Category Archives: Latin American

Numeralia by Jorge Luján, illustrated by Isol, translated by Susan Ouriou

NumeraliaAlphabet and counting books are understandably so predictable as to often be interchangeable in their sameness. ABCs and 123s are really immutable … or are they? To stand out in such a saturated genre is a rare, welcome occurrence – so don’t dare miss the ingenious, utterly unique Numeralia.

Yes, of course, you’ll find the numbers 0 through 10 here. But what you’ll remember most with each numeral is uncountable whimsy and surprising delight. Jorge Luján – an award-winning Mexico City-based author, poet, architect, musician (!) – provides the cleverly layered, uncommon ideas, which Isol – winner of the 2013 Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award (the world’s richest children’s book prize!) – magically, artfully renders on the page. Talk about dynamic duo!

Let’s take “2 is for the duckling who is not so ugly after all”: that purposefully singular ‘ugly duckling’ is actually a small child wearing a silly mask, standing at the front of a boat that gives him that shape similar to his curious aquatic companions; meanwhile the aviary reflections of two ducklings in the water create mirror images of the upside-down numeral 2.

The number 6 also gets reflective representation: “6 for musketeers alongside their reflections” – which makes six figures on the page, in addition to the 6ish promontory in the distance, and the six bubbles the swordfish leaves in his wake.

The best comes last with “10 for a student’s thoughts lost in daydreams”; the corresponding illustration you’ll have to carefully, gratefully explore on your own (no more spoilers!).

Go head, give into curiosity: consider Numeralia as an inspiring investment in your child’s imagination. Learning numbers was never quite this original.

Readers: Children

Published: 2006, 2014 (United States)

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Filed under ..Children/Picture Books, .Fiction, .Translation, Latin American, South American

A Handbook to Luck by Cristina García

Handbook to LuckTell me if you’ve heard this one before: a Cuban, an El Salvadorean, and an Iranian land on the page and spend decades trying to find their place in the world. Yes? Then, you must have read Cristina García‘s A Handbook to Luck. No? Then read Cristina Garcia’s A Handbook to Luck!

In 1968 Los Angeles, 9-year-old Enrique Florit’s wait for his widowed father’s career as a magician to take off seems to be finally over when Papi announces they’re Las Vegas-bound where he’ll be the warm-up act for Sammy Davis, Jr. Further south in San Salvador, Marta Claros, also just 9, has been forced out of school to sell used clothes to help her pregnant mother; she manages to sneak visits to her brother Evaristo who left the family and lives in a tree. Two years later, on the other side of the world in a Tehran garden, Leila Rezvani is annoyed at her mother who won’t stop flirting with her imported, sweating British horticulturist, even as she’s somewhat awed (then manipulated) by her dying older brother.

Over the next two decades, these three lives (with rare intrusions by the tree-dwelling fourth) will dovetail. Misguided Enrique will prove to be a math wiz who gets into MIT but finds himself unable to abandon his increasingly erratic, gambling father; both remain forever haunted by the accidental death of Enrique’s mother. Desperate Marta finally gets off the San Salvador streets by becoming a teenage bride but finds true contentment thousands of miles away with a married Korean immigrant whose manhood was damaged by seven months of torture. Privileged Leila with her Swiss diploma and her should-have-finished UCLA-degree will marry half a twin and lose herself over and over again. And runaway Evaristo will eventually climb down from his tree, detour through California, before climbing a remote mountain alone …

Cuban-born García – best known for her 1992 National Book Award finalist debut novel, Dreaming in Cuban – moves fluidly between viewpoints and dates, while changing gender, ethnicity, social status, backgrounds with ease. If you choose to stick the book in your ears, narrator Staci Snell effortlessly matches García’s pace, adjusting inflections and tones to voice each developing character. García deftly reveals details of her protagonists’ lives in limited parcels, making sure each chapter both hints at and holds back just enough to keep reading to the next, and next, and next. Magic and accident, running from and running to, entitlement and entrapment – life is about perspective and, as García’s Handbook attests, it’s also about luck.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2007

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, Carribbean American, Iranian, Latin American, Latino/a

I dreamt … A book about hope by Gabriela Olmos, translated by Elisa Amado

I dreamt ...Sometimes, it takes a village to create a book this magnificent. Award-winning author and publisher Gabriela Olmos gathered “[s]ome of Mexico’s best illustrators” who donated their art to create this stunning prayer for peace.

