Just a Minute: A Trickster Tale and Counting Book

Title: Just a Minute: A Trickster Tale and Counting Book | Author: Yuyi Morales  | Illustrator: Maria de Lourdes Morales O’Meara (Yuyi Morales)  | Publisher: Chronicle Books LLC  | Date of Publication: 2003  | ISBN: 978-0-8118-3758-3  |  Number of pages: 36 | Grade Level: Pre-School – 2 | Literary Trend: Spotlight on Diversity 

Morales, Y. (2003). Just a Minute: A Trickster Tale and Counting Book. San Francisco, CA: Chronicle Books LLC.

        Yuyi Morales brings to vibrant life the dreadful concept of Death knocking at your door in this delightful counting book.  Not since the classic film The Seventh Seal has an artist been able to get comfortable with the concept of death at this level of humor and beautiful imagery.  Of course, Morales is writing for children, in this instant classic picture book, and the joke is on poor Señor Calavera, who simply wants to take the sweet Grandma Beetle to the afterlife.  But not so quick, as sweet as she may be, she is also a grand trickster, perhaps the grandest, and her charm is no match for the polite Calavera.  From one instance to the next, Grandma counts her way out of potential doom as she prepares a big birthday feast.

        Illustrated by Morales, the picture book displays a panoramic detail of the goings on inside Grandma Beetle’s house and the rich purple and red color palette that adorn Grandma Beetle’s house are strikingly reminiscent of those found in actual Mexican homes.  Similarly, the just enough decoration style in grandma’s house gives plenty of room for the action in the illustrations to reverberate and come to life as grandma mercilessly slices through gigantic pieces of fruits with a machete or puts Señor Calavera to work in the kitchen at the mixing bowl.  The text takes a subtle place in the book, both easy to read but not imposing, and the book can be read without text for the youngest of readers and improvised along the way.

        Although the book never mentions the concept of death, its acknowledgement of temporary existence is evident.  Young readers may ask, “Where is he taking her?” and parents should be prepared to answer, but the beauty Morales’s indirect approach is that any answer can work, “he is the bus driver taking her to the dentist, perhaps.”  Morales takes a subtle approach as well in introducing the numbers 1 to 10 in English and Spanish and repeated readings will likely add a new skill set to a young reader’s vocabulary.

        Booklist attaches onto the sense of glory and wonderment of life that Just a Minute provides to old and young readers alike, and adds that Grandma’s attempt to postpone her fate will reverberate especially with adults who take the small things for granted.  Publishers Weekly explains that the strong visual elements of the book are deeply tied to art history;  “Her deep, glowing pastels and stylized human characterizations beautifully conjure the traditions of Latin American muralists.”  Glowing indeed, both reviews mirror my own sentiments and it is impossible for me to ignore how this book helped me relive some of my favorite moments of big family birthday parties when I was a child.



The Tequila Worm

Title: The Tequila Worm | Author: Viola Canales | Publisher: Wendy Lamb Books | Date of Publication: 2005 | ISBN: 0-385-74674-1 |Number of pages: 176 | Grade Level: 7+ | Literary Trends: Spotlight on Diversity, Tough Girls, Bullying

Canales, V. (2005). The Tequila Worm. New York, NY: Wendy Lamb Books.

        Viola Canales’s book takes young Sofia, on a trip from girlhood to the ultimate Sisterhood in Mexican-American society, becoming a Comadre.  Instead of traveling pants however, there are mezcal soaked worms, frozen tamales, raw bars of chocolate, mamá’s émpanadas and tía’s plastic wrapped furniture.  Despite the potentially embarrassing nature of some of the special delicacies of Mexican culture, Sofia learns early to be proud of the quirks that come with her heritage and you can almost hear the moment when she says ¡Ya! (enough) to the school bully who called her Tacohead.  Of course, just when Sofia has taken a firm grasp of her culture and reality, she is offered a full scholarship to an elite private school 300 hundred miles away from her home and family.  As she grasps with the decision to even tell her mother and father about the scholarship, her contemporaries begin to focus on the biggest day of their lives, their Quinceañeras, not that Sofia is the type to concern herself with her own coming of age party.

