¡Mira, Look!: The Shark and the Parrotfish

Image result for the shark and the parrotfishSaludos todos! This week we are continuing our theme of nature in celebration of this month’s Earth Day with another great read. The Shark and the Parrotfish and Other Caribbean Fables, written by Mario Picayo and illustrated by Cherise Ward is a lovely collection of fables that take place in various parts of the Caribbean, incorporating characters based on all of the region’s abundant and diverse flora and fauna. This book is perfect for this month’s theme as it embraces many of nature’s wonders, while also anthropomorphizing animals and insects, reminding us of our closeness to nature, and helping readers sympathize with many species’ current plight of habitat destruction and resource scarcity. The setting of the Caribbean is also conducive for this month’s discussions on climate change, conservation, and eco-friendly living, as this region of the world, arguably one of the most beautiful and biodiverse, has also been one of the most affected by environmental exploitation, species extinction, and ecological destruction. Furthermore, as explained in the introduction of this book, each story is a fable, meaning that it contains a moral or a lesson to readers. As we take this month to reflect on the state of our planet and many of its glorious ecosystems, let us also reflect on the moral of this collection as a whole, as well as all of this month’s books: to save our ecosystems, care for our planet, and live responsibly.

In a note to the reader at the beginning of the book, the author introduces the genre of the fable, and explains many of the fable’s characteristics, such as being passed down from generation to generation, and usually including a moral or a lesson for the reader: “A fable is a story, but it is a special kind of story that teaches a lesson. We call that lesson a moral. Many fables are about animals and plants that talk and act like people.” The author also explains how Aesop is one of the most well-known fable-writers, but how this collection, rather than focusing on a European or African heritage, like many of Aesop’s stories, focuses on the Caribbean: “But I was born in the Caribbean, not in Africa or Europe, so my stories don’t have lions, foxes, or grapevines. Mine have mongooses, genip trees, and sharks.” Here we see how the fables’ focus on the Caribbean’s diverse flora and fauna is not only something that makes these fables so fascinating and intriguing, but also something that makes them distinctly Caribbean. In other words, our natural surroundings are not just a matter of environmental concern, but also of cultural identity, patrimony, and heritage. When we jeopardize and endanger earth’s species and the natural habitats of the world, we stand to lose not only our rich ecosystems, but also our culture, our national identities, memories, and ways of life.

The collection is composed of 12 different fables that are about a page in length. Each story is accompanied by a lively, colorful, and oftentimes humorous illustration. Although the stories are rather short, the language of the text can appear a bit dense for younger readers. Thus, this collection would be perfect for challenging older readers or for reading aloud. Each story also concludes with “Fun Facts,” usually about the animals or ecosystems found in the story. The “Fun Facts,” along with the moral(s) of each story make this collection and its various fables educational in more ways than one.

The first fable, The Hermit Crab and the Octopus, is about an old hermit crab who has lost his shell. As explained in the “Fun Facts” section of the story, this is typical of hermit crabs: “Like in the story, hermit crabs move from one shell to another as they get bigger.” The hermit crab in the story knows that his shell is getting old, and he’s going to need a new one soon, but before he can make that decision, a big wave comes and knocks his shell right off. The hermit crab, in a panic, starts crying out: “’Oh, no! My shell is gone! What am I going to do?’” But just as he is starting to slip into more of a panic, a big octopus comes up and offers the hermit crab his help. The big octopus, using his many tentacles, starts to dive down into the water looking for the hermit crab’s shell. Eventually the octopus finds the hermit crab’s shell, and the hermit crab is overjoyed: “’Why do you like this old shell?’ asked the octopus. “Because it is mine,’ said the old hermit crab. ‘I would rather sleep in my old shell than in a brand-new one that might belong to somebody else.’” The octopus, moved by the hermit crab’s honesty and humility, decides to reward the hermit crab with an additional gift. He dives down deep into the ocean again and this time comes back up with a beautiful bright blue and gold shell that he gives to the hermit crab as a gift.

The moral of each fable is written clearly at the bottom of the story in bold, red letters. The moral for The Hermit Crab and the Octopus is: “Honesty should be its own reward, but sometimes it is also rewarded by others.” However, each fable is also rife with a variety of morals and lessons, some small and intimate and others larger and symbolic. As a valuable exercise for students in both emotional development and analytical thinking, teachers could ask their students to identify other possible morals of each story. Although most of the morals identified by the author at the end of the story deal with interpersonal relationships and individual values, one could easily identify a variety of morals that speak to climate change, the environment and conservation. For example, when the hermit crab admits that he loves his old shell because it is his home, he is exercising honesty, but he is also reminding young readers of the importance of animals’ homes and habitats, and the pain and sadness that they endure when their homes are threatened or destroyed. Furthermore, the beginning of this fable illustrates the scene of the beautiful Caribbean: “An old hermit crab, who had not visited the ocean since he was young, decided to walk to a nearby reef and smell the sea air.” Here we are once again reminded of how the environment and the natural wonders of the world are also closely associated with our personal lives, our memories, family traditions and cultural identities, but the mention of the “nearby reef” also reminds us of the Caribbean’s magnificent and world-famous coral reefs.

