Making the Transition: Spanish-Language and Latin@-Focused Beginning Readers and Chapter Books

Libro por libro columnist Tim Wadham presents some classic and new works for emerging readers that either feature Latin@ characters or have been translated into Spanish.


While attending the International Book Fair in Guadalajara, Mexico, I happened upon a children’s storytelling program. A large group of schoolchildren sat in rapt attention listening to a storyteller from Spain. The story he was telling sounded familiar, and I realized that it was from Arnold Lobel’s Mouse Tales. Lobel’s work often has the feel of emerging whole cloth from the oral tradition. What is even more remarkable is what Lobel achieved within the limitations of the vocabulary required by the beginning reader format. Beginning readers and early chapter books are essential in the development of children’s literacy. Their short chapters and simple vocabulary help young readers to feel successful and confident in their reading, which is key to helping them become lifelong readers.

There are many classic beginning readers available in Spanish—either translations of works by masters like Lobel and Else Minarik or titles by Latin@ authors like Lulu Delacre.

1605-Libro-CVs-1Beginning Readers

BOLAÑOS, Roberto Gómez. El Chavo: La carrera de autos/The Car Race. adapt. by Samantha Brooke. tr. from English by Juan Pablo Lombano. Scholastic. 2014. pap $3.99. ISBN 9780545722933. Gr 1-3 This beginning reader, based on El Chavo del Ocho, a culturally significant live-action series in Mexico, will be beloved by families who have grown up with the iconic character. Created by Bolaños, the television series follows the adventures of a little orphan, El Chavo, and his friends in a Mexican low-income housing complex known as La vecinidad. This installment chronicles Chavo’s efforts to build a soapbox-style car for a race. The work stands alone as a satisfying narrative and provides a cultural connection for the audience. CAPUCILLI, Alyssa Satin. Bizcocho encuentra un amigo. illus. by Pat Schories. HarperCollins. 2008. pap. $4.99. ISBN 9780061435263. PreS-Gr 1 The adorable and popular puppy character transcends cultures, and this story of his unlikely friendship with a little lost duck shows why. Schories’s illustrations are the very definition of child appeal, and a large part of this series’ success. DELACRE, Lulu. Rafi and Rosi. ISBN 9780892393770. ––––. Rafi y Rosi. ISBN 9780892393787. ea vol: illus. by author. Children’s Book Pr. 2016. pap. $8.95. K-Gr 3 –The spirit of Frog and Toad lives on in Delacre’s “Rafi and Rosi” series. Previously published by HarperCollins in 2004, these titles for emerging readers have just been reissued. These lovely Spanish and English paperback editions feature a charming pair of coqui (tree-frog) siblings having adventures in the Puerto Rican landscape. In fact, the natural flora and fauna of the island is really the star of this book, which begins with the siblings on the beach and Rafi attempting a magic trick. In the second of the three vignettes, Rafi takes Rosi to Parguera Bay, where bioluminescent microorganisms glow when they are agitated. The final tale involves mangrove trees and hermit crabs. An author’s note explains more about the plants, animals, and natural phenomena described in the entries. Essential to a good beginning reader is a rhythmic text that makes music out of short sentences, and accessible language. Delacre’s own Spanish translation remains appropriate for the audience because it has a rhythm of its own. The colorful illustrations wrap in, under, and around the text, interacting with the story on a visual level. DELACRE, Lulu. Rafi and Rosie Carnival! ISBN 9780892393794. ––––.Rafi y rosi ¡Carnaval! ISBN 9780 892393800. ea vol: illus. by author. Children’s Book Pr. 2016. pap. $8.95. K-Gr 3 –Where the first “Rafi and Rosi” book celebrated nature, this one centers on celebrations. Rosi finds a princess dress for Carnaval, and Rafi decorates their red wagon to become a float for Princess Rose. The author’s note provides background information on carnival festivities in Puerto Rico and includes instructions for making items that appear in the work, including a periscope and Vejigante mask (Vejigantes are mythical characters portrayed in Puerto Rican festivals such as Carnaval). This is an excellent choice for storytime or other programs that include craft activities, and it lovingly evokes the varied landscapes of the island and the vibrancy of the Carnaval celebration. 