“I dreamt of pistols that shoot butterflies … and of drug lords who only sell soap bubbles.” For the past six years in her native Mexico, Olmos explains, “a vicious war against drugs has brought fear and insecurity into every child’s life.” But violence, alas, plagues our children all over the world … from bullying (the third leading cause of death among young people in the U.S.!) to growing gun violence (Chicago just last week!) to war (how many hot spots can you count today?).

Olmos inspires alternatives: “I dreamt that wars are always fought with flowers … and that soldiers prefer shadowboxing to shooting at each other.” Whimsically wishful, yes, but I wouldn’t be surprised if many of the world’s soldiers agreed. In Olmos’ safe new world, robbers would steal nightmares, while jokes would drive kidnappers far away.

With poetry and pictures, Olmos empowers children to choose strength and resilience, to “learn from city trees.” She channels those trees “who fight back and break open the sidewalks … and grow despite everything. And it is they who help us all to breathe” – especially after gasping too often at too many horrific headlines.

Need further motivation to buy now? All royalties go to the International Board on Books for Young People [IBBY] Children in Crisis Fund, “which supports bibliotherapy projects that use books and reading to help children who have lived through wars, civil conflicts and natural disasters to think and talk about their experiences.” Support the youngest survivors and grab a few copies to share … aren’t all our children worth the investment?

Readers: All

Published: 2012, 2013 (United States)

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Filed under ...Absolute Favorites, ..Adult Readers, ..Children/Picture Books, ..Middle Grade Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Nonfiction, .Translation, Latin American

Black Flower by Young-Ha Kim, translated by Charles La Shure

Black FlowerEarlier this year, I received an email from a Chinese Canadian author, May Q. Wong, inquiring about “a shipload of Koreans who sailed to Mexico to find a better life.” Clueless, I forwarded her request to a few of my scholar friends and colleagues … but ‘lo and behold, I actually had the answers (the fictionalized version, anyway) sitting on my shelves!

Black Flower, longlisted for the 2012 Man Asian Literary Prize, is the latest novel to arrive Stateside from Young-ha Kim, one of Korea’s most acclaimed contemporary writers. Kim creates identities, relationships, conflicts, disappointments, and hopes, to reclaim a nearly lost moment in transnational immigration history.

You could read Black Flower as fascinating historical record: 1,033 Koreans left the port of Jemulpo (today’s Incheon) in 1905 on the Ilford, a British merchant ship, and arrived (after two deaths, one birth) in Mexico’s Yucatán as indentured laborers to be parceled out to henequen plantations. The Koreans believed they were escaping a homeland in the midst of shifting powers and Japanese colonization; instead, they were sold into slave-like servitude. Abandoned by their faltering government, the Koreans has no choice but to stay … and survive any way they could. Within the Koreans’ experience, Kim also bears witness to local Mexican history, including the abuses of colonial Christianity, the mistreatment of the indigenous Mayans, and the Mexican Revolution, which eventually (surprisingly!) involves a small band of Korean nationals.

You could also decide that Black Flower is – as the cover proclaims in small print – “a novel,” and revel in the interrelated lives of the passengers. At the end of the grueling Ilford journey, the unintentioned immigrants emerge stripped of status, all equal slave-laborers in the eyes of their would-be masters. Kim breathes life into a diverse cast, including a set of star-crossed orphan and aristocrat lovers, a deserting officer who falls in love with the wrong boy, a priest who abandons his faith, a thief who becomes a voice of god, a last surviving son whose facility with languages grants him access to unquestioned debauchery. If you choose to go audible, Rupert Degas (who narrates many of Haruki Murakami‘s titles) is as clumsy with the Korean language as he is with the Japanese, but his vocal agility adds convincing, haunting layers to Kim’s prose.

In an interview accompanying the PR materials (with similar information included in the printed “Author’s Note” at title’s end), Kim explains that the genesis of Black Flower is rooted in a second-hand airplane conversation that seemed “too mythical,” and eventually led Kim to Mérida in Mexico’s Yucatán, then Tikal and Antigua in Guatemala, to research this “forgotten historical moment.” He named his resulting novel Black Flower because “[b]lack is a color created by combining all the other colors. Similarly, everything is mixed together in this novel – religion, race, status, and gender … But there is no such thing as a black flower; it exists only in the imagination. In the same way, the place that the characters in the novel hoped to go to is a utopia which does not really exist in reality.” With elliptical snapshots that move between place and perspectives, Kim navigates that proverbial fine line between truth and fiction; his Black Flower proves ever elusive and wholly intriguing.

Tidbits: For further reading, check out some of these links. Now I know why we were able to find decent Korean food in La Antigua Guatemala!

