¡Mira, Look!: Letters Forever/ Cartas para siempre

Saludos todos! This week we are concluding our March theme of women and Women’s History Month with another great read. Last week I featured the Coleccion Antiprincesas, which provides readers with biographies of underrepresented and under-studied historical Latina heroines. This week, however, we are switching gears a bit, focusing more on the courage and determination of young girls in our everyday lives. The book for this week is Letters Forever/ Cartas para siempre, written by Tom Luna and illustrated by Laura Alvarez. This wonderful story focuses on a young, female protagonist who has to learn how to navigate her complicated emotions in a difficult situation. Not only does this book show young readers how to cope with separation and heartache, it also counters stereotypes and challenges negative representations of women and girls by portraying a young girl whose empathy and emotional sensibility is not a flaw or a nuisance, but, ultimately, one of her greatest virtues.

This book tells the story of young Camila and her beloved abuelo, Felix, who lives far away in Veracruz, Mexico: “It had been two years since he left San Antonio to return home to Veracruz.” Camila reflects on the bittersweet memories of her grandfather playing his favorite guitar, the requinto, and how he would sing her lullabies when she was a little baby: “He had a deep beautiful voice and played the requinto with an almost angelic touch.” Although the plot following the female protagonist challenges typical, negative representations of women and girls, the character description of the grandfather also challenges expectations of men and boys. The grandfather is sensitive, artistic, loving and participates actively in caring for his grandchild, taking her on outings to the zoo and the park, to name a few, all the while singing or whistling tunes from Veracruz.

Although Camila misses her grandfather greatly, her parents say that they do not have enough money to afford a trip to Veracruz to visit him. However, one day, deciding to take matters into her own hands, young Camila hops on her bike determined to ride the 938 miles to Veracruz to see her dear grandfather: “‘I’m going to see Grandpa Felix in Veracruz,’ said Camila with a defiant stance.” As one would imagine, Camila’s mother quickly intervenes and tells her to come back home, that she can’t ride her bike all the way to Veracruz, but that one day they’ll have enough money saved up for a visit. Although Camila’s immediate solution to her grandfather’s absence is, of course, not one that I or parents and educators would likely recommend to their students, this scene does illustrate Camila’s determination and her willingness to try to solve her problem independently. This scene also serves as a contrast to Camila’s eventual, more reasonable solution to her feelings, showing readers Camila’s learning curve and her progress in figuring out both what her feelings are and what to do about them.

After her failed attempt at biking 938 miles to Veracruz, and her mother’s brief scolding, Camila decides that a more appropriate response might be to write a letter to her grandfather and ask him to be her pen pal. This solution is also one arrived at entirely by Camila herself, further emphasizing her independence and her ability to learn and navigate tough situations on her own: “She went into her room, pulled out her diary and decided then and there that she would write to her grandfather and ask him to write her back.” What I also particularly love about this scene is the mention of Camila’s journal-writing as a catalyst for her emotional development and decision-making. As an avid writer and “journaler” myself, I, too, have found this to be a very useful strategy in coping with tough situations, sorting out my thoughts and feelings, and figuring out how to proceed. Moreover, as the story continues in a somewhat epistolary format, composed of letters between Camila and her grandfather, teachers could conduct various lessons based on two forms of writing: first, letter-writing and the epistolary novel form, and, second, journal writing. As an exercise in writing and verbal expression, teachers could ask their students to write in a journal every day. Teachers could also conduct exercises in letter-writing and, especially for foreign language students, teach their students proper opening and closing statements, such as “Querido abuelo/ Dear grandpa.” This story is entirely bilingual, which is especially useful for comparing the letter-writing format between English and Spanish. In addition, the simplistic illustrations found within this book could also inspire students to create drawings of their own to accompany their journal entries or letters. As noted by a School Library Journal review, “Rough-hewn, heavily brushed paintings tracking Camila’s progress to adulthood and Grandpa’s to gray-haired old age accompany narrative passages of English over Spanish.” In this story, the prose is just as important as the illustrations in conveying the passing of time, and both Camila’s physical and emotional growth.

