Monday, October 31, 2011

El Dia de los Muertos / The Day of the Dead

It’s probably safe to say that el Dia de los Muertos, or the Day of the Dead, has reached a point of recognition in American society that it did not have even a decade ago. So much so that the candy company Russell Stover now makes Day of the Dead themed candy with bilingual wrappers. This is the first year I see these, and thanks to the packaging I learned the Spanish word for marshmallow. Mmm, malvavisco. Sounds, um, yummy. 

The Day of the Dead is sometimes explained as a sort of Mexican or Latin American version of Halloween, but it really is not. El Dia de los Muertos, which actually spans two days from November 1 to November 2 (or three, starting October 31, depending on who you ask), is a time when people remember their loved ones who have passed away. It is believed that on those days the souls of the dead return to visit. We honor them and welcome them back by creating ofrendas, altars on which offerings of their favorite foods, photos, belongings and other items are set out for their return. In Mexico and other countries that commemorate this time, it is customary to also visit and clean the graves of loved ones. I asked my mother what her family did when she was a girl in Mexico and she said they would visit her brother's grave, clean it, bring flowers and wreaths and pray, but that they did not create a home altar. Some people also played music in the cemetary. The Day of the Dead is also a time when death is recognized, and even celebrated, as a natural part of the cycle of life, a reminder that the dead are always still with us, and that death is not something to be feared.

There are a number of books for children about the Day of the Dead. A search for books to read to my own son turned into a research project of sorts as I began to look at the books I found under a more careful lens. I found that many of the books about the Day of the Dead include the following:

  • a child who has lost a grandparent and is preparing to welcome him or her back during the Day of the Dead
  • conflict in which either the child is uncertain of how the deceased loved one will find him or her or is trying to figure out what to contribute to the ofrenda
  • ends with the child receiving or believing to have received a sign of the deceased loved one’s visit
  • usually takes place in an unnamed location, but we can assume that it is a small, rural area outside of the United States based on the appearance of the surroundings and the outfits worn by the main and background characters
  • feature key characteristics of the Day of the Dead including skeletons or skulls, pan de muertos, the ofrenda, marigolds, and a cemetary
  • illustrations in which the children (and their families) are depicted as rural or peasants, are wearing somewhat dated and more culturally traditional clothing, or wear what appear to be Catholic school-type uniforms
A couple of other common threads I noticed among a few of the books:

  • the reader, via the young protagonist, is reassured that the skeletons are nothing to be afraid of and should be mocked or poked fun at
  • references to the Day of the Dead as the equivalent of Halloween 

Another common issue I found with these books is the subject classification assigned. Admittedly, I can be a little obsessive about Library of Congress subject headings. I discovered that there is no subject heading for the Day of the Dead. Perhaps this isn’t a huge deal in terms of being able to find books since online catalogs allow users to search by keyword. However, I have issues with what could be an inaccurate description of books about the Day of the Dead. The subject heading assigned to books about the holiday is All Souls’ Day. Not being an expert in religious holidays and observances, I dug a little to find out exactly what All Souls’ Day is about. I discovered that while All Souls’ Day is observed on November 2 it has a somewhat darker connotation than what we’ve come to know of the Day of the Dead. All Souls’ Day is affiliated with souls in purgatory who aren’t yet ready for their final destinations (whether they are heading upstairs or not). The idea of souls in limbo doesn’t exactly connect, in my mind, with the celebration of the Day of the Dead, a time in which the spirits of deceased loved ones are remembered and welcomed back for a brief period of time. Perhaps something has been lost in the cross-culture translation of the Day of the Dead. 

I deliberated about outlining why I would not recommend specific titles, and then considered only listing the books I would recommend. Since I did not read all the children’s books on the subject that are available at my library (and lest you think I did), I decided to compile a list of the books I looked at and highlight the ones I recommend. The titles highlighted (with two asterisks next to them) would be recommended to anyone wanting to introduce a child to the Day of the Dead or, more generally, to the ideas the underlie the celebration: that our loved ones are always with us, even when they are gone, and that death is a part of the life cycle that should not be feared.

