Saludos toddos, and welcome to our final book review for the semester and for the year! We are continuing our December themes this week with one last review on winter holidays. Our book for this week is La Noche Buena, A Christmas Story, written by Antonio Sacre and illustrated by Angela Dominguez. Sacre is a new name here on our blog, but I have already reviewed several books illustrated by Dominguez, including Mango, Abuela and Me, which won Dominguez the 2016 Pura Belpré Illustrator Honor Book, and Maria Had a Little Llama/ María tenía una llamita.
La Noche Buena is a heartwarming story about a young girl who travels from her New England home down to Miami to spend Christmas and Christmas Eve with her Cuban relatives. It is her first time traveling to Miami for the winter holidays, and at first the warmth and humidity seem strange at this time of year: “How will Santa land his sleigh in the heat?” The unnamed, female protagonist’s parents are divorced and it is her Cuban father’s turn to have her for the holidays. The fact that the protagonist is unnamed helps readers identify with her, and her position as a child of divorced parents is an important perspective for children to witness and experience through literature. Divorce is such a common occurrence, but it is still a difficult experience for children. As young readers watch the protagonist transition between two parents, two cultures, two languages, they will witness how strong and resilient she is, a positive example for children going through similar struggles.
At first, the girl is not too keen on going to Miami for the holidays—“As much as I love my Cuban grandmother, and as many times as she tells me I’m her favorite nieta, granddaughter, I’d rather be up north for Christmas, with my mother, my other grandmother, all my up-north cousins, and snow, lots and lots of snow!”—however, as the story progresses, readers will see how quickly the protagonist adapts to the changes, how important it is for her to familiarize herself with the other side of her family, and how much fun she has celebrating a Cuban-American noche buena (Christmas Eve). As I mentioned in last week’s review on Miracle on 133rd Street, the holidays are not always a time of pure mirth and joy, but can also be a time of sadness, when we lament a divorce in the family, the separation of loved ones, or are overwhelmed by homesickness and nostalgia for a different place or a different time. What’s wonderful and heartwarming about this book, though, as well as Miracle on 133rd street, is that despite these realistic and all-too-human sentiments, an uplifting, loving, and communal core still shines through the narrative. Although the protagonist starts off sad and reluctant about traveling to Miami and missing her family up north, by the end of the story she realizes that instead of losing one family, or missing out on their festivities back home, she has gained a whole other family, a whole other community of people who love her and want to make her feel welcome.
Dominguez’s beautiful, vibrant illustrations also help set the tone of merriment and celebration, and establishes the scenery of tropical Miami: “I walk out the door. I listen. At first I only hear the cars going by on Calle Ocho. Then I hear a dog barking and loud birds above me. I look toward the sound and see colorful parrots!” The protagonist’s surprise at the novel setting and climate gives readers the sensation that they are discovering and experiencing her surroundings alongside her.
As lovely as this story is, one thing to keep in mind while reading and while teaching this book, is that gender roles are starkly emphasized in this story: “‘Vaya, nina,’ says Uncle Tito. ‘We need more of Mimi’s marinade, and you are the only one who can go. Mimi won’t let any of us men into the kitchen, and we won’t let any of the women by the fire. They need you in the kitchen, but we need you here, too. You will have to go back and forth many times over the next few days.’” Although this is simply a reality in many cultures and many households, teachers might want to emphasize to their students that women don’t always need to be the ones cooking, and men don’t always need to be the ones barbequing. Moreover, that’s not necessarily the case in Cuban-American families. This is only one example of one family.
Also, this scene serves to highlight yet another liminal phase that the protagonist must occupy, another crossing over of borders and divides. Not only is she traveling between parents, between states and between cultures, but she is also now transitioning between the women in the kitchen and the men in the backyard. Taken with a grain of salt, this also serves to further emphasize the protagonist’s flexibility and adaptability, important qualities for both children and adults navigating the challenges and surprises of life.
Ultimately, this story is warm and uplifting and takes readers on a journey through the cultural celebrations and yuletide rituals of a Cuban-American family. Many of the themes that I often highlight this time of year ( nostalgia, the immigrant experience, cross cultural holiday gatherings, etc.) shine through this vibrant story, and even remind me of some of my own experiences as a child, being half American and half French, traveling to France for Christmas. Many young children can identify with this story, whether they, too, are traveling for the holidays, are part of a multicultural family, are children of divorced parents, or are simply anxiously anticipating the holidays. And on that note, we would like to wish all of our readers a very happy holiday and vacation, luck to anyone traveling, and merriment to everyone anxiously awaiting the yuletide season. See you all back in 2017!
For those of you interested in learning more about the author and illustrator, here are some additional resources: