Showing posts with label Latino/a. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Latino/a. Show all posts

Friday, July 18, 2014

Picture Book Review - Niño Wrestles the World by Yuyi Morales

A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of sharing a presentation on diversity in kidlit with a class of Early Childhood Education students. It was a serious honor to be asked to present, and warmed my heart to see all these future educators so excited about children's lit with diverse characters. The problem, though, was in choosing what books to share with them -- so many great choices, so little space (and time).

So I enlisted Sprout to help me pick, asking him what books we've read that he really liked. And among those he described was today's feature, the absolutely amazing Niño Wrestles the World by Yuyi Morales. I wasn't surprised that he mentioned this one, since we've had it checked out more or less nonstop since it debuted last summer. But I was a bit shocked that I hadn't blogged about it yet. Seriously, I had to check through the archives just to be sure!

Lo and behold, this one slipped through the cracks for us, I guess. Time to right that imbalance pronto. Because, my friends, Niño is one fantastically fun read-aloud and it deserves as wide an audience as it can possibly get. I mean, I dare you to read this one aloud and not collapse in a fit of giggles, just due to the sound effects alone.

The story follows our hero, Niño, who we right away discover is a pretty formidable wrestler in the lucha libre style of wrestling. Don't worry if you're not familiar with the concept - Morales has a very nice author note at the end that will answer your kiddos' questions about this type of wrestling. Suffice to say that lucha libre is pretty over the top, and that's exactly what our hero loves about it. Niño fights against all matter of crazy opponents and defeats them all handily, with plenty of awesome comic-inspired "whunks" and "zzwaps". But in the final measure, there is one pair of foes not even a fearless undie-clad hero can defeat -- his baby sisters!

I asked Sprout what he likes best about this one and he said "everything". I tend to agree. From the fast pace, to the zany opponents, to the colorful backdrops and sprinkling of Spanish phrases throughout, Niño is a total winner. . . even if he can't hold out against two little charmers (but who ever could?).

Niño Wrestles the World by Yuyi Morales, published by Roaring Brook Press
Ages 4-6
Source: Library
Highly recommended

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

YA Review - Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass by Meg Medina

I'm finally getting around to writing reviews of some of those incredible books I read during the 48 Hour Book Challenge a few weeks ago! (It takes me a while, sometimes.) Part of the reason is that I needed to process what I read - my goal during this year's challenge was to maximize my reading time, so I pretty much read straight through, with only a few stopovers on social media and other participants' blogs. And so it was one big happy blur of diverse titles, all of which I needed to digest a bit before I sat down and put fingers to keyboard.

But I definitely don't want to forget about these books, so on with the reviews. First up is a teen pick, Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass by Meg Medina. This one caught my attention when it won the Pura Belpre award last year, and kept my attention when it started being challenged for various reasons. (I kind of secretly love when a great book is challenged, because what is a more sure-fire way to guarantee that teenagers read something, than to tell them not to?). So of course I knew this was going to be a 48 Hour Book Challenge title for me, and I'm so glad I included it with my list.

The story begins when Piddy Sanchez finds out that "Yaqui Delgado wants to kick your ass," from some other girl she doesn't even know. Piddy doesn't know Yaqui either -- she's new at the school, hardly knows anyone -- and is equally mystified as to why this unknown stranger would want to beat her up. She's sure she doesn't want trouble, though, so she decides to avoid Yaqui at all costs. And for a while that works, as Piddy focuses on her job, school and the mystery of who her father is and why her mother never speaks of him. But then things with Yaqui start to heat up, in a serious fashion, and suddenly Piddy finds herself doing whatever she can to avoid confrontation and to find a little peace - even if that means acting out in ways she's never thought of before. What will Piddy do to cope, and can she stay out of Yaqui's way without hurting her other relationships?

OK, first of all, let's get out of the way the fact that this title has the word "ass" in it.

Yep, a swear.

If that's a stumbling block for you, well, just stop reading now.

Because if it is, I guarantee you won't want to read the honest, soul-baring novel that carries this name. Yaqui Delgado is a tough book at times, not because of language or situations but because of the real human pain that bleeds through on the pages. Piddy is a character that many kids can relate to, and her struggles are so familiar that I'd venture to guess few high schools don't have a host of Piddys walking their halls. So for me, tough as it might be, this is a book that needs to be shared because I believe it can save the lives of kids who are experiencing Piddy's problems right now.

At its core, Yaqui Delgado is a novel about bullying that stands apart from the pack, because it shows how bullying is a problem that can't be easily solved like the movie-of-the-week wants us to think. Medina doesn't shrink from demonstrating how the conflict with Yaqui, undeserved as it turns out to be, changes Piddy's life in ways large and small. That's the real tragedy, that adults in Piddy's life turn out not to recognize the issue or aren't able to help in any meaningful way. The scary thing is all the little cracks that the bullying creates in Piddy's life, causing her to make choices like pulling away from some people and drawing close to others, all in an attempt to make some sense of this relentless, controlling force. I was moved to tears at some points by Piddy's desperation, and haunted by the idea that this conflict is shaping Piddy's life in ways she will forever feel.

Medina is a powerhouse of an author, one who's not afraid to show the hard truth and pose the difficult questions. There's a complexity here that belies the simple characterization of this as a bullying book - which it is, but so much more also. Though Piddy and Yaqui are both female, both Latina, they are very different, and the conflict between them speaks to concepts of race and gender that run deep within our society. This isn't a simple story and it isn't one that wraps up tidily. But it is a truthful one, a provocative one, and a story that teens and adults need to read and share.

Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass by Meg Medina, published by Candlewick
Age 12+
Source: Library
First lines: "'Yaqui Delgado wants to kick your ass.' / A kid named Vanesa tells me this in the morning before school. She springs out with no warning and blocks my way, her textbook held at her chest like a shield. She's tall like me and caramel. I've seen her in the lunchroom, I think. Or maybe just in the halls. It's hard to remember. / Then, just like that, Vanesa disappears into the swell of bodies all around."
Highly recommended

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

I Am Latino: The Beauty in Me by Sandra L. & Myles C. Pinkney

Well hello again! Seems I took a bit of a blogging break the last couple of weeks, however unintentional. I've had a few other projects that have been taking up my attention. But no matter what, we're still reading, so I've got plenty of books to share.

