"I cannot sleep unless I am surrounded by books."


Saturday, December 30, 2006

Albert's Gift for Grandmother

Albert’s Gift for Grandmother
Author: Barbara Williams
Illustrator: Doug Cushman
Publisher: Candlewick Press
ISBN: 0763622097

Kindergarten aged Albert the Turtle is at a loss as to what to get Grandmother on her birthday. He feels left out when his older siblings and parents are gift giving and wishes he too can provide the perfect gift.

I loved this little story. I think that everyone at some point in their life has felt that same sense of inadequacy that Albert did when he was watching others give their perfect gifts to Grandmother. This is a story anyone can relate to. I loved how as each person presented their gift, Albert wished he could do the same. The story showed real caring and emotion. It communicated the fact that gift giving isn’t just about giving gifts, it’s about caring enough for someone that you want to give the right gift, something they will love and remember.

Albert's Gift for Grandmother is a lovely story about family and caring. It’s a good lesson and one that we all need to be reminded of. It shows the closeness and the love of an intergenerational family and how each member is important in their own way.

Doug Cushman’s illustrations are beautiful. The ranges of emotions on each of the turtle family’s faces are so realistic. I loved the colors and the warmth each page portrayed. They show enthusiasm, joy, frustration and playfulness. The attention to detail is really great as well. I loved that the welcome mat at the Turtle’s house is a big leaf. Very imaginative!

About the Author:
Barbara Williams is the renowned author of numerous books for children, including Titanic Crossing and Making Waves, as well as Albert’s Impossible Toothache. She says, “Being a grandmother is the best job I ever held, right alongside being a great-grandmother.” Barbara Williams lives in Utah.

About the Illustrator:
Doug Cushman is the illustrator of What Grandmas Can’t Do, What Santa Can’t Do, and What Teachers Can’t Do, all written by Douglas Wood. He is also the author and illustrator of Inspector Hopper and the Aunt Eater series. He says, “It’s always fun to revisit characters I’ve gotten to know, to see what they’re all doing now. It’s like coming back to a friend’s house, sitting around the kitchen table, drinking coffee and talking about old times.” Dough Cushman splits his time between northern California and France.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Mom's Cancer

Mom’s Cancer
Author: Brian Fies
Publisher: Abrams Image
ISBN: 0810958406

When freelance writer Brian Fies mother is diagnosed with both lung cancer and a brain tumor, he starts to document her struggles and what it does to the family as a whole. The result is this amazing little Eisner Award winning graphic novel. It’s done in comic book style and it’s just phenomenal. The storytelling is brutally honest, yet humorous and insightful. Each member of the family is pulled into the struggle against incredible odds and cancer, like most crises brings out both the best and the worst in a family.

Mom’s Cancer isn’t some overly sentimental cancer story. I was a bit hesitant to read it, thinking it was going to be a tear jerking sentimental story meant for a movie of the week. I was more than surprised at how personal the story was, at how it was gentle, honest and true without being sloppy. Fies doesn’t glorify his mother as would be the tendency of some. He keeps her honest. She smoked, she has trouble understanding what she’s going through and she frustrates the hell out of him sometimes. He also portrays the family in humorous and interesting ways. There’s a Kid Sis and Nurse Sis and each have their strengths and faults. There are very vivid visual metaphors for things in the book that I found especially compelling.

The artwork is clean and simple, yet detailed and emotive. The storyboard look and feel of the book really helps one to understand the scientific aspects of what is going on with the cancer cells. Very educational! I really enjoyed that part of the book as well. With the graphic format, Fies manages to get me to understand medical jargon which would normally be too boring for me to be interested in. Instead of being bored, I was fascinated, which is saying a lot for me.

If someone you know has cancer, this is a book for them. It’s educational, hopeful and humorous. I highly recommend it.

London Calling

London Calling
Author: Edward Bloor
Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers
ISBN: 0375836357

John Martin Conway is a seventh grade scholarship kid in a rich prep school where his mother works as a secretary. He feels out of place and hates the school and the great grandson of the school’s founder Hank Lowery. After a fight at the school he retreats into his basement room to do independent study and brood. Then his grandmother dies and leaves him an old WW2 era radio which he begins listening to while doing research on the Blitz in London. The radio acts as a conduit for time travel and Martin finds himself sitting in London during the Blitz with a boy named Jimmy who has things to show him. Jimmy turns out to be a ghost who needs something from Martin in order to be at peace.

Back in his own time, Martin researches more and more about the Blitz and the people he met while with Jimmy. He finds out things about his much glorified grandfather as well as Hank Lowery that aren’t what is believed about either. As he shuttles back and forth in time, Martin comes into his own. He discovers a love of history, finds closeness with his sister, learns much, grows and comes to terms with his father’s alcoholism.

London Calling is a story of old secrets, a murder mystery, a story of redemption, of loss and of growing up with all its pain and angst. It’s provocative and engaging as well as an extremely interesting read. It’s one of those books that will interest the reader in a subject and send them off and running to find more on that subject. I love books like that, the ones that intrigue you so much that it leads to more and more reading.

The story has a very personal and real feel to it. The characters are well developed and the mystery about just what Hank Lowery and Martin’s grandfather were up to in London had me eagerly turning the pages to find out. I hadn’t read Edward Bloor before and London Calling made me a fan. I’ve added his other works to my list of books to buy.