1605-Libro-CVs-2DR. SEUSS. Huevos verdes con jamón. tr. from English by Aída Marcuse. illus. by author. Lectorum. 1992. Tr $9.95. ISBN 9781880507018. K-2– No roundup of early readers can be complete without a discussion of Dr. Seuss, who can lay claim to inventing the format. Seuss’s verse is understandably devilishly difficult to translate, but in this case, Marcuse has succeeded beyond all expectations, maintaining the rhythm and the rhyme while at the same time the joy of language expressed in the original text. Sam I Am becomes Juan Ramón, which is a perfect rhyme for the story’s repeating refrain. Dr. Seuss is for all, as this Spanish translation demonstrates. LOBEL, Arnold. Historias de ratones. illus. by author. Kalandraka. 2011. Tr $20.95. ISBN 9788484645795. Gr 1-3 –Framed by a father mouse (who looks suspiciously like Lobel himself) telling bedtime stories—one entry per each of the seven children—Lobel’s gentle mouse bedtime stories have stood the test of time. One of the most memorable tales, “The Journey,” is about a traveling mouse who buys and wears out several pairs of shoes, and then, finally, his feet. No problem, as he is able to purchase new feet from a foot vendor. What is truly important here is the cadence of Lobel’s text, and the meter and rhythm come through in the Spanish translation in fine form. However, this translation comes from Spain, and uses the formal vosotros pronouns. This form is not used in Mexico, or in most of Latin America, so it will not be familiar to many U.S. Spanish speakers. It does add to the timeless feel of Lobel’s work. My experience in Guadalajara taught me that just because a story is written with a limited set of words, it is certainly not exempt from being a strong choice for a storytelling session. LOBEL, Arnold. Sappy y Sepo, inseparables. illus. by author. Alfaguara. 2000. pap. $8.95. ISBN 9789681910259. Gr 1-3 A Spanish translation of what is perhaps my favorite of the “Frog and Toad” books—Frog and Toad Together. The chapters in this work include, “The Garden,” in which Toad reads, sings to, and recites poetry to his seeds in order to make them grow. In “Cookies” (translated as pastas—Spanish for pastry or dough), Frog and Toad engage in a test of wills to see how they can keep themselves from eating the treats. As in the translation of Mouse Tales, this title uses the formal Spanish, but regardless, Lobel’s gentle text is translated in a way that any Spanish speaker will understand. This is a good title for beginning readers because of the universality of the feelings with which Frog and Toad have to grapple, whether it be jealousy, impatience, or simply an inability to quash the desire to eat cookies. MINARIK, Else Holmelund. Osito. illus. by Maurice Sendak. Lectorum. 2016. Tr $19.99. ISBN 9788484648659. K-3 Lobel was certainly a master of the form of the beginning reader. But Minarik’s absolutely perfect text paired with the art of the legendary Sendak put this book on an even higher plane. Both series are about relationships—Lobel’s is about friends and Minarik’s is about the parent/child bond. Mother Bear takes very good care of Little Bear. She answers his questions, finds him clothes so that he can play in the cold, feeds him hot meals, puts him to bed, and remembers his birthday. What could be more comforting? There is no child, anywhere, regardless of what language they speak, who cannot relate on a basic level to these feelings. Minarik’s spare yet poetic text evokes a forest world of sounds and smells, and the comfort of home. It is accessible yet profound. The storytelling exudes warmth and love. Minarik’s text is a perfect foil for Sendak’s illustrations, which visually conjure the same tender feelings.

1605-Libro-CVs-3Chapter Books

Chapter books, as a step up from beginning readers, provide a more complex vocabulary and sophisticated storytelling. They build confidence as young readers strengthen fluency and feel more invested in plot points and character development. The discovery that reading can transport them mentally and emotionally is critical to developing a lifelong love of reading.