Increasingly we're finding chapter books really capture Sprout's attention -- and yet, we still manage to check out the same huge load of picture books from the library, which thrills me no end. I honestly don't want to be one of those parents who pushes their child toward "serious" reading or toward one format of books over another. As I've shared before, Hubs grew up being not much of a reader, until he discovered graphic novels, and those have been his "gateway drug" into other forms of literature. So I happily check out whatever random pile of books catches Sprout's fancy on any given day, being sure to include a few of my own picks, however surreptitiously.

One thing I always try to do with our library selections is inject a good mix of diversity into our choices. No surprise there, right? But it does take work to make your bookshelves reflective of the world we live in -- because of course the titles that get the most press are those that make up the prevailing bulk of mainstream publishing, and that means white, white, white. So we all have to dig a little deeper and see what we can find to add some color to our reading selections. Fortunately, if you do look, it's possible to be rewarded with some excellent diverse kidlit without much effort.

One tip I like to share with parents and teachers is to find an author you like and then explore his/her catalog -- often writers who choose diverse subject matter or who populate their books with characters of color do so intentionally and thoughtfully, and their body of work usually demonstrates that. Today's book is one I came across because we've loved the previous collaborations by Sandra and Myles Pinkney. I Am Latino: The Beauty in Me doesn't disappoint, either -- it's every bit as stunning as their book Shades of Black, which is one of our all-time favorite titles.

In I Am Latino, the Pinkneys again turn their attention to a specific part of the population with a joyful celebration of the uniqueness of Latino people and culture. Framed around the concept of the senses, Sandra's poetic verse calls out ways to "sense the beauty", from the melody of language to the rhythm of music to the richness of foods. Myles again illustrates this title with his evocative photography, showing a diverse section of Latino boys and girls in situations that accent the story. Sprout's favorite photo is toward the end, where a young boy is smelling a plate of empanadas. "I bet those taste so so good, Mom!" he exclaimed the first time we read this (Hubs and I assured him he was right on the money there!).

I love I Am Latino not only because it introduces kids who aren't familiar with Latino culture to some basic traditions, but also because it's an affirmation for kids who see themselves in these pages.  Maybe they see the food their grandmother makes or have a family photo that resembles one in the book. Maybe they've never thought about what makes their heritage special, or maybe they've grown up with family members who keep them closely tied to their roots. It doesn't matter, really, because this title works on many levels for whoever is reading it. Ultimately, the Pinkneys' message through I Am Latino and their other books is that there's pride in heritage and being connected to your history. And also, that there's power in affirming the beauty we see around us.

You may not find I Am Latino readily available on your bookstore or library shelves. But take a little extra time to look for this one, regardless of your family background -- it's simple, strong and a great celebration of Latino heritage. This is a terrific title for even the youngest readers.

I Am Latino: The Beauty in Me by Sandra L. & Myles C. Pinkney, published by Little, Brown
All ages
Source: Library
Sample: "Use your senses. / You will see Beauty -- Magnificently / I am Latino. I am the Beauty!!!"

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Phoebe and Digger by Tricia Springstubb

It's no secret that I have a vehicle-obsessed kiddo - if you've read this blog at all, you'll know already that Sprout is a hardcore fan of trains, trucks, cars, planes, boats, etc. etc. No trip to the library is complete without a stop by the "Things that Go" section, where we can generally find some favorites to check out yet again. And Sprout is absolutely nutty for books like the Richard Scarry Busytown titles, where vehicles veer toward the wild and crazy; just the sight of the pickle car is enough to send him into fits of laughter.

While it's pretty mainstream to find books about cars and such with male protagonists, though, it's somewhat harder to find books about girls who share this obsession. I think that would be a huge point of frustration from me, were I the parent of a daughter. After all, many of us work hard to override the all-too-prevalent messages connecting gender and playthings (ever strolled the aisles of Toys R Us and felt weighed down by the flood of pink and blue?). So when a book comes along that shakes up the mold, I think it's absolutely cause to celebrate.

Tricia Springstubb is just the author to create such a book, having already written some fantastic stories about strong girls (What Happened on Fox Street is one of our favorites!). And Phoebe and Digger, her newest picture book is a worthy addition to her body of work -- no surprise to me to find out that Springstubb is a former children's librarian, she knows what kids want, and need, to read. Plus this is a title that kids will be drawn to right off the bat, with its colorful, large format illustrations that balance realism and cartoonishness to the perfect degree. You can bet I'll be seeking out other examples of illustrator Jeff Newman's work after looking at this one!

With Phoebe, Springstubb gives us a girl who loves her digger fiercely and single-mindedly, much like Sprout loves his collection of engines. Phoebe got Digger under interesting circumstances: "(w)hen Mama got a new baby," we learn, "Phoebe got a new digger". Digger keeps Phoebe company while Mama deals with all the escapades of the baby, many of which Phoebe finds completely terrible. One day, Mama and the baby get on with their boring stuff at the park while Phoebe and Digger start getting some work done. But after an encounter with a "crybaby boy" (he's afraid of the worm Digger found) Phoebe runs into even more trouble, in the form of a bully who snatches Digger away. And Phoebe, who thought she could deal with absolutely everything on her own, suddenly discovers it's pretty great to have family on her side when she needs it (oh, and maybe the baby isn't so bad after all).

I love this title for its humor and its realistic depiction of the sibling struggle. It's pretty natural for a big sister to be a little nonplussed by a new baby, and I appreciate that Springstubb willingly tackles that emotion. And I also like that we have an honest look at how kids feel when a bully comes along - overwhelmed, dwarfed, frustrated and not always ready to ask for help (love that Mama jumps in just at the right moment). This is a terrific springboard to talking about lots of complex topics, feelings and reactions, as well as helping kids discuss what Phoebe could do next time the same kind of kid comes along.

Got a young truck fan at home? Check out this engaging story, because no matter if your kiddo is boy or girl, Phoebe will strike a chord with everyone!

Phoebe & Digger by Tricia Springstubb, published by Candlewick Press
Ages 4-8
Source: Library
Sample: "Both Phoebe and Digger loved the park. The park had trees and swings and a kindly man who sold frozen treats. But best of all, the park had. . . real dirt."

Bonus: Phoebe & Digger Story Hour Kit from the author's website!