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Monday, December 25, 2006

To Dance: A Ballerina's Graphic Novel

To Dance: A Ballerina’s Graphic Novel
Author: Siena Cherson Siegel
Illustrator: Mark Siegel
Publisher: Atheneum Books for Young Readers
ISBN: 0689867476

To Dance is one of the most beautiful, evocative and stunning pieces of writing I’ve ever had the pleasure to read. It’s as elegant and graceful as the ballet it tells about. Husband and wife Siena Cherson Siegel and illustrator Mark Siegel have teamed up to produce a gorgeous memoir.

To Dance is the heartfelt story of Siena Siegel’s following her dream of becoming a dancer. It begins with the six year old dreaming of dancing and dance classes while seeing a doctor about her flat feet. The story that follows is a delightful one, with tribute paid to famous ballets, ballet companies, dancers and everything about the ballet. It is also the story of a mother who supports her daughter in her dreams, who even moves to the U.S. from Puerto Rico so that her daughter can attend the School of American Ballet in New York. There are chapters like My First Toe Shoes, Back to the Barre and The Dying Swan.

Text copyright © 2006 by Siena Siegel
Illustration copyrignt © 2006 by Mark Siegel

The story progresses with Siena as she grows older and advances her both her classes and proficiency. Scattered along the way in the story are illustrations of her nursing her aching toes which give a sense of how hard she worked, how hard it is to dance and how much she loves it. I am an Aztec dancer and know just how painful dancing can me so those little illustrations of Siena bandaging her toes really hit home.

Throughout the book is her love of the dance, her profound respect for other dancers of talent, of the icons of her field like Baryshnikov and George Balanchine. It portrays the feel of what it is like as a dancer to view a ballet as part of an audience. It truly gives the reader an insight on what is like to be a ballerina. Not only that, but it shows how important it is to follow your dreams and do what you love.

Each illustration by the Mark Siegel eloquently accompanies the writing and captures the grace and beauty of the dance with flowing lines, lovely movement and a dreamy color palette. I fell in love with the way the chapter names are written on what appears to be a ribbon from a ballet shoe. It’s wonderful. The range of emotions shown on characters faces is just amazing. The whole book flows like a dance and is a little uncanny how it almost moves. I was touched by its elegance and mobility. Simply stunning!

Saturday, December 23, 2006

The Monstrous Memoirs of a Mighty McFearless

The Monstrous Memoirs of a Mighty McFearless

Author: Ahmet Zappa
Monster Designs and Illustrations: Ahmet Zappa
Photo Illustrations and Sculptures: Clay Sparks
Photos of Main Characters: Brian Bowen-Smith
Costunme Design: Paris Libby
Publisher: Random House Books for Young Readers
ISBN: 0375832874

Minerva and Max McFearless have just found out that their father is a Monsterminator and that they come from a long line of legendary monster killers. The book opens with Minerva, Max and their father all trapped in an iron birdcage over a bottomless pit of fiery molten lava. How’s that for exciting?

The book follows Max and Minerva as they set out to rescue their father from an evil demon. They, along with Ms. Monstranomicon, a monster hunting manual that is itself a monster set off have many wild, dangerous and just plain weird adventures as they are being chased by the evil minions of the vile Zarmaglorg.

Even though this book is meant for older children, I’d say in the 9-13 age range, my three year old granddaughter is obsessed with it. Every time she comes over, she heads right for the shelf and pulls it and says “read it Grammy, read my monster book”. What is it about kids loving to be scared? We never really read it, she’s three and has the attention span of a gnat but we spend lots of time looking at the doodles, drawings and photos that are just fun and wonderful. She loves the tongue twisters too. I’ve read the first paragraph of the book at least 100 times and she always wants to hear it again. It sounds funny and she loves that. Kids love funny sounding nonsense and this book is filled with paragraphs that make them laugh.

I finally took the time (she’s not here) to read the book for myself all the way though and I have to say that I wasn’t disappointed. This book is highly entertaining and just plain fun. There are some very creepy parts that I don’t recommend for smaller children, but if they are like my granddaughter, they won’t want the whole book read anyway. Give them bits and pieces and look over the drawings and you’re guaranteed to have a ripping good time.

One thing I loved about the book was the weird recipes in the book like Soldier Slimmers and a Pajama loaf telescope. They’re fun and inventive and just gross. Boys will love it. There’s a castle called Doominstinkinfart which sends my granddaughter off into peals of laughter every single time I say it. Kids like gross, kids like silly. This book is all that and more.

The photos and illustrations are fun as well and the doodles throughout the pages bring interest and a sense of the bizarre and dark to the pages. There are bugs aplenty as are photos of the protagonists, with Ahmet Zappa himself playing the father. The sepia tones of the photos give the book a feel of something old, dusty and scary. Think old black and white monster movie. It’s all fun and thoroughly engaging.

It’s a zany, gross and amusing romp of a read and I recommend it for the older ones but you, like me can modify it for the little ones.

Kiki's Journey

Kiki’s Journey
Author: Kristi Orona-Ramirez
Illustrator: Jonathan Warm Day
Publisher: Children’s Book Press
ISBN: 0892392142

Kiki’s Journey is the story of Kiki, a Tiwa girl who lives in Los Angeles far away from the reservation in Taos, New Mexico where here family is from. She is angry and embarrassed when everyone she meets assumes that because she is Tiwa, she knows everything about Native Americans in general. She hates it.

