Saludos todos and welcome to our first October book review!
As in the past several years, we’re using the month of October to reflect on the many ways in which death is honored, acknowledged, and remembered in different Latin American countries. Our monthly focus is prompted in part by the upcoming Día de los Muertos, but also more broadly by the seasonal shift into autumn – a time of transition and change.
Last year we used this opportunity to feature books that discussed Día de los Muertos celebrations and cautionary legends such as those about La Llorona. This year, however, we have decided to expand these themes to focus more loosely on death as a general concept — the experience of love and loss, the process of grief and healing, and, particularly, the ways in which educators can help students through these tough moments. This month our books will feature protagonists who experience grief, and identify books that explore the concept of death in different cultures. This last theme is the focus of today’s book, Light Foot/ Pies ligeros.
Light Foot/ Pies ligeros, written by Natalia Toledo, illustrated by Francisco Toledo, and translated by Elisa Amado, narrates the Zapotec legend of how death came to exist on earth. Since death plays a prominent role in Mexican culture, most notably through Dia de los Muertos celebrations, we thought it would be useful and interesting to feature a book that offers a deeper examination of Mexican perceptions of death. The book begins with a note from the author, Natalia Toledo, explaining her process of writing it: “I wrote this story based on the engravings by the artist Francisco Toledo. The engravings show Death jumping rope in Tehuantepec, where both Francisco and I were born. Tehuantepec is an isthmus—a narrow bridge of land lying between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans east of the city of Oaxaca and Mexico.” Natalia Toledo also adds that she originally wrote this story in Zapotec, her native language: “I enjoyed writing this story very much, and I hope Zapotec, Mixtec, Mazatec, Spanish-speaking children—and children everywhere—will enjoy it, too, because every language is its own mysterious universe.” The story has been translated into both English and Spanish and both translations appear on each page of the book.
This Zapotec tale explains how the earth created death when it became too full to hold all of the immortal animals and humans: “What I am going to tell you happened a long time ago. In those days, all living beings just went on having baby after baby without stopping, but no one ever died—not people or animals.” The story opens with the first person presence of the narrator, an approach that reflects an emphasis on oral tradition that is shared by many indigenous cultures.
Since Death was worried that the earth would become too full, she decided to “clean things up a bit,” and make all of the animals on earth jump rope with her, daring them to go as long as possible, until they all died from exhaustion. One by one she calls each animal over to jump rope with her, first calling on Man: “I do love you shoes/ My dear little Man/ When this winner takes all/ Do you have a plan?” Every time death jumps rope with an animal (or human), she recites a taunting, rhyming riddle.
Embedded in the story-line, the structure of the plot and Death’s pithy rhymes is the suggestion of an omnipotent alliance between Earth and Death. Through this narrative trope, readers can also see the old tradition of respecting the earth’s limits and accepting death as a natural part of the earth’s balance. This interpretation may also resonate even more with readers in the context of climate change and over-population, where pushing the earth to her limits is also met with death. Especially in death’s dance with man, we hear the haunting challenge, “When winner takes all/ Do you have a plan?” In other words, once Earth is pushed to her limits, and Death prevails, what will man do to survive?
Once Man dies, Death takes the shoes off his feet and wears them herself as she continues to jump rope with all the animals and insects on the earth. From the little toad—“Skip, Toad, skip./ You know your fate./ Wipe that smile off your lips./ Death won’t wait.”—to the lively, agile monkey – “Jungle jumping Monkey,/ Whirl your charcoal tail./ You’ll be gone soon enough,/ You can’t possibly prevail.”—none of the animals manage to escape the inevitable trap set by Death. All of the animals are conquered by Death, except for one. At the end of this tale, we learn how this little, unassuming creature outsmarted Death and why to this day it continues to hop around everywhere it goes. We also learn how, in the process, Death loses the shoes she had originally stolen from Man: “That’s why they say that when Death/ comes into a house now, she is light/ footed, and no one can hear her.”
While Death is anthropomorphized in this story and uses cunning tricks to lure the animals to their demise, the end of the story shows us a new side of death, a side that is inevitable and, oftentimes, unexpected. At first, death becomes present and prevalent through various jump-rope challenges, one-on-one dares with each of the animals. At the end, however, death no longer needs to challenge the animals; death has already won and can come and go with pies lijeros, without warning and at the most unexpected of times. Ultimately, death has now become inevitable. Nonetheless, this tale treats this inevitability not as a bleak and depressing reality of life, but, rather, as a natural part of earth’s processes, harkening back to the story’s initial setup, where earth needs death in order to be healthy and balanced.
This book would be perfect for young students during the month of October, and at any moment, to teach them about the reality of death and natural cycles, as well as many of the beautiful stories and philosophies of Latin American indigenous culture. Students may find some solace in thinking of death as a necessary, natural and even salutary part of earth’s processes, as well as a ubiquitous occurrence that affects all humans and all animals equally.
For some additional resources, check out these two links on how to deal with issues and questions about death in the classroom, and the power of children’s literature in helping kids deal with grief:
- The Guardian article, “A child’s eye view of death: the power of picture books to explain“
- NPR Ed, “Grief In The Classroom: ‘Saying Nothing Says A Lot’“
Stay tuned for more October books!
Images modified from: Light Foot/Pies Lijeros pgs. 11, 15, 23, 27, 35, 43