adventureswiththepooh

An honest take on life and parenthood

Two Gems and a Turkey

on September 12, 2013

The Pooh and I love to read together. I’ve been reading to her since she was a tiny baby, and we love snuggling up together to read a new book or re-read an old favorite. Every night after her bath, we rest our heads on the pillows in her big girl bed and read at least one book before I turn out the light.

Especially since I am Latina, I am always on the lookout for children’s books that are either in Spanish, or are culturally relevant. So far, my efforts are paying off, as the Pooh loves all things Latin.

Here, I would like to share some of my recent discoveries of children’s books with Latino themes. Two of these, Martin de Porres and Dona Flor, are wonderful books that are now part of our home library. The third, Skippyjon Jones in the Doghouse, is relegated to a place where no one will ever find it.

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1)      Martin de Porres: The Rose in the Desert by Gary D. Schmidt. I found this book at a book fair in Providence last year. Beautifully written and illustrated, it tells the story of a Peruvian saint named Martin de Porres, who was born in Lima as the illegitimate son of a Spanish nobleman and an enslaved woman of African ancestry. Growing up as a mixed raced boy in extreme poverty, Martin shows grace and humility in spite of the extreme social and economic stratification of colonial Peru. He apprentices as a surgeon in Ecuador when he is a young man, and returns to Lima. He eventually becomes a priest and a renowned healer, famed for his kindness and medical abilities with both people and animals.  Sort of a black St. Francis of Assisi, if you will.

The author of this book uses clear and expressive language that borders on poetry, making the book a pleasure to read out loud or on your own. He skillfully mentions difficult topics such as illegitimacy, racism, and violence without scaring children or resorting to melodrama. A few Spanish words are sprinkled in here and there, but even if a non-Spanish speaker were to stumble over a word like cirujano (surgeon), the context makes it easy to understand the meaning.

The illustrations that accompany the text are brilliantly colored in warm, bright tones, and remind me of stained glass. Martin’s stunning mother resembles a black Madonna, and the pictures of Martin, his sister, Martin’s fellow priests, and animals are all visual delights. The illustrations move as quickly and brilliantly as the text in this book, and it is almost a disappointment when the book ends.

The Pooh loves reading about her kind friend Martin, and we usually have to read the book over at least once. Martin presents a positive image of a black Latino, which is important to me in a society that often presents frightening or two-dimensional images of black men. Also, I enjoy pointing out Lima, Peru on the map to the Pooh. Especially since she will be ready for Paddington before we know it.

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2)      Dona Flor by Pat Mora is set in the American Southwest, and is written in the delightful tradition of an American tall tale. Dona Flor is a big-hearted giant, who befriends and looks out for everyone in her village, or pueblo. She is exposed to a bit of teasing for her size while she is growing up, but the teasing quickly abates when children realize how loving and sweet she is. Dona Flor is a respected and beloved member of the community with a gentle sense of humor.  She grows enormous flowers in her garden, wakes villagers with the sound of her hands patting tortillas in the morning, and speaks the language of all animals, who are also her friends. When villagers are terrorized by a roaming mountain lion, Dona Flor sets out to find the wild animal and restore peace to the pueblo.

This book is funny and over-the-top in a way that makes you softly smile to yourself as you read it out loud to your child. Dona Flor is both strong and kind, and unconditionally generous. You can’t help but love her.  Her strong but mystical connection to nature and the animal world is a familiar theme in Latin culture, and it is an essential element of this story.

This book uses far more Spanish than Martin de Porres. However, these words are simpler and very accessible to a non-Spanish speaker (e.g., tortilla, pueblo). For Spanish speakers or even for people who know a smattering of Spanish, it is easily understandable. The book is rather long and has much more detail than Martin de Porres, but it is wonderfully written with a warm sense of humor. The Pooh asks regularly to read about the naughty “gato” and giggles all the way through.

The illustrations are graceful with clean lines in pencil and watercolor, and present rounded figures reminiscent of the Colombian artist Botero. Even the scary mountain lion is painted in soft blacks. Dona Flor is a classically pretty Latina, with brown skin, a broad smile, and high cheekbones. In her crisp cotton blouse and simple skirt, she offers an alternative idea of beauty and character to children inundated with Disney princesses. The Pooh and I originally borrowed this book from the library, and ended up liking it so much that we decided add it to our own bookshelf.