  • **Ancona, George. Pablo Remembers: The Fiesta of the Day of the Dead (Pura Belpre Honor Book for Illustration, 1996)
  • Freschet, Gina. Beto and the Bone Dance (2001)
  • **Johnston, Tony. Day of the Dead
  • Joosse, Barbara M. Ghost Wings
  • Krull, Kathleen. Maria Molina and the Days of the Dead
  • Levy, Janice. I Remember Abuelito: A Day of the Dead Story
  • Levy, Janice. The Spirit of Tio Fernando: A Day of the Dead Story
  • **Morales, Yuyi. Just A Minute: A Trickster Tale and Counting Book (Pura Belpre Medal for Illustration, 2004) 
  • **Morales, Yuyi. Just In Case: A Trickster Tale and Spanish Alphabet Book (Pura Belpre Medal for Illustration, 2009; Pura Belpre Honor Book for Narrative, 2009)
Yuyi Morales’ Just in Case and Just A Minute are not about el Dia de los Muertos per se, but both make the connection between the living and the dead through the character of Señor Calavera who in one book comes for Grandma Beetle and in the other brings the deceased Grandpa Zelmiro to celebrate a birthday with the living.

I should also mention that I found one Spanish language book at my library. El Dia de Muertos by Ivar Da Coll was published by Lectorum, a Spanish language book distributor based in New Jersey. In El Dia de Muertos, two young siblings await the arrival of their grandmother who, for once, is alive! The grandmother tells them humorous stories and passes on the traditions of the Day of the Dead celebration. The book is written in rhyme which makes it fun to read. Unfortunately, the four books I highlighted as recommended above are not bilingual in that they do not offer parallel English and Spanish text. They do integrate Spanish words into the English narrative with either a glossary or in-text translation as explanation of Spanish words and concepts.

If you wish for specifics on why certain titles were not recommended send me a message, and I’d be happy to let you know. I don’t think any of the book I didn’t choose include any especially egregious errors or misrepresentations (although, of course, what is egregious is subjective). The biggest issue I had with any one of the books is the way in which one in particular depicts immigration and compares life in, I’m assuming, Mexico and life in the United States.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Piri Thomas and Gary Soto

Piri Thomas, the Puerto Rican-Cuban-American poet and activist, passed away last week. He is best known in the YA world for Stories from El Barrio, his 1978 collection of short stories and poems about young people growing up in Harlem, one of the earliest YA books written by a U.S.-born Latino for and about Latino youth. In 1978, Thomas wrote an editorial for the New York Times in response to the case involving the 1976 removal of nine titles, including his autobiographical novel Down These Mean Streets, from the libraries of Long Island junior and senior high schools. In the essay, he addresses the role writing and libraries played in his life as a young person. I'm linking to the essay in honor of Piri, but also because it sounds a lot like Sherman Alexie's response earlier this year to a Wall Street Journal article about the "ever-more-appalling" YA lit. Thirty-some years later, different subject matter, same players.

Also, Cynthia Leitich Smith has added Jo Ellen Misakian's interview with Gary Soto on her blog. Soto, author of many children's and YA books, discusses his writing as well as the Gary Soto Museum at Fresno State University. It looks amazing!

P.S. There is at least one other cover for a more recent edition of Stories from El Barrio, but I love this one because it has that 70s / 80s YA paperback look that takes me back!

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Malin Alegria on NPR

There is a great interview with YA author Malin Alegria on NPR. It's part of their "2 Languages, Many Voices: Latinos in the U.S." series. I'm looking forward to her Border Town series. The prospect of a Sweet Valley High with brown kids makes me giddy. Yes, it's true, I read practically all of the SVH books during my junior and high school years. So why can't I remember any Latino characters? I recall SVH having at least one African American character. Sweet Valley High takes place in California, doesn't it? There have to be a few Latinos. Right? Wikipedia (I know, I know!) shows two Latino names on the list of characters: Penny Ayala and Manuel Lopez. I forgot about Penny! Looks like I'll have to tackle that stack of SVH books sitting on my bookcase to find out how Penny and Manuel are portrayed. Not kidding about the stack of Sweet Valley High books.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Of Children's Books and Halloween Costumes