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Teen Review - The Revolution of Evelyn Serrano by Sonia Manzano

For my teen literature class last semester, I compiled a list of historical fiction titles as my end-of-term project. It was a fun list to put together, and I was shocked at how many historicals I'd read in recent memory. But what struck me about the list was how many books about certain eras there are. Take World War II, for instance -- one of the most fascinating periods in world history, for lots of reasons, and as you might expect there are tons of books on the subject. But look for teen books on other eras and you might be hard pressed to find anything at all, much less anything worth reading.

The 60's are one of those eras that tend to be somewhat untapped when it comes to teen lit. I can't figure out why -- maybe it's not long past enough to be truly historical for some? Not really sure, but it seems to me that I've read some really extraordinary books set during this turbulent timeframe. And it's a natural match to the turmoil of adolescence, with all the uncertainty and the shades of black and white fading into gray in so many areas of life. Seems like gold to a novelist, I would think.

And that's certainly true of the debut novel by Sonia Manzano, The Revolution of Evelyn Serrano. Manzano's name probably sounds familiar -- she's best known as the actress who plays Maria on Sesame Street. I'm not ashamed to admit that Sesame Street made a huge impact on me, as it did to so many of us babies of the 1970s. The second I read about Manzano's book, it went on my reading list, because, hello? It's Maria! And I'm so glad I jumped at it, because this affecting, emotional novel is truly a gem that deserves a spot on every reading list.

Evelyn Serrano used to be known as Rosa Maria, but when she turned 14 she decided a name change was in order. Besides, there are entirely two many Rosas and Marias in her Spanish Harlem neighborhood, and Evelyn doesn't want to blend in. She also doesn't want to be like her Mami, clinging to the ways things were in Puerto Rico, fashions and decorating and all of that. So she's breaking out on her own a bit, and things are going pretty well -- until her abuela turns up, Mami's mother from Puerto Rico. Abuela's not like any of the other grandmothers - she's sassy and brash and she knows things, political things, that Mami never wants to talk about. Evelyn's drawn to Abuela and her politics, and before long all three of the Serrano women are embroiled in activism, as the Young Lords, a protest group, make a stand in Evelyn's Spanish Harlem neighborhood.

Manzano may be on her first outing as a novelist here, but her talents for characterization are clearly well-honed. Evelyn is a believable and interesting narrator, one modern readers will identify with as she struggles to find her footing in a world of upheaval and uncertainty. The issues Evelyn faces -- issues of family, politics, love, and identity -- are universal, which makes their placement amidst this historical setting all the more powerful. Personally I didn't know much at all about the Young Lords, and I found Manzano's account not only stirring but informative. Much like Rita Williams-Garcia's stellar novel One Crazy Summer, and its depiction of the Black Panthers, Manzano's novel gives us a side of the conflict in Spanish Harlem that most of us may not fully understand. All this while keeping the action moving, an impressive feat for a debut novelist.

More than just a book about politics, though, Revolution is ultimately a book about a young girl, and the transformation she undergoes not only with how she sees herself but how she understands her friends and family. The relationship between Evelyn and her mother is a thorny one (much like that between Mami and Abuela), and Manzano shows us the whole thing, unstintingly. These are real people, which makes them all the more complex and interesting - and ultimately, believable.

I can't wait to read more from Manzano, and I'm thrilled that her recent Pura Belpre honor for this title will take her book to that much wider an audience.

The Revolution of Evelyn Serrano by Sonia Manzano, published by Scholastic
Ages 12 up
Source: Library
Sample: "At the kitchen table sat a woman whose eyebrows were drawn on with a black makeup pencil. On her eyelids was a thick spread of eye shadow the same blue as my snow cone. The woman's lips were as pink as the inside of a seashell. And, oh, her hair -- it was as orange as Bozo's, puffed up and piled on top of her head like a wad of cotton candy. Mami was serving this strange lady a cup of coffee. / Mami spoke in a very tired way. 'Mija, this is your abuela.'"

Monday, February 11, 2013

Little Night by Yuyi Morales {The Children's Bookshelf}

If there's one thing I've learned through the past two and a half years of motherhood, it's that you can never have enough good sleepytime stories in your arsenal. We tend to read 2-3 books at bedtime, and at least one of those is generally a winding-down kind of book, the sort that gathers up all Sprout's boundless energy and bundles it away for tomorrow. These books are critical for the active toddler/preschool years, to help transition into sleep, but who among us doesn't love a good snoozy story? I know I do, and the time of night when we're reading quiet tales is one of my favorite parts of the day.

A recent addition to our dozy books collection is Yuyi Morales's Little Night. I initially encountered Morales's work through my multicultural children's literature class, and from the first page of the first story I was hooked. Morales is one of those multitalented wonders who makes your jaw drop not only from her lavish and colorful illustrations, but also from her finely drawn text as well. Really, you can't go wrong with her books - she's definitely one that I consider a cornerstone of diverse children's literature in publishing today.

And with that in mind, let me just say that Little Night is one of my favorites from this extraordinary artist. The story is unique but has a whiff of the familiar about it, as though taken from legend: at the end of day, Mother Sky is helping her Little Night get ready, but the mischievous Little Night keeps disappearing. Mother Sky must stop and look for the silly little one, in places as unexpected as a rabbit hole or a bat cave, and as the colors in the sky deepen, it becomes that much harder to find Little Night. Finally, though, Little Night is all ready, dressed in her gown crocheted from clouds, with her starry pins in her hair. Mother Sky tosses her moon ball to Little Night, who is off to play amid the velvety shadows of the darkened sky.

Oh, this is a beautiful book, and one that you will enjoy just as much as your little one. Morales's story is set off perfectly by her illustrations, of a brown-skinned mother and child playing in the gathering darkness. There's so much whimsy to be had here too, in Mother Sky's curling braids and her trailing skirts, and in Little Night's twinkling eyes and upturned smile. And the colors are all those of the most incredible sunsets -- the palette is rich and deep, adding to the tone of gentle quiet that Morales sets up with her carefully chosen words. (A Spanish language edition is also available).

As we read this the first time Sprout and I talked about how the sky turns colors, from pink to purplish to dark violet and on to black. And now each time we look up at the night sky, I swear I can see Little Night, dancing among the stars with her moon ball, just within her mother's reach.

