Hello there readers! Yesterday we were out of the office for the Martin Luther King Jr Day holiday, but today we are back with a great review. We here at Vamos wanted to use the month of January to express themes of human rights and immigration and we have chosen some wonderful children’s books that can be used in the classroom to teach on these issues. This week I bring you The Composition (ages 8 and up) written by Antonio Skármeta and illustrated by Alfonso Ruano. The book has won the UNESCO Tolerance Award, the Jane Addams Children’s Book Award, and the Américas Award in 2000. Here is a synopsis from the publisher:
Life is simple for Pedro, he goes to school, does his homework and, most importantly, plays soccer. But when the soldiers come and take his friend Daniel’s father away, things suddenly become much more complicated. Why, for instance, do Pedro’s parents secretly listen to the radio every evening after dinner? And why does the government want Pedro and his classmates to write compositions about what their parents do in the evening? Humorous, serious and intensely human, this powerful picture book by Chilean writer Antonio Skármeta presents a situation all too familiar to children around the world. And for children it provides food for thought about freedom, moral choices and personal responsibility.
Useful for bilingual classrooms, the book is available in separately published English and Spanish language versions.
Just like our featured young adult book of the month, Caminar, written by Skila Brown, The Composition carefully tackles the issue of growing up under a military dictatorship through the eyes of a young boy.
We meet our protagonist, Pedro, on his birthday. He’s a young boy living in Chile during the Pinochet dictatorship. Soccer defines his life, as it does for many young boys in Latin America. One of the pivotal scenes comes as he is gifted a soccer ball to play with his neighborhood friends. During a game, Pedro makes a goal but, as he runs in celebration, he notices that everyone else is distracted watching a scene playing out across the street: the father of Pedro’s friend is being taken away by soldiers.
The author recognizes how children may have trouble grasping the implications of what Pedro sees. By having Pedro ask questions, the book does a good job of anticipating questions that child readers might have.. Pedro asks his friend why his father was taken and is told that it is because his father is against the dictatorship. This isn’t entirely new to Pedro, as Pedro has heard the phrase “against the dictatorship” on the radio, but he doesn’t really understand what it all means. He asks about this, too, and his friend responds that it means people want the country to be free, and that they want for the military to stay out of the government. Pedro learns more later by asking his parents when he gets home.
Readers of the book receive implicit clues about the nature of the dictatorship. In addition to Pedro’s outright conversations, he senses that his parents are sad and silent. This leads Pedro to begin a conversation with them in which he discovers that they are also against the dictatorship. At school the next day a soldier visits their classroom and assigns them all the task of writing a composition titled “What my Family Does at Night.” Pedro grapples with the complex decision of what to write. The author leaves the reader in suspense, stating simply that Pedro turned in his assignment. Weeks later, Pedro gets his composition back from the soldier. He takes it home to read to his parents, who listen nervously. Pedro’s composition omits activities such as listening to the radio and instead says that each night his parents simply play chess. We can surmise from the omissions that Pedro has grown to understand the dangers surrounding him and his family.
In many Latin American countries, political repression has resulted in the disappearance of thousands of people. This book sensitively invokes these issues, and encourages the reader to empathize with a child in this situation. It is filled with details and moments where Pedro bonds with and receives love from his parents, leaving the reader emotionally entangled in their story.
The Composition is a useful text for teaching about human rights, government repression, and individual agency. I recommend this book for the classroom as it handles these tough issues with care. It shows how children can grasp complicated situations affecting their daily lives, and acknowledges their ability to adjust accordingly. Although Pedro may not want to lie in his paper, he grows to understand the meaning of living under a dictatorship and recognizes that even something as simple as his classroom composition can have larger repercussions.
Here are a few resources in case you decide to use it with your students:
- Linda Kreft has written a lesson plan for grades 3-6.
- Learn more about the Chilean dictatorship through the stirring film No (2012) starring Gael García Bernal and based on Skármeta’s unpublished play El Plebiscito. The movie, and play, of course, cover the period in Chile during which citizens toiled repeatedly to return the contry to a democratic government. To learn more about how the movie fictionalizes this era, read The Atlantic’s article on “4 Things the Movie ‘NO’ Left Out About Real-Life Chile.”
Next week, I look forward to introducing another impressive children’s book, one that explores the human rights issues surrounding immigration. Stay tuned and have a great week in the meantime!
Images: Illustrations, The Composition.