Saludos, everyone! As I shared last week, we’ve drawn upon Día de los Muertos happening at the end of this month as an opportunity to reflect on the loss of loved ones. In accordance with that, this week I will be reviewing Uncle Monarch and the Day of the Dead, written by Judy Goldman and illustrated by René King Moreno. This book is best for grades 1-5, and will teach readers a valuable lesson on love and loss, while they journey through the seasonal traditions of a small, Mexican village.
Uncle Monarch and the Day of the Dead is written entirely in English, though it is rich in Mexican cultural heritage, focusing as it does on the traditions of Día de los Muertos. At the back of the book, for instance, Goldman includes a list of Spanish terms and their definitions, including mole, “a rich, dark sauce made with, among other things, peanuts, chilies, tomatoes, and chocolate”, and cempazuchitl, “a type of marigold”, usually used to decorate altars for the dead. She also includes a page explaining the cultural significance of this Mexican holiday: “Many Mexicans believe that the souls of those who have died return on those days, and they are lovingly remembered by family and friends… Día de muertos is a time of fun, remembrance, and love.” This book is not only a great resource for teaching children about significant cultural traditions, but also for explaining the reality of death in a gentle and comforting way.
The story starts with a little girl, Lupita, running to her elderly uncle, Tío Urbano, to tell him that the monarch butterflies have arrived for the season. Lupita and Tío Urbano exit the house to admire the marvelous monarchs, and bask in the bitter-sweet memories that they bring each fall. Tío Urbano reminds Lupita of the familiar admonition that you must never capture or hurt a monarch butterfly, “for they are the souls of the dead ones, who have come back to visit us before Día de Muertos.” Tío Urbano explains to Lupita why Día de Muertos should not be a sad day, but rather a day to remember loved ones who’ve passed, and the good times spent with them: “Never be afraid of the dead, for those who loved us can never hurt us. We will always miss them, and this is why it is a blessing to receive the butterflies before Día de Muertos, when we show our dead that they are treasured and not forgotten.” Lupita and Tío Urbano spend a moment together fixated on the mesmerizing, undulating swarm of orange and black, remembering their loved ones who are no longer with them.
The illustrations, done with soft colored pencils, complement the story’s soothing tone. My favorite image is one of Lupita and Tío Urbano staring up at the canopies of coniferous trees, with hundreds of butterflies flying through the shady maze. The forest resembles the pine-oak forests in Mexico, where a biosphere reserve was created to protect this transient species. The monarch butterflies migrate from North America down to these Mexican forests during the colder months, and then back to the US when it warms again. They are the only known butterfly to make a two-part migration the way that birds do. According to Annenberg Learner, “People in the region have noticed the arrival of monarchs since pre-Hispanic times.” This symbol has long been a part of Mexican culture and tradition. People all over the country associate the monarch butterflies with Día de los Muertos.
In recognizing the monarch butterflies as reincarnations of the dead, and emphasizing the sacredness of these butterflies, this story also speaks to the importance of respecting and preserving nature and its habitats: “Lupita nodded and said, ‘I must never capture or hurt a monarch’.” The monarch butterflies’ seasonal habitat is currently threatened by climate change, as the increase in winter precipitation risks freezing the butterflies’ wings while they lay dormant. By teaching Lupita about the different ways of honoring loved ones, Tío Urbano also instructs her on a similar respect due to the environment.
Once Lupita and Tío Urbano enter the house, Lupita starts helping her parents prepare for the festivities of Día de Muertos, while her uncle sits and rests. As she does so, the reader learns about the different traditions that accompany this holiday, such as putting up an altar to commemorate the dead with family photos, candles, and sugar statues of skulls, and making food that they “liked in life, and would now enjoy in spirit.” Lupita and her parents set up an arch of cempazuchtil flowers and string rows of colorful papel picado from one end of the living room to the other. Lupita also uses the cempazuchtil flowers to make a path of petals leading up to the house to guide the dead (the strong scent of the flowers is said to guide the spirits home). As Lupita dedicates herself to welcoming the deceased back into the lives of the living, she learns a great deal about the meaning of the holiday. This proves to be an invaluable lesson later on, when she is confronted with the death of a loved one for the first time.
I loved this book, and I think it does an excellent job of radiating peace, tranquility, and comfort. This is a perfect book for any child who wants to learn about Mexican traditions or who is struggling with the loss of a loved one.
Because Moreno and Goldman do such a lovely job speaking about the metaphor and migration of the monarch butterflies, we’ve found a few resources to expand on that topic:
Visit the LAII’s website to view and download our complete thematic guide for teaching about Día de los Muertos.
Also, don’t forget to check out Charla’s post on the Monarch butterfly migration!
Stay tuned for more great books!
Modified from illustration, Uncle Monarch and the Day of the Dead, pages 8, 10, 12