Marisol McDonald (of Marisol McDonald Doesn't Match), as illustrated by Sara Palacios, is reminiscent of a modern-day Pippi Longstocking with her red hair in braids and her outrageous outfits. The combination of brown skin and red hair is one of the reasons Marisol doesn't match. This reminded me of trick or treating with my son a few years ago and passing a little Latina girl dressed as Pippi. A brown Pippi! When you think about the most recognized characters in children's literature, characters like Pippi Longstocking, one of the things they all have in common is that they are White. For children of color, it is difficult to find characters in children's books that at least physically resemble them. Can anyone think of a children's book character that is as well known as Pippi Longstocking but is not white? Not so easy, right? Granted, Pippi comes from Sweden so perhaps not the best example. How about Junie B. Jones or Ramona Quimby? This is a completely legitimate challenge. If you can throw out a list I would be super impressed. The most recognized Latino child to come from a book or other media that I can think of is Dora the Explorer!

I am reminded of the scene in Grace Lin's The Year of the Dog where Pacy wants to try out for the role of Dorothy in the school's production of The Wizard of Oz, but her friend tells her she can't be Dorothy because Dorothy isn't Chinese. This theme of searching for oneself in children's books and not being able to find images that resemble one recur in Lin's novel and continue to plague children's literature. We need some brown Harriets and brown Ramonas in children's books, characters who run the gamut of cultures, backgrounds, and lifestyles. Perhaps the day will come when those of us with brown skin won't feel stuck between being Ugly Betty or Dora for Halloween.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Marisol McDonald Doesn't Match

Marisol McDonald Doesn’t Match / Marisol McDonald No Combina. Written by Monica Brown; Illustrated by Sara Palacios; Spanish Translation by Adriana Dominguez; San Francisco, CA: Children’s Book Press, 2011. Ages 4 - 8

Marisol McDonald doesn’t match! Her clothes don’t match. Her peanut butter and jelly burritos don’t match. And her brown skin and red hair certainly don’t match. Despite the fact that her lack of coordination is repeatedly pointed out to her, Marisol is happy with her mismatched lifestyle. That is, until, a classmate poses the ultimate challenge. Determined to prove that she can match, Marisol spends a day attempting to do so only to find herself miserable. 

In Marisol McDonald Doesn’t Match, Brown and Palacios combine their talents to tell a story that is, on the surface, about a little girl coming to terms with not conforming to expectations. On a deeper level, the book sheds light on the issues of identity and belonging biracial children often struggle with. Brown, the daughter of a Peruvian mother and a North American father who describes herself as a “mestiza Peruvian American of European, Jewish, and Amerindian heritage” draws from her own experiences as a multiracial child to write Marisol’s story.

Palacios’ brightly colored mixed-media illustrations, a combination of mediums that include collage, color pencils, pencil, markers and gouache, complement Brown’s story, but also serve to capture the diversity of Marisol’s world. The signs and notes posted in Marisol’s home and community are in both English and Spanish. Her classmates are white, African-American and Asian. Marisol’s teacher Ms. Apple, who with green eyes and brown skin appears to be biracial as well, is the individual who reaffirms and encourages the little girl to be herself. Palacios, a native of Mexico City, manages to perfectly convey the blandness that can come from trying to fit in with her illustration of Marisol standing in front of her mirror before heading off to school. Dressed from head to toe in orange that matches her hair, Marisol appears washed out, easily blending into the backgrounds of the illustrations that follow her day. 

Like Marisol, the book is also bilingual. The story is written in English with a Spanish translation that equally shares space on the pages. Marisol’s devil-may-care attitude and self-confidence will empower children who do not fit into cookie cutter molds because of their multiracial backgrounds, and will also appeal to any child who is beginning to develop an awareness of societal pressures to fit in. Her combination of dots, stripes and patterned Peruvian chullo hats is only a scratch at the surface of Marisol’s colorful story. While it appears that Marisol doesn’t match she is, in fact, representative of what American society is beginning to resemble. Marisol McDonald Doesn’t Match is a celebration of our increasingly colorful and less homogeneous nation.  

Kirkus Star for "books of remarkable merit"
Junior Library Guild Selection, Fall 2011