuck; it has lost its magic in life and people live life as work.  I think we only start dreaming again with myth and spirituality in our lives.  Only then can we conjure up a better society” (p. 79).  For me, Canales’ book is definitely a step in that direction.

The Tequila Worm has earned a variety of awards and recognitions: Américas Award Honorable Mention (2005), Pura Belpré Award for Writing (2006), ALSC Notable Children Book (2006),and the Judy Lopez Memorial Award Honor Book, among others.

If you’d like to read what others have thought about the book, check out the review from Blog Critics. If you’re interested in learning more about the author, check out this article from Harvard Magazine which includes an interview. Lastly, there’s a video to accompany the novel: The Tequila Worm Slime Kids book trailer.

Stay tuned, too, for our Educator’s Guide to the book.


COYRL 2014_2  2014-reading-challenge

Good for:  Gathering Books COYRL Challenge 2014 and Latin@s in Kids Lit Reading Challenge 2014

Book Giveaway!! Mexican Whiteboy

We’re giving away a copy of Mexican WhiteBoy written by Matt de la Pea–our featured novel for December’s book group meeting!! Check out the following from School Library Journal:

Danny is constantly out of place, or at least that’s how he sees it. He has a gift for pitching-his lanky arms can throw a baseball fast enough to get noticed by any coach or college scout-but he loses his cool on the mount. His mother is a blue-eyed blonde, but the color of his skin sets him apart at the private school he attends in San Diego, where he isn’t “white enough.” He isn’t “Mexican enough” for the barrio either though. He looks Mexican so everyone assumes he speaks Spanish, but he doesn’t. He can throw a baseball 95 miles per hour but isn’t on any team. All in all, he is out of place. When he spends the summer with relatives in his dad’s old neighborhood, Danny becomes convinced that if he saves up enough money he can go to Mexico and find his father. Danny is desperate to find his place in this world and develop a sense of self, longings that will ring true with any teen. This is an essential purchase for communities serving Latinos, urban, and reluctant readers.—Katie Llera, Bound Brook High School, NJ

It’s another interesting read, and a great addition to any personal or classroom library. To be entered in the giveaway, just comment on any post on the blog by November 23rd.  Everyone who comments between October 27th and November 23rd will be entered in the drawing.  If your name is chosen, we’ll contact you ASAP about mailing the book to you.

Don’t forget, we also raffle off a copy of the following month’s featured novel at each book group meeting.  So, if you’re an Albuquerque local, join us for a chance to win!

Good luck!

¡Mira, Look!: Barrilete: a Kite for the Day of the Dead/Un barrilete para el Día de los Muertos


Here in Albuquerque we are gearing up for one of our favorite local traditions, the 22nd Annual South Valley Dia De Los Muertos Marigold Parade and Celebration. The parade is a special celebration in which different groups within the community come together to honor those who have passed away. With this in mind, this week’s featured book is about a local tradition specific to a small village in Guatemala that takes place on Día de Los Muertos.

Barrilete: a Kite for the Day of the Dead/Un barrilete para el Día de los Muertos is written by Elisa Amado, and illustrated with photos by Joya Hairs (ages 5-9). It’s a bilingual children’s book illustrated with documentary photography. It is about the Guatemalan Day of the Dead tradition where people fly kites for ancestors who have passed away.

Here is a description of the book from Amazon:

In Guatemala, there is a village called Santiago Sacatepéquez. It is a very small but famous place because once a year, on the day of the Day of the Dead, the people of Santiago fly some of the biggest kites in the world. As large as seven meters (twenty-three feet) wide, they fill the sky over the cemetery with brilliant colors.
Juan and his brothers always helped their grandfather build the kite for the Day of the Dead. But their grandfather has recently died, and the boys must carry on the tradition on their own. This beautifully photographed book shows us the village of Santiago and tells us Juan’s story as he gathers the materials, builds the kite and, finally, flies it with this help of his friends.

