Reading Roundup: Indigenous Peoples of Latin America

Nov 2015 Indigenous Peoples

¡Buenos días!

I hope everyone is having a great Thanksgiving! The Reading Roundup I’ve created this month involves books about indigenous peoples of Latin America. With all of the stereotyped Pilgrims and Indians floating around, I hope that these books can be of use in the classroom for depicting a more accurate view of Native peoples and cultures in the Americas. I personally enjoyed reading and writing about these books, and I hope you enjoy them too!


Talking With Mother Earth/Hablando con Madre Tierra
Written by Jorge Argueta
Illustrations by Lucía Angela Pérez
Published by Groundwood Books
ISBN: 9780888996268
Age Level: 5-8
Pipíl Nahua

An Américas Award Commended Title

Raw, honest and powerful, these moving bilingual poems by noted Salvadoran poet Jorge Argueta explore a young native boy’s connection to Mother Earth and how he is healed from the terrible wounds of racism he has endured. Tetl has learned from his grandmother about the spirituality of his ancestors, about how they viewed the earth as alive with sacred meaning. This helps him move from doubt and fear, created by the taunts of other children, to self-acceptance and a discovery of his love for nature.

Mountains, wind, corn and stones all speak to Tetl, almost seeming to vibrate with life. He feels deep roots in them and, through them, he learns to speak and sing. They reveal his Nahuatl self and he realizes that he is special, beautiful and sacred. These gripping poems have something to teach us all, perhaps especially those who have been either intentionally or casually cruel or racist, as well as those who have been the victims of racism.

Our thoughts:
In this book, Argueta shows the power of words and their ability to heal emotional wounds. His colorful descriptions of nature pair perfectly with the bright, yet soft illustrations by Lucía Angelea Pérez. Jorge Argueta is his own character in this book, making the book and its takes on racism very real and personal. Moreover, the translations to English are beautifully written. Lorraine wrote a post on this book that is worth checking out. Other bilingual books by Argueta do a wonderful job of accurately depicting indigenous children in the modern world, such as Xochitl and the Flowers/Xóchitl, La niña de las flores and Alfredito Flies home/Alfredito regresa volando a su casa.

The Girl from Chimel
Written by Rigoberta Menchú with Dante Liano
Illustrations by Domi
Published by Groundwood Books
ISBN: 9780888996664
Age Level: 9
Quiché Maya

An American Library Association Notable Books List selection

Nobel Peace Prize winner and noted Maya activist Rigoberta Menchú Tum brings the world of her childhood vividly alive in The Girl from Chimel.

Before the thirty-six year war in Guatemala, despite the hardships the Maya people had endured since the time of the Conquest, life in their highland villages had a beauty and integrity that were changed forever by the conflict and brutal genocide that were to come. Menchú’s stories of her grandparents and parents, of the natural world that surrounded her as a young girl, and her retelling of the stories that she was told present a rich, humorous and engaging picture of that lost world.

Marvelous illustrations by Domi draw on the Maya landscape and the rich visual vocabulary that can be found in the weavings and crafts for which the Maya are world-renowned.

My Thoughts:
This book tells the beautiful story of life in a small Guatemalan Quiché town before the country’s civil war. The story is filled with Domi’s colorful illustrations, which illuminate the natural beauty of the town where Rigoberta grew up. Rigoberta grows up secure, happy and according to her family’s Quiché Maya ways of living. The story is autobiographical, told by the indigenous activist Rigoberta Menchú. Rigoberta Menchú, a Nobel Peace Prize recipient and important figure in contemporary Guatemala. She suffered the hardships of indigenous genocide during the Guatemalan Civil War, losing her mother, father and brother. This book’s healing nature shows the beauty of Menchú’s town and Quiché Maya ways of life. Menchú  and Domi also paired to write The Honey Jar and The Secret Legacy, beautiful sequels to this book. De Colores wrote a blog post reviewing all three books, in case you’re interested in learning more.

Light Foot/Pies Ligeros
Written by Natalia Toledo
Translations by Elisa Amado
Illustrations by Francisco Toledo
Published by Groundwood Books
ISBN: 9780888997890
Age Level: 6-12

Once upon a time people and animals kept on having baby after baby, and the world grew more and more crowded. Death decided to solve this problem by challenging everyone to a jump-rope contest that she, being immortal, was sure to win. One by one, Toad, Monkey, Coyote, Rabbit and Alligator succumbed to her dare. But then along came Grasshopper with his ingenious tricks.

This book features the work of Francisco Toledo, one of Mexico’s most famous contemporary indigenous artists, who did a series of engravings of Death — a dominant figure in Mexican culture — skipping with animals, which feature largely in Zapotec culture.