Then Kiki’s family goes on a journey back to Taos to visit family for vacation. She hasn’t been there since she was a baby. The trip home to the Pueblo becomes not just a vacation, but an inner journey for Kiki as she learns about the Pueblo and her family. With her grandmother’s help, she learns of her heritage, the village she was born in and her history. She finds a way to accept the path her life has taken and to be proud of where she came from.

The story is a beautiful one, filled with prayers to the Creator, bits and pieces of Native American life and lore. It touches a part of so many of us that have mixed heritages or that live far away from where we came from. I think that both children and adults will find it resonates.

Each illustration by Jonathan Warm Day compliments the story and gives it even more warmth. His illustrations of the desert and the adobe buildings in the village are particularly stunning and rich. My favorite illustration is the one where Kiki and her mother are praying to the Creator and the wind is streaming through their hair. It’s a beautiful and elemental piece. The feeling of love in the family is strong and persists throughout the book.

About the Author:
Kristy Orona-Ramirez (Taos Pueblo/Tarahuamara) is a writer and fourth grade teacher. She is also a lead singer and songwriter for the Native American Northern drumming group, The Mankillers.

About the Illustrator:
Jonathan Warm Day (Taos Pueblo) is a well-known artist and writer who grew up on the Taos Pueblo Indian Reservation. He currently resides there with his daughters.

The Silver Donkey

The Silver Donkey
Author: Sonya Harnett
Illustrator: Don Powers
Publisher: Candlewick Press
ISBN: 0763629375

This is one of the most elegantly simple and beautiful stories I’ve read in quite a while. The book reminds me of classics like The Secret Garden and has many of the elements of a classic tale from the early 20th century.

It is World War 1 in France and two small girls discover a blind and hungry British soldier in the forest. They are fascinated with both him and his good luck charm, a tiny and perfect silver donkey. They bring him food and, over the course of getting to know them, he tells them a series of stories about the silver donkey, one of which is the Christmas story told in a new way. The girls come to know that the soldier has deserted the army and will be in terrible trouble if found. They resolve to help and hide him and he becomes their “secret soldier”.

Coco and Marcel, the two sisters are tender-hearted girls and the plight of the blind soldier who is trying to walk home even though he is blind, moves them to extraordinary kindnesses. They pilfer their own modest pantry almost bare in feeding the soldier. They also bring their brother into their secret when they need his aid in helping the soldier find his way across the English Channel. What follows is an extraordinary fable of love, loyalty and courage.

The Silver Donkey is beautifully written and the tales within a tale are absolutely charming. The soldier’s story leaves no doubt that war is violent, horrible and changes people in profound and unexpected ways. While this is made clear, it is told in such a simple and honest way that it wouldn’t scare a child. It is gentle and sweet while warning that war is wrong. The book has a sense of wonder and innocence that sparkles.

The illustrations are gorgeously simple as well. Charcoal drawings give the book a classic and old world feel. Each illustration is charming in its simplicity, yet are very detailed and bring the French countryside as well as the children and the soldier to life. They call to mind the drawings of Garth Williams.

The book itself is a tactile pleasure with smooth, silky pages and a charming silver ribbon to mark your page. I highly recommend this book for children of all ages.

About the Author:
Sonya Harnett Sonya Hartnett is the acclaimed author of THURSDAY'S CHILD, WHAT THE BIRDS SEE, STRIPES OF THE SIDESTEP WOLF, SURRENDER, and several other novels. She has won many awards, including the Children's Book Council of Australia Book of the Year Award for THE SILVER DONKEY. Sonya Hartnett lives in Australia.

About the illustrator:
Don Powers is a fine artist who specializes in portraits and landscapes. THE SILVER DONKEY is his first book for children. He lives in Thomasville, Georgia.

Monday, December 18, 2006

The King of Things/El Rey de Las Cosas

From the book flap:

I am three years old
I am so strong
I am so smart
Look at what I own!

He plays the famous Mexican game of Loteria, a kind of bingo with pictures instead of numbers and considers each thing his own. I love loteria! I played it with my family as far back as I can remember and was always fascinated by the images and dreamy quality of them. Artemio Rodriguez has taken those images up quite a notch. They are vibrant, stunning and even more dreamlike woodcuts. Think loteria mixed with Tarot and then add a Mexican flair. The colors are bright like a sarape and you feel you could sink right into the page. In each image of the loteria, Lalo manages to find himself. My favorite woodcut is the Sirena - she's so beautiful. She reminds me of Yemaya, the Virgen de Guadalupe, Tonantzin and all indigenous womanhood.