Barillete Kite BuildingWe meet the protagonist, Juan, along with his family and friends as they prepare for Día de los Muertos. Juan wants to build a kite in honor of his grandfather who recently passed away, and he works to remember all the things his grandfather taught him about building a kite. We see the young boys go through each step of the process;: buying colored tissue paper from the market, cutting and pasting the paper to build upon a circular shape, choosing designs, testing the wind, building the frame, and attaching all the elements to make it fly.

On the morning of Día de los Muertos, Juan and his village carry their kites down to the cemetery where they will spend the day keeping their loved ones company. The time finally comes to fly the kites, and as Juan takes off running down the hill; his kite lifts up into the air.

The quote below is one of my favorites: “Juan can feel the wind in his hair and the kite’s flight in his hand. Abuelo must be up there soaring and dipping and turning, looking down on his village, his grandsons,flying the beautiful kite theyBarillete Landscape have made.”

We get to see other Día de los Muertos preparations and traditions, including making tortillas from a fresh crop of corn and attending mass. The book is sporadically filled with images of natural landscape including an erupting volcano. These shots are accompanied by text that describes details of daily life, agriculture, and the change in season.

Barillete Juan

The use of photography in this book helps illustrate the narratives of children’s lives in Santiago. This book works as a great multicultural tool for students because it allows them to see into the daily lives of children in Guatemala. They get to see images from this village and watch how they prepare for their celebration. The book provides the means to broaden students’ awareness of local traditions and of life in Guatemala.

Check out these classroom resources for material handy for teaching about Guatemala’s local traditions of flying kites for Día de los Muertos:

-Learning about Guatemala through its kites: The giant kites of Guatemala- a lesson plan by the Drachen Foundation.

-Create Guatemalan kites for Day of the Dead!! -step by step instructions by The Living Arts and Science Center.

To learn more about Guatemalan local traditions of flying kites for Día de los Muertos, check out these references:

-An in-depth article from Cultural Survival.

-A first person account and blog post from Wandering Educators.

- For more beautiful images from the festival along with a video, check out this post from Oddity Central.

COYRL 2014_2 2014-reading-challenge

Good for: Gathering Books COYRL Challenge 2014 and Latin@s in Kids Lit Reading Challenge 2014

Images: Photos from Barrilete: a Kite for the Day of the Dead/Un barrilete para el Día de los Muertos. Photos by: Joya Hairs

WWW: Dia de Los Muertos Double-Header!

As the 1st and 2nd of November approach, students may start to wonder about some of the deeper meanings behind Dia de los Muertos traditions.  Today we have an important “Double Header”, the first article uses a beautiful resource provided by National Geographic to introduce the complex idea that death can be as much cultural as it is biological, and how certain visual elements of Dia de los Muertos teaches us that.  The second is an article that focuses on the ancient Olmec’s and their contributions to Dia de los Muertos traditions.

*** Also, next week’s post (final post before Dia de los Muertos) will delve deeper into the idea that, although Dia de los Muertos is uniquely Mexican and Latin American, its foundation in ancient understandings of the cosmos, agriculture and harvest is universal, and can even help explain how Halloween and Dia de los Muertos are not so different after all. ***

National Geographic Provides a Beautiful Día de los Muertos Teaching Resource

Dia de los Muertos in Mission District, San Francisco

Continuing with our focus on teaching Día de los Muertos, the colorful and lively Latin American holiday that honors the dead, a wonderful resource for both students and educators is found in National Geographic’s Education section.  This multimedia resource provides vibrant photography, background history, as well as a list of key vocabulary and discussion questions.  The discussion questions are a great place to spark conversation about some of the most salient and relevant elements of this two-day long celebration, which takes place every year on the 1st and 2nd of November.

One of the questions asks, “Why are the masks and decorations in these photos only half-covered with skulls and skeletons (called calacas and calaveras)?”  The answer involves understanding the Mexican concept of death – the basic life philosophy that every living being, no matter how beautiful or colorful, will eventually be exposed as nothing more than calacas and calaveras.    Broadly speaking, Mexican culture embraces the inevitability of death and does so openly, without depression or mourning.   As the Mexican writer Octavio Paz put it, “The Mexican… is familiar with death. (He) jokes about it, caresses it, sleeps with it, celebrates it. It is one of his favorite toys and his most steadfast love.”