My Thoughts:
I personally loved reading this book. The translations into English are meaningfully written, making the poetry rhyme in both languages. The Spanish language of this book is quite particular to Zapotec Mexico, making it more connected to the culture of the story it tells. Furthermore, the animals in the story are all important animals in Zapotec culture. In the story, we see death as a necessity, rather than something horrific. Without death, our world would be overly populated. Furthermore, the theme of death introduces a circular concept to the readers’ minds. The paintings that accompany the words in the story are equally as important as the text. They are varied yet cohesive, and are also dreamlike – perfect for elaborating the intangible concept of death. Furthermore, Francisco and Natalia Toledo, father and daughter, are very well respected in Zapotec society, and it is a treat for children to be exposed to such wonderful artists.

Written by Antonio Ramírez
Illustrations by Domi
Published by Groundwood Books
ISBN: 9780888996114
Age Level: 5-8

Napí is a young Mazateca girl who lives with her family in a little village on the bank of a river in the state of Oaxaca in Mexico. Each afternoon the family sits beneath the shade of a huge ceiba tree and listens to the grandfather’s stories. As Napí listens, dreamily, the afternoons take on different colors in her imagination – orange, purple, violet and green. She finds nighttime along the river just as beautiful as the trees fill with white herons settling on their branches. The ceiba tree sends Napí dreams every night, and in her favorite one, she becomes a heron, gliding freely along the river.

Domi’s vibrant palette and magical illustrations are a perfect complement to this imaginative story.

My Thoughts:
This is a beautiful story, and the colorful illustrations really bring it to life. Ramírez prioritizes nature by writing about the wind, the river, wildlife, and the colors of the earth at different times of day. When we see the faraway image of the village and all of its colors, the houses blend in with nature, symbolizing the harmonious relationship that the Napí people have with the natural world. This wonderful book is available in both English and Spanish. It is also followed up by Napí va a la montaña/Napi Goes to the Mountain, and Napí funda un pueblo/Napí Makes a Village. The De Colores website has a review of all three books that is worth checking out.

Kusikiy: A Child from Taquile, Peru
Written and Illustrated by Mercedes Cecilia
Published by Keepers of Wisdom and Peace Books
ISBN: 9780984407989
Age Level: All Ages

Kusikiy: A Child from Taquile, Peru, by author and illustrator Mercedes Cecilia, is a unique story that draws us into the kaleidoscopic and mysterious world of a Peruvian child. Kusikiy lives in the Andes Mountains of Peru in a small island in Lake Titikaka. In this wise and peaceful community, Kusikiy’s father cultivates potatoes and quinoa. His mother, like her mother and grandmother, weaves intricate traditional designs into her textiles to keep a record of important events. Children will identify with Kusikiy’s love for family and his concerns for the effects of climate changes on Mother Earth, as well as with his desire to be of help to his town.

When the Llama Constellation is missing from the sky, Kusikiy flies with Condor to the highest snowed peak to ask the APU, the Guardian Spirit of the Mountain for his help. Kusikiy enjoys his adventures and learns from his great grandparents the sacredness of the Great Glaciers and the traditional ways of giving thanks to Mother Earth. The town rejoices with a festival when they see the stars of the Llama Constellation returning to the sky.

Author/illustrator Mercedes Cecilia has created a myth following in the tradition of her Peruvian ancestors; a myth that treasures the universal values of love, family, community and caring for the Earth.

My Thoughts:
I really enjoyed reading this book. It is a good representation of Andean Quechua culture, and takes place on the sacred Lake Titicaca. One of my favorite parts of this book is the representation of how the stars dictate ceremonial and seasonal practices on land. In this case, it is the Llama Constellation that dictates when the rains will come, signaling for celebrations of the earth’s fertility. At the end of the book, Mercedes Cecilia writes about Quechua epistemology, or ways of knowing for understanding the world around us. Even when writing about the lake, Cecilia draws the Quechua diamond-shaped weaving symbol for lake, or qocha, below the text. In the year 2012 I visited Taquile Island with my family, and one thing to keep in mind while reading this book is the fact that it does not touch on the ways that life has changed over the years; it focuses more on tradition. Today on Taquile Island, while traditional ways are upheld, tourism has become very important. Many people on the island make a living from giving tours or selling woven creations to tourists. Mobility on Lake Titicaca is also rather easy today, making it possible to travel to the city of Puno for different necessities. Much of the youth is moving to other Peruvian cities, while the elders continue living on the islands. Nevertheless, tradition is still maintained. This book is beautifully written and illustrated, and it teaches us a lot about traditional Quechua culture and ways of life. On the Kusikiy website you can learn more and see some of the book’s pages.

Journey of Dreams
Written by Marge Pellegrino
Published by Frances Lincoln Children’s Books
ISBN: 9781845079642
Age Level: 11-14
Quiché Maya

Helicopters slash through the air like machetes, soldiers patrol the roads hunting down guerrillas…for the peaceful highlanders of Guatemala, life has become a nightmare. Tomasa’s mother has to go into hiding with her eldest son, and, when they see their house razed to the ground and the villagers massacred, Tomasa, Manuelito and baby María set off with Papá on a perilous journey north to find Mamá and Carlos.

This is Tomasa’s story of how her family survives the Guatemalan army ‘scorched earth’ campaign, and how Papá’s storytelling keeps them going on their search for refuge in the United States.