Towards the end of the story we see Camila grown up to be a young, 18-year-old woman. Her family still has not been able to save enough money to go to Veracruz, but Camila is determined to go nonetheless: “On the day Camila turned 18, she was in her room with photos of her grandfather all around. She was working now and saving her money. Her family never did go to Veracruz but Camila was saving to go on her own.” This scene again reinforces Camila’s agency and independence, her ability not only to work hard towards a self-determined goal, but also to eventually travel on her own.What I find especially powerful about this scene is the way in which it emphasizes “ambition” as not only working towards professional and academic goals, but also towards emotional and interpersonal goals. Oftentimes “emotional labor,” or the work that one puts into emotionally supporting others, is unconsciously expected of women while also being undervalued, unrecognized and unremunerated, in both the home and the workplace. This heartwarming scene emphasizes the hard work that Camila put into sustaining a relationship with her grandfather over the years, as well as her grandfather’s boundless joy and appreciation upon finally seeing her arrive in Veracruz (belated spoiler alert!).

All in all, this book is a wonderful resource for teaching a variety of subjects from writing and correspondence, to emotional development and maturity.  Letters Forever/ Cartas para siempre challenges typical representations of gender roles through children’s literature, empowering both young girls and boys.

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

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

¡Hasta pronto!

Alice


Images Modified from Letters Forever/ Cartas para siempre: Pages 7, 9, 14, 15, 21

¡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!: Under the Lemon Moon

Image result for under the lemon moonSaludos todos! This week we are continuing our monthly theme of love with an especially heart-warming book, Under the Lemon Moon, written by Edith Hope Fine and illustrated by Rene King Moreno.  This lovely story specifically focuses on themes of forgiveness, generosity and personal growth, expanding our theme of love to include other feelings, values, and personal goals.

This book takes place in the Mexican countryside and the English narration is interspersed with Spanish vocabulary words. Fine has provided an index at the beginning of the book to help non-Spanish speaking readers puzzle through the Spanish interjections.  Not only will students learn lessons on patience, forgiveness, and compassion, but they‘ll also get exposure to new vocabulary, while practicing using an index as a tool for comprehension.

lemon-1The story starts by introducing the female protagonist, Rosalinda, who has started to grow her very own lemon tree in the backyard. One night she hears something rustling outside.  When she goes with her pet hen, Blanca, to investigate, she sees a “man with hunched shoulders” picking all the lemons off her tree and stuffing them into a sack before scurrying away into the night. Rosalinda is furious: “Her lemons. From her tree.” As Rosalinda is learning to take care of her plants and her pets, reinforcing feelings of pride, care and responsibility, her sense of possession also starts to get the best of her.  In portraying this delicate balance, Fine shows how important it is for children to have things that they can take care of on their own, that they can be proud of and responsible for, while also showing how this is in itself a learning experience and an opportunity for growth: Rosalinda asks herself, “Who is the Night Man? Why does he take my lemons?”

lemon-2The next morning Rosalinda finds that not a single lemon is left on her tree. The branches are bare and the leaves have a yellow, sickly tinge to them: “Rosalinda crooned a sad song as Blanca brawked along. She loved her lemon tree almost as much as she loved Bianca.” As the week goes by Rosalinda notices that the leaves on her precious lemon tree are turning more yellow, and starting to fall off, and she begins to worry that the tree is dying. When she goes to her parents for comfort they suggest that maybe a friend or a neighbor could help, or her dear abuela. Rosalinda’s parents are kind and compassionate and try their best to soothe her worries, while also encouraging her to find a creative solution on her own.Throughout the story, Rosalinda’s agency and independence are consistently reinforced: “Rosalinda set out.” Ultimately, the story culminates in Rosalinda resolving her own predicament in a way that is both gratifying for herself and compassionate towards others.

lemon-3As Rosalinda talks to various people in her neighborhood they each give her tips on how to care for a tree, watering it and even talking to it to make it feel better. But Rosalinda has already done all of these things and nothing has worked. Rosalinda takes good care of her plants and has already tried everything that she can think of. Finally, though, she goes to speak to her wise abuelita. Her abuela tells her that she’ll light a candle for her tree, something Rosalinda has not tried yet, and that maybe the candle will summon La Anciana, a wise old spirit known for making things grow. Abuela “eased the worries from Rosalinda’s forehead with her warm palm,” and proceeds to lovingly tell her the legend of La Anciana. Little does Rosalinda know, as she awaits La Anciana and her powers to make her tree grow, she also awaits her wise words and her powers to make her, Rosalinda, grow and mature.

lemon-4As Rosalinda makes her way back home she stops by the local market. As she walks by all of the stands she notices the Night Man. He’s sitting in front of a stand selling lemons, her lemons! Just as Rosalinda begins shivering with rage and fear, La Anciana appears, “her wrinkles deep, her eyes gentle.”  After listening to Rosalinda’s predicament, La Anciana agrees, “to take your lemons was wrong,” but then adds, “Perhaps he had a need.” Indeed, when Rosalinda goes back to the market the next day she notices that the Night Man’s hands are rough and hardened by tough work, and his family beside him looks hungry and disheveled.