Little Night by Yuyi Morales, published by Roaring Brook Press
Ages 2-6
Source: Library
Sample: "Mother Sky sits Little Night on her lap and with her shiny comb she untangles the knots, twists the hair between her fingers, and makes little swirls, one on the left side, one on the right. / To keep them in place she takes three hairpins from her pocket. 'Venus on the east, Mercury on the west, and Jupiter above.'"

This post is part of The Children’s Bookshelf, a weekly linky party with the goal of connecting parents with great books for their kids. Do you have a book review, literacy or book-related post that you think will be helpful for parents? If so, please add your link below.

NOTE: By linking up you are giving permission for any of the co-hosts to pin and/or feature a your photo on a future The Children’s Bookshelf post. Kindly link up to an individual post, not your blog’s homepage. The hosts reserve the right to delete any links to homepages, commercial links, repeat links or otherwise inappropriate links. Thank you for your understanding.

You can also follow The Children’s Bookshelf on Pinterest or visit TCB’s co-hosts: Sprout’s Bookshelf, What Do We Do All Day?, No Twiddle Twaddle, Smiling Like Sunshine, My Little Bookcase, The Picture Book ReviewMemeTales and Mouse Grows, Mouse Learns. You can find more details here.

Monday, January 7, 2013

An Orange in January by Dianna Hutts Aston {The Children's Bookshelf}

Boy oh boy, does my kid love fruit. Really, I think it's his favorite thing to eat. He'd much rather have a slice of melon or an apple than a cookie any day. Every night we prepare his dinner plate plus a bowl of one of his favorites like grapes or pineapple on the side. And woe to us if we forget - to Sprout, a meal isn't a meal unless there's fruit involved.

Which is what made this particular library find all the sweeter, because not only does it focus on one of his all time most-preferred fruits, oranges, but also because it explains the cycle of how that orange comes to the table.

In An Orange in January, Dianna Hutts Aston starts by centering the story on one tiny blossom, glowing in the light of spring. From there, we follow the progress of the bees pollinating the blossom, to the orange itself beginning to manifest itself. Eventually the fruit is ripe, and it is picked by "a hand, brown with seasons of sun," then it is on its way to a grocery store. There it is selected by an adorable brown-skinned boy, who cradles his find carefully home, then takes it to school where he distributes pieces of the juicy treat to his friends. Yum!

Julie Maren illustrated this colorful title, and her pictures definitely add an air of realistic whimsy to the story Hutts Aston has to tell. In one fanciful spread, the boy pictures himself using his orange in various ways: as something to juggle, as a ball to pitch, as a globe to help him see the future. Sprout loves this part - he likes to laugh at the idea of doing anything with an orange but eating it, which he simply cannot imagine doing. He also likes the pictures at the end, when the hero has shared his orange with his friends on the playground. "They are sharing!" he says, delightedly. Another fantastic message to take away from this well-written book.

A big part of healthy eating is awareness, getting kids to understand the natural element in the food that they are consuming. With lyrical precision, Hutts Aston carries readers along for the journey of the food cycle. (That she made the main character a person of color is particularly wonderful - this is a message that all kids need to understand.) Helping to connect the dots between what's on our plates and where it came from, An Orange in January is a great way to make kids aware of agriculture and how food is sourced. No longer will they think of supermarket produce as springing only from boxes and bags - rather, they'll look at the trees and vines around them as a source of nutrition and deliciousness. And that's a treat that's everyone can appreciate!

An Orange in January by Dianna Hutts Aston, published by Dial Books for Young Readers
Ages 2-7
Source: library
Sample: "When morning came, the orange reached the end of its journey, bursting with the seasons inside it. / And two hands, pink with cold, shared its segments, so that everyone could taste the sweetness of an orange in January."


This post is part of The Children’s Bookshelf, a weekly linky party with the goal of connecting parents with great books for their kids. Do you have a book review, literacy or book-related post that you think will be helpful for parents? If so, please add your link below.

NOTE: By linking up you are giving permission for any of the co-hosts to pin and/or feature a your photo on a future The Children’s Bookshelf post. Kindly link up to an individual post, not your blog’s homepage. The hosts reserve the right to delete any links to homepages, commercial links, repeat links or otherwise inappropriate links. Thank you for your understanding.

You can also follow The Children’s Bookshelf on Pinterest or visit TCB’s co-hosts: Sprout’s Bookshelf, What Do We Do All Day?, No Twiddle Twaddle, Smiling Like Sunshine, My Little Bookcase, The Picture Book ReviewMemeTales and Mouse Grows, Mouse Learns. You can find more details here.

Monday, December 24, 2012

12 Days of Christmas Picture Books - A Piñata in a Pine Tree by Pat Mora

It's Christmas Eve, which means we've reached the end of our 12 Days of Christmas Picture Books series with Day 12. Thank you for reading along with us thus far - we've had some wonderful selections this year that we have truly enjoyed sharing with all of you, dear readers.

Today's selection is one that we really love, and that reminds us of how much more wonderful the holiday can be when we embrace the flavor of many cultures. Christmas is a global holiday, after all, and it is recognized in different ways in different places. Our celebrations can be made even more festive when we incorporate some elements from around the world, strengthening our connections as people and reinforcing global citizenship to our children.

Our book for today is Pat Mora's A Piñata in a Pine Tree. This bilingual title represents a blending of traditions into a selection that is vibrant and unique. Mora has taken the familiar carol "Twelve Days of Christmas" and updated it by adding Latino/a elements that the author remembers from her own holiday celebrations. Instead of all those birds, for instance, the adorable little girl singing the song receives luminarias, guitarritas, and on the final day, doce angelitos celebrando. Each day's gifts are depicted on its own spread, and a glossary at the end of the book defines the terms for non-Spanish speakers.

Sprout loves the colors of this one, and the charming illustrations by Magaly Morales that nearly spring off the page. (Magaly is the sister of Yuyi Morales, another of our favorite illustrators.) The pictures are energetic and joyful, a can't-miss addition to any Christmas bookshelf. If you're looking for a way to update the Twelve Days for modern kids, this is a terrific selection - Mora's lyrics fit perfectly with the melody and there's a great twist at the end. You might just find your kiddos singing along with entirely new words next year.

To all our readers -- thank you for following along with our series. We wish you a very Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!

A Piñata in a Pine Tree by Pat Mora, published by Clarion Books
All ages
Source: Library
Sample: "On the fourth day of Christmas, my amiga gave to me cuatro luminarias, tre tamalitos, dos pastelitos, and a piñata in a pine tree."