The book is simply and beautifully done. Lalo reads each card in English and Spanish on one side of the page and the image is on the other. There should be posters of these images, they are just so stunning. My grandaughter, also three walked into my room today and the book was the first thing she noticed on my shelf. "Grammy! What's that?" as she reached for it. We read it over and over and over again. She couldn't get enough and loved praticing the words in English and Spanish. Her favorite was The heron or el garza who is storklike and carries Lalo in his bill. She wouldn't let the book go and it went home with her where my daughter in law said she fell asleep with it. I can't think of a better recommendation for the book

Artemio Rodriguez was born in Tacambaro, Michoacan, Mexico. His work is included in several permanent collections including the L.A. County Museum of Art, the Laguna Art Museum and the Institute of Graphic Arts of Oaxaca. Twelve of his linocuts were included in Dagoberto Gilb's Woodcuts of Women. He currently resides in Los Angeles.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Cuentos que contaban nuestras abuelas (Tales Our Abuelitas Told)

Title: Cuentos que contaban nuestras abuelas (Tales Our Abuelitas Told):
Cuentos populares Hispánicos
Author: Alma Flor Ada, F. Isabel Campoy
Illustrators: Felipe Davalos, Susan Guevara, Leyla Torres, Vivi Escriva
Publisher: Atheneum
ISBN: 1416919058

This delightful and fun collection of Hispanic fairytales is just wonderful. The introduction explains how tales change over time. The authors grew up hearing these tales as did I. It was fun to see the different versions of stories I grew up hearing. Each re-telling gives a description of the origin of the story. I read the Spanish version and loved it and I look forward to checking out the English version of this.

One of the things I loved was the list of tradition story starters and enders, the Spanish equivalents of “Once Upon a Time” and “They Lived Happily Ever After”. I always loved those when I was growing up. My favorite beginning was “En la tierra del olvido donde de nada nadie se acuerda, habia...” which means In the land of forgetting, where of nothing or no one remembers, there was…. My favorite ending to a tale was “Y colorin colorado, este cuento acabado” which really makes no sense, it’s a little rhyme that say something like and (I have no idea what colorin means) red, this tale has ended. Something like that, it really doesn’t translate but it always sounded funny when I was little and my grandfather said it, then clapped his hands once loudly, but enough of my memories.

The book is great. It includes my personal favorite, Blanca Flor as well as many others. The illustrations are fantastic, which is no surprise since the book is illustrated by four very well known Latino illustrators. My favorite illustration is on page 64. It is the most amazing and dreamy illustration of an indigenous boy grasping the feather of the pajaro de fuego (firebird) with one hand and the multi-colored mane of his horse with the other. The artwork is so amazing and ethereal that it just feels like you’re walking into another world.

I thought the book did best as a read aloud book. I loved all the stories and they were just so much better told out loud to a group of rapt little faces. My granddaughter loves the story of Catalina, La Zorra or Catalina the Fox. It makes her laugh out loud every time I read it. Another favorite of hers is El Castillo de Chuchurumbe which is a poem something like The House that Jack Built. I highly recommend this book either in English or in Spanish. I hope that the authors do a second volume of these!

A Drowned Maiden's Hair: A Melodrama

Title: A Drowned Maidens Hair : A Melodrama
Author: Laura Amy Schlitz
Publisher: Candlewick Press
ISBN: 0763629308

"On the morning of the best day of her life, Maud Flynn was locked in the outhouse, singing, The Battle Hymn of the Republic." What a great way to begin a story! I was hooked from that first sentence.

Maud Flynn is a difficult girl. She excels at getting into trouble at the orphanage and is considered plain. She doesn’t have the curly blond ringlets or an agreeable nature, so she is overwhelmed to learn she has been adopted by the mysterious Hawthorne sisters. She is swept away by the mercurial Hyacinth Hawthorne and her sister Judith to their house far away. She is bought new clothes, given treats and books all before she gets to her destination.

What follows is an enormously entertaining and unusual tale. Maud is drawn into the “family business”. The Hawthorne sisters are spiritualists, mediums that make their money by holding fraudulent séances. There is a rich and grieving mother who is willing to give the first medium who can produce the ghost of her lost child a great deal of money and the sisters need Maud to play the dead child. Since no one can know that she exists, she becomes a “secret child”, not allowed to go out or make noise, or even to be in the populated parts of the house. She is lonely, love-starved and bored in this new and mysterious life. Maud makes friends with Muffet, the deaf housekeeper and they grow close. The mysteries grow as does Maud’s conscience though she gets drawn deeper and deeper into the scheme.

I loved this book and was completely caught up in the tale. It brings to life the time period as well as the fascination of the time with the spiritualists and mediums. It got me thinking about Harry Houdini, snake oil salesmen and the like.

Maud Flynn is a great character who just exudes life and almost leaps off the pages and into your home. She’s complex and multi-layered as are all the characters in the book. There is so much going on that you can hardly wait to turn the page. Highly recommended!

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Ringside Seat to a Revolution

Title: Ringside Seat to a Revolution
Author: David Dorado Romo
Publisher: Cinco Puntos Press
ISBN: 03854253090-938317-91-1

Ringside Seat to a Revolution: An Underground Cultural History of El Paso and Juarez : 1983-1923 by David Dorado Romo

El Paso/Ciudad Juarez was a big deal in my family. It was where my great grandparents walked to from Abasolo, Guanajuato when they left Mexico trying to escape the Mexican Revolution. It is where my great grandmother Teresa waited, out of money for word from her husband, my Papa Tino (Florentino Gonzalez) who was then working in the orange fields of Piru, California. There are many family stories about Ciudad Juarez and I've often wondered what it was like back in that wild and crazy time. David Dorado Romo's incredible book takes me right there. I'm sitting in that bar, watching the revolution happen.