Before leaving, La Anciana tells Rosalinda how to cure her tree, and, after following her instructions, Rosalinda wakes up the next day to find her tree overflowing with big, juicy lemons. She loads them up in a crate and takes them to the market, generously handing them out to everyone she sees, her neighbors, her friends, and even complete strangers. Finally, she stops by the Night Man’s stand. Rosalinda hands him her last lemon. She tells the night man to “siembra las semillas,” or “plant the seeds,” so that he can grow a lemon tree of his own. The Night Man thanks her and when Rosalinda leaves, her feelings of anger and worry from a week prior are now replaced by feelings of love and joy: “Rosalinda felt content, too. Except for one fat hen, Rosalinda’s cart was empty, but her heart was as full as a lemon moon.”

lemon-5This beautiful story shows readers the power of forgiveness and generosity, and how sometimes, by taking care of others, we ultimately take care of ourselves. With Moreno’s stunning illustrations, this book exudes a calming tone that encourages readers and young children to reflect upon their feelings and the feelings of others. Moreno’s illustrations have also appeared on our blog before with my book review of Uncle Monarch and the Day of the Dead, which is also a lovely, calming story about the flourishing wisdom of young children. In Under the Lemon Moon, the protagonist embarks on a journey of personal growth and maturity that ultimately teaches her to care not only for her own plants and pets, but also for her neighbors and for the people around her. In the end, the best way to feel as round and full as a lemon moon or a shimmering lemon tree is to spread kindness and generosity to the people around us.

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

Stay tuned for more great books!

Hasta pronto!

Alice


Images Modified from Under the Lemon Moon: Pages 9, 14, 17, 21 and 26

¡Mira Look!: Moví la mano/ I Moved my Hand

movi-la-manoSaludos todos! This week I will be reviewing Moví la mano/ I Moved my Hand, written by Argentinian author Jorge Lújan and illustrated by French artist Mandana Sadat, as our last January book on “unsung heroes.” So far this month I’ve reviewed children’s books that focus on heroic and fearless parents, lesser-known cultural icons, like Tito Puente, who were also active humanitarians, and brave firefighters whose invaluable work sometimes goes unnoticed. However, this week’s “unsung heroes” are children themselves.

la-mano-1Moví la mano/ I Moved my Hand tells the story of a young girl whose imagination, creativity and drive hold the power to change the world around her: “When a little girl moves her hand, she discovers the world and her power to change and create it anew.” Lújan’s story reads as a bilingual Spanish/English poem, complemented by Sadat’s stunning illustrations. Every one of the female protagonist’s actions, moving, shaking, stirring and swirling, to name a few, is met by a magical effect, the creation of a lake, finding the moon, and soaring through the sky. This fantastical narrative and its equally enchanting illustrations serve as a metaphor for the infinite potential at the hands of young children: “an empowering and inspiring tribute to children’s magical possibilities.” As a result, this beautiful book helps us honor and celebrate the infinite potential and imagination of young children, the “unsung heroes” of the future, as well as their magical ability to find and create beauty in the world around them.

la-mano-2The first two pages create a spread of two side-by-side illustrations showing the little girl standing in the middle of the living room in her pink tutu and her parents watching lovingly from the couch. The illustrations are done in black, white and gray hues with just a small splash of color for the girl’s tutu, her ballet slippers, and Lújan’s text. Already, this use of color and contrast shows how two distinct forms of art, the little girl’s dance and Lújan’s poetry, can light up a room, alter the ordinary, and dazzle an audience.

