Saludos todos! This week we will be introducing our April themes, celebrating the spirit of Earth Day, El Día de los Niños, and National Poetry Month. The ¡Mira Look! blog posts, however, will focus primarily on celebrating Earth Day with themes of nature and environmental care and consciousness. Our book for this week is Maya’s Blanket/ La manta de Maya, written by Monica Brown and illustrated by David Diaz. This heartwarming story puts an imaginative and seemingly magical spin on the practice of recycling, reinforcing the creativity and importance of repurposing old things. Brown is of Peruvian and Jewish descent and this story not only emphasizes the environmental necessity in recycling and repurposing, but also elaborates on those cultures’ traditions associated with old objects. As Brown states in her author’s note, this story was inspired by a Yiddish folk song that was “written long before Earth Day came into being, but celebrates both creativity and recycling.”
According to Brown, this story follows the old Yiddish folk song, “Hob Ikh Mir a Mantl” (“I Had a Little Coat”), which is “about an old overcoat that is continually repurposed as smaller and smaller items.” Indeed, the story of Maya’s blanket traces the many phases of her beloved manta, from blanket, to skirt, to scarf, and so on. The story begins with a lovely, two-page spread of little Maya sleeping with her blanket while her abuelita stitches purple butterflies onto it. The butterflies seem slightly elevated from the rest of the blanket, as though they’re about to fly off the blanket and out the window. This visual effect nicely complements the narrative: “Her manta was magical too—it protected her from bad dreams.” Many of Diaz’s illustrations, outlined in thick, black contour lines, give the impression of something handmade – an effect that reinforces the values of heritage, memory and identity conveyed through the book’s text. This opening scene also introduces the sentimental value of the blanket, which Brown confirms in her author’s note: “I think of my mother tucking me in each night, telling me stories of her childhood in Peru as I snuggled under my yellow blanket decorated with orange butterflies. I also think of my nana, who, with infinite patience and love, taught me how to sew and embroider.” Brown’s author’s note is provided in both English and Spanish, and on the same page she includes a glossary of Spanish words, such as manta (blanket), bufanda (scarf) and cinta (ribbon), that are found interspersed throughout the English text.
The lovely two-page spread that begins the book also allows young readers to notice and remember the distinct pattern of Maya’s blanket (it takes up nearly half the page). As the story progresses, they will be able to point it out when the same unique fabric appears again as a dress, a skirt, a scarf, etc., on the following pages. This could be a fun game for young readers as they read along, as well as a visual exercise in observation. At Maya’s cousin’s quinceañera, for example, parents and educators could ask their children: “where is Maya’s blanket now?” This also contributes to the magical aura of Maya’s blanket, and the fantasy in this lively tale, as the blanket seems to magically mold to fit any situation. Even at Maya’s cousin’s quinceañera, the blanket (now in the form of a vestido, or a dress) functions as a sort of guardian angel that prevents her from falling as she twirls on the dance floor: “The purple butterflies whirled and swirled as Maya danced with her friends. When Maya twirled so fast that she got dizzy, her magical vestido didn’t let her fall.” Indeed the “magical vestido” starts to emerge as its own character in the story, harboring cultural traditions and family memories, while continuing to transform and adapt to the demands of the present day.
With each phase that Maya’s blanket takes on, Abuelita is there to help Maya sew, embroider and repurpose her old blanket. Although Abuelita does not herself appear in the illustrations beyond the first page, the text offers continuous reminders of her role and participation in transforming Maya’s blanket, reinforcing the strong emotional attachment that Maya has to the manta. The old blanket becomes the central theme of each page and each illustration, while Abuelita becomes a distant memory. Maya’s blanket is treasured because it reminds her of her dear Abuelita, who seems to be fading as the story progresses. Nonetheless, this also explains the magical air of Maya’s blanket as it is infused with Abuelita’s tender love and care. As her magical blanket, now in the form of a falda (skirt), enables her to “jump higher than anyone else,” we can read this as a metaphor for the love and support of Maya’s abuelita, protecting her from falling down at her cousin’s quinceañera, pushing her to reach for the stars, and keeping her warm in the wintertime.
With each phase of the old manta, the narration starts with “So with her own two hands and Abuelita’s help…” Again, this can be interpreted not necessarily as Abuelita’s physical help, but rather as the enduring influence and utility of the skills that she passed on to little Maya. The narration, with each phase of the blanket, also lists all of its past forms: “…Maya made her cinta that was her bufanda that was her rebozo that was her falda that was her vestido that was her manta into a marcador de libros (book mark) that she loved very much.” This adds a consistent thread throughout the book, too, emphasizing the folkloric nature of the story while also helping young readers remember the new (or familiar) Spanish vocabulary being introduced.
Furthermore, the use of Spanish in identifying each phase of the blanket’s transformation (the cinta, the bufanda, the rebozo, etc.) provides an interesting association between the Spanish language, Maya’s Hispanic heritage, and the magical nature of the blanket. The combination of the Spanish language and the Hispanic heritage of Maya’s abuelita is what makes Maya so special and her blanket so memorable. As I observed in a previous post on Doña Flor (link), this reminds young readers that our intercultural and/or linguistic differences are what make us unique and special. These differences are a source of immense pride and magic and should be cherished and celebrated, both in our personal lives and in our community. Perhaps needless to say, we think using books like Maya’s Blanket, among other multicultural and diverse literature, is a wonderful way to achieve this.
Finally, after a little plot twist, Maya decides to write a book about her adventures with her old manta. When she grows older and has a daughter of her own, she spends quality time reading to her from her very own book, passing along the beautiful memories of Abuelita and the magical manta. The illustration shows grown-up Maya and her daughter in bed reading from a book that bears the exact same cover as Maya’s Blanket. This little taste of metafiction contributes to Diaz’s playful and interactive illustrations throughout, while bringing the story full circle. In general, this story nicely parallels the repurposing and reusing of old objects with the continuous cycles of life, family and heritage, reminding readers that cherishing our belongings and resources, and using them wisely, plays an integral part in sustaining and perpetuating life across generations. This is an important message to ruminate over as Earth Day approaches, and as current events continue to show the magnitude and peril of climate change. Along with Brown’s message of intercultural pride and tolerance, this book celebrates the diversity of our world, while highlighting the action we must take to preserve it.
For those of you interested in learning more about climate change, as well as the impact that it has had not only our world’s diverse flora and fauna, but also on the diverse cultures and peoples of the world, here are some additional resources:
- The Nature Conservancy article, Latin America: Adapting to Climate Change
- United Nations report on Indigenous Peoples and Climate Change
- International Union for Conservation of Nature, issues paper on Indigenous and Traditional Peoples and Climate Change
For those of you looking for tips and activities on how to live a greener life, and how to teach your kids or students about living more eco-friendly lives, here are some additional links:
Stay tuned for more great books about nature and environmental awareness!