Ciudad Juarez was more than just my great-grandparents landing/waiting place. It was host to Pancho Villa, the Santa de Cabora, Teresita Urrea, photographers, spies, soldaderas, escapees, immigrants, the movie industry, journalists, bullfighters, feminists, military bands, deserters, armies, you name it – it was in Juarez. The author calls it "one of the most fascinating periods in the region's history." It's amazing. There are great stories like the one about El Paso's gringo mayor wearing silk underwear because he's afraid of Mexican lice. The book is replete with photos from the era. There are over 200 black and white photos that give this fascinating and a little surreal place surprising depth and humanity. There are newspaper clippings and timelines as well.

Pancho Villa is pervasive throughout the book, after all Juarez was his town. The author admits that it was hard to find a place that Pancho Villa hadn't been. The town was a favorite of Villa's wife Luz Corrales as well. There are photos of the most random and what I think are unthinkable things like white tourists posing as soldaderas for photos to send home to family back east. Weird. You don't think of a war that your family left home to get away from as entertainment. At least I don't. It's wild to me that so many people came to this town to just sit on grandstands and watch the war. It's crazy. I guess it's no more crazy than me sitting in front of my TV and watching a war movie or the nightly news, but still, reading this book is an eye opener.

Romo's writing is clear and profoundly descriptive. He brings to life the happenings and time so adeptly that you feel you are there. His writing draws you in and keeps you rapt. I loved it all, the pictures, the writing, the essay by John Reed. This book is an education. Some of the photos are hard to take, there are executions, a man dying alone in the street, some of the faces and expressions are so heart-wrenching that it hurts to look. The face of the Mexican Revolution is a weary, pained one that changed millions of lives and I for one, feel the pain of that time still. I'm a product of the change and upheaval it brought. I think we're still all so connected to our Mexican past, us Xicanos, connected and disconnected. We're a strange breed and this book helps fill the gaps we have, those disconnected little pieces and ties them to the connected parts. At least that's what it does for me. For those that aren't Xicano, it is still an amazing and educational book.

My favorite part of the book is the quote from Enrique Flores Magon that says, "We are aliens to no country, no are we aliens to any people on earth. The world is our country and all men are our countrymen. It is true that, by birth, we are Mexicans, but our minds are not so narrow, our vision not so pitifully small as to regard as aliend or enemies those who have been born under other skies."

About the Author:
David Dorado Romo, the son of Mexican immigrants, is an essayist, historian, musician and cultural activist. Ringside Seat to a Revolution is the result of his three-year exploration of archives detailing the cultural and political roots of the Mexican Revolution along la frontera. Romo received a degree in Judaic studies at Stanford University and has studied in Israel and Italy.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

The Tequila Worm

My compañeros over at La Bloga had the pleasure of announcing The Tequila Worm winning the Pen Award. It is my pleasure to review it.

I fell instantly in love with this book and with Sofia, the main character. The stories in The Tequila Worm are heart-warming and lovely. There were so many little things that I loved about it, that it's hard to write about just a few without giving away the whole book.

The book is about Sofia, a young girl living in a poor Mexican barrio. She has an amazing family that is rich in tradition, love and wisdom. Her strong community teaches her many things, all designed to make her a comadre, a title of honor within her barrio. Being a comadre is something sacred to aspire to, it is being a woman and more, that spiritual extra that imbues the Mexican/Chicana woman. Sofia has many role models and wonderful people to teach her the important things she needs to know on her road to becoming a comadre. I fell in love with the Storyteller Clara and her bag. The tradition of storytellers is one that is so precious and necessary in our culture that it was a deep pleasure to see how important it was in this book.

Sofia struggles as many of us do with fitting in, wanting more, leaving the barrio and going against the traditions that mean so much but, because we live here in these times, we often need more. I was touched by how she fought for what she wanted, needed but cared so much about how those wants and needs would affect those around her.

This is a tremendous book and so much more than just stories about a girl who lives in a barrio. These are life lessons and one of those books that will make it to my long list of favorites that I read again and again.

I'm thankful I read it and so thankful to those publishers that take the gamble, publish something that isn't the typical and in doing so enrich the world with books like these that benefit us all and teach us that we are all not so different.

The Tequila Worm is Viola Canales first book and has also won the Pura Belpre Award. Keep writing Ms. Canales, we need you.

The Girl from Chimel

The Girl from Chimel by Rigoberta Menchú with Dante Liano
Illustrations by Domi
Publisher: Groundwood Books
ISBN: 0-88899-666-7

Human rights activist, 1992 Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchú, with Guatemalan National Literature Laureate Dante Liano’s assistance has written a beautiful memoir of her childhood in Guatemala in a children’s book. The book is a series of stories of Señora Menchú’s parents, grandparents and of her village. There is a strong emphasis on nature, the importance of it and on her culture. Her love for her country shines though and there is a longing wistfulness for the lost childhood. The stories in the book take place before the 36-year war in Guatemala that devastated the country and made exiles of many, including the author.

Each story is short, perfect for small children who are a bit impatient like my three year old granddaughter who can’t wait to turn the pages. Though they are short little stories, they pack a big impact and say much. There is much detail on daily village life, the beliefs of the people and great details. I loved the story of the grandfather sweeping the grandmother off and running away to found the village. The story resonated for me since I grew up hearing the tales of women who were stolen (robada) in Mexico during the revolution.

