Reading Roundup: 10 Latino Children’s Books Celebrating the Natural World

Aprils 2016 Reading Roundup¡Buenos días!

In celebration of Earth Day, this month I have put together a list of books involving Latin America and the natural world. While creating this list, I was continually thinking about our everyday interactions with nature. This month is the perfect time for openly and beautifully reflecting on what it means to interact with the earth, and I hope that these books will provide a platform to do so. These books are a celebration of the natural world, including plants, animals, the sun and the sky. In addition, they draw connections to conservation, life cycles, food and medicines. I hope everyone finds them inspiring!

¡Saludos!
Kalyn

Parrots Over Puerto Rico
Written by Susan L. Roth and Cindy Trumbore
Collages by Susan L. Roth
Published by Lee & Low Books Inc.
ISBN: 9781620140048
Age Level: 6-11

Above the treetops of Puerto Rico flies a flock of parrots as green as their island home. . . . These are Puerto Rican parrots. They lived on this island for millions of years, and then they nearly vanished from the earth forever.

Puerto Rican parrots, once abundant, came perilously close to extinction in the 1960s due to centuries of foreign exploration and occupation, development, and habitat destruction. In this compelling book, Roth and Trumbore recount the efforts of the scientists of the Puerto Rican Parrot Recovery Program to save the parrots and ensure their future. Woven into the parrots’ story is a brief history of Puerto Rico itself, from before the first human settlers to the present day.

With striking collage illustrations, a unique format, and engaging storytelling, Parrots Over Puerto Rico invites readers to witness the amazing recovery efforts that have enabled Puerto Rican parrots to fly over their island once again.

My thoughts:
I absolutely loved this book, and it is perfect for teaching Earth Day! Roth’s collages are incredibly captivating and I could not help but take time looking at their details. This book ties the history of the Puerto Rican parrots to the history of Puerto Rico itself, therefore teaching about the effect that actions in history have on the environment. Just like Puerto Rico’s history of colonialism and becoming a commonwealth state of the United States, the Puerto Rican parrots have had a difficult history, and they have survived and continue to persevere. This book also tells about the need for intervention in order to prevent the extinction of the parrots by depicting human efforts to save the parrots. It tells in detail the processes that scientists and conservationists have taken towards saving these birds, and at the end of the book there are photos of the efforts with nonfictional descriptions. In addition, Lee & Low Books has a guide for educators that I encourage you to check out!

My Tata’s Remedies/Los remedios de mi tata
Written by Roni Capin Rivera-Ashford
Illustrations by Antonio Castro L.
Published by Cinco Puntos Press
ISBN: 9781935955917
Age Level: 7-11

Aaron has asked his grandfather Tata to teach him about the healing remedies he uses. Tata is a neighbor and family elder. People come to him all the time for his soothing solutions and for his compassionate touch and gentle wisdom. Tata knows how to use herbs, teas, and plants to help each one. His wife, Grandmother Nana, is there too, bringing delicious food and humor to help Tata’s patients heal. An herbal remedies glossary at the end of the book includes useful information about each plant, plus botanically correct drawings.

My thoughts:
This book is the perfect example of the positive ways in which we interact with nature. Furthermore, it demonstrates the way that nature has the power of bringing people together. It is through learning about plants and healing that Aaron and his Tata form a special bond. Aaron’s Tata has a close bond with the rest of the community because of his healing practices through the use of plants. In addition, this book is an important reference to histories of healing. Through tradition and shared resources, we see political boundaries dissolving, and the natural world instead demonstrating its importance in our lives. Castro L.’s realistic drawings of people and plants allow the reader to connect with the characters and identify plants in reality. This book would be particularly useful for students in the southwest and Mexico because of its use of regional plants as medicines. In this book, it is the natural world that unites the characters.

The Desert Is My Mother/El desierto es mi madre
Written by Pat Mora
Illustrations by Daniel Lechon
Published by Piñata Books
ISBN: 9781558851580
Age Level: 6 and up

The first bilingual picture book published under the Piñata Books imprint in 1994, The Desert Is My Mother introduces the partnership of an award-winning poet and a prize-winning painter to create a beautiful poetic and artistic rendition of the relationship between people and nature. Rather than being an expanse empty of life and value, the desert is lovingly presented as the provider of comfort, food, spirit and life.