In recent years the amazing reefs of the Caribbean have come very close to extinction. The Caribbean coral reefs are part of a complex ecosystem of marine life that both sustain the life of the reefs and depend on the reefs for their own sustenance and survival. According to an article by The Guardian, “Caribbean coral reefs ‘will be lost within 20 years’ without protection,” “Most Caribbean coral reefs will disappear within the next 20 years unless action is taken to protect them, primarily due to the decline of grazers such as sea urchins and parrotfish, a new report has warned. A comprehensive analysis by 90 experts of more than 35,000 surveys conducted at nearly 100 Caribbean locations since 1970 shows that the region’s corals have declined by more than 50%.” While the old hermit crab talks about his old shell as his home, this language about the importance of home and habitat can also be read as a larger metaphor for the Caribbean coral reefs and the marine-life ecosystem as a whole. Without the reefs, many plants and animals would no longer have a home and would soon too face extinction.

All in all, this book is a wonderful resource for teaching children about the fable genre, and about the fragile ecosystems of the Caribbean—highly recommended!

For those of you interested in using this book and its themes in the classroom, here are some additional resources:

Stay tuned for more great reads!

¡Hasta pronto!

Alice


Images Modified from: The Shark and the Parrotfish, pages 3, 6, 8, 13, 15

¡Mira Look!: Martina the Beautiful Cockroach

Image result for martina the beautiful cockroachSaludos 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.

martina-1 martina-2The 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.

martina-3 martina-4The 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.

martina-5Finally, 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:

Stay tuned for an introduction to our March themes and for more great reads!

Hasta pronto!

Alice


Images modified from: Martina the Beautiful Cockroach, pages 3, 7, 9, 11, 18

¡Mira Look!: Haiti My Country

Image result for haiti my countrySaludos todos! This week I will be reviewing Haiti My Country, a collection of poems written by a variety of Haitian school children, illustrated by Rogé and translated from the French by Solange Messier. As we continue with our February theme of love, including love of self, love of community, and love of others, to name a few, this book resonates primarily with themes of love of country and love of nature. Through each individual and unique poem, these children express pride in their country, adoration for its natural beauty, and, ultimately, the love that they have for themselves and for their own particular identities.

haiti-1This book on Haiti also harkens us back to my February posts from last year, where I used Black History Month as an opportunity to focus my book reviews for the month on books about Haiti, a country that is sometimes overlooked in our studies of Latin America. Of course, Afro-Latino culture and populations are prominent in all countries of Latin America, however Haiti’s history and society stands apart, as the majority of the population is made up of Afro-descendents, and it was the first country in the Americas to lead a successful slave rebellion. Some of my posts from last year include, Sélavi / That is Life: A Haitian Story of Hope, Eight Days, A Story of Haiti, Running the Road to ABC, and Children of Yayoute. You may also be interested in Keira’s post on Resources to Teach about Haiti and Afro-Caribbean Cultures, or  Charla‘s post on Teaching about Haiti with Love. While Haiti My Country fits in with out general theme of love for this month, it also helps us remember and link back to some great resources and teaching plans from last year.

haiti-5The introduction of Haiti My Country, written by Dany Laferrière, provides some geographical and historical context for this collection of poems:

After the ongoing deforestation of the last few decades came a succession of cyclones, deadly floods, and then the horrific earthquake. I should clarify that these poems were written before the earthquake of January 12, 2010. What’s more, the region where these young poets live has been largely unaffected by the calamities that I have just mentioned. The natural landscapes that surround these teenagers inspire such dreams that visitors are often surprised they originated in Haiti.

haiti-2Laferrière notes that when he reads novels he can usually discern the age of the author based on a variety of cultural and historical context clues; however, with poetry it is different. He remarks that one of the enchanting and even mysterious aspects of these poems is that the poets themselves are so young, yet their words evoke such wisdom.

haiti-3One of the things that I find especially beautiful about this book is Rogé’s stunning, detailed, and humanistic portraits. Each portrait is presented on the adjacent page of the poem, depicting the poem’s author. The children are smiling, and resting their faces in an expression of serenity and tranquility; however, sometimes their expressions bear a degree of mystery, a complacent smile that hides a deeper truth: “The illustrator (I say illustrator and not painter because these portraits force us to think rather than to look) seems to be trying to resolve a deep mystery behind the faces that are suddenly unreadable.” According to Lafereire, one of the most poignant aspects of this book is the combination of the magical scenes painted by the children’s poetry, and the portraits of their calm, tranquil faces, coupled with the unavoidable context of poverty and devastation that has plagued Haiti for years.  He explains, “Such energy inhabits these adolescents! It overflows and consoles us, even as unfathomable sadness invades our hearts. Their vitality is irresistible. But as heavenly as the setting is, it does not distract them from the human condition.”