The indigenous beliefs of the Maya, their spirituality and oneness with nature are clearly defined in each story. There is a joy in the book that comes from living life at one with Mother Earth. This is another one of those books that make a great gift and will be read over and over again. I know that my granddaughter and grandson love looking at the beautiful illustrations and they love hearing the little stories over and over again. This book and The Honey Jar have both become enduring favorites with them.

Domi’s illustrations are primitive, colorful and beautiful. They capture the feel of the village, the stories and the life in nature. I love her work, it always makes me smile to see Domi’s name on a book because I know I’m in for a treat. She seems to capture the essence of nature, childhood and indigenous art in a way that is lyrical. Her paintings of animals and fish are astounding.

Groundwood Books is a publisher in Canada, established in 1978. They are dedicated to the production of children's books for all ages, including fiction, picture books and non-fiction. I love their large multi-cultural selection. Check them out at http://www.groundwoodbooks.com/

Prizefighter en mi Casa

Title: Prizefighter en mi Casa

Author: e. E. Charlton-Trujillo

Publisher: Delacorte Books for Young Readers

ISBN: 0385733259

Prizefighter en mi Casa tells the story of young Chula Sanchez, a twelve-year old girl with a mountain of serious problems. I’m talking BIG issues here. She’s extremely poor, she’s got epilepsy, her dad drinks, her mom is ashamed of her, her brother picks on her and is starting to get involved with a gang and oh yeah, she’s Mexican in a small Texas town where racism is alive and well. Remember those stories your abuela used to tell you about the Cucuy? I do and they scared the hell out of me. They scare Chula too only the Cucuy is coming to stay with her family. You see, Chula’s father is determined to pull his family out of debt and so he has called on an old friend, El Jefe – a battered prizefighter from Mexico with a dark reputation and past. In Mexico City, they chant his name, El Jefe del Diablo – the Boss of the Devil. Ayyyyy! Yet Chula and this unlikely man become fast friends. Each finds something in the other that touches their heart, they find understanding.

I was impressed by this story. It’s dark, sad, sometimes brutal and absolutely wonderful. The conversations with Chula’s mom are intense and heart wrenching. The writing really makes you feel Chula’s hopes and fears. The budding friendship between Chula and El Jefe is touching and speaks to every tentative instance where a new relationship develops, the uncertainty, the fear and the yearning for contact. There are wonderful sentences that are so poetic I just fell in love with the language of the book. Take for instance, "Sprinkles scattered like lost children hoping to find their mothers soon." Or "Not to mention, nobody went down to the Playground after dark anymore unless they were dark enough in the heart not to be seen." That’s wonderful imagery and it gives you a picture so clear you can see that playground and what goes on after dark.

e. E. Charlton-Trujillo has written an amazing story of love, family, bravery and real life. It’s an amazing and truthful book.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Magda's Tortillas

Magda’s Tortillas (Las Tortillas de Magda)
Author: Becky Chavarría Chálrez
Illustrator: Anne Vega
Publisher: Piñata Books – Arte Publico Press

Magda’s Tortillas is the story of Magda Madrigal who is celebrating her seventh birthday. She has waited for this day with great anticipation because this is the day that her abuela will teach her to make tortillas for the first time. Magda is excited and can’t wait to get started.

The book describes in wonderful detail a day spent in the kitchen with a beloved grandmother learning el gran tradicíon of making tortillas and the quest to make them perfectly round. You could almost smell those tortillas on the comal!

Magda is adorable. I fell in love with the stunningly vibrant and lifelike illustrations of Anne Vega whose artwork is truly marvelous. Each page pulls you into Magda’s emotions and actions so that you are right there in that kitchen. One of my favorites is the one with Magda’s face covered in flour. I burst into surprised laughter when I turned the page to see that precious face decorated with white splotches. The minute I saw it I was reminded of my own kitchen education at the hands of my Grandma Lupe as well as the excited, flour-covered faces of my own children and grandchildren. This story brought back so many great memories of family, kitchens and the art of the tortilla.

This is a feel-good book, one that I encourage you all to read. I think it’s an important one as well, since it’s about one of our most ancient traditions – the making of the all-important tortilla. Our ancient ancestors in Tenochitlan were making tortillas and teaching generations of little girls that special art. With life so fast-paced today and tortillas of every kind pre-packaged in stores, this could become a lost art. Let’s not let that happen.

I loved this book and it’s one of my granddaughter Jasmine’s favorites. Whenever we read it, we just have to make our own tortillas. We have to – the book just makes us not want to do anything else. This story is one of simple beauty and joy, the love of family and tradition leaps off the pages and moves you in a profound and incredible way. Magda’s abuela and family will move you with their love, understanding and overwhelming pride in the daughter of the house.

Xochitl and the Flowers

Xochitl and the Flowers/Xochitl, La Niña de Las Flores
by Jorge Argueta, Carl Angel (Illustrator)
Publisher: Children's Book Press (CA); Bilingual edition (July, 2003)
ISBN: 0892391812

Xochitl and her family have come from El Salvador and are missing home very much. They live in San Francisco's Mission District and what they miss most of all are the flowers that they were surrounded with back home. Back in El Salvador, the Flores family was known for the flowers that they provided. Xochitl's mother dreams of owning a nursery filled with beautiful flowers and plants. She begins working on her dream by selling bouquets of flowers on the roadside, walking door to door with Xochitl in their new neighborhood. When Xochitl's father finds an apartment with a large yard filled with garbage that would be perfect for a nursery once cleaned, the family and the new friends in the community work hard together to make it work.