My thoughts:
I absolutely love this book because of the way it points out all that the earth and nature do for us. By personifying the earth, Mora allows us to look at it in a different light. Mora shows us all that the earth does for us, which we in turn should reciprocate. The earth has good intentions for us, and it is meant to be respected. On Pat Mora’s website, she has a few curriculum activities that could also come in handy. This is also a great book for learning about desert landscapes – particularly in Mexico and the American Southwest. Furthermore, Lechon’s illustrations are beautiful. I hope you enjoy this book as much as I did!

Isabel’s House of Butterflies
Written by Tony Johnston
Illustrations by Susan Guevara
Published by Sierra Club Books for Children
ISBN: 9781578051281
Age Level: 4-8

Outside her home in Michoacán, Mexico, grows eight-year-old Isabel’s greatest treasure: an oyamel tree. Every autumn, a miracle happens-for Isabel’s tree is the wintering place for thousands upon thousands of monarch butterflies that migrate from the north. When they flutter down to roost, they transform Isabel’s tree into La casa de las mariposas-The House of Butterflies. But this wonder is in danger of disappearing forever. Isabel’s family is poor, and it has been a cruel, dry year for Papa’s meager crop of corn and beans. Soon, chopping down the tree to sell its wood may be the family’s only hope for survival. What will happen to the butterflies then?

Tony Johnston’s poignant tale, as brief and luminous as the lives of the butterflies themselves, is all the more compelling because of the real-life dilemma it presents. Lush paintings by Susan Guevara radiate with the warmth and tenderness between Isabel and her family, and capture Mexican rural life in all its vibrant color and natural beauty.

My thoughts:
I found this story very beautiful and empowering to young people because of the caring and creative main character, Isabel. This book teaches about the monarch butterfly migration and the effects that it has on Isabel’s small community in Michoacán community, particularly with tourism and quality of life. In addition, it teaches about important subjects such as deforestation and the effect that is has on the butterfly populations, as well as the difficult situations that poverty creates. Despite Isabel’s family’s problems with poverty, they and other members of their community are able to find joy and healing through nature. This in itself presents another reason for the importance of the preservation of monarch habitats. Guevara’s illustrations are absolutely stunning, and I think that children will be able to connect well to the main character of this story.

The Lizard and the Sun/La lagartija y el sol
Written by Alma Flor Ada
Illustrations by Felipe Dávalos
English translation by Rosalma Zupizarreta
Published by Dragonfly Books
ISBN: 9780440415312
Age Level: 3-7

Once, a long, long time ago, the sun disappeared from the sky. Everything was dark for many days. All the animals went to search for the sun in the rivers and lakes, through the fields and forests, but the sun was nowhere to be found. Little by little all the animals gave up, except for the faithful lizard. Finally one day she found a strange glowing rock and discovered the sun fast asleep. But no one could persuade the sun to wake up. Then the emperor organized a great feast, with the finest dancers and musicians, so the sun would wake up and never fall asleep again. Since that day, all lizards love to lie in the sun, to remember the day when one of their own brought light and warmth back to the world.

My thoughts:
This book is wonderful for showing the connection between and interdependence of all things in the natural world. When the sun disappears, it affects all areas of life on earth. Furthermore, as a cosmological story of the Nahua (Aztec) people of central Mexico, it is a way to demonstrate the importance of nature in indigenous epistemologies, or ways of knowing. It is through stories that we understand the importance of every point in nature and their reasons for existing. Not only is this a great book for teaching about nature and the importance of its continuance and preservation, but it also shows the respect for nature that the Nahua people of Mexico have had since the beginning of their history. Alma Flor Ada has an educational guide on her website for using this book in the classroom, which is written in both English and Spanish.

