Feathered Serpent and the Fire Suns: A Mesoamerican Creation Myth

Author: Duncan Tonatiuh

Publisher: Harry N. Abrams

Ages: 5+

Region: Mesoamerica

Language: English with Nahuatl words and translations.

Feather Serpent and the Fire Suns shares author Duncan Tonatiuh’s imagined journey of Quetzalcoátl in a well-known Mesoamerican creation myth. Quetzalcoátl must travel across the nine regions to reach Mictlán, the Underworld, to gather the god’s sacred bones and create the fifth tonatiuh (sun) to give the creation of  humanity a final chance of success. The God of Knowledge, aided by his intelligence, creativity, and his helpful friend and spirit guide Xólotl, struggles his way through the realms to gather the sacred bones. Through struggle, bravery, and teamwork, Quetzalcoátl finds success at the end of his journey, bringing life to the fifth and final tonatiuh.

The author-illustrator Duncan Tonatiuh’s illustrations are a crucial aspect of this text that bring the story to life. More than anything, Quetzaloátl’s imagined journey to Mictlán is an arduous voyage–Tonatiuh does not depict an easy journey. The themes in this book are not light. They depict hardship, but they also imagine how the figures we look up to may face these hardships and overcome them. Notably, Tonatiuh does not shy away from darker themes of fear, difficulty, and pain. The colors utilized throughout the presentation of Tonatiuh’s detailed and captivating images shift as this difficult journey progresses, reflecting the dark tonalities of the increasing challenges our protagonist encounters on his journey. While this journey is often frightful, there is always a presence of light or a helpful being at our protagonist’s side, demonstrating that help can always be found. This is not a store of strict independence, but of learning to depend on oneself, using the tools you have at one’s disposal creatively, and of both helping and depending on others to achieve a higher goal. Crucially, our heroic protagonist and god Quetzaloátl is not infallible–he injures himself along the way and ultimately makes a final act of sacrifice to obtain his goal. Sacrifice and determination are two prominent themes throughout this book, teaching our young readers that life is not easy, but that it is beautiful despite darkness, worthwhile, and that they can achieve their dreams in spite of challenges so long as they help and reach out to others when they are in need. 

Aside from being an award-winning and captivating illustrator, the author includes an author’s note with further context, an informative and contextualizing addition we should see more of in children’s literature more broadly. Like many of Tonatiuh’s other works that we continue to love and appreciate for young readers, at the end of the book Tonatiuh provides an enlightening glossary and pronunciation guide of the Nahuatl terms utilized throughout Quetzalcoátl’s journey that invites young readers to continue speaking, sharing, and learning the Nahuatl language. In addition, Tonatiuh clarifies to young readers and parents that his primary purpose in crafting this work is to introduce curious readers to the “mythology of Mesoamerica and to introduce young readers to this tradition”. The Book, Feather Serpent and the Fire Suns, is based on an Aztec creation myth, and Tonatiuh alerts the readers of both the histories he has borrowed from as well as what creative liberties he has taken in the process. Crucially, Tonatiuh “imagin(ed) how Quetzalcoátl would have confronted the arduous journey through the regions of Mictlán”. The text ultimately presents an artistically beautiful, accessible, and welcoming presentation of this Mesoamerican creation myth to audiences who may have varying levels of knowledge and experience with the Nahuatl language and Mesoamerican culture. Moreover, it is a text many curious minds, young readers and mature readers alike, can learn from together.

Additional Resources:

Podcast and Talk with the author: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vhWdsbIq1H4

Teaching Books.net Lesson Planning Resource: https://www.teachingbooks.net/tb.cgi?tid=71822


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