This is a beautiful story of community and the power of banding together to make dreams happen. It is a story of how people can band together to bring positive change. It is also the tale of love for a homeland and the homesickness that hits hard at the oddest times. It's about finding your place in the world, of making a home in a new land.

Xochitl and the Flowers is about a dream and the work to make that dream come true. It is what most of our parents and grandparents have done; bringing a piece of that culture and homeland that they left and blending it with the new land to make something entirely their own. It's about transcending borders. The book teaches love, home and community, determination in the face of adversity and of establishing roots.

Prize-winning poet Jorge Argueta has written a timeless, eloquent and moving tale based on real life events in the San Francisco Mission District. The illustrations are colorful and gorgeous like the flowers central to the story. Each page is filled with flowers and smiles and each page made me smile. This is a powerful book and one each of us should have in our shelf reserved for special books.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Las Soldaderas

Las Soldaderas: Women of the Mexican Revolution by Elena Poniatowska
Publisher: Cinco Puntos Press http://www.cincopuntos.com/
ISBN: 1-933693-04-5

Originally published in Mexico as Las Soldaderas, a coedition of Ediciones ERA and Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, © copyright 1999

Anyone who knows me even just a bit knows that Elena Poniatowska is my favorite author and hero. She, along with Eduardo Galeano have opened my eyes over the years and have given me the strength to fight for indigenous rights, immigrant rights, and the lifelong battle to regain and preserve our lost traditions and culture. Her writings on the Mexico earthquake, Nothing, Nobody and on the 1968 massacre of unarmed student protestors at Tlateloco, Massacre in Mexico moved me greatly, changed how I viewed the world, my Chicanismo, put a fire in my soul and were my first introduction to her work. Those books made me a lifelong fan and avid reader of anything she writes. Imagine how excited I was to find this little book through Cinco Puntos Press!

The soldaderas of the Mexican Revolution have always fascinated me. There are stories in my family of them and I’ve always wanted to know more. Elizabeth Salas, in her excellent book Soldaderas in the Mexican Military fed some of my thirst for knowledge of these extraordinary women as did Ms. Poniatowska’s Hasta No Verte, Jesus Mio her biographical book about the experiences of an actual soldadera in the revolution. Still, I found myself wanting to know even more. I have dreams of the soldaderas, they want more, they want their stories to be out there, to be told. This book is one of the answers to them.

Ponitowska writes, “Without the soldaderas, there is no Mexican Revolution – they kept it alive and fertile like the earth.”

I believe her. Her narrative of the amazing contributions and tribulations of these valiant women really give you the feel of what it was like to march hungry, search a battlefield for your man, to really suffer as they did, to be fierce and indominiatble. I stand amazed at how much they did, how strong they were and how little they were valued by most people.

This little book is crammed with photos from the incredible collection of Agustin Victor Casasola in the Fototeca Nacional of the National Institute of Anthropology and History in Pachuca, Hidalgo, Mexico. The incredible photos of the time give voice and face to these women. There are tenderness, anger, rage, sadness, determination, weariness, happiness, romance and excitement. There are young women with rifles, holding baskets of food, setting up camps. These women were EVERYWHERE in that revolution on all of the fighting sides.

I learned of Nellie Campobello, the only female novelist of the Revolution who was also a soldadera and was amazed that I had never heard of her. There are a lot of little details like that in the book, little bits of information that are tremendous in what light they give to the darkness of knowledge I have about them. Finding out about Nellie has me on a quest to find out more, to dig deeper, to go to Mexico and dig up her writings. I want to see for myself, read for myself a soldadera’s memories.

I could go on for days about this important little book, but I won’t. Run over to Cinco Puntos or your local independent bookstore like Tia Chucha’s or Imix and buy it now. You NEED this book. The Soldaderas need you to know them.

Review - The Honey Jar

The Honey Jar by Rigoberta Menchú and Dante Liano
Illustrations by Domi
Publisher: Groundwood Books – www.groundwoodbooks.com
ISBN: 0-88899-670-5

The Honey Jar is another collection of stories from 1992 Nobel Peace Prize winner and Maya activist, Rigoberta Menchú and Guatemalan National Literature Laureate, Dante Liano. These stories are re-tellings of ancient Mayan folktales and legends that the author grew up hearing from the storytellers in her village in Guatemala.

I loved the story of Grandfather Sun and Grandmother Moon who were lonely in the sky, a creation tale. It was very tender and sweet. The story tells of how Grandfather Sun and Grandmother Moon created the stars and how Grandmother Moon’s face became marked. There’s another tale called Where It’s Revealed That Each Thing Has A Spirit that I loved as well. Each of the 12 stories in this book entranced me and made me smile. They have a dreamy feel that makes me think of my indigenous ancestors and the storytelling tradition – the one I carry on to my grandchildren.