The meta-fictional dynamic found within this text— the parents portrayed as audience members for their daughter’s dance performance, and the story’s readers as audience members of Lújan’s narrative— exemplifies the ways in which children can be part of the audience, readers of this text, but also part of the performance, as dancers, writers, artists, or whatever they choose. On the following page, the protagonist’s imaginative journey and artistic performance take center stage, and the detailed, “real life,” black and white world starts to fade as additional splashes of color start to emerge. The image of her parents sitting on the couch, which previously occupied the entire first page, now appears as a silhouette in the distant corner of the next page. The presence of the girl’s parents in this story shows them as loving and supportive but also respectful of her independence and her ability to create things of her own.

la-mano-3As the story progresses, readers will notice more and more splashes of color as bright orange fish and rainbow unicorns appear against the black backdrop. As noted by Kirkus Reviews, the black backdrop serves as a canvas, a stage or a blank sheet of paper, waiting for the artist’s hand to take control: “Digitally collaged creatures done in colored pencil, ink and crayon interact with the precocious ballerina, who creates a universe with a wave of her hand…” All three forms of art found within this wonderful story— Lújan’s poetry, Sadat’s illustrations, and the protagonist’s dance— interact to create an enchanting mix of color, rhyme and movement.

Kirkus Reviews also notes the existentialist undertones of this picture book: “A tutu-clad child encounters existentialism through movement in this 47-word poem by award-winning Argentine poet Luján.” Although the basic tenets of existentialism—that one’s destiny is not predetermined, but, rather, reliant on one’s own independent actions—are surely too abstract for young children, when simplified and synthesized, as they are in this picture book, they serve as empowering reminders that children are in la-mano-4control of their lives, and capable of dreaming big. In addition, some of the actions described in the book appear rather simple and mundane, yet their reactions are grandiose and fantastical: “Toque la la luna y rodo en el cielo./ I touched the moon/ and it rolled through the night.” Just a gentle touch can set the moon traveling throughout the starry night. Again, this is a reminder of the infinite magic and potential waiting at the hands of children. A child’s actions, creations or ambitions don’t have to be monumental and sensational for their effects to be meaningful and magical.

la-mano-5The story ends with another two page spread mimicking the one found at the beginning of the book. After the protagonist’s journey she is welcomed home by the loving embrace of her two parents and her world has returned to its black and white palette. The following pages show the same living room, but now the lights have been turned off (the room is mostly shades of black and gray) and the family has presumably gone to bed. Out of the corner of the room emerges a rainbow unicorn who skips off across the black canvas, presumably in search of its own destiny. These final illustrations are shown without words, but they speak volumes nonetheless, reminding young readers that even once the day is done and they’ve gone to bed, the magic and beauty that they’ve contributed to this world lives on.

For those of you interested in learning more about the author and illustrator, here are some additional links:

Stay tuned for more great reads and an introduction to February’s themes!

¡Hasta pronto!

Alice


Images Modified from Moví la mano/ I Moved my Hand: Pages 2, 3, 8, 12, 13

¡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.

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¡Mira Look!: The Cazuela that the Farm Maiden Stirred

cazuela

Saludos todos and welcome to the start of our November-themed book reviews! Our themes for this month will focus on food and the cultural importance of food, topics that seem to fit well with the harvest season that is upon us and the subsequent winter holidays for which food plays such a significant role. Along with traditional practices, food is an important cultural element that can awaken the senses, harken back to fond memories and seasonal associations, and bring people together though collection, preparation, and shared enjoyment.

cazuela-1

Our book to start this exploration is The Cazuela that the Farm Maiden Stirred, written by Samantha R. Vamos and illustrated by Rafael López. This fun and engaging book tells the story of a young farm maiden who, by enlisting the help of various farm animals and the farmer boy, makes a steamy, delicious pot of arroz con leche. The book has a lively, festive tone and the cooking process is described as a fun, unifying celebration, emphasizing the cultural and communal importance of food. In preparing the arroz con leche, everyone at the farm, including the anthropomorphized animals, must do their part and contribute. This not only exemplifies good team work, but also shows how everyone has a valuable skill or asset to contribute.

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¡Mira, Look!: My Abuela is Sick

mi-abuela-is-sick

Saludos todos! This week we will be reviewing a book that has recently come out and was a finalist for the International Latino Book Awards in both the category of “Best Educational Children’s Picture Book—English” and “Most Inspirational Children’s Picture Book—English.” My Abuela is Sick, written by Jennifer Bisignano and illustrated by Gaston Hauviller, tells the story of a young, female protagonist who confronts the reality of her ailing, dying grandmother, which is likely also her first encounter with death. Keeping in line with our themes for the month, this book is especially useful for young children to begin discussing and conceptualizing death, and for those already struggling with these experiences, to find solace in the shared experience of a relatable protagonist. The book may also aid teachers looking for resources to help their students through difficult times.

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