BROWN, Monica. Lola Levine Is Not Mean! 2015. ISBN 9780316258364. ––––. Lola Levine: Drama Queen. 2016. ISBN 9780316258432. ea vol: illus. by Angela Dominguez. Little, Brown. Tr $15. Gr 2-5 These two breezy beginning chapter books are short enough not to be daunting, and the language is easy for newly independent readers with burgeoning skills. But even better than that, these two titles present a bilingual/bicultural heroine who is intelligent and spirited—and who is Jewish and Peruvian. Lola Levine exhibits her love for her dual heritage wearing her traditional Peruvian hat with flaps over the ears, and closing her diary entries and letters using the word shalom. In Lola Levine Is Not Mean!, Lola has to deal with an incident in which her competitive enthusiasm in a soccer game gets the better of her, and she ends up accidentally injuring a classmate—hence the “mean” moniker. In Drama Queen, Lola has to deal with the humiliation of getting the nonspeaking role of Squirrel #2 in the school play. Brown creates a very strong first-person voice, and she doesn’t compromise the intelligence of her writing with the need for a simple vocabulary. Snippets of Spanish dialogue and cultural references are the icing on the cake.

JULES, Jacqueline. Zapato Power: Freddie Ramos Stomps the Snow. illus. by Miguel Benítez. Albert Whitman. 2014. pap. $4.99. ISBN 9780807594964. Gr 1-3 –Freddie Ramos is a young Latino who happens to have the advantage of superpowered shoes made for him by Mr. Vaslov, the super for his apartment complex. These sneakers turn the owner into a superhero who can run incredibly fast. Freddie uses his zapato power to find puppies, shovel snow for his neighbors, and in the case of this latest book, solve a mystery. A snowstorm and a power outage has sent the people in Freddie’s barrio to a school for shelter. When someone steals an old lady’s purse with her rent money, it’s Freddie’s special abilities that help bring the thief to justice. Freddie also gets special zapato-powered snow shoes in this latest installment. With a likable hero, this is a fun read that will especially entice reluctant readers. MEDINA, Juana. Juana and Lucas. illus. by author. Candlewick. Sept. 2016. Tr $14.99. ISBN 9780763672089. K-Gr 3– Juana lives in Bogotá, Colombia with her dog, Lucas. In a strong first-person narrative, Juana introduces herself, her likes (Brussels sprouts), and intense dislikes (her school uniform). Conflict arises when Juana is forced to learn “the English” at school, which she neither needs nor wants to do until given an incentive involving travel to the United States by her father. Spanish words and phrases are used throughout, but in a context that makes it easy for English-speaking readers to understand what they mean. What really distinguishes this book is the outstanding design and use of the author’s illustrations, which are perfectly integrated with Juana’s voice and storytelling style. Juana and Lucas is a delightful surprise, and introduces characters who readers will be looking forward to reading about in further installments. This book seems bound for glory at awards season, and deservedly so. SIEGAL, Ida. Emma Is on the Air: Big News! illus. by Karla Peña. Scholastic. 2015. pap. $4.99. ISBN 9780545686921. Gr 2-4 –Real-life reporter Siegal has made a splash with this new chapter book series based on her own home life (she is married to a Dominican man). Emma Perez is a part-Dominican girl who wants to be a famous TV news reporter. She enlists the help of her father, a print reporter, to find a story that people should know about. When her friend Javier finds a worm in his hamburger at school lunch, she knows she’s found a big scoop. Emma immediately starts interviewing witnesses—on cell phone camera—trying to figure out “whodunit.” Siegal has stated that she made her character Dominican because she realized there is a dearth of books with multicultural characters, and because her daughter is half-Dominican. Spanish words and phrases are sprinkled throughout the text with plenty of context. The story presents Emma as more of a detective than a reporter. This is an entertaining wish-fulfillment title with a role model for young Latinas and bicultural children.

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