Saludos, everyone! This week marks the beginning of our December themes. We are starting a bit early, since the staff here at Vamos a Leer will be leaving for winter break half-way through December (more details to follow). We want to make sure that we have enough time to put out at least a few winter-themed book reviews before we leave for the holidays. Our December themes will focus on the winter season and winter celebrations in Latin America.
This week I will start by reviewing The Miracle of the First Poinsettia, written by Joanne Oppenheim and illustrated by Fabian Negrin. This holiday tale is best for ages 5-9. It is written in English with Spanish words interspersed throughout, and tells the story of a young, Mexican girl who learns to give gifts from the heart. Oppenheim’s story is a retelling of a traditional Mexican myth about the creation of the first Poinsettia flowers in Mexico. These flowers are sometimes called “flores de la Noche Buena,” or “flowers of Christmas Eve.” According to Oppenheim’s Author’s Note: “They decorate homes and churches all over the world at Christmas time. In Mexico they are so plentiful they still go like weeds. They brighten gardens and remind us of hope, the joy and the miracle of Christmas!” With glowing illustrations, this tale of love and kindness will surely warm the hearts of readers as the winter chill sets in.
Oppenheim, in her “Author’s Note,” comments upon the transitory beauty of myths and legends: “It is always different, yet the same. That is what keeps folktales alive—telling them and retelling them in different ways. Perhaps the reason this story lives on is because it is a miracle story that reminds us of the true spirit of giving.” This lovely retelling, coupled with Negrin’s mesmerizing illustrations, make for a truly enchanting tale. As Kirkus Reviews notes,
Negrin’s intense oil-and-wax pastel, colored-pencil, and watercolor illustrations border on the surreal, with their bold use of modeling and contrasting deep blues, reds, and glowing gold. They also provide authentic details and decorations of papel picado, birds, butterflies, and flowers. A Christmas gem.
Illustrator Fabian Negrin studied art in Mexico City. His illustrations evoke the style of Mexican muralists, especially reminiscent of some of Diego Rivera’s work. In particular, the illustration on the left brings to mind Rivera’s mural painting, The Flower Seller. While reading this holiday tale, educators could also take the time to teach students about the history of Mexican muralism and the role of art in society. As Art History Resources inquires, “What is the goal of art? To what extent is art supposed to be autonomous and separated from everyday life? What does public art accomplish?” Mexican mural art has been a recurrent theme amongst my book reviews, and it is both an important and fascinating element of Mexican culture and society. Keeping these educational bonuses in mind, Negrin’s stunning illustrations will dazzle the yuletide imaginations of readers young and old as they are told of the first Poinsettia flowers in Mexico.
The story begins on the day before La Noche Buena, or Christmas Eve. Las Posadas, which translates into English as “the inns” or “the lodgings” is widely celebrated across Mexico during the days leading up to La Noche Buena, from December 16-24. According to Britannica, “Las Posadas commemorates the journey that Joseph and Mary made from Nazareth to Bethlehem in search of a safe refuge where Mary could give birth to the baby Jesus.” The religious ceremony is accompanied by a variety of cultural traditions, celebrated across Mexico:
Each evening during the festival, a small child dressed as an angel leads a procession through the streets of the town. The procession is primarily made up of children dressed in silver and gold robes carrying lit candles and images of Mary and Joseph riding a donkey. Adults, including musicians, follow the procession, which visits selected homes and asks for lodging for Joseph and Mary. Traditionally, the procession is always refused lodging, though the hosts often provide refreshments. At each stop, passages of scripture are read and Christmas carols are sung. Mass is held each day after the procession, and, at the conclusion of the service, children break open piñatas filled with candy, toys, and, occasionally, money. The piñatas are usually crafted in the form of a star, which was said to have guided the three wise men of biblical tradition to the newborn Jesus.
In this children’s book, we learn about the holiday through the perspective of Nita, a young girl living “high in the mountains of Mexico”. Nita’s father has just lost his job, and Nita is worried that she will not have enough pesos to buy gifts for her family, or to bring to the church on the night of La Noche Buena, as the holiday tradition requires. As Nita walks around the market looking for gifts to buy with her few pesos, the reader follows her through the festive, luminous streets of Mexico. Negrin’s illustrations match Oppenheim’s account of her childhood trips to Mexico during the holidays: “Mexico City was like a fairyland with festive lights on every street and markets full of gifts.” The reader can spot artisanal puppets, piñatas, and masks, heaping piles of fruits and spices, strings of papel picado, candle-lit windows, and even fireworks in the distant sky. The village is in full celebration, but Nita still has a heavy heart.
As the yuletide tale unfolds, Nita learns that money cannot buy love and happiness. She is reminded of the internal values that outshine any object bought in the market, while her mother gently reassures her. Despite her temporary sadness, Nita finds that she is in fact rich with love and family. The moral of the story is especially important, since the Christmas season is often overwhelmed by consumerism and materialism, especially here in the United States. Nita discovers what it really means to give as she witnesses the miracle of the first poinsettia.
For those of you interested in bringing these themes and ideas into the classroom, here are a few additional resources:
- EDSITEment activities on “Poinsettias, Posadas, Piñatas, Pathways of Light! Holiday Traditions from Mexico“
- Scholastic lesson plan to “Celebrate Las Posadas in Mexico“
- “Art of Mexico: Celebrating Hispanic Culture” –Lesson ideas and lesson plans on Mexican art in the classroom from Incredible @rt Department
Stay tuned for more winter-wonderland book reviews!
Images modified from The Miracle of the First Poinsettia, pg. 4, 6, 13, 20