Sunday, December 16, 2012

12 Days of Christmas Picture Books - The Miracle of the First Poinsettia by Joanne Oppenheim

**EDITED: Barefoot Books rep Liz Hughes just let us know that she has a few copies of this out-of-print book available! Email her at if you're interested!!**

Today is Day 4 of our 12 Days of Christmas Picture Book countdown. I chose today's book because of a conversation I had with Sprout not long ago. On a visit to the grocery store, he stopped dead in front of a big display of poinsettias. "What are these flowers?" he wanted to know, and I told him. Then he asked "Why are they for Christmas?". Well, that I didn't know the answer to, but told him I'd try to find out. And lo and behold, as with so many other things, the answer is available in a picture book.

Actually there are a few books about this legend, a story from Mexico that is told in various versions but has the same basic origins. Joanne Oppenheim's take, The Miracle of the First Poinsettia, tells of a young girl named Juanita who lives in a village in the mountains. Juanita's family has fallen on some hard times, and there's no money for the usual Christmas festivities and gifts. Juanita manages to come up with some small gifts for her siblings. But when it's time to visit the church, Juanita is embarrassed that she has nothing to give the baby Jesus on this special day. Ashamed, Juanita hides outside the church - but then the stone angel speaks to Juanita, telling her to gather the weeds that grow around the angel's base and carry them into the church. A bewildered Juanita does as she's told, and to her astonishment the weeds have turned into beautiful red flowers, the ones we today know as poinsettias.

Unfortunately this version is out of print (please, Barefoot Books, won't you bring it back??), but it's worth finding from a used bookstore or library, for lots of reasons. For one, the illustrations by Fabian Negrin are just breathtaking. The color palette he employs is really perfect for the tone of the story, evoking the mystery and wonder that surrounds the holiday. I also love that though Juanita's family is poor, there are no noticeable differences between them and the other worshipers - they aren't dressed in rags and they aren't beggars. Oppenheim's use of Spanish throughout the story is another welcome addition. A glossary included at the back gives the meaning of any unfamiliar words, so that the text flows without the distraction of translations. And an author's note discusses the story's origins and the author's personal connection.

This title's a little long for the younger set - best used with preschool and up, I think, which means there are plenty of chances to talk about what happens to Juanita. If you're looking for a book that explores the deeper meaning of the holiday, of why we give gifts and how Christmas is much more than just accumulation of material goods, The Miracle of the First Poinsettia is well worth hunting for.

The Miracle of the First Poinsettia by Joanne Oppenheim, published by Barefoot Books
Ages 3-7
Source: Library
Sample: "From all over the village, people made their way to the church. Juanita followed her parents who carried the little ones with them. But at the doorway Juanita stopped. She did not go in. How could she go into the church with nothing -- not even a candle to place at the altar?"

Monday, November 12, 2012

30 Days of Picture Books - Thanksgiving Titles

Today is Day 12 of Picture Book Month, and since we're heading into the holiday season, it seems like a good time to share some titles to get you in the festive mood. But I can't quite bring myself to jump right over Thanksgiving, no matter how much the retailers seem to want us to. Thanksgiving is a great time to talk and think about everything we have in our lives that so richly blesses us.

And what could be a better way to be thankful than with some tremendous picture books? As is the case with so many holidays, it's not easy to find multicultural titles for Thanksgiving -- but we managed to find a few that round out the experience by helping us look at the holiday with a fresh perspective.

First up is Gracias the Thanksgiving Turkey by Joy Cowley. I love this book for its humor and heart as well as the colorful illustrations by Joe Cepeda. In the story, Miguel's Papa, a long-haul trucker, sends home a live turkey for the family to fatten up for Thanksgiving dinner. Miguel names the turkey Gracias, and as you might expect, he's reluctant to make her a meal when the time comes around. Still, Miguel's grandfather's all for putting Gracias on the turkey platter - but an unexpected intervention from the parish priest saves Gracias at the last minute. There are lots of great lessons here, including the importance of friendship and responsibility, and plenty to talk and think about.

Next is Giving Thanks by Chief Jake Swamp, illustrated by Erwin Printup Jr. Subtitled A Native American Good Morning Message, this isn't a title that should be restricted to Thanksgiving, but with the spirit of gratitude we all have in our hearts at this time of year, it seems a good fit. The text is clear and simple, filled with appreciation for all the beauty and bounty in the natural world around us. And the illustrations are just breathtaking - vibrant and warm, simple and yet full of emotional depth. Best of all, this title is free of some of the most persistent stereotypical images we find in so many Thanksgiving books, and it reinforces the idea that we all have much to be thankful for.

If pilgrims are on your mind, why not check out Molly's Pilgrim? This is an older title, written by Barbara Cohen and most recently illustrated by Daniel Mark Duffy. Though its cover is somewhat subdued (albeit beautiful), the message behind it is a fantastic one. Molly and her parents are from Russia, having come to America for freedom after the Cossacks sacked their village and burned out many other Jewish families. When Molly is assigned a project to make a pilgrim woman for the school Thanksgiving display, Molly's mama makes one that looks just like her. But it doesn't look like the pilgrims in Molly's textbooks. Will the other girls make fun of Molly for this, like they do for so many other things? A tale of inclusion and acceptance, this story speaks volumes, especially to those new to the tradition of American Thanksgiving.

Tradition is what you make it, wouldn't you agree? Still, it's hard when your family doesn't go along with what everyone else does. That's the conflict at the center of Duck for Turkey Day by Jacqueline Jules, illustrated by Kathryn Mitter. Tuyet is excited to be celebrating Thanksgiving with her family, especially her cousins and her grandmother from Viet Nam. But she's a little upset that the family will be having duck for dinner, not turkey, as she's sure everyone else will be having. Tuyet tries to talk the problem over with her mother and grandmother, but they are sticking to their guns - and Tuyet has to admit that the duck with its spicy sauce is pretty tasty. But what will happen when she tells her friends at school that her family didn't have turkey? An unexpected ending to this tale not only reassures but also confirms that there's no one right way to celebrate!

This year, add a little extra flavor to your celebration with one of these great multicultural titles -- and make it a truly American Thanksgiving!