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3)      Skippyjon Jones in the Doghouse by Judy Schachner. This unfortunate book has many fans on Amazon, for reasons unfathomable to me. (The author must have lots of friends willing to post five star reviews there).  It is one of a popular series of books on Skippyjon Jones which have appeared on the NYTimes Bestseller List. The series is also promoted in Kohl’s department stores, with proceeds from sales going to the Kohl’s Cares Foundation.

Here is the story line: A little boy cat, named Skippyjon Jones, thinks he is a Mexican Chihuahua. He is the mischievous kitten of his litter, and he also has a very active imagination. After drawing on the walls, he mouths off to his mother and ends up in a time-out in his bedroom. He sings a song in Spanglish, then disappears into the closet and enters a wild world of Chihuahua dogs. The book ends when he wakes up in his room, wrapped up in a blanket.

The author is also the illustrator of the book, and she has a knack with colorful, lively illustrations that convey the impishness of Skippyjon Jones. She also enjoys playing with language, and clearly intended this book to be read out loud to children.

However, the wordplay is distracting, and the story is incredibly hard to follow. I had to read it several times to unravel the simple plot.

Most distressing, however, is the mangled use of Spanish and the negative stereotypes of Mexicans that this book portrays. Skippyjon Jones and his Chihuahua buddies talk like Taco Bell dogs high on doggie treats. It’s a white person’s parody of Mexicans trying to speak English, and it is cringe-worthy.  It also subtly perpetuates negative stereotypes. For example, when Skippyjon Jones goes into his closet and arrives in the world of Chihuahuas, he arrives at a shack chock full of Chihuahuas and mayhem. Not a house – a shack. Moreover, the Chihuahuas act like gang members, surrounding him as they taunt and try to intimidate him.

Here is a taste of the ridiculousness in the pages of this book (it’s just so bad, but I will share it anyway):

‘This made the poochitos feel so good that they all began to dance and sing:

“First you turn the music way up loud,

Then you nod your head up and down

And wag your loco tail, back and forth,

To the chimichanga rumba

And the cha-cha-cha!”

“Stop eet! You are keel-ing me, dudes!” said Skippito.

‘“Enough of the monkey beez-ness,” Said Poquito Tito as he pulled Skippito outside and over to a giant tortilla.

“Lie down and close your eyes,” ordered Poquito Tito. “Porque?” asked Skippito nervously.

“Because, dude,” said Poquito Tito, “at five o’clock Abuelo Crispito will spill the frijoles. “

“Not the beans again,” said Skippito.

At cinco bells, a Chihuahua as old as Montezuma popped out of the holey boulder and “Pt-oo-ey!” brought forth three beans. “It’s a three-beaner,” declared the perritos. Then they rolled Skippito into a three-bean burrito. “Now we are sure to have good luck.”’

UGHHHHHHH.

The author doesn’t seem to be aware that “beaner” is a racial slur, nor does her editor at Dutton Children’s Books, shockingly enough. In case you did not know, “beaner” is a derogatory term for a Mexican who has immigrated to the United States.

While many people use Spanglish, the Spanglish in the book is pushed beyond its normal colloquial use in Mexican-American or Chicano communities. In the hands of this author, Spanglish becomes a very off-putting joke at the expense of a population that deals with enough racism in this country as it is. And to give credit where credit is due, at least the Taco Bell dog uses correct Spanish grammar.

There is just no way I am going to read this book to my smart, impressionable daughter who repeats everything, especially when there are other books out there that use correct Spanish and portray positive images of Latinos. No, gracias. Next book, please.

Unfortunately, there are many non-Latinos families out there reading this book to their kids and further engendering these strange and negative stereotypes, which just gives me another wave of queasiness.

I don’t believe that the author set out to be insulting with this book. She dedicates the book to a school with a few words of Spanish, and obviously feels comfortable enough with the culture to write this series. However, before she writes another Skippyjon Jones tale, she and her editors need to do some serious diversity training. Ya basta with this obnoxious little dog and his offensive stories.

So there you have it, folks. Two gems and a turkey. Now, back to the library for more fun.

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