¡Olinguito, de la A a la Z!/Olinguito, from A to Z!
Written and illustrated by Lulu Delacre
Published by Lee & Low Books
ISBN: 9780892393275
Age Level: 7-10

Alto, allá arriba en los Andes brilla un bosque bordado de bromelias…
High up in the Andes blooms a brilliant forest embroidered with bromeliads . . .

With lyrical text in both Spanish and English, we travel to the magical world of a cloud forest in the Andes of Ecuador. We discover the bounty of plants, animals, and other organisms that live there as we help a zoologist look for the elusive olinguito, the first new mammal species identified in the Americas since 1978. Not your usual ABC book, the alphabet is an organizing feature to introduce children to rich vocabulary as they learn about a unique environment.

Thoroughly researched and exquisitely illustrated with colorful, realistic images, the book is a visual delight while it provides a wealth of information. Back matter includes articles about cloud forests and the discovery of the olinguito in 2013, and an extensive glossary with the scientific names of the species pictured. This is a unique book to treasure on many levels.

My thoughts:
This new and exciting book tells about the beautiful creatures, particularly the olinguito, hiding in Ecuador’s cloud forest. Apart from the poetic language playing off of the alphabet, Delacre’s illustrations are incredibly stunning. On Delacre’s website, there is an article demonstrating Delacre’s artistic process, which included making “patterned backgrounds [by] pressing leaves gathered in the cloud forest dipped in ink and stamped onto rice paper.” In addition, Lee & Low Books provides an activity sheet for using this book in the classroom. By reading about this book, not only do children learn about the Ecuadorian cloud forest, but they also get to learn about the different animals that inhabit it. It is a perfect book for celebrating nature and Earth Day. Furthermore, the informative articles at the end of the book, which are about the first encountering of the olinguito in 2013, opened my mind to the many mysteries of nature that we still do not know. I think children will find it inspiring. For more information about the book, De Colores also wrote a review about it.

Animal Poems of the Iguazú/Animalario del Iguazú
Written by Daniel X. Alarcón
Illustrations by Maya Christina González
Published by Children’s Book Press
ISBN: 9780892392254
Age Level: 6 and up

In the magical rainforest of the Iguazú National Park, butterflies are the multicolored flowers of the air. Great dusky swifts watch over the park, and the untamed spirits of jaguars roam the jungle. Spanning three countries—Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay—the thundering waterfalls and lush green rainforests of the Iguazú have dazzled visitors for centuries, and are now in danger of being lost.

Following the Amerindian oral tradition, award-winning Chicano poet Francisco X. Alarcón lets the animals of the Iguazú speak for themselves in their own soaring, roaring, fluttering voices, and the resulting poems are as urgent as they are beautiful and humorous. Maya Christina Gonzalez’s mixed media illustrations bring the colors and textures of the Iguazú rainforest to vibrant life.

My thoughts:
As a fan of both Daniel Alarcón and Maya Christina González, I am excited to add this book to the list. Its content fits perfectly into our month’s themes of nature and Poetry Day. It is a great start for teaching about the different ecosystems and natural features of Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay, while simultaneously bringing up necessary conversations about rainforest conservation. In the introduction, Alarcón devotes a paragraph explaining the danger in which the forest, plants and animals of the Iguazú region live and the importance of their future. Alarcón is careful to touch on the earth, sky, water and different animals, while importantly recognizing the region’s indigenous Guaraní people. González creates incredible mixed media illustrations that bring color and depth to the story. A few of the book’s pages are available for viewing on the Lee & Low Books website. Together González’s lively illustrations and Alarcón’s poetry paint the forest, animals and water as living and full of spirit. I highly recommend this book!