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Bookish Halloween Treats

It's a dark and stormy night, just right for writing about Halloween! We're running a bit behind ourselves -- usually by this time we've had a trip to the pumpkin patch and have Sprout's costume sorted out, but not this year. Looks like we've got a busy weekend ahead of us, so it's good that our shelf is stocked with spooky reads to keep us in the mood.

It's no mean feat to find multicultural titles themed around holidays. Seriously, authors and publishers? We would love to see more fun, engaging holiday books with diverse characters, and I know we aren't alone! Luckily the library came to our rescue yet again, for some Halloweeny goodness picture-book style. Most of these are older books -- if you have trouble finding them, I'd suggest a trip to the library or used bookstore near you.

First up is Celie and the Harvest Fiddler by Vanessa and Valerie Flournoy. Celie plans to make a grand entrance with her very spooky costume, but things don't quite turn out like she wants. Then an encounter with the mysterious Fiddler nets Celie a magical mask that grants her Halloween wish -- with some very unintended consequences. Can Celie get the Fiddler to help reverse the mask's magic? This is a longer story great for older preschoolers and elementary ages, and its historical setting comes to life with paintings by the amazing James E. Ransome. Just the right blend of mystery and magic!

For kiddos who aren't so excited about spooky sights on Halloween night, Catherine Stock's Halloween Monster is a perfect reassurance. Tommy likes some things about Halloween, but he's really pretty scared to see witches, ghosts and monsters. . . scared enough that he doesn't even want to go trick-or-treating with his friends. But once Mom explains that all those ghosts and witches are just children all dressed up, well, then Tommy thinks he might want to give it a try himself. And soon he's transformed into a Halloween monster - just in time to go trick-or-treating with his friends! I love the simple story here, and it's been great to calm Sprout's apprehensions about spooky things. Now he can't wait for us to get his ghost costume ready!

And speaking of spooky things, Los Gatos Black on Halloween by Marisa Montes is just right for those braver little ones who like a bit of thrill. Weaving Spanish words into her text about skeletons dancing under the harvest moon and witches flying through the night sky, Montes paints a pretty scary picture of one fantastic Halloween ball. But even the monsters and mummies are scared of something -- you guessed it, trick-or-treaters! (Maybe the monsters ran out of candy?) Yuyi Morales' pictures add the perfect setting to this rhythmic tale. And while the translations of Spanish words might impede the flow of the text a bit, it's still nice to see some cultural nuance to the Halloween canon.

For another cultural take, try Yangsook Choi's Behind the Mask. This is a moving intergenerational story that just happens to be set around Halloween. Kimin misses his grandfather, but he's afraid to look for costume makings in his grandfather's old trunks, as his mom suggests -- mostly because the last time he saw Grandfather at the trunks, he looked really scary! But then Kimin begins to investigate, and he discovers that his grandfather was a mask dancer, and he wore tal, special masks for use in the dance. Soon Kimin figures out why Grandfather looked so scary, and he has an idea for a Halloween costume like no other. I love the way the multi-talented Choi blends traditions from Kimin's home in America with elements from his Korean heritage. Children whose lives merge multiple cultures will appreciate this sensitive tale, and it's also a terrific look at the customs of Korean folk dancing.

And for the littlest ones, there's Sweets and Treats by Toni Trent Parker. I love this one because there's nothing babies love more than looking at photos of other children - Sprout was mesmerized by books like this. It's hard to find books like this, though, that aren't heavily populated by white faces. Parker's all-brown-skinned cast of characters includes a princess, a pumpkin and a very hearty pirate, every one of whom shines in their festive Halloween garb. Parker's other titles include books about Easter, Christmas and Valentine's Day - worth hunting these down for those who want a bit more color on their holiday bookshelves.

This Halloween, curl up with your little ghost or goblin, a big mug of hot cocoa and one of these delicious bookish treats. It doesn't get much sweeter than that!

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Picture Book Review - Jimmy the Greatest! by Jairo Buitrago

We're not much for sports around our household. My husband's football gene was replaced by a comic book/sci-fi one, and I've never been a fan of athletics particularly. I'm not opposed to it, mind you, and I know that I'll probably be spending my share of Saturday afternoons cheering at soccer games or track meets. But overall sports just aren't our thing, and so when it comes to sports-themed books, I tend to pass right by them.

Except for this one. Jimmy the Greatest! by Jairo Buitrago caught my eye in a list of forthcoming titles a while back, and when I saw it again on the shelf at the library I was intrigued enough to check it out. Not sure just why, maybe it was the combination of boxing gloves, bare feet and glasses worn by the title character. In any event I thought it needed a second look, and I'm quite glad I gave it a chance, athletically-themed plot and all.

Buitrago is Colombian, and a flavor of his homeland comes through in this winsome title, both in the text and in the art by Colombian resident Rafael Yockteng. First I should say that the art is unlike anything else I've seen in a picture book - equal parts breathtaking and cartoonish -- and I mean that in the best possible sense. You almost can't stop looking at the pictures long enough to read the words. But you really should, of course, because the book is fantastic.

The story is set in a little town on the seaside, where Jimmy catches the eye of Don Apolinar, owner of the town's tiny gym. Don Apolinar sets Jimmy up to train as a boxer, giving him guidance and inspiration in the form of a box filled with books. In the box there are also clippings about Muhammad Ali - Jimmy has no idea who Ali is, but he likes his style, and soon begins to emulate Ali's confidence. Jimmy throws himself into training, finding that it takes his mind off his problems and the things he doesn't have in life. And eventually Jimmy is the most fearsome competitor anywhere around.

Time passes, which is the part of the story where we'd expect Jimmy to move away from his little town and make a name for himself, right? Not so, dear reader. Instead, Jimmy watches others move away to take up various opportunities, including his mentor Don Apolinar. But Jimmy stays. He takes over the gym and makes a library, turns his talents toward helping others. And maybe one day Jimmy will leave too, but for now, he's making a difference where he is, in this little town by the sea.

I love that this book defies all expectations. For one thing, Yockteng's illustrations soften the story, bringing unexpected whimsy into the mix. And, too, the message isn't that happiness is somewhere "out there". Instead, Buitrago is telling his audience there is no shame in being proud of your homeland, of choosing to stay in your own country and be "Jimmy the Greatest" where you are. Too many times, I think, we imply that there's shame in sticking to your roots, but Jimmy shows us the opposite. Jimmy's words at the end (see below) are truly moving and heartfelt - I love that he's found satisfaction, and the right fit, right where he is. Anyone can leave, Jimmy seems to say, but to stay takes real courage.

