March 22, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Books to Build Connections to Latino Culture for K–10 | Libro por libro

As a librarian, I love it when I find books that relate to one another in terms of themes or content, which gets me thinking about potential program ideas. The titles selected for this first column of the new year are full of such connections. Starting with the idea of focusing on longer fiction, I found two semiautobiographical novels in verse, and both are historical fiction that deal with the protagonist coming of age. Two other novels are connected by the relationship of a child with a grandparent that both explore the idea of coping with loss, which relate to a third, classic title about the relationship between a child and a cherished uncle. Then there are two books of scary short stories rooted in the Latino tradition. And finally, a new biography of a cherished Latino musician.

An article by Frank Bures in a recent issue of The Rotarian magazine entitled “The Bicultural Advantage” reminded me of the fact that one of the best ways to understand and see through the eyes of others is to learn their language. Once we speak the language, we understand the logic and can move into a space where we are not outsiders to the culture. Even though we may not all speak the language, the books in this column can take us to explore that place and help us be part of a very rich and vital culture. These books celebrate family, a culture informed by language and music, and literary tradition in which magical and strange things are possible.

BROWNMonicaTito Puente: Mambo King/Rey del mambo. illus. by Rafael López. HarperCollins/Rayo. Mar. 2013. Tr $17.99. ISBN 978-006-12-2783-7.
PreS-Gr 2–Brown has written a series of picture-book biographies of Latino poets and musicians that have set the standard for what a biography for young readers should be. She has taken the lives of Pablo Neruda, Gabriela Mistral, Gabriel García Marquez, and Celia Cruz and created a special type of poetry of her own, with lyrical texts that capture the essence of who these artists were. This newest title is no different. Puente’s first band was called Los Happy Boys, and, like his music, reading this book aloud can’t fail to put a smile on one’s face. It’s particularly exciting that Rafael López, the illustrator of Brown’s biography of Celia Cruz, has returned for this portrait of another Latin musician. From the cover that shows a grinning Puente gleefully beating on drums with what look like four arms, the joy that he took in music-making can hardly be contained on the page.

Activity Ideas: Of course the only thing lacking is the music itself, so I suggest using Tito Puente as the basis for a Latin-music-themed storytime. Since the book is bilingual, it lends itself to the technique of using two readers—one to read in English, and the other in Spanish. Then play some Mambo music, preferably by Puente himself, and let everyone dance. If you know the mambo, the rumba, or the cha-cha, you could even teach some basic steps. (A basic rumba rhythm is included on the back page of the book.) Brown mentions that Puente was making music before he could walk, banging on spoons and forks, and pots and pans. Bring some utensils and see how your storytime crowd can make music. Since Puente notably recorded with Celia Cruz, you could pair this with Brown’s My Name Is Celia (Luna Rising, 2004 )for a celebration of Latin rhythms. If you use an iPod for your storytime music, there is an “iTunes Essentials” playlist of Puente’s music that you could purchase that includes a track with Cruz singing a number entitled “Celia y Tito.”

ENGLEMargaritaThe Lightning DreamerHoughton Harcourt. Mar. 2013. Tr $16.99. ISBN 978-0-547-80743-0.
Gr 6 Up–Engle has produced a fabulous work of historical fiction about Cuban poet, author, antislavery activist and feminist Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda. Written in free verse, the story tells of how Tula, which was her childhood nickname, grows up in libraries, which she calls “a safe place to heal/and dream…,” influenced by the poetry of José María Heredia. In Tula’s voice, Engle writes, “Books are door shaped/portals/carrying me/across oceans/and centuries,/helping me feel/less alone.” She takes elements from Avellaneda’s novel Sab, which is believed to be autobiographical, and creates a portrait of a girl “expected/to live/without thoughts” who will not be forced into an arranged marriage, and who falls in love with a man who wants her to marry the suitor of the woman he has always loved. Tula speaks out against slavery and arranged marriages, finding them both a form of imprisonment. Engle inhabits the voices of various characters from the story, including Avellaneda’s mother, who loses her inheritance because of Tula’s refusal to accept an arranged marriage, and who ultimately banishes her to live with an uncle.

I have always been a little leery of novels in verse because, if there is no artistic reason for the story to take that format, the verse form seems to be little more than a gimmick. Engle is writing historical fiction about a real Cuban poet, and she convinces readers that the story couldn’t be told any other way.