Our Thoughts:
We can learn a lot from this book, as it touches on so many issues; from the Guatemalan Civil War, to Mayan struggle, to immigration, to the importance of unity and love, Journey of Dreams is a wonderful way to begin thought-provoking conversation in the classroom. Not to mention that it’s beautifully written. It has a helpful glossary in the back for the Spanish and Quiché words used. Katrina wrote a review about this book, where she highlights our Educator’s Guide for using it in the classroom.

The Story of Colors/La Historia de los Colores
Written by Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos
Illustrations by Domitilia Domínguez
Published by Cinco Puntos Press
ISBN: 9780938317715
Age Level: 9-12

Well, one day old man Antonio is walking in the mountainous jungle of Chiapas with his friend Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos when he sees a macaw bird, its feathers blessed with each and every color, like a rainbow. The bird reminds the old man of a story that he thinks that his friend Marcos should know. It’s the story of how the gods found all the colors in the world. Antonio sits down on the ground and begins: Once upon a time, of course, the world was just black and white with gray in between. Black and white and gray? The gods were understandably bored and angry, so they went looking for other colors to brighten the world for the people.

This wonderful folktale reveals some of the down-to-earth wisdom of the indigenous peoples of Chiapas. At the same time, it provides us with a fresh perspective on the struggles of the people there. They fight to conserve their culture and a vision of the world which they see as flowering with holiness, a holiness that cannot be measured in dollars or defined by politics.

Our Thoughts:
We have many reasons to support this book, however, we are still waiting to receive our own copy to review it more in detail. From the reviews we’ve read so far, we have gathered that this bilingual book introduces and reaffirms different ways of thinking to children, making it clear that all perspectives should be respected, and that indigenous perspectives in particular should carry weight. One thing to keep in mind is that the book does mention love-making, however, the reviews depict it as natural, familiar and delicate. The book was written by the Zapatista rebel Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos, and it initially underwent threats of censorship when the National Endowment for the Arts grant was cancelled by its chair, William Ivey, due to fear of the elimination of the NEA itself by Congressional Republicans. The De Colores site explains the situation well on its page. Nevertheless, the book was published, and afterwards Cinco Puntos Press published another book by Subcomandante Marcos titled Questions & Swords: Folktales of the Zapatista Revolution.

Written by Ann Cameron
Published by Laurel Leaf
Age Level: 12 and up

She was little and quick and pretty. Her mother nicknamed her Colibrí, Spanish for “Hummingbird.” At age four she was kidnapped, torn from her parents on a crowded bus in Guatemala City. Since then she’s traveled with “Uncle,” the ex-soldier and wandering beggar who has renamed her Rosa. Uncle has always told Rosa that he searched for her parents but had no success. There’s almost no chance Rosa will ever find them, but Rosa still remembers and longs for them.

When she was young, Uncle consulted fortune-tellers who told him that Rosa would bring him luck – a treasure big enough to last him all his life. So he’s kept her with him. Together, they have traveled from town to town in the highlands of Guatemala, scraping out a living, hoping to find the treasure. Eight years have passed, and Rosa has turned twelve. No treasure has been found, and Uncle has almost given up hope. When he turns angry and desperate, danger threatens Rosa from all side, but especially from Uncle himself.

Our Thoughts:
Colibrí is a beautiful book that follows Colibrí, a young Mayan woman, through adolescence, making it easy for kids to connect with the narrative. It tells the about the difficulties of growing up, and also gives us a better comprehension of difficulties that children face in contemporary times. In addition, it gives us insight into indigenous struggles in Guatemala. This book is available in Spanish and English, and Katrina wrote a review about it, where she links to our thorough Teacher’s Guide for the classroom.

Sculpted Stones/Piedras Labradas
Written by Victor Montejo
Published by Curbstone Books
ISBN: 9781880684146
Age Level: 12 and up

The poems in Montejo’s Sculpted Stones give lyric expression to the feelings of exile and to the (sometimes comic) difficulties of living in a foreign culture. Throughout this book, Montejo extols the values of the Maya culture and denounces the Guatemalan government’s attempts to destroy the Indian society. At times with tenderness, at times with humor, at times with scathing irony, Montejo examines nature, politics, and recorded history to get at the truths of the present and the past.

My Thoughts:
In these beautiful poems Victor Montejo confronts the genocide that his Mayan people faced during the Guatemalan Civil War. The Mayan people in Guatemala continue to be afflicted by the horrors they have had to endure, and colonialism and racism persists. Through his book of poetry, which is available in both Spanish and English, Montejo gives courage to his people. Montejo’s home village in Guatemala suffered a massacre, and since then he has fled to the United States, where he works as a university professor and activist for indigenous peoples, especially Mayas. Montejo has also written Testimony: Death of a Guatemalan Village, The Bird Who Cleans the World and Other Mayan Fables, and Popol Vuh, all of which are highly recommended by the excellent reviewers at the De Colores blog.