This book is an important one in that it not only preserves ancient tales, it brings them to a new audience and teaches the ancient love of nature. Any book that teaches and brings old tales to the light of the modern day is a treasure. We’ve lost so much of our history, our folklore and traditions that I really stand up and take notice when someone writes of these things, reclaims them if you will. It helps when the writing is as excellent as in this book, when you can almost feel you’re back in time, sitting with the elders at a fire listening to these stories as the night envelopes you. My favorite quote from the book is this one, “They will know that the earth does not belong to them, but that they are part of it. The earth will be a sacred place, a place created for the dreams of all generations. Chuchu’ib, Tata’ib! Thanks to your counsel, people will plant their dreams on the earth, and their dreams will blossom as if they were magic flowers”.

Domi’s illustrations add to the sense of fantasy, of being swept away in time. The colors of her palette are robust and vibrant, bringing to mind the rainforest, tropical jungles and the smell of the mountains. My favorite of her paintings in this book is the one on page 27 where the eyes in the forest seem are patterned in just such a way that they remind me of the glorious tails of the peacock.

Friday, December 08, 2006

A Gift from Papa Diego

A Gift From Papá Diego/Un regalo de Papá Diego by Benjamin Alire Sáenz
Illustrated by Geronimo Garcia

I’ve been a big fan of Benjamin Alire Sáenz for a long time. I love all his work with my favorite being In Perfect Light. When I found out about this book, I wondered what his writing for children would be like. I was completely entranced with the very first page. This is a lovely story, touchingly told.

A Gift From Papá Diego is the story of young Diego who loves his grandfather Diego who lives far away in Chihuahua, Mexico so much that he thinks of him all the time. Like most boys, he loves his comic books and superheroes. Little Diego misses his abuelito so much that he fantasizes about flying to Chihuahua in his Superman suit and being able to get home in time for dinner. He loves the story of how Papá Diego showed up the day Diego was born. The love the boy has for his grandfather just fills the pages with warmth and love. It made me cry.

The story is very real, very much of true familia. Diego’s sister Gabriela loves to tease her brother but you can see the love she has for him too. The morning of Diego’s birthday, he wakes to find Gabriela and his mother singing Las Mañanitas while his father plays guitar. That is such a beautiful little detail. The love we Mexicanos have for each other, our traditions and for music.
It made me remember my birthday mornings growing up. Those cold December mornings lying tucked in under a mountain of blankets, opening my eyes to see my tia smiling at me, smelling the favorite lengua de gato cookies I loved with champurrado in the kitchen, hearing my abuela come into my room and singing Las Mañanitas while my Papa rubbed my feet with his sobador’s hands. Ay! This story of Diegito got me remembering all those good times. I loved the part where his mama is in the cocina making chile rellenos. This is such a beautiful little cuentito!

The illustrations were great as well. Not your typical illustrations, these are done in clay and acrylic paint. They add depth to the story and a 3-d feel that makes the characters pop out and seem almost alive. Strangely enough, they don’t detract from the story, they add to it and give it a touch of whimsy. The artist, Geronimo Garcia hopes that the children who read this book will want to work with clay and paint to make their own art. I think that his work in this book will encourage them to create and more importantly, to dream. I think he will inspire many, many children and it is my hope that he will continue to illustrate many stories for them in the years to come.

As George Bush plans to build a 700-mile wall across the Mexican border, I leave you with the most powerful quote of the book, the one from Papá Diego that made my breath catch and my eyes tear up. “Mijito,” he said quietly, “tonight Chihuahua is not so far, and I do not feel so old, and it was very easy to cross the border. A border is nothing for people who love.”

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

The Legend of Zoey by Candie Moonshower
Delacorte Press
ISBN-10: 0385732805
ISBN-13: 9780385732802
Ages 8-12
224 pages

The Legend of Zoey is a fascinating and engaging book. Zoey is a normal thirteen year old girl with a few problems. Her parents are separated and fighting, she can't handle her mother's new profession of a midwife and she isn't comfortable being Native American. For her thirteenth birthday her grandmother gives her a journal which she immediately begins to fill.

There's a strange comet in the sky and her family has a bad feeling about it. Zoey refuses to have them accompany her on a class trip to Reelfoot Lake in Tennessee where her Grandma Cope grew up because she is worried that Grandma Cope will tell everyone about being Native American.

During the trip something happens and Zoey is transported back to 1811 just as the New Madrid earthquakes are about to hit. Zoey meets a girl named Prudence and the book is written in the narrative of the two girls journals.

I found the whole story completely absorbing. The New Madrid earthquakes actually happened and created Reelfoot Lake as well as drowning a Chickasaw village. The book really gets into the details of the earthquakes and time period. There's plenty of sensory detail too which really makes it feel real. I loved the two girls voices and they felt very true to their time period. I was so interested, I started doing a little research to find out more about those earthquakes.
Zoey and Prudence are brave, loyal and strong characters that I think readers will love.

I loved the way their stories blended together with the legend of the Chickasaw Chief Kalopin and his curse. The Legend of Zoey is a multi-layered and well woven tale with elements that will make it a oft read favorite.

The Legend of Zoey was inspired by the legends told by the author's great-grandmother, a Creek Indian born and bred in Tennessee about Reelfoot Lake.

This is Candie Moonshower's first novel and it won the Sue Alexander Most Promising New Work Award which is given by the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators. I expect the book may win a few more awards along the way. I, for one highly recommend it.

This review is dedicated to my newest granddaughter Zoey Aaliyah, who I hope will grow to be as brave and resourceful as the Zoey in this book. Grammy will be reading this to you mi Chiquitina Princesa preciosa!