Activity Ideas: This book is ideal for literature units and can be used across the curriculum. Students can read this as an entry point to the history of Cuba, the issues of slavery and feminism, and Avellaneda’s prose and poetry itself. Engle’s book lends itself to teaching, and her appendix includes a bibliography of titles that kids will want to explore and research.

MCCALLGuadalupe GarciaUnder the MesquiteLee & Low. 2011. Tr $17.95. ISBN 978-1-60060-429-4.
Gr 6 Up–This autobiographical novel in verse chronicles Lupita’s coming of age set against the backdrop of her mother’s cancer diagnosis. I love the way that the author begins with the diagnosis, and then follows up with a section of poems about her memories of growing up. She then returns to the present, and the final section deals tenderly with the loss of her mother, and the way her father helps the family through the crisis with quiet strength. This novel rightfully won the Pura Belpré Author Award and it deserves wide exposure. I particularly appreciate the glossary of names, Spanish words, and cultural references, which ties readers to the world of South Texas and the Latino culture that is so prevalent in that region.

Children and Grandparents

MCCALL, Guadalupe Garcia. Summer of the Mariposas. Lee & Low/Tu Bks. 2012. Tr $17.95. 978-1-60060-900-8.
Gr 6 Up–This novel more than fulfills the promise of McCall’s Under the Mesquite. In Summer of the Mariposas, she audaciously sets out to retell Homer’s Odyssey within the context of Latino folklore. Odilia is the oldest of five sisters who have vowed to stay together forever. When they happen upon the body of a drowned man in their swimming hole, they decide to take him back to Mexico to his family, who happen to live nearby their own grandmother. La Llorona appears to Odilia and becomes her mentor and guide. The journey to the girls’ grandmother’s ranch involves getting across the border with a corpse without being caught by authorities. Then the magical realism kicks in as Odilia and her sisters have to combat various supernatural beings, including a shape-shifting witch and the dreaded Chupacabras, the monster who eats goats. These are just some of the connections, especially with the books of scary short stories mentioned below, that make this book such a rich source of material to introduce children to Latino myths, as well as theOdyssey itself. I love McCall’s take on La Llorona, whom she sets out to redeem as a sympathetic mother figure, rather than the scary child kidnapper she is most often made out to be.

MANZANOSoniaThe Revolution of Evelyn SerranoScholastic. 2012. Tr $17.99. ISBN 978-0-545-32505-9.
Gr 5-8–Manzano is, of course, best known for her role as Maria on Sesame Street. In this book, she has brought to life an incident from 1969, when a group of young Nationalist Puerto Ricans, known as the Young Lords, occupied the First Spanish Methodist Church, after the clergy turned down their requests to use the building during the week as a place for breakfast and other social services for the poor. The story is related in the voice of Evelyn Serrano, a young teen who realizes that she wants to find ways to create social change. The girl’s social consciousness comes alive in tandem with her grandmother’s arrival. Her abuela takes over Evelyn’s room, forcing her to occupy the couch. Even with this to grapple with, along with the contentious relationship between her grandmother and mother, Evelyn eventually forges a relationship with the older woman, who was a Nationalist in Puerto Rico. She also discovers more about her grandfather, who was on the other side of the political debate, and this makes her all the more anxious to be a part of history. Manzano makes the Puerto Rican barrio come alive, and the atmosphere she creates reminded me a great deal of West Side Story. Of course, she manages to insert a quick reference to Sesame Street itself, which also first aired in 1969.

ADAAlma Flor & Gabriel M. ZubizarretaCon cariño, Amalia. S & S/Atheneum. 2012. Tr $15.99. ISBN 978-006-12-2783-7.
Gr 3-6–This is a Spanish translation of a book that previously appeared in English as Love, Amalia. When Amalia’s friend Martha moves away, she deals with an acute feeling of loss that is soothed by her grandmother. The book portrays this loving relationship in a very tender way that is made all the more poignant when Amalia’s grandmother passes away. At the end of the story Amalia reconnects with Martha via a letter, and works to reforge a connection. The book includes recipes for the dishes that Amalia and herabuela make together.