The Queen of Water
Written by Laura Resau & María Virginia Farinangoía
Published by Ember
ISBN: 0375859632
Age Level: 12 and up

Born in an Andean village in Ecuador, Virginia lives with her large family in a small, earthen-walled dwelling. In her village of indígenas, it is not uncommon to work in the fields all day, even as a child, or to be called a longa tonta—stupid Indian—by members of the ruling class of mestizos, or Spanish descendants. When seven-year-old Virginia is taken from her village to be a servant to a mestizo couple, she has no idea what the future holds.

In this poignant novel based on a true story, acclaimed author Laura Resau has collaborated with María Virginia Farinango to recount one girl’s unforgettable journey to self-discovery. Virginia’s story will speak to anyone who has ever struggled to find his or her place in the world. It will make you laugh and cry, and ultimately, it will fill you with hope.

Our Thoughts:
The Queen of Water is a beautiful story that gives us insight into the inequalities against indigenous people in Ecuador that persist today. The fact that it is based on a true story, and co-authored accordingly, makes it even more impactful. Katrina posted a review of this book, and we also have a detailed Educator’s Guide that would be great to use.

En la Clase: A Piñata in a Pine Tree

A Pinata in a Pine Tree | Teaching Holidays and Celebrations | Vamos a Leer BlogI realize it’s still November, but based on our search statistics, many of you are already looking for books, lesson plans, and resources for teaching about winter celebrations like Christmas and Las Posadas.  I’m impressed! You all are far more organized than I was when I was in the classroom.  You’ll definitely want to check out this week’s giveaway of Merry Navidad!  In previous posts we’ve discussed our philosophy for how to approach teaching about cultural celebrations and traditions in a way that’s authentic and meaningful.  Many of those same ideas are relevant here as well.

First, I thought I’d share some of the ideas I’ve written about in past posts on teaching about winter celebrations.  This time of year was always one of my favorites times to be in the classroom because the possibilities for engaging and interesting lessons were endless.  When I taught third grade, at the beginning of each December I began a unit on three winter celebrations: Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and Las Posadas.  As a child, I remember talking about Hanukkah in school, but the extent of what we learned seemed to be limited to eating latkes and learning a song and game about dreidels.  I wanted to go beyond that.  I wanted my students to have a deeper understanding of cultural traditions that may be different from the ones they or their families personally observe.

I checked out children’s fiction and non-fiction literature on each celebration.  From these books and other resources we learned the history of each celebration: when, where and why it began; the traditional language of that celebration; and the traditions that continued to be celebrated each year. This unit became a gold-mine for addressing multiple standards.  I was able to meet a number of social studies, geography, literacy and cultural competency standards in just a few weeks.  A timeline and world A Pinata in a Pine Tree | Vamos a Leer Blogmap were major components of the unit.

I never had any issues or complaints during this unit because I think it was clear we were approaching this as a means to gain cultural knowledge and become culturally competent learners.  While these celebrations are much more than cultural knowledge to those who observe them, my purpose was to share some of the diversity of the world with my students, so that they would be able to acknowledge and respect difference when they experienced it in the world outside our classroom.

With all that in mind, today’s post is about how to use Pat Mora and Magaly Morales’ A Piñata in a Pine Tree: A Latino Twelve Days of Christmas in the classroom.  I love this book.  More importantly, I have it on good authority from one of my favorite four year-olds that this is “one of the best books ever.”  In this festive new version of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” a secret amiga delivers presents to a little girl, “filling the pages with brightly colored piñatas, burritos bailando, lunitas cantando, and more.”  Neoshia, one of our previous bloggers, wrote the following about the book, and I couldn’t agree more with her:

“Why should we look at a book like this for our classrooms? Well, it is an easy read for young kids. Also, it demonstrates that while many people celebrate the same holiday, people celebrate it differently. It is a simple lesson in multiculturalism. This book allows us to have a discussion at a younger age about cultural differences (but really similarities), while giving us a fun read for the holiday.”

Like some of the other books I’ve highlighted this month, this one is also written with young children in mind.  There are things to find and count on each page.  It’s great for both English and Spanish speakers.  Spanish speakers will see and hear familiar words and phrases, while English speakers are given lots of context clues and pronunciation help on each page to help them decipher the Spanish words.  A glossary at the end is also helpful.  It can also be used with older students as the basis of a fun writing activity.

A Pinata in a Pine Tree | Vamos a Leer BlogFor many students, “The Twelve Days of Christmas” is a familiar carol, but even for those who don’t know it, the easy repetition in Mora’s prose makes it a great book to encourage choral reading and oral language practice.  With lots of cultural references, it’s perfect for either introducing students to Mexican Christmas traditions or providing literary representations of holiday celebrations that our students observe in their own homes.  It’s also great for encouraging students to be aware of the things we associate with this winter holiday season.

