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With sophisticated literary conventions, Rigoberto Gonzalez tells this bilingual story of personal growth targeted to experienced young readers. Antonio is an elementary student of Mexican heritage, born in the United States, who loves to spell and read with his mom and his mom’s partner, Leslie. These facts are all revealed slowly as the narrative unfolds. The narrative’s primary concern is establishing the relationship of a son’s love for his stepmother and the emotional quandary a son experiences when he is embarrassed by the parent he loves because of the way his peers respond to her. The fact that he has two moms is not an issue in the book. The fact that his father is absent from his daily life is revealed as a part of a scene discussing him reading with Leslie about Guadalajara, Mexico, “where Antonio’s grandparents live. His father went to live there, too, many years ago, when Antonio was just a baby.” His world is presented as normative; in fact the illustrations are of a student population at his school, that is predominantly Latino including a Latina teacher, and all except one of the children who are not Latino, are children of color.
Parents and grandparents of the children in this book represent a full range of ages, ethnicities and religious backgrounds. The sentence, “Parents of all shapes and sizes come to greet their children” cues us in to notice the differences amongst these families. We see the racial and gender differences amongst the parents and the children they are greeting easily. On a double take we notice that Leslie, Antonio’s stepmother is taller than the other adults, which seems to be the biggest difference between her and the other adults that Antonio notices, while the other children jeer about her because she “looks like a guy,” and has paint all over her from her work in the art studio, which stimulates them to belittle her as looking “like a box of crayons exploded all over her.” In response, Antonio pulls Leslie away and, despite the fact that he enjoys his time with Leslie after school every day, he asks if he can walk home by himself in the future.
This book feels sad. This is because of the tone set by the illustrations, which convey a persistent sense of yearning and longing in the eyes of almost all the characters. No one ever smiles fully, except in the family drawing Antonio makes of him and his two moms for his mother’s day card. Even when a compromised smile appears on the face of a character, their eyes overshadow any reading of complete fulfillment or happiness with a sense of worry and reflection. Although this sentimentality within the illustrations is a powerful representation of the subtext of Antonio’s worry about ending up lonely if he separates from Leslie in response to his classmates’ teasing, that feeling of a void starts on the first page, despite the fact that the narrative is well paced and complex, without being overwhelming.
While the teasing of the children seems like a mere catalyst for Antonio’s rediscovering and affirming his bond with Leslie, the imagery of the story is as weighty as the emotional milieu created by E.B. Lewis’ illustrations in Jacqueline Woodson’s Each Kindness, a book which was only about the refusal of children to befriend a new student. In Antonio’s Card/La Tarjeta de Antonio, the illustrations allude to what is unspoken in the text—a sentiment of something missing in the lives of these characters who seem to be smiling through emotional pain. Perhaps this is meant to convey the way that Antonio sees his world as one in which no one ever fully smiles and this is the way the illustrator is allowing emotions regarding the absent father who went back to Mexico to influence the text, since the author doesn’t give voice to Antonio’s feelings about his father being gone. What is clear by the end of the story is that one of the things which shames Antonio—Leslie’s splattered paint overalls— becomes evidence of Leslie’s bond with Antonio and his mother—a portrait of his mother that Leslie has painted as a Mother’s Day present. When Antonio sees the painting, his viewing of it becomes the turning point in Antonio’s journey towards family acceptance in face of the adversity of verbal teasing.
There are some who would categorize this story in the anti-bullying category of their collection and while I wouldn’t, the text and illustrations’ depthful representations of a child’s emotional vulnerability to teasing in general and especially in regards to their loved ones, makes this a story that can easily demonstrate how much words hurt in a curriculum on bullying and compassion. But, without a guide, children will easily understand Antonio’s sensitivity toward his stepmom and his peers in this story whose natural complexity and convincing narrative make it well worth its status as a Lambda Literary Finalist. (buy)
Recommendation: Highly recommended; ages 7+
Reviewer: Omilaju Miranda