This idea that all living things die is at once completely central to Día de los Muertos traditions, and at once what makes this celebration difficult to teach to young students.  However, another way to frame this concept is that the past is as much a part of our communities as the present and the future, and confronting the past ) is a necessary process for any culture or individual.

In the vocabulary section you will find key terms, such as “indigenous,” which can help guide discussion and responses to students’ questions and insights by pointing to certain elements of history that explain how Catholicism combined with Aztec and other indigenous traditions to create the characteristics of today’s customary celebrations, not only in Mexico, but throughout Latin America and any place where there is a Hispanic/Latino community.  In fact, the cover photo on Nat Geo’s page is an image from Los Angeles, California.

Image: Dia de los Muertos in Mission District of San Francisco.  Reprinted from Wikimedia Commons user Jaredzimmerman under CC ©.

Día de los Muertos Roots in Mesoamerica’s “Mother Culture”: The Olmecs

Olmec vs Modern MaskWhen teaching and learning about Día de los Muertos, it is sometimes difficult to separate the many histories and traditions that contributed elements to create this celebration of life and death.  In turn, it is perhaps easy to oversimplify the many cultural building blocks that came together to create this tradition into just two: indigenous and European, or even Aztec and Spanish; but, where did the Aztecs and other indigenous cultures get their traditions from? Part of the answer lies within the art left behind by a great “mother culture”: The Olmec.

The Olmec civilization is most famous today for the sculptures of colossal heads they left behind throughout present-day Mexico, Guatemala and Belize.  The Olmec civilization predates all other Mesoamerican cultures, and although there remain many mysteries to be uncovered through archeological research, it is apparent that the Olmecs were a mother culture for the Mayans, Aztecs and many others.  Among the Olmec customs and traditions that were adopted by later cultures are the ancient ballgame, the cultivation and consumption of chocolate, as well as a unique system of religious symbols that came to characterize many of the Aztec and Mayan’s central gods, anthropomorphized figures that ultimately found their place in Christianized celebrations, such as Día de los Muertos.

Understanding Día de los Muertos as a celebration not simply of death, but rooted in the belief that we, as humans, have many facets to us, many phases, stages and faces as we grow, develop and learn, takes us right back to the Olmec art depicting faces that are combinations of humans and animals.  It is no surprise that the Olmecs also left behind exquisite masks, precursors to those worn today during Día de los Muertos celebrations.

Please follow the above links to various resources regarding the Olmecs and their religious beliefs that can be seen today in Día de los Muertos celebrations! The first three links will bring you to the Ancient History Encyclopedia, a wonderful resource for historical information and explanations of Olmec belief-systems.  The final link will bring you to a collection of photographs, and you can use the arrowhead button at the bottom of the page to access a large archive of visual aid for the most important Olmec artifacts, including sculptures, calendars and glyphs.

Have a wonderful weekend!

Images: Modern Mask. Reprinted from Flickr user SKLurks under CC ©.

Ancient Olmec Mask. Reprinted from LatinAmericanStudies.org under CC ©.

En la Clase: Los Gatos Black on Halloween

Los Gatos BlackA few weeks ago when I was browsing one of our local library’s collections of books on Día de los Muertos, I stumbled across Los Gatos Black on Halloween.  I couldn’t believe that I’d never heard of this book before.  For those of you who know me, you may think I love this book just because it’s called Los Gatos Black.  While I do have a deep affection for black cats, as every cat I’ve ever had has been black, this book is amazing for more reasons than its title and cover. It’s an absolutely beautiful book, and PERFECT for this time of year.  Marisa Montes’ poetry paired with Yuyi Morales’ illustrations makes for an amazing collaboration. Kirkus Reviews calls the book “A spooky seasonal treat and a great choice for any collection” and I couldn’t agree more. The book’s description should give you a taste of what’s so special about this one:

Under October’s luna, full and bright, the monsters are throwing a ball in the Haunted Hall. Las brujas come on their broomsticks. Los muertos rise from their coffins to join in the fun. Los esqueletos rattle their bones as they dance through the door. And the scariest creatures of all? Wait until you see them! This lively bilingual Halloween poem introduces young readers to a spooky array of Spanish words that will open their ojos to the chilling delights of the season.