        The Tequila Worm brings readers into the world of deep Mexican American culture.  Set in the southernmost U.S./Mexican border town of McAllen, Texas, the text reinforces the cultural fusion of the area with its informative code-switching literary style and border-crossing ethos.  It is this lifestyle and mindset that is reinforced by Sofia’s elders that eventually provides the supportive push towards a life of academia, but with her heart firmly planted in ground where her family and culture rests.

        In The Tequila Worm, Sofia and her Mexican classmates at private school travel long distances back and forth between school and home during school breaks, often with only a few days to spare before they are whisked back into their intense studies.  The dedication to family and work that the book portrays echoes the similar struggle of the migrant worker in the South West, often traveling back and forth between work and family; it especially reflects on the legacy of the Bracero guest worker program that called thousands of able bodied Mexican men to temporary work in the United States from 1942 to 1964.

        School Library Journal describes The Tequila Worm as an “engaging and easy to read… good choice for reluctant readers” and Booklist explains that Canales’s text is like listening in on “a good anecdote shared between friends.”  Both observations, offer a great indication that this book has a purpose beyond capturing a slice of life, but rather that it is meant to reinforce the value of storytelling, especially oral histories that are passed from one generation to the next.  Reluctant readers, especially those with similar backgrounds as Sofia and her friends, will have likely heard amazing cuentos growing up and having them represented in this book is a great pathway to learning more about the literary value of storytelling in Mexican American Culture.

Animal Poems of the Iguazú: Animalario del Iguazú

Title: Animal Poems of the Iguazú: Animalario del Iguazú | Author: Francisco Xavier Alarcón | Illustrator: Maya Christina Gonzalez | Publisher: Children’s Book Press | Date of Publication: 2008 | ISBN: 978-0892392254 | Number of pages: 32 | Grade Level: Kindergarten – Grade 7 | Literary Trends: Spotlight on Diversity, Intriguing Non Ficiton

Alarcón, F.X. (2008). Animal Poems of the Iguazú: Animalario del Iguazú. San Francisco, CA: Children’s Book Press.

        Francisco X. Alarcón opens his children’s poetry book with a tribute the great Iguazú Waterfalls, the “big blue and green laughter of Mother Earth…” in bilingual text “matter of factly” placed above an impressionist painting of the falls during the blur of dawn. Page upon page, Alarcón’s poems take notice of the biodiversity of the Iguazú National Park, seemingly stopping at every fascinating insect, animal or wash of color to be found, in a type of free association field guide. Readers of Animal Poems, might be able to pick up on Alarcón’s wit and sense what it would be like to walk through the jungle with him. Occasionally, poems take on long form in tribute to some of the more mystical creatures Alarcón encounters and similarly, a few of the smaller animals get a short poem that matches their tiny personalities.

        The illustrations, by Maya Christina Gonzalez, are deep forest green and blue with bright splashes of blood red and mango orange and unlike other illustrations from Latin American themed picture books, feel unrestrained and free-flowing much like Alarcón’s poems. Some readers might find the text a bit too loose however, and the typography is inconsistent at times, appearing to be placed at the most convenient location on the page. There are moments however, where Alarcón’s poems glide on the wings of hummingbirds or lay atop the moonlight reflecting on the “quiet water” of the Iguazú riverhead.

        Kirkus Review describes the “simple words” of this poetry book as “playfully integrated into the illustrations,” yet there are very obvious design flaws that readers, will likely notice, such as black text over a dark brown background. Clearly, once the text and illustrations were out of the artists’ hands, the book’s publishers managed to dilute the power of the work with damaging book design. Even the binding makes for a difficult experience in navigating this book, pages spring back into place when the book is laid on a table. Community reviewers at Goodreads offer a generally positive assessment and many, agree that this selection would be useful as a teaching aide during a rainforest unit for young students. Others however, point out that the mission of the book, as explained by Alacrón in the introduction is to inspire young children to become “conservationists” is not reinforced by some of the poems that are “too” simple. Indeed, some of the English translations lose the spirit of the original in Spanish, and it is difficult to assess how they fulfil the mission that Alacrón seeks.

        Unfortunately, Animal Poems of the Iguazú, for all of its great intentions, does not express the power of Francisco X. Alacrón’s poetry, and young readers are unlikely to have an opportunity to attend a reading by the author, which can be a deeply moving experience full of joy and powerful wisdom.