haiti-4Nonetheless, Laferrière also notes that these stunning portraits help paint a more holistic image of Haiti, the natural beauty of the country, articulated through the poems, and the endearing faces of its children, the faces of hope and the future. Again, what is so compelling about this collection is what is said and what is not said, the sweet smile on the face of a Haitian adolescent, and the tinge of sadness in her deep, dark eyes. This poignant duality is felt in a poem by Annie Hum: “Magnificent country becomes/ Broken land/ All smiles are lost.”  Yet these poems are also imbued with inspiring hope and faith in the future, in the future that these children will bring: “Everything is born, everything lives, everything perishes./ But this country, her exceptional natural beauty–/ I want her to live forever.” Another poem, shown beside the portrait of a somber looking boy starts with “I dream” and concludes with “I do not want to see these things in dreams/ But in reality…”  That poem alone is reason enough to use the book in the classroom–what a wonderful writing prompt that line could be!

For those of you interested in learning more about contemporary Haiti, here are some additional links:

For those of you interested in learning more about the book’s artist, here are some additional resources:

Stay tuned for more great books!

¡Hasta pronto!

Alice

Save

Save

Save

¡Mira Look!: La Noche Buena, A Christmas Story

la-noche-buenaSaludos 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.

Continue reading

¡Mira Look!: Miracle on 133rd Street

Image result for miracle on 133rd street lesson plansSaludos todos! I hope everyone had a nice and relaxing Thanksgiving break! This week we’re continuing with our November themes of food and the cultural importance of food while also transitioning into our brief December focus on winter celebrations. We’ve spent November highlighting the importance of food in cultural celebrations and rituals as well as community environments, which has been a nice way for us to bridge the celebrations of late October and early November such as Day of the Dead, late November celebrations such as Thanksgiving, and December celebrations such as Christmas and Las Posadas.

133rd-1 Our book for this week, Miracle on 133rd Street, written by Sonia Manzano and illustrated by Marjorie Priceman, focuses on the frantic energy of the yuletide season, as a family tries to find space for their holiday roast. The oven is too small in the family’s tiny, New York City apartment, forcing them to journey through the halls of their apartment complex, seeking help from their diverse neighbors, all of whom are also anticipating and preparing for their own holiday celebrations. The plot of finding space for the holiday roast is what drives the story showing how food facilitates community and brings people together. Food is at the crux of this exciting and endearing plot, as it is for many of us celebrating the holidays.

Continue reading

¡Mira, Look!: The Storyteller’s Candle/La velita de los cuentos

the storytellers candleSaludos todos, and welcome to my first book review of the year! I’m thrilled to be back writing for the blog, and I’m especially excited for all of this year’s amazing books.

This month we will be celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month while also drawing special attention to the renowned Pura Belpré Award, which recognizes outstanding works of Latinx children’s literature, and is celebrating its 20th year in 2016. The Pura Belpré Award is named after Pura Belpré, the first Latina librarian at the New York Public Library. In our celebration of this prestigious award and its recipients, we will also be celebrating Pura Belpré herself.

Continue reading

¡Mira Look!: Author’s Corner: Oscar Hijuellos

HijuelosSaludos todos! This week we are taking the time to feature the renowned, Cuban-American author, Oscar Hijuelos, and his body of work. Like with our previous authors, we take this time to feature the breadth of the author’s collective oeuvre, as well as the more personal aspects of his life and legacy.

Oscar Hijuelos (1951-2013) is a Cuban-American author who wrote several adult and young adult books, mostly focusing on Latin American protagonists or themes. Hijuelos was the first Latino to win a Pulitzer Prize for fiction when he was recognized for his 1989 novel, The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, which was turned into a movie in 1992. Hijuelos also won the Hispanic Heritage Award for Literature in 2000. Through his iconic work, Hijuelos endures as a prominent figure of Latino literature, describing the immigrant experience, questions of identity, and the many hurdles of communication, through witty and endearing prose.

A New York Times piece remembering Hijuelos after his death reflects upon the narrative style and insightful perspectives that appear throughout his novels:

In novels like “Our House in the Last World” (1983), which traces a family’s travails from Havana in 1939 to Spanish Harlem; “Mambo Kings,” about the rise and fall of the Castillo brothers, Cesar, a flamboyant and profligate bandleader, and his ruminative trumpeter brother, Nestor; and “The Fourteen Sisters of Emilio Montez O’Brien” (1993), about several generations of a Cuban-Irish family in Pennsylvania, he wrote about the non-native experience in the United States from a sympathetic, occasionally amused perspective and with a keen eye for detail in his period settings.

Continue reading