Montes’ Halloween poem is replete with wonderfully descriptive adjectives, and the rhyming and cadence make it a fun and Los Gatos Black 4lyrical read-aloud. My guess is students would love to turn it into a chant or choral reading, which would make it a great way to fit in a little extra oral language practice. Just imagine the fun students could have reciting the following:

Los gatos black with eyes of green
Cats slink and creep on Halloween
With ojos keen that squint and gleam–
They yowl, they hiss. . .they sometimes scream

A bilingual book, the Spanish words are seamlessly defined by the context, making it perfect for both your English and Spanish speakers.  I think it would be a particularly fun way for Spanish speaking ELLs to expand their English vocabulary, as the Spanish words, along with Morales’ beautiful illustrations, would activate their background knowledge, making it easier for them to understand, process, and remember the English words.  Katherine Reinecke has created a video read aloud where she narrates the book, which would allow students to read along and listen to the book from a computer.

The possibilities really are endless in terms of the activities you could use in your class to accompany the book.  Scholastic has created a simple lesson plan with great pre-reading activities, post-reading questions including a graphic organizer to review the use of context clues to decode unfamiliar words, and great extension activities that draw out the book’s connection to both Halloween and Día de los Muertos.  This would be a great book to use as a segue way to discussions that compare and contrast the two holidays.

Los Gatos Black 2Students may also really enjoy creating their own class Halloween poem.  The majority of the different stanzas of Montes’ poem focus on specific characters associated with Halloween (los gatos, las calabazas, las brujas, los esqueletos).  After analyzing the format and rhyming scheme used by Montes, each student could create their own four line stanza about their favorite part of Halloween and then illustrate it.  When completed, compile all of the poems and illustrations into one book to display in the classroom.  Sticker stories are another possibility.  My students always loved to make these.  I’d give them each a handful of seasonally themed stickers and a blank sheet of white card stock.  Using the stickers, crayons, markers, and anything else they could find, they created a picture.  Then, they wrote a story to go along with their picture.  Here, students could create a Halloween or Fall themed picture and write a four line, rhyming poem to accompany their picture. These could also be compiled to create a class book or hung in the classroom as a fun display.

calabazaYuyi Morales created an interactive page for the book with links to fun activities.  If you click on the pink headstone you’ll pull up thumbnails of different downloadable masks that students can color (like the one at the right).  Clicking on the blue-grey headstone will take you to a new page where students can explore Morales’ process for creating the illustrations.

Los Gatos Black on Halloween is included as an example of culturally relevant literature in the teaching document, “Common Core State Standards (CCSS) English Langauge Arts (ELA): Shifts and Expectations from old to New Standards, Supporting the Learning, Development, and Achievement of ELLs,” created by Loyola University, Chicago.  While not specific to Los Gatos Black on Halloween, the document includes a number of ideas and activities that meet both Common Core Standards and the needs of ELLs that would be easily implemented through the use of the Montes/Morales book.

You may also want to share parts of Cynthia Leitich Smith’s interview with Marisa Montes from her blog Cynsations with your students.

Los Gatos Black on Halloween is a 2007 Bank Street – Best Children’s Book of the Year, the winner of the 2008 Pura Belpré Medal for Illustration and a Pura Belpré Honor Book for Narrative.

If you use the book with your students I’d love to hear what they think of it!

Lorraine just reviewed another of Yuyi Morales’ books on Monday (I think you could say we’re officially part of the Yuyi Morales fan club now), so check out her post ¡Mira, Look!: Just A Minute!: A Trickster Tale and Counting Book.  If you missed it last year, you might also be interested in our post that included a round-up of fun resources and books for Halloween and Día de los Muertos.