There are lots of ways to integrate this book into a class writing activity.  Probably the most obvious is to have students write their own Twelve Days of Winter poem or carol.  This could be done with any winter celebration that a student observes, or just be written about winter in general.  If you’re looking for a whole group activity, the class could brainstorm and write a whole class poem.  You can use the cultural traditions, vocabulary, and languages of the students so that the poem is representative of the diversity of the class.  In terms of actually writing the poem, once students have brainstormed their twelve objects, they’d only actually write the last complete stanza of the poem where they list all twelve of the objects.

A Pinata in a Pine Tree | Vamos a Leer BlogIf time allows, there are lots of ways to integrate art into this writing activity.  If students have written individual poems, let them illustrate it through their own drawings, pictures from magazines, or cards.  Morales’ beautiful illustrations provide great examples to activate students’ creativity. You could also create a whole class ‘life size’ illustration that each student contributes to.  There are different ways you could do this.  First create a large base for the illustration, something like a pine tree or a winter scene (maybe something with slopes of snow. . .).  This could be used as a door covering or just a large wall decoration.  Then, ask each student to make one of the objects from a line in his or her poem.  For example, in Mora and Morales’ book one of the lines is ocho pajaritos serenando (eight serenading birds).  If this were the line I wanted to illustrate, I would create a representation of a serenading bird (or eight if space and time allowed) to include on the class display.  Once completed, you have a life size display of your class’ winter traditions.

A fun, low stress, and relatively simple activity, this could be great for that last week before break when students might have a little more trouble focusing with the excitement of the upcoming extended break.

I hope you all have a wonderful week filled with great food, family, and friends!


Book Giveaway: Merry Navidad!

Good afternoon, everyone!

Can you believe that the holidays are upon us!  I cannot!  Although we are sad to say that this is our last week of the Tuesday Giveaways for this semester, we are happy to have given out so many great books thanks to Alma Flor Ada and F. Isabel Campoy’s gracious donation and we want to encourage you to look out for some more giveaways in the spring!  Vamos a Leer | Book Giveaway: Merry Navidad!Our final giveaway of the semester will be Merry Navidad!, co-authored by Alma Flor Ada and F. Isabel Campoy, illustrated by Viví Escrivá, and translated into English by Rosa Zubizarreta.  This book is described as a “warm and vibrant collection of traditional Spanish Christmas carols, or villancicos, [in which] authors Alma Flor Ada and F. Isabel Campoy bring to life the holiday traditions of Latin America and Spain. The creative English adaptations by Rosalma Zubizarreta both capture the spirit of the originals and add a new dimension to the songs. And Spanish illustrator Viví Escrivá‘s spirited illustrations are perfect backdrops for the lyrics, adding rich holiday flavor.”  It would be a great addition to classroom holiday activities for all age groups. Are you ready for a sing-along? Comment below and let us know! Have a happy and safe holiday season and don’t forget to check back in the spring for more giveaways!

Until spring,


Image: Photo of Merry Navidad! Reproduced from Alma Flor’s website.

¡Mira, Look!: The First Tortilla

Children's Book Review: The First Tortilla by Rudolfo Anaya | Vamos a Leer¡Saludos, todos! This week I will be reviewing The First Tortilla, written by Rudolfo Anaya, illustrated by Amy Córdova, and translated into Spanish by Enrique R. Lamadrid (one of our professors here at UNM!). This book review will conclude our November-themed books, as next week we turn our attention to our December discussions on winter celebrations. For now, though, we are focusing on this lovely, bilingual retelling of a Mexican legend, keeping in tune with our themes of food and family, as well as indigenous traditions. This story, with stunning illustrations and an endearing female protagonist, depicts the harvest season amongst a small, Aztec tribe. Readers will revel in the old legend, while learning of the need to respect nature and its resources. For those of you avid blog-readers, this review will surely remind you of some of our previous reviews on other works by Rudolfo Anaya, and his retellings of old myths and legends.

Children's Book Review: The First Tortilla by Rudolfo Anaya | Vamos a LeerBest suited for ages 9-13, Anaya’s work tells the fictional tale of how a young girl’s courage saves her village from a terrible drought, and introduces corn to the peoples of Mesoamerica. Ultimately, the discovery of corn also leads to the creation of “the first tortilla“. The old legend, as well as Anaya’s rendition, reminds readers and listeners of the importance in giving thanks, and appreciating the land and the sustenance that it provides.

The story begins with our young protagonist, Jade, rising to greet the sun in her small, Mexican village. Her mother is “crushing dry chile pods in a metate” while her father is “weaving a basket” to later sell in the market. The scene is set with a visual description of the village, and its surrounding area. Nearby, a large volcano representing the Mountain Spirit towers over the people and their homes.

Children's Book Review: The First Tortilla by Rudolfo Anaya | Vamos a LeerAs Jade retrieves water from the lake, the reader learns of the village’s terrible and prolonged drought: “The beautiful lake was almost dry.” Many of the crops are in desperate need of water. As she continues working, a blue hummingbird comes fluttering past her ear: “‘You must go to the Mountain Spirit and ask for rain,’ the hummingbird whispered. ‘And you must take a gift’.” Jade recalls how her parents had warned her of the dangers of climbing up the steep volcano, but she also feels the weight of her village’s desperate situation, anChildren's Book Review: The First Tortilla by Rudolfo Anaya | Vamos a Leerd is compelled to save them from the drought. As Jade is forced to make a difficult decision, she learns how to take care of her community while coexisting with the land– an important element in many indigenous cultures.