And that's a message everyone can believe in.

Jimmy the Greatest! by Jairo Buitrago, published by Groundwood Books (also available in Spanish)
Ages 5-8
Source: Library
Sample: "Listen to me. This is my town. There are donkeys, three sheep and the great huge sea. There are no elegant houses or fancy things. But we're really great. We dance and we box and we don't sit around waiting to go someplace else. / Goodbye, my story's over. Remember my name. Between the sky and the sea, there's me, Jimmy -- Jimmy the Greatest."

Friday, April 6, 2012

Easy Readers - The "Max" Series by Adria F. Klein

I've said it before, and I'll say it again: there is a huge need for early reader books featuring characters of color. Series titles in particular are thin on the ground. If you don't believe me, take a look at your local library or bookstore next time. Beyond Diego and Dora, and the occasional Little Bill title, it's pretty darn white over in the easy readers. And yes, I realize that there are excellent choices like "Frog and Toad" and "Little Bear" - but there's also a real lack of representation of diversity in this section of most collections.

Enter Adria F. Klein, a professor in the Education department at California State University and the author of the Max books, published by Picture Window Books. These are entries in the "Read-it! Readers" series, a set of leveled readers that is similar to "I Can Read" or "Step into Reading". The Max titles we've read are at the beginning end of the spectrum: purple and red, the first two steps in the "Read-it!" system.

There's a lot to love about Max. For starters, here's a character with some color! The Library of Congress info page lists Max as "Hispanic-American", which fits, but quite frankly Sprout thinks Max looks just like him, and we are good with that. In the titles we've read there aren't any cultural details clearly linking Max to a particular ethnicity, though if there were we'd welcome that too. What's important is that for once we have a series character of color who is book-based only. Love it! And bonus: many, if not all, of the Max titles are available in bilingual English/Spanish editions. Whether your focus is bilingual education or ESL, these books provide a high-quality option.

So far we've read three Max titles: Max Goes to School, Max Goes to the Barber and Max and the Adoption Day Party. Each one is charmingly simple, with vivid and bright illustrations that support the text in meaningful ways. These are great books not only for fostering reading readiness and supporting emerging readers, but also for introducing kids to new and different situations. Sprout's fascinated by the School title, as it walks kids through the essentials of Max's day: meeting his teacher, finding his desk, eating his lunch, playing at recess. Adoption Day Party provides a basic familiarity with adoption celebrations; while it focuses more on the party aspect rather than on the notion of what adoption means, the book's greatest strength comes from showing that being adopted doesn't mean you're different from everyone else.

A quick online search reveals lots more titles in the Max series. Name a situation, and Max probably has it covered, from staying overnight to going to the dentist to taking his dog to the vet. Fortunately our library carries several Max titles. If yours doesn't, I'd strongly recommend making a purchase suggestion, as these provide much-needed depth and diversity to the early reader section. We're looking forward to exploring more titles with Max -- can't wait until Sprout's reading these to me on his own!

Friday, January 20, 2012

Chapter Book Review - How Lamar's Bad Prank Won a Bubba-Sized Trophy by Crystal Allen

Walter Dean Myers was recently sworn in as the new National Ambassador for Young People's Literature, which to me is an inspired choice. In this capacity, Myers announced that his platform for the next two years is to be "Reading is Not Optional". NPR interviewed Myers and asked him why he chose this particular message to send out. Myers' response:

"Well, the problem is very often books are looked upon as a wonderful adjunct to our lives. It's so nice. Books can take you to faraway places and this sort of thing. But then it all sounds as if it's something nice but not really necessary. And during my lifetime things have changed so drastically. You can't do well in life if you don't read well."

Whether you agree with Myers or not (I happen to agree), most of us can attest to the fact that sparking a love of reading is crucial if we want to really change kids' lives. I firmly believe that there's a book out there for everyone, it's just a matter of putting the right selection into someone's hands. Unfortunately, when it comes to humor, finding well-written books that tackle important themes -- and are also hugely funny -- can be quite the undertaking. Even more so if you're hoping for multicultural titles.

But How Lamar's Bad Prank Won a Bubba-Sized Trophy by Crystal Allen fits the bill, in every way. This is one of those books that will have you laughing on nearly every page, and reading bits aloud to family and friends. Seriously! Allen's protagonist Lamar has a quick wit and a mouth to match - too bad the two aren't always working together.

Lamar is the King of Striker's Bowling Alley, a man with mad skills in the lanes but not such smooth moves when it comes to romance. Looking to impress the "superfine" Makeda, Lamar makes a deal with Billy Jenks, a guy known for jumping in and out of juvie. Lamar figures that Billy's plan to hustle some guys at bowling equals nothing more than quick cash - enough to treat Makeda in style and score himself a pro ball from celebrity bowler Bubba Sanders. But before he knows it Lamar is in way over his head, and for once not even his smooth talk can get him out of this mess.

Allen's bio reveals that she has two sons, and that she practically grew up in bowling alleys. That firsthand knowledge shows. Not only does she capture the buzz and energy of a red-hot bowling competition, she's also got the voice of thirteen-year-old Lamar down pat. And like the best of authors, Allen wraps the heavy stuff so tightly up in the humor and tension that the deeper themes come at you almost without you knowing it. Kids will be laughing alongside Lamar and Sergio (love that the two main characters are African American and Latino!) even as they watch them work through painful emotions and difficult relationships.

I raced through Lamar's Bad Prank and was sorry to see it end. Lamar, like Joey Pigza or Greg Heffley, is the kind of kid you simultaneously root for and cringe with, who sometimes makes bad choices and always has good excuses, and who may or may not end up on top. In other words, a real kid. That and his hilarious banter should gain Lamar (and Crystal Allen) a stable of loyal fans.

How Lamar's Bad Prank Won a Bubba-Sized Trophy by Crystal Allen, published by Balzer + Bray
Ages 9-13
Source: Library
Sample: "I've known Billy Jenks since kindergarten. He's tall on attitude but short in stature. Billy's so low to the ground, I bet his hair and feet smell the same. I'd never seen a person with a square face until I saw his. It's all smashed in, like he got clocked with a can of Spam."