Images: Illustrations from Los Gatos Black on Halloween. Illustrator: Yuyi Morales

¡Mira, Look!: Just A Minute!: A Trickster Tale and Counting Book

just a minuteLast week I reviewed a book that touches upon the issue of losing a loved one. This week I present a book that can be used to introduce the issue of death to children in a light and playful way. Given that it also includes imagery related to Día de los Muertos and celebrates Mexican traditions, it’s a great addition to your classroom discussions about this holiday. An Américas Award winner in 2003 and Pura Belpré Award winner in 2004, Just A Minute!: A Trickster Tale and Counting Book, (ages 4-8) written and illustrated by Yuyi Morales, is a wonderful book that mixes multicultural literature with bilingual elements and math.

Here is a description from Goodreads:

“In this original trickster tale, Señor Calavera arrives unexpectedly at Grandma Beetle’s door. He requests that she leave with him right away. “Just a minute,” Grandma Beetle tells him. She still has one house to sweep, two pots of tea to boil, three pounds of corn to make into tortillas — and that’s just the start! Using both Spanish and English words to tally the party preparations, Grandma Beetle cleverly delays her trip and spends her birthday with a table full of grandchildren and her surprise guest. This spirited tribute to the rich traditions of Mexican culture is the perfect introduction to counting in both English and Spanish. The vivacious illustrations and universal depiction of a family celebration are sure to be adored by young readers everywhere.”

The story begins with Señor Calavera knocking on Grandma Beetle’s door, and telling her it is time for her to come along with him. Grandma Beetle says “Just a Minute, I will go with you right away, I have just one house to sweep.” This phrase is repeated as she incrementally prepares for a celebration. She has two pots of tea to boil, three pounds of corn to make into tortillas, four fruits to slice, and on and on. This repeated format includes the Spanish translations for the numbers as Señor Calavera counts the objects.

Grandma Beetle fills seven piñatas with candy and then arranges eight platters of food before finally, her nine grandchildren come through her door. She invites Señor Calavara to be the tenth guest of what turns out to be…her birthday party! They all have a great time and when Grandma Beetle finally says she’s ready to go with him, Señor Calavara is gone! Grandma Beetle successfully outwits Señor Calavara, a fact which is made apparent by the way in which she winks at the reader on the last page and shows a note that Señor Calavara left behind. He says the party was a scream and that he wouldn’t miss her next birthday party for anything in the world.

Just a Minute_Page_3

The illustrations are made up of bold, vivid colors and include interactive elements that children will enjoy, such as spotting the little black and white kitten found on each page. Though the bilingual aspect is minimal (the only words in Spanish are the numbers 1-10), it is still a great tool to teach children how to count in Spanish. It also effectively reflects Mexican culture through the depictions of Señor Calavara, the foods, piñatas, and birthday celebration.

Just a Minute_Page_2



The book is a useful tool for introducing Día de los Muertos to young readers. In a purely visual sense, Señor Calavera mimics the traditional, whimsical skeletal figures often created to accompany the holiday, and the vibrant colors draw upon Mexican culture. More conceptually, Grandma Beetles’ celebratory interaction with death reflects the revelry that marks Día de los Muertos customs. These visual and textual elements thus make this title a great selection for teaching children about the holiday and getting them to acknowledge death in a lighthearted way.

Check out the amusing sequel to this book, Just In Case: A Trickster Tale and Spanish Alphabet Book, in which Señor Calavara comes back for another of Grandma Beetle’s birthday parties and labors over finding her a suitable gift.

If you plan on using this book with your students, there are a number of helpful resources:

  • Created for the Américas Award, Linda Kreft has written a classroom guide that ties the book to National Art, Language Art, and Social Studies Standards.
  • Chronicle Books produced a beautifully-illustrated Teachers Guide for grades K-3.
  •  Yuyi Morales’ website has numerous resources that explain her process of creating the book including the character Señor Calavara.

Gathering-Books Latinos-in-Kid-Lit

Good for: Gathering Books COYRL Challenge 2014 and Latin@s in Kids Lit Reading Challenge 2014

Images: Illustrations from Just A Minute!: A Trickster Tale and Counting Book. Illustrator: Yuyi Morales