FARIASJuan. Los caminos de la luna. illus. by Alicia Cañas Cortázar. Anaya (Sopa de libros). 1997. pap. $8.20. ISBN 978-84-207-8293-5.
Gr 5-8–While not about a grandparent, this book, which translates as “The Paths of the Moon,” is about the relationship between a young girl and her uncle, known as Juan el Viejo. When his niece Maroliña actually wants to be bored, he takes the opportunity to show her the wonder of life, and to prepare her for a time when he will no longer be there. Written in small snippets of poetic prose, this book has been a longtime favorite. Here’s how it begins: “Juan el Viejo loved walking along the beach at sunset, when the gulls had not yet gone to sleep. Almost always he was accompanied by his niece, Maroliña, the one who listened best. Juan el Viejo tells stories of what comes to his memory.” Each section of the book is introduced by a quote from another book, and, at the end, Farias talks about each quote and its connection with his story, and encourages readers to explore these other books. Sadly, Farias, who won numerous awards in the Spanish literary world for his children’s books, died in 2011.
Activity Idea: After experiencing any of these books, the best thing would be to take kids to a place where they can interview seniors and capture oral history. Years ago when I worked for the Dallas Public Library, there was a senior center directly behind the branch library and we took kids there to do just this. The interviews were all recorded, then transcribed. This was a satisfying experience for everyone involved.

Scary Stories

Below are two books of scary short stories that will appeal especially to boys. Both of these books mine the very rich lode of Latino folklore; any number of these stories would be great to read aloud, or to learn to tell on your own. Both books are bilingual, with the stories presented in both English and Spanish in the same volume.

GARZAXavierKid Cyclone Fights the Devil and Other StoriesPiñata. 2010. Tr $10.95. ISBN 978-1-55885-599-1.
Gr 5-8–Garza is mostly known for his picture books about lucha libre, or Mexican wrestling. The title story of this collection is about a lucha libre fighter, Kid Cyclone, who ends up wrestling with the devil. In “Llorona 911,” a group of kids at a slumber party call the aforementioned phone number, and La Llorona. This would be the most ideal story to learn to tell aloud. Garza also creates stories with other mythical characters such as the Owl Witch, who torments a girl named Esperanza nightly, asking for her baby sister. Then there is the Elmendorf beast, which finds its match in a very strong and stubborn pig. There are also the “Winged Beasts of Elotes County,” which you ignore at your own peril. There is an interesting tale of the U.S.-Mexican border in which a border patrol officer learns that the thing in the shadows is not an illegal alien, but the legendaryChupacabra itself. Some stories center on the idea of revenge, such as a woman known as “Donkey Lady” who turns the tables on her tormentor. The theme that runs through this collection is that of young people trying to prove, unsuccessfully, that old legends are not true. A great choice for any time a scary story is needed.

SALDAÑA, René, JrBatiando con el diablo y otros cuentos de mas allá/Dancing with the Devil and Other Tales from Beyond. tr. by Gabriela Baeza Ventura. Piñata. 2012. Tr $9.95. ISBN 978-1-55885-744-1.
Gr 5-8–The title story is about a high school dance in which Joey hopes to dance with Marlen, his major crush, but doesn’t get to her in time. Instead Marlen accepts an invitation to dance from the devil, which turns out to be fatal for her, and tragic for Joey, who could have saved her were it not for his inattention. Saldaña provides a La Llorona tale that mixes the original story with a more contemporary one in which the tragic scenario plays itself out again. In a second variant on the tale, “Have I Got a Marble for You,” a boy who wants to win a marble tournament obtains a magic marble from a creepy kid who turns out to be working forLa Llorona, helping her obtain a second child. In “Louie Spills His Guts,” an old wives’ tale literally comes true when Louie cuts his toe and then finds his leg swelling up. In Latino culture, a common phrase is “Sí Dios quiere” or, “If God wills it.” This phrase is often used to respond to invitations when there is some uncertainty involved. In “God’s Will Be Done” a girl who wants to go to a dance and meet a forbidden boy decides to do it whether God likes it or not. She finds out through the medium of a fierce bull that God doesn’t really want her to go. All of these stories are full of uniquely Latino cultural elements.

Tim WadhamTim Wadham is the director of the City of Puyallup Public Library in Washington State. Email him at

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Tim Wadham ( is a library administrator and the author of Wordplay for Kids (ALA Editions, 2015).