Bonus: Crystal Allen's interview with The Brown Bookshelf

Thursday, December 15, 2011

12 Days of Christmas Picture Books - Too Many Tamales

One of the best things about Christmas are the traditions, especially the foods that we seem to get only at this time of year. For many Latino families, especially those with connections to the American Southwest, tamales are an important part of the holidays. Families gather to make piles of these delicious, spicy treats to put right at the center of the Christmas table. This is one tradition that seems like it's as much about the togetherness as it is about the food!

In Gary Soto's Too Many Tamales, Maria is helping her mother prepare a platter of tamales for their family's Christmas Eve gathering. Mom takes off her ring to knead the dough, and when she's called away, Maria can't help sliding the sparkly bit of jewelry on her own finger, just for a minute. But then the ring is forgotten, and only later does Maria realize where it must have ended up. . .

The solution Maria comes up with is pretty hilarious (and also realistic, because it's just something a kid might do!). Gary Soto's warmly funny tale is dressed up just right with paintings by Ed Martinez that capture the homey, cozy feeling of a holiday spent with family and friends.

This one might just inspire you to add a new spice to your own Christmas celebration -- it's definitely got us craving tamales!

Monday, November 28, 2011

Chapter Book Review - Sylvia & Aki by Winifred Conkling

Winifred Conkling's Sylvia and Aki is a deceptively slim little book, the kind kids are drawn to for book reports or school projects because it's so skinny. And yet, for all its brevity, Sylvia and Aki packs a punch.

The story is a fictionalized account of the lives of Sylvia Mendez and Aki Munemitsu, opening in 1941. Aki's family has been evacuated from their farm, sent to a Japanese internment camp in the furor that resulted from the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Aki's father is taken away first, with no notice -- she is terrified that she will never see him again, that their family will always be separated. Because of the restrictions about what the family could take with them, Aki has had to leave some of her most precious things behind, including her favorite doll, which she tucks onto the shelf in her closet, hoping she'll be back to reclaim her.

Sylvia finds Aki's doll, on a very bad day when she is in need of comfort. Sylvia and her family are renting the farm from the Munemitsus, and Sylvia's father is the boss, something the family is very proud of. But the day Sylvia's aunt takes the children to enroll in the closest school, they discover that Mexicans must attend the migrant school. Everything about the Hoover School is second-best, from the rundown buildings to the battered supplies. And Sylvia's father is determined to get his daughter into the Westminster School, which so far is white students only.

Each family struggles. Each girl feels lost, alone, uncertain. But as time passes the girls come into contact with one another, and a friendship slowly blossoms, borne of shared hardship and isolation. Life for the girls is not easy, but knowing that there is someone else, someone like them who feels on the outside of things, makes it all just a little easier to bear.

Conkling weaves the girls' stories together skillfully, showing how both Sylvia and Aki were outsiders because of something they had no control over, the color of their skin. Aki's time in the camp is particularly poignant, as we feel with her the pain of loss and the fear that her family will never be whole again. Like Aki, Sylvia is made to feel foreign, an outsider, as school district officials assume she is unclean or tell her to go back to Mexico (with the irony being that she is American). Conkling depicts the quiet heroism mirrored in each girls' individual heartbreak. Because the girls experience a similar day-to-day reality, as victims of prejudice and open racism, when they find friendship in one another, it is all the more sweet.

One of the readings in my multicultural kidlit class last week pointed out that children's books with a diverse cast almost always include white characters in the mix. This hadn't occurred to me, but flipping through some of Sprout's books I can see it's true. Sylvia and Aki is that rare thing, a book that examines racism from the inside without casting a white person in the role of savior. For these girls, breaking down barriers just meant living the lives they dreamed of. It's hard to think of a more inspiring tale, no matter what your skin color.

Sylvia and Aki by Winifred Conkling, published by Tricycle Press
Ages 8-12
Source: Library
Sample quote: "Then Aki said good-bye to the nurse, picked up her suitcase, and took her mother's hand. She missed her father. She missed her home. She missed the life she used to have. But when she felt her mother's hand in hers, she knew that she was ready to face Poston."

Friday, August 26, 2011

Picture Book Review - A New Barker in the House by Tomie dePaola

Beloved author and illustrator Tomie dePaola weaves adoption into the storyline of A New Barker in the House, part of his series about the Barker family. Mama, Papa, Morgan and Moffat are excited to be adding a new member to their family: three-year-old Marcos. The twins cannot wait to show their new brother all their favorite toys, and especially want to take him to show-and-tell at their school. They begin to think about all the fun they will have together.

But when Marcos comes home with Papa, he speaks Spanish, which Morgie and Moffie can't understand. And the only English word Marcos knows is "potty", but he uses that one a lot! Marcos doesn't like the things the twins like, and he doesn't want to play ball or dolls either. Mama gently explains that Marcos may not want to eat the same food, or play the same games, and encourages the twins to ask Marcos what he wants to do. Before long Marcos and the twins are playing together on the playground, and everyone is learning how to speak one another's language.

As always, dePaola's illustrations are bright and expressive, homey depictions of the contented Barker family at home together. The layout makes use of panels to represent the various characters' points of view, especially effective when demonstrating how the twins each want to share their own favorite things with Marcos. The discussion of adoption is brief and straightforward; dePaola assumes that the audience understands what adoption's about, and doesn't get bogged down in lengthy explanations. Rather, this title focuses on the transition of a new child into a family, and the way siblings must learn to accommodate and appreciate their brother or sister's preferences. If the storyline resolves quickly, that is to be expected for the intended age group. The big benefit is that dePaola opens up plenty of opportunities for further discussion and examination.

Bottom line: Overall, a good title to introduce the topic of adoption to a family, and get siblings thinking and talking about what the new family member may want or need. Sensitive, gentle and thoughtful, A New Barker in the House is another well-rounded title from a favorite author!

A New Barker in the House by Tomie dePaola, published by G.P. Putnam's Sons
Ages 2-6
Source: Library
Sample quote: "The next morning at breakfast, Morgie gave Marcos a big spoonful of Morgie's favorite cereal - Dino Pops. Marcos didn't like it! Moffie gave Marcos a big spoonful of her favorite cereal - Alphabet Bits. Marcos didn't like it. Marcos SPIT it all out! 'Mama!' the twins yelled."