Saludos todos! This week we are concluding our monthly theme of love with Martina the Beautiful Cockroach, an adaptation of an old Cuban folktale, written by Carmen Agra Deedy and illustrated by Michael Austin. This book won recognition as a Pura Belpré Honor Book. According to the introduction of the book, this folktale is one of the best known in Latin America, but versions of this classic tale also exist in other regions of the world. Nonetheless, Deedy takes this traditional tale, and its familiar themes, and intertwines it with her own creative twists and childhood memories. This in itself is one of the beautiful things about traditional folktales—their themes and plots have become so familiar to most people that they can be retold and adapted across countries, cultures and individual experiences to reflect both common sentiments of society, and the particular lives of individuals. Martina the Beautiful Cockroach deals primarily with themes of romantic love, but also of familial love, as young Martina relies on the advice of her wise abuela in choosing a future spouse. This charming story conveys themes of respect, compatibility, and family love, and is bound to make any reader smile as they follow the journey of Martina the beautiful cockroach.
The story begins with a scene of the young Martina with her family inside their lamp post home. The warm hues of the illustrations evoke feelings of comfort and good company, while also accentuating witty details, such as a sofa made of a can of beans, a staircase made of books, and a stamp as a wall-hanging portrait. Martina has just turned 21 years old, and her family thinks that it is now time for her to find a husband. Her wise abuela tells her to go up to the balcony to await her suitors. Since Martina is stunningly beautiful, the entire town is abuzz with talk about marrying her: “Soon all Havana—from the busy sidewalks of El Prado to El Morro castle—was abuzz with the news.” However, her abuela also tells her to use the famous “coffee test” to pick the right suitor. When a suitor comes to speak to her, Martina must “accidentally” spill coffee on their shoes, and watch how they react. Based on their reaction, she will see how they will act towards her when they are angry. If they lose their temper and act disrespectfully, then they are not the right suitor. Although Martina is skeptical of her abuela’s eccentric advice, she follows it nonetheless.
The first to come speak to Martina is Don Gallo, the rooster. The rooster has “splendid shoes,” and exclaims, “Caramba! You really are a beautiful cockroach. I will look even more fabulous with you on my wings!” But when Martina “accidently” spills coffee on his shoes, he erupts in a fury, insulting her and her “clumsiness”: “Clumsy cockroach! I will teach you better manners when you are my wife!” Alas, Don Gallo has failed the coffee test. Martina tells him cooly, “A most humble offer, senor, but I cannot accept. You are much too cocky for me.” These little play on words continue throughout the story, adding a layer of humor to an already charming and endearing story. While portraying the all-too-human sensations of searching for love and finding love, this story also self-consciously highlights the witty absurdity of the anthropomorphized characters: “Daintily, she sat down/ and crossed her legs,/ and crossed her legs,/ and crossed her legs.” As one suitor comes after the next, Martina grows more and more appreciative of her abuela’s unique advice. Many of her suitors do not react kindly to having coffee spilt on their shoes, and this little experiment enables her to see each suitor’s true colors.
Finally, Martina spots a cute little mouse who’s been waiting in the bushes below the whole time. Martina, instantly drawn to him, goes to speak to him, but not before her abuela brusquely reminds her, “Don’t forget the coffee!” The little mouse blushes while speaking to Martina and tells her that although she is very beautiful, his eyes are not very good; his ears, however, are very sharp and he knows that she is “strong and good”: “Then he squinted sweetly. ‘Who cares if you are beautiful?’” Although this old folktale relies on old traditions of courting suitors, the values that it conveys—mutual respect, kindness, and a focus on internal values rather than external appearances—are timeless and remain important for any couple to this day. Although Martina is reluctant to try the coffee test this time, she does as her abuela says. Just as she is about to spill the coffee on the mouse’s shoes, though, he surprises her by doing something none of the other suitors have done. So as not to ruin the ending, which is my favorite part of the story, I will leave it at that. But in the end, Martina ends up falling in love with the most unassuming suitor, while also realizing how important her Cuban roots and family traditions really are.
For those of you interested in using this book in the classroom, here are some additional resources:
- School Improvement in Maryland activity guide for Martina the Beautiful Cockroach
- Virginia Association of Schools lesson plan for Martina the Beautiful Cockroach
- Website for Martina the Beautiful Cockroach, including background information, illustrations, and Spanish vocabulary guides
- Literacy Lessons for All classroom guide for Martina the Beautiful Cockroach
- Illinois School Library Media Association discussion questions for Martina the Beautiful Cockroach
- Martina the Beautiful Cockroach website Teacher’s Page
Stay tuned for an introduction to our March themes and for more great reads!
Images modified from: Martina the Beautiful Cockroach, pages 3, 7, 9, 11, 18