In the back of the book Anaya has included a glossary of indigenous Mexican words, such as elote, “an ancient Mexican word for ear of corn,” and rebozo, “a shawl worn by Mexican women.” Many of the words help depict the process of harvesting and cooking corn, such as metate, a “concave rock where corn is ground,” or mano, “a smooth rock with which to grind corn.” Corn was one of the most important crops amongst ancient, native peoples and, as Anaya remarks, “The cultivation of corn made it possible for the great civilizations of Mesoamerica to flourish.” Anaya even challenges readers: “How many products made from corn can you name?

Anaya has beeChildren's Book Review: The First Tortilla by Rudolfo Anaya | Vamos a Leern known for frequently incorporating myth and legend in his tales for children, as some of you may remember from my review on Maya’s Children: The Story of La Llorona. While this particular story explicitly draws from the Aztec legend mentioned by Anaya in his author’s note, it also subtly references the Native American, Iroquois legend of The Three Sisters. The legend of The Three Sisters anthropomorphizes the three crops of corn, bean, and squash as three inseparable sisters who need each other in order to grow and thrive. While Jade begs the Mountain Spirit for water, because the “bean and squash are dying,” readers who are familiar with the legend may surmise that something else besides water is missing: their third sister, corn.

The legend of the three sisters has many agricultural and nutritional motives, as these three crops are symbiotic, and grow best when planted together within the same plot of land. Additionally, they each provide vital nutrients, and together offer a well-balanced diet that sustained Native Americans in North and Central America for generations and generations. According to Renee’s Garden,

Corn provides a natural pole for bean vines to climb. Beans fix nitrogen on their roots, improving the overall fertility of the plot by providing nitrogen to the following years corn. Bean vines also help stabilize the corn plants, making them less vulnerable to blowing over in the wind. Shallow-rooted squash vines become a living mulch, shading emerging weeds and preventing soil moisture from evaporating, thereby improving the overall crops chances of survival in dry years. Spiny squash plants also help discourage predators from approaching the corn and beans. The large amount of crop residue from this planting combination can be incorporated back into the soil at the end of the season, to build up the organic matter and improve its structure.

Children's Book Review: The First Tortilla by Rudolfo Anaya | Vamos a LeerThis legend not only reflects the important symbiotic relationships amongst nature’s elements, and the teleological design of the ecosystem, but also, in a more metaphorical sense, the interdependency between individuals and the community. As Jade discovers the first stalk of corn and learns how to make the first tortilla she gains knowledge and skills that will serve her tribe for generations to come.

For those of you interested in learning more about how to incorporate myth and legend into the classroom, here are a few additional links:

Stay tuned for an introduction to our December themes!

¡Hasta pronto!

Images modified from The First Tortilla, pg. 7, 8, 10, 18, 22, 28

WWW: Food, Festivals, and Feelings: Less than a week until Turkey Day!

¡Feliz viernes a todos!

Thanks for joining me again this week! I can almost smell all the delicious foods being prepared at home already! Can’t you? I hope you and your students are getting excited to celebrate the holiday in your own special ways.  This week, I am featuring a few resources that highlight the ways in which Thanksgiving coincides with Harvest Festivals throughout the world.

Vamos a Leer | WWW: Food, Festivals, and Feelings: Less than a week until Turkey Day!The first resource is from Eatocracy and it shows some beautiful images of how Thanksgiving foods in different parts of the United States have been adapted to include more Latin American ingredients.  For example, the first picture on the page shows the Castillo-Lavergne Family’s Turkey Pasteles, which are wrapped green banana stuffed pastries.  This is the perfect display of how the traditional turkey platter can be transformed and included in other cultural dishes.  This article, creatively titled, “El Día de Las Gracias—Thanksgiving with a Latin Twist,” celebrates the coming together of flavors, families, and cultures across the United States.  We think this resource could easily be incorporated into class discussions of how students celebrate the holiday, what foods they have every year, and who gets to help with the cooking.

The second and last two resources are photo collections of Thanksgiving celebrations from around the world.  The collections span from the United Kingdom and Canada to Korea, India, and Ghana!  What a great way to show Thanksgiving as more than just a “Pilgrims and Indians” story! The photographs help illustrate how other countries celebrate the holiday through diverse food, dress, and festival style.  It’s also interesting to see what each Thanksgiving equivalent holiday is called in other countries.  These resources show that Harvest Festivals and Thanksgiving celebrations are not unique to the United States alone!

We think these resources could easily be incorporated into the Thanksgiving discussion in class in order to give students a more globalized view of the holiday.  It would be a perfect way to incorporate diversity into the classroom, just by discussing these festivals and then talking about how individual families differ in their own celebrations of Thanksgiving, even if they live in the same neighborhood.  Here’s to having a few days to celebrate with family, friends, and a lot of great food! I hope the class discussions are as fruitful as the Thanksgiving spreads!

With warmest wishes,


Image: Photo of Harvest Festival. Reprinted from Flickr user Angela Marie Henriette under CC ©.


En la Clase: Gracias~Thanks

Gracias Thanks |En la Clase | Vamos a LeerIn last week’s En la Clase I talked about using Round is a Tortilla and Green is a Chile Pepper as the basis for a poetry activity based on gratitude, gratefulness, and awareness.  This week I’m highlighting Gracias ~ Thanks, another beautiful book illustrated by John Parra and written by Pat Mora.  As the title suggests, thankfulness is the main theme of the book, making it the perfect book for this time of year. The publisher’s description writes, “There are so many things to be thankful for. . .Straight from the heart of a child flows this lighthearted bilingual celebration of family, friendship, and fun.  Come share the joy, and think about all the things for which you can say, ¡Gracias! Thanks!”  Like last week’s books, Gracias ~ Thanks is a book written with young children in mind, so it’s great for your pre-school or early elementary students.  But, with such an important and universal theme, it’s great for encouraging a mindfulness of the everyday things for which we can be thankful in older and younger students alike.  Plus, each page is written in English and Spanish, so it’s great for English, Spanish, or bilingual classrooms.

In all of our busyness, it’s easy to take for granted the people or things that make our lives so special.  Mora’s poetic words and Parra’s beautiful illustrations turn the very commonplace things in our lives into reasons to celebrate.  They highlight the ways in which the ordinary actions of family and friends can make our lives such lovely experiences.  Not only is it a fun book to read, but it easily lends itself to writing activities.

Gracias Thanks | For the sun | Vamos a Leer I’d start by reading the book to students.  As you read, encourage them to listen for Mora’s sentence pattern.  She starts each sentence with “For + the thing or person to be thankful for.” Then, she follows with the connecting word “that or who + a description of the reason for the thankfulness.  She ends each sentence with the word “thanks.” Here’s an example from one of my favorite pages:

“For the sun that wakes me up so I don’t sleep for years and grow a long, white beard, thanks.” 

Once you finish the book, ask students to discuss it.  Are they thankful for any of the same things? Were they surprised by any of the things that the main character was thankful for?  Then, ask students to brainstorm things they are thankful for.  Have them think about the questions, “What kinds of things are you thankful for?” and  “Why are you thankful for these things?” Guide them to be very specific in answering the “Why?”  Draw their attention to the author’s examples.  Mora doesn’t just write “For Mom I’m thankful because she helps me, thanks.”  Instead, she writes, “For Mom, who found my homework in the trash, thanks.” Also, highlight the things Mora writes about that we probably don’t think about very often, like the bees, our pajamas, or worms.  Students can complete this brainstorm on their own, or it can be done as a class, creating a list or ‘bank’ of ideas that students can use when they write their own poem or book.

Once students have completed the brainstorm, have them write their own Gracias ~ Thanks poem or book.  If you have more time, a book could be a fun activity that would allow students to illustrate each of the things they are thankful for the way Parra did.  For a less time consuming activity, students can write a poem with just one illustration (if time allows).  You could also collect each student’s poem and illustration and compile it into a class book.

Gracias Thanks |For my pajamas | Vamos a LeerMora’s and Parra’s book provides a way to talk about thankfulness without having to base the conversation in the stereotypical Pilgrims, Indians, and First Thanksgiving November activities.  It’s also a fun way to teach the difference between why we use “who” and “that,” something that always caused my students some confusion.  This activity really enforces the idea that “who” goes with people and “that” goes with things.  One of my favorite aspects of this activity is that it brings students’ everyday lives into the classroom.  We’ve talked before about how important it is that students’ lives outside the classroom are represented inside the classroom.  Here, the very basis for the poem are students’ everyday lives inside and outside the classroom.  To me, this is a great way to show that every part of their lives is valuable and relevant to what we do in the classroom.

As always, I’d love to hear any ideas or suggestions you may have!

Until next week,


¡Mira, Look!: Don’t Say a Word, Mamá / No digas nada, mamá

Children's Book Review: Don't Say a Word, Mamá by Joe Hayes | Vamos a Leer¡Saludos, todos! Our book for this week is a perfect addition to our November themes of food, abundance, and thanks. I will be reviewing Don’t Say a Word, Mamá/ No digas nada, mamá, by Joe Hayes and illustrated by Esau Andrade Valencia, an amusing tale of two loving sisters, an appreciative mother and a garden overflowing with tomatoes, corn and peppers. The story is written in both English and Spanish and is best for ages 4-8.

