Thursday, June 7, 2012

Chavela and the Magic Bubble

Chavela and the Magic Bubble. Written by Monica Brown; Illustrated by Magaly Morales. New York: Clarion Books, 2010.

   Who, as a child, did not at some point dream of blowing a bubble so large it might lift them away? Chavela, who never met a piece of gum she didn’t like, has a gift for blowing bubbles. She blows bubbles in the shapes of dogs and butterflies and one day, chewing an entire pack of “Magic Chicle” she buys on a trip to the market with her abuela, Chavela blows a bubble so large she is flown across the landscapes of California, Arizona and Texas to her grandmother’s childhood in the rainforest of Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula. In the forest, Chavela learns of the sapodilla, a tree whose sap is the base for chewing gum, and of the chicleros who slash z-shaped cuts into the trunk of the sapodilla to harvest its sap. Through her encounter with the young daughter of a chiclero, Chavela also comes to learn about her own history.  

   In the Latin American literary tradition of magical realism, Monica Brown connects the real with the fantastical and the past with the present. Brown takes a simple childhood past time and creates a story that is in part about an endangered ecosystem and a declining way of life, but also about familial love and a child’s place in the larger world. Chavela and the Magic Bubble emphasizes the important role of grandparents as care givers and as guardians of history and memory, a theme often found in other children’s books featuring Latino protagonists. While Chavela’s journey takes her to the rainforest where the sap of the sapodilla trees is being harvested, the story does not go into great detail on the conditions of the forest and the lives of the workers. Brown simply introduces these individuals and way of life and taps into a reader’s curiosity. The author’s note provides more information about the Mexican rainforest, the harvesting of chicle, and the destruction of these ecosystems with resources for more information. Also included in the author’s note are the music and lyrics to the Latin American song "Tengo Una Muneca" ("I Have A Doll"), which is sung by the children Chavela meets on her journey.

   The story is engaging, filling the reader with wonder and excitement for what will happen when Chavela is swept away by a bubble, but the real strength of the book is its design and illustration. From the bright bubble gum pink end papers to the typeface and text, the design of the book allows the reader the opportunity to experience what is happening in Chavela’s world. Typeface changes to emphasize words. A bubble letter font, similar to the bubble letters all young children learn to draw at some point, highlights the word “bubble” throughout the text. Different colors and fonts are used for Spanish words as well as other key descriptive words of action, color, texture and direction. Text wraps around images to emphasize shape and movement as when the reader sees Chavela blowing a bubble from her “Magic Chicle.” Within the bubble the text spirals outward: “Chavela chewed and chewed and then took a deep breath and blew a great big bubble that got bigger...and bigger...and bigger until....” The font grows with each “bigger” and the reader can practically feel the anticipation of blowing a bubble that continues to grow until.... What? You must turn the page to find out! Text floats, climbs, descends and follows the waves of the hills and of Chavela’s flight to and from the rainforest giving the sense that you are following the little girl on her adventure.

   Magaly Morales’ rich, brightly colored acrylic paintings of Chavela and the children of the chicleros exude the joy and magic of childhood. The children sing, play, march and leap. Morales’ illustrations of the natural world, including the sun, the moon, plants, birds and butterflies, with their swirls and curlicues, are reminiscent of Mesoamerican art. Chavela is followed on her journey, and in each illustration, by a Resplendent Quetzal, the colorful, long-tailed bird that is found throughout the tropical cloud forests of Cental America. Each illustration engages readers by challenging them to look for the bird.

   Chavela and the Magic Bubble is as sweet as the chicle Chavela loves to chew. The illustrations, design, and story work together beautifully to make this a book that is a delight to look at and fun to read. The variety of themes, as well as the design and artwork make Chavela and the Magic Bubble a perfect candidate for a story time that focuses on any one of a number of themes including the environment, Hispanic heritage, Latin American history, or learning about the origin of common products found in our everyday lives (especially those of interest to children). While it may appeal to children of all genders and races who enjoy stories involving magic and adventure, as an addition to the canon of picture books featuring multicultural protagonists, Chavela and the Magic Bubble should also be noted for its potential appeal to Latino children looking for books that feature faces not unlike their own.

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