Diverse Kids Books–Reviews

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Calling the Doves By Juan Felipe Herrera

cover Calling the DovesCalifornia poet laureate Juan Felipe Herrera shares the story of his migrant farmworker childhood through powerful language and colorful illustrations (by Elly Simmons) in Calling the Doves.

Not once is Juan negative about his humble beginnings; he fills these pages with love and poetry. Born on the road to migrant worker parents in central California, Juan grew up in a one-room house his father built on top of an abandoned car he describes as “a short loaf of bread on wheels.” His father makes bird calls that attract doves and his mother recites poetry at dinner, all of this inspiring him: “I would let my voice fly the way my mother recited poems, the way my father called the doves.”

While the language is always evocative, one particular metaphor may confuse readers. All other metaphors work beautifully, for instance, he describes a green canvas as “a giant tortilla dipped in green tomato sauce,” and ”the wolves were the mountain singers.” However, when describing his family eating outdoors, “the sky was my blue spoon, the wavy clay of the land was my plate” may be taken literally by children (and some adults) who might have trouble making sense of these lines.

Besides that instance, this lyrical story accompanied by striking illustrations tell a story rarely seen in children’s literature, from immigration to migration according to the seasons of melon, lettuce, and grapes, to traditional healing arts. A wonderful celebration of migrant and Mexican-American culture, this book is a great way to teach your child poetry as well as diversity.

Recommendation : Highly Recommended. 6+
Reviewer: Yu-Han Chao

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Otherbound by Corinne Duyvis

cover for Otherbound by Corinne DuyvisDuyvis’ Otherbound is a tour-de-force in complications. The story is told through dual narrators, Nolan and Amara. Nolan, a bilingual Hispanic teenager growing up in small town Arizona, has a crippling neurological disorder, masked as epilepsy. This disorder has already cost him one foot and incurred massive medical debt for his working class family. In the past, Nolan’s disorder even caused hallucinations whenever he blinked. He is constantly aware of the burden he unintentionally places on his family and struggles to connect with those around him, his disabilities impairing him both physically and mentally. Nolan is also doing his best to hide a secret: the hallucinations never stopped. Every time Nolan closes his eyes his mind is transported into the body of our second protagonist, Amara.

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Perfect Lil Blends by Luke Whitehead

cover for Perfect Lil BlendsPerfect Lil Blends: A Reality Book that Celebrates the Diversity  of Multicultural Children  is like a series of love letters from parents to their children accompanied by their children’s portraits. Compiled by Luke Whitehead, the founder of Mixed Nation, this is a photo essay of children of mixed heritage from almost every racial, cultural, and ethnic background. Yes, most of these children are exceptionally beautiful however, similar to, but more personal than, Kip Fulbeck’s photo essay book Mixed, each photo of a child is accompanied by a description of the child’s life interests and a note of dedication from the parents to the child, making this more than a vanity book of portraits. (more…)

Good Dream, Bad Dream by Juan Calle and Serena Valentino

cover for God Dream Bad DreamGood Dream, Bad Dream turns a traditional meet-your-fears-head-on storyline into a global bilingual adventure. This book is about a boy, named Julio, who can’t get to sleep because he’s afraid monsters will terrorize his dreams.  But his papa reassures him that every monster will meet its match when confronted with a bedtime superhero.

Every line of this children’s book features a different mythical hero from various cultures across the globe to fight a monster—a cunning companion for each devilish spirit, so to say. Grecian heroes defend the weak against Grecian monsters, African warriors fight African beasts, Mayan gods combat Mayan monsters, robots destroy evil aliens, and so on. To tell the tale, there’s even an accompanying bilingual Spanish translation to help teach young readers Spanish, or to make it easier for Spanish-speaking children to understand the storyline.

Seven talented artists came together to illustrate the vibrant, comic book stylized drawings in Good Dream, Bad Dream. The full-color pages offer visual cues into the characters of the various creatures and champions who make appearances in children’s’ minds all across the world. But on a negative note, those bright depictions may be too distracting for the child to clearly read the words on the page for themselves. So it would be best for the adult to read the story the first time, and to help the child follow along by trailing each sentence with their finger.

