Hey there readers! Now that it’s April, we will be celebrating National Poetry Month in conjunction with the fact that it’s finally springtime! This week I present a beautiful bilingual book that perfectly encapsulates these two themes: Laughing Tomatoes: And Other Spring Poems/Jitomates risuenos: y otros poemas de primavera written by Francisco Alarcón and illustrated by Maya Christina Gonzalez.
Here is a description from Goodreads:
Tomatoes laugh, chiles explode, and tortillas applaud the sun! With joy and tenderness, delight and sadness, Alcarcon’s poems honor the wonders of life and nature: welcoming the morning sun, remembering his grandmother’s songs, paying tribute to children working in the fields, and sharing his dream of a world filled with gardens. Artist Maya Christina Gonzalez invites us to experience the poems with her lively cast of characters including a spirited grandma, four vivacious children, and playful pets who tease and delight. Follow them from page to page as they bring each poem to colorful life. Laughing Tomatoes and Other Spring Poems is a verbal and visual treat, giving us twenty opportunities to see everything for the first time.
The book celebrates an appreciation of nature’s resources: a boy wakes up to the morning sun warming his bed, there is an ode to corn, and a prayer for a fallen tree. There is a poem about strawberries that recognizes children who work in the fields, followed by a poem that describes how the children planted an oak tree “more bountiful with time” that had “open arms for grown up’s and children” with the features and spirit of Cesar Chavez, planted on his birthday.
The pages are filled with joy and vibrancy; the characters are always in motion, swinging, jumping, dancing, planting, and singing. As is made apparent by the title, laughing is a major element of the story, and it creates a playful and happy tone. The reader sees smiles all around, including from the animals and even the green grassy hills!
The story highlights the importance of family and ancestral wisdom in the poems “Roots,” “My Grandma’s Songs,” and “Other Voices.” The book ends optimistically, with the children dreaming that “no school or church was without a garden” and “people greeted each other with flowers.” The author’s afterword includes a beautiful metaphor describing how a collection of poetry is like a tomato plant, “from a small seed it sprouts, then grows and grows…they need good care and tending…and grow in many forms and shapes.”
He also writes that “Poetry is about life, family, community…poems are really incomplete until someone reads them. Then they come alive and start dancing in the imagination.” He encourages his readers to make the poems in this book their own, and insists that they belong to the reader as much as to him.
On the very last page is a poem that refers to a common worldview amongst Latin American, particular indigenous, communities: the idea that time is cyclical. Titled “Universal Spiral,” it reads: “there are no endings // just new beginnings.” This profoundly effects readers by allowing them to see that even as the book has ended, it has only begun to inspire their imagination and encourages them to continue to think about the aspects of the story.
This is a very positive book for students because it encourages them to be responsible to and grateful for the natural environment. It portrays gardening as a fun activity that allows people to connect with the earth as well as with their ancestors. It reminds them of the origin of food, the labor that goes into it, and the beauty behind all that it takes to be made. The power of poetry and language is highlighted throughout the book and in the afterword, which can inspire students to create their own poetry and perhaps start a garden of their own.
Here are some additional resources to expand the discussion:
- A teacher’s guide to accompany the book that also includes some of Alarcón’s other work as part of Children’s Book Press, including the The Magical Cycle of the Seasons poetry series.
- An interview from Writers’ Sanctuary with Francisco X. Alarcón and the book’ illustrator, Maya Christina Gonzalez.
- To learn more about the author, watch another interview and see his other work, check out this “meet the author” post from Colorín Colorado
Images: Modified from Laughing Tomatoes: And Other Spring Poems/Jitomates risuenos: y otros poemas de primavera. Illustrated by: Maya Christina Gonzalez.