Salsa: Un poema para cocinar/A Cooking Poem
Written by Jorge Argueta
Illustrations by Duncan Tonatiuh
Published by Groundwood Books
ISBN: 9781554984428
Age Level: 4-7

In this new cooking poem, Jorge Argueta brings us a fun and easy recipe for a yummy salsa. A young boy and his sister gather the ingredients and grind them up in a molcajete, just like their ancestors used to do, singing and dancing all the while. The children imagine that their ingredients are different parts of an orchestra — the tomatoes are bongos and kettledrums, the onion, a maraca, the cloves of garlic, trumpets and the cilantro, the conductor. They chop and then grind these ingredients in the molcajete, along with red chili peppers for the “hotness” that is so delicious, finally adding a squeeze of lime and a sprinkle of salt. When they are finished, their mother warms tortillas and their father lays out plates, as the whole family, including the cat and dog, dance salsa in mouth-watering anticipation.

My thoughts:
I find this book is a dynamic way to incorporate our themes of Earth Day and poetry. Argueta begins the book by telling about the origins of his cooking tools. We learn that the Nahua, Aztec and Maya people obtained the molcajetes and tejolotes (used for grinding) from volcanic rock. Argueta intertwines cooking with dancing, and he takes time to write about each ingredient that comes from the earth. Later on, Tonatiuh depicts the main character composting the lime seeds, onion and garlic peels outside, accompanied by a poem by Argueta about the connections between Mother Earth, food, cooking, dancing and singing. He connects different important aspects of life, showing that Mother Earth gives us happiness and nourishment, and that it is our responsibility to take part in this ongoing cycle.

Napí funda un pueblo/Napí Makes a Village
Written by Antonio Ramírez
Illustrations by Domi
Translations by Elisa Amado
Published by Groundwood Books
ISBN: 9780888999658

The government is building a dam, forcing the Mazateca people to make a new village for themselves on inhospitable land. Napí recounts what she remembers of this time — traveling upriver to the place where they will resettle, the frighteningly beautiful jaguar she sees by the spring, the fierce fires that clear the land for farming, how her father has to walk all day to a far-off town so that he can buy food for the family. But what stands out in her mind very strongly is the misfortune that occurs when her father is kicked by a horse. It is Napí who hastens back to the village to fetch her mother and uncles. Her quickness ensures her father’s survival, which she comes to know first in a vivid dream.

The text in Spanish and English is written by noted muralist and artist Antonio Ramírez and illustrated by Domi in her well-known brilliant artwork.

My thoughts:
I am very excited to add this book to the list. It is the second Napí book we have put on our Reading Roundup, in fact – Napí was on our 10 Books About Indigenous Peoples of Latin America list. It fits perfectly with our theme of interactions with nature. This book is great for teaching children about the effects of man on nature and indigenous peoples, especially through the everyday difficulties and inconveniences that Napí’s family faces due to the forced migration resulting from the government’s dam. Throughout the story, Napí’s family continually interacts with nature. However, the ways in which they have traditionally connected with nature have been interrupted. Through the personalization of the character Napí and the Mazateca people, it puts a face to the forced migration of indigenous peoples. In case you’d like to know more about the other Napí books, De Colores wrote a review of all three books together. Because of the importance of nature in each of the books, all three could be incorporated into the theme of Earth Day.

Mi isla y yo: La naturaleza de Puerto Rico/My Island and I: The Nature of Puerto Rico
Written by Alfonso Silva Lee
Illustrations by Alexis Lago
Published by Pangaea
ISBN: 9781929165063
Age Level: 4 and up

Have you ever felt like an island?. . . You and Puerto Rico are one and the same, along with the sea so blue, the sailing clouds, the whirling moon, the golden sun. Rainbows, giant trees, tiny tiny frogs and agile lizards are not just neighbors, but real friends and real family.

My thoughts:
I loved this book because it shows how we are all interconnected in the world. Silva Lee explains that “When each creature dies, it is decomposed by bacteria and fungi. This way the dead are again transformed into living organisms.” He then explains that the energy we receive from the food we eat makes the living beings that we consume a part of us. He contends that we are made up of the plants and animals that we eat, as well as the grass that they consume, and the sun, soil and water that keeps the grass alive. Furthermore, he tells the story of how the island of Puerto Rico came to be. He tells of the ways seeds and animals travel, in both natural ways and by means of human intervention. Lago’s illustrations are beautiful and uplifting. In sum, I highly recommend this book and I hope you enjoy it!

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