¡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.
One 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.
As 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.
Valencia’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.
Many 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:
- Worksheet on how to create a character
- Activity idea on how to teach story-sequencing
- List of curriculum on teaching writing for grades K-6
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