The story begins by introducing two sisters, Rosa and Blanca, who “loved each other very much” and were always eager to help the other with her chores. Their mother is immensely grateful for such wonderful daughters: “She would always say ‘My daughters are so good to each other! I must be the luckiest mother in this town. No. I’m the luckiest mother in this country. No. I think I’m the luckiest mother in the whole wide world!’” These character descriptions are heartwarming and remind readers of the gratitude and appreciation that a loving family deserves. This passage also begins to show the various techniques through which Hayes slows down his language in a way that is more accessible to younger readers. Mamá measures her gratitude for her daughters in intervals, a slow crescendo, claiming to be the luckiest mother in the town, then the country, and then the entire world.

Children's Book Review: Don't Say a Word, Mamá by Joe Hayes | Vamos a LeerOne year, the now adult sisters each decide to start a garden, and, of course, the sisters graciously help out in each other’s garden. Their gardens are fruitful and in the spirit of giving, each sister decides to bring a basket of produce from the garden to their elderly mother. Never failing to think of her other half, Rosa decides that she will also secretly bring a basket of produce to Blanca: “‘I’m going to give half of my tomatoes to my sister. But it will be a surprise. Don’t say a word, Mamá.’” Then, Blanca decides to do the exact same thing. These events are described in two paragraphs that almost perfectly mirror one another. With very similar sentence structures, and almost identical language, these passages will help young readers remember the dialogue, learn new words, and keep up with the plot development.

Children's Book Review: Don't Say a Word, Mamá by Joe Hayes | Vamos a LeerAs the story progresses, Mama’s house fills up with tomatoes, corn and chili peppers. Simultaneously, each sister begins to wonder how, despite giving most of their vegetables away, they still end up with a basket full of vegetables on their kitchen table (not knowing that as they each secretly take vegetables to the other’s house, the other is doing the exact same thing). As they contemplate the origin of all these vegetables, the story takes an imaginative turn, and the illustrations show ever-growing families of anthropomorphic tomatoes and stalks of corn. The illustrations do an excellent job of depicting the two symmetrical plot-lines, while also enhancing the repetitive text with an additional flare. This allows young readers to visually take in extra details of the story, without getting confused by more complex language. Additionally, the amusing illustrations will prevent more advanced readers from getting bored by the repetitive text.

Children's Book Review: Don't Say a Word, Mamá by Joe Hayes | Vamos a LeerValencia’s folk-art style beautifully reflects our November themes, as his illustrations focus on family-life and the home. According to LA Artists,

Born in Tepic Nayarit, Mexico, Esau Andrade comes from a family of folk artists which includes his mother and his brother, Raymundo. Although largely self-taught, he attended La Escuela de Artes Plasticas de the Universidad de Guadalajara and has long studied the work of other Mexican masters such as Diego Rivera and Rufino Tamayo in whose footsteps he follows. Although still young, he is increasingly being recognized as a master artist in the tradition of these great Latino painters. However, his works are uniquely his own and convey an innocence and sense of wonder that makes his art so appealing to international collectors.

Although Valencia has studied many great artists and “follows in the footsteps” of some artistic elites, his work still evokes elements of folk art, following in the footsteps of his “family of folk artists” as well. In this work, household items such as the dining room table with baskets of vegetables on it, picture frames with photos of the daughters and various family members, and the big, action-packed window are some of the major vehicles for visually articulating the story’s events. This emphasis on family-life and the home reflects Valencia’s “folk art” style, while adding an interesting dimension to the story.

Children's Book Review: Don't Say a Word, Mamá by Joe Hayes | Vamos a LeerMany of the images take place within the mother’s house, while most of the action and context clues happen through the living room window. Through the window the reader can see daytime changing to nighttime and the daughters en route to each other’s house. Readers share the same perspective as Mamá as they watch the daughters carry out their plan through the window of Mamá’s living room. This visual perspective also reflects the dramatic irony of the story where both Mama and the reader are in possession of a secret that the daughters are unaware of. The title, “Don’t Say a Word, Mamá” thus speaks to the reader as well. This way, readers actively participate in the story; children will revel in the secrecy of their reading experience. Furthermore, the consistent illustrations of Mamá’s living room and the big window contribute to the repetitive device found within the text. Although the illustrations contain valuable context clues and important details, they do not change dramatically from one page to the next, making it more likely that young readers will take note of those important details. According to ProjectMuse,

Repetition is one of the most familiar features of children’s literature. It clarifies the structure of narrative for young readers, and helps them to remember what they have read. It adds rhythm and the mysterious charm of ritual to the simplest of verbal formulas. It offers the pleasure of extended suspense and delayed gratification to even the youngest audience.

This repetition makes the story perfect for reading out loud, giving students the opportunity to hear the words and learn how they are pronounced (either in English or in Spanish). This could also inspire a lesson where students write their own stories, incorporating new vocabulary and repeating that vocabulary throughout their writing.

Finally, the story culminates with an element of the absurd, and some slap-stick humor that will surely give readers a laugh. This tale is fun, heartwarming and instructive and would be a perfect addition to any household or classroom!

For those of you interested in bringing these suggestions into the classroom, here are some additional resources:

Stay tuned for more great reads as we wrap up our November themes, and the semester!

Images modified from Don’t Say a Word, Mamá, pages 12, 14, 17, 34