A former Kickstarter project, Good Dream, Bad Dream is available for purchase in October 2014.

Recommendation: Recommended (Just make sure you’re there to lend a hand if the child can’t make out the words on the distracting pages.) Ages 5-8.

Reviewer: Kaitlyn Wells

Antonio’s Card/ La Tarjeta de Antonio by/por Rigoberto Gonzalez

Cover for Antonio's Card la Tarjeta de Antonio

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

Education & Empathy; Thong’s Round Is A Tortilla & Green Is A Chile Pepper and the Importance of Diversity in Toddler Literacy

Round is a Tortilla cover green is a chile pepper

One thing that’s most lovely about books directed at very young children is their ability to invite and include. The books Round is a Tortilla and Green is a Chile Pepper by Roseanne Greenfield Thong are musical and colorful representations of the Mexican-American subculture.

 The inclusion of subcultures and images which portray children of color is so immensely important to the development of empathy. Exposing very young children to stories where foods, colors, cultures, and concepts are dissimilar from what they see, allows them to see the world differently. In addition, finding comparisons is equally important. So, in these books, instead of something being round like a cookie, it’s round like a tortilla, or instead of green like the grass it’s green like a chile pepper. The shapes and colors are the familiar and the tortilla and chile pepper are the unfamiliar (unless you cook some spicey food!). In addition, if your child does happen to be part of the subculture represented, the mere presence of people who look (have brown skin, in the case of these stories) like your child reinforces their own sense of inclusion.

 So, a little brown girl with a red flower reads a book while sitting on the sill of a square window. This story could be any children’s book, but that seemingly small adjective: brown, changes everything! It doesn’t alter reality, because in reality our county is made of complex color combinations and subcultures, but it alters the trend in children’s books. A book about shapes is important for skill-building and recognition; it helps reinforce terminology, language and develop synaptic pathways for your child, but oh! That brown, that little qualifier, brown: well, it encourages diversity, inclusion, empathy, it reinforces the representations of the self.

 Finally, the minds of children are both absorbent and reflective. They can, like a sponge, retain all that’s around them while simultaneously finding themselves, and their place in that same space.   Round like a Tortilla invites your child to consider shapes outside the normal concepts, it includes your child-of-color or a non-related subculture and it helps children absorb information while finding their own reflections. What more do you need in a toddler’s shape book?

Highly recommended for ages 0 – 4

Reviewer: Rachelle Linda Escamilla

Something Special For Me by Vera B. Williams

cover for Something Special For MeVera. B Williams’, Something Special for Me, follows Rosa, once again as she narrates a series of situations in her life. Even as a child, I grinned when stories contained nods to a protagonist’s earlier titles and several details including the reappearance of the chair and coin jar from A Chair for My Mother lent that special touch here. The accordion also brings the idea of family tradition to in this book.

After the coin jar from A Chair for My Mother, is filled once again, Rosa’s mother and Grandmother decide to use it for Rosa’s birthday present. Rosa comes close to buying herself roller skates, clothes, and even a red tent, but backs out of each buy (to be honest, I was hoping for the skates).

After she hears a man playing an accordion and finds out that her Grandmother also played the same instrument, Rosa chooses to buy an accordion. I really enjoyed this ending because Rosa found a way to make herself happy, and bring a small joy to her mother and Grandmother. It was enjoyable to see Rosa doing something for herself this time. This is different from the approach to family loyalty in A Chair for My Mother and Music, Music, for Everyone in which Rosa is solely focused on her mother and grandmother.

I found Williams’ artwork, although somewhat simple, engaging. I was so intrigued that with each page, I tried to see every item in the artwork. Young girls may enjoy Something Special for Me moreso than other readers but Williams writes a story in which gender is not significant to the plot.

Recommendation: Recommended. Ages 5+

Reviewer: Warren Stokes