Readers: Adult

Published: 2003, 2012 (United States)

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, .Translation, Korean, Latin American

I See the Sun in Mexico | Veo el Sol en México by Dedie King, illustrated by Judith Inglese, translation by Julio Ortiz Manzo

I See the Sun in MexicoBoutique press Satya House Publications continues their around-the-world cultural tour in their bilingual I See the Sun series with a first Latin American stop. Young Luis excitedly prepares to join his Papa on the tourist excursion boat on which his father works as the cook. On his way to the pier after a favorite breakfast of eggs and tortilla as only his Mama can make, Luis stops by the local market to pick up fresh fruits and vegetables for his father.

Luis sets off into the Sea of Cortez on the good ship Don Jose, helping his father serve lunch, then assisting the tourists with masks and snorkels as they explore the vibrant seas. He swims, then later joins the guests on an afternoon hike on one of the many islands. The evening ends with another made-by-Papa delicious meal, with music provided by his father’s assistant Pablo. Once the guests are settled in their cabins, Luis lies in his father’s arms under sparkling stars: “The boat is like our own island floating between the two bowls of ocean and sky, one shimmering with life and the other with light.”

The book’s dynamic duo of author Dedie King and artist Judith Inglese explain in an afterword at adventure’s end that they “chose to place the story in La Paz because it is not totally dependent on tourism and has a vibrant middle-class Mexican population.” That said, “La Paz is an eco-tourism center of Baja and many citizens here work to preserve the pristine environment.” Luis and his young contemporaries are already part of a global village: they can navigate comfortably between both local and outside worlds, riding the pesero (the local mini-bus) and bargaining at the markets, while helping to provide a unique experience for the many tourists who arrive to enjoy the beckoning coastal town.

Care to join in? The Don Jose is part of real-life La Paz-based Baja Expeditions‘ fleet, touted as “the world’s leader in eco-adventures to Baja.” The almost-40-year old company gets a literal nod of approval at title’s end. Anchors aweigh … and who knows, you just might find Luis, Papa, and Pablo on board!

Readers: Children

Published: 2012

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Filed under ..Children/Picture Books, .Bilingual, .Fiction, .Translation, Latin American, Nonethnic-specific

Count Me In! A Parade of Mexican Folk Art Numbers in English and Spanish by Cynthia Weill, illustrated with ceramics by the Aguilar Sisters: Guillermina, Josefina, Irene, and Concepción

Come one, come all: the Guelaguetza festival is about to begin. Guelaguetza means ‘to share’ in the Zapotec language, and every July, the people of Oaxaca, Mexico gather to ‘guelaguetza’ their dancing, singing, and music. One man with a balloon announces the welcoming parade has begun. Three musicians pass by playing their instruments. Four colorful, intricately decorated giants follow. Six women with baskets dance, while eight more musicians delight. The happy onlookers are thrilled to join in.

Far more than a simple counting book (bilingual, too!), Count Me In is a celebration of the Oaxacan culture as captured by “Great Masters of Oaxacan Folk Art,” the Aguilar sisters – Guillermina, Josefina, Irene, and Concepcíon, who are ceramic artists recognized worldwide. Each number is represented by the corresponding number of unique, parading ceramic figures created by the renowned siblings – which have recently been acquired by Chicago’s Field Museum.

The literary/artistic collaboration is the result of peripatetic author and educator Cynthia Weill. Her first title, Ten Mice for Tet, co-authored with Pegi Deitz Shea, featured 16th-century traditional embroidery from Vietnam. A Fulbright Teacher Exchange for Mexico led her to discover Oaxacan crafts which inspired her to write ABeCedarios: Mexican Folk Art ABCs in Spanish & English, (2007), Opuestos: Mexican Folk Art Opposites in English and Spanish (2009), and Colores de la Vida: Mexican Folk Art Colors in Spanish and English (2011), all published by the fabulously indie Cinco Puntos Press.

Count makes a perfect bilingual quartet of Oaxacan art-infused titles, especially appropriate for the classroom. As Weill explains, each of her titles target three audiences: kiddie readers, folk art enthusiasts, and teachers. In addition to entertaining children, the indigenous arts and crafts which make the books so vibrant also provide all sorts of cultural learning opportunities. What’s not to love? Count me in, too!

Readers: Children

Published: 2012

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Filed under ..Children/Picture Books, .Fiction, Latin American, Latino/a, Nonethnic-specific

Migrant by Maxine Trottier, illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault

Here’s an immigration story that took me by total surprise: German-speaking Mennonites from Mexico who work as migrant laborers in Canada. To understand just how many levels of peripatetic displacement that involves, you have to read this fascinating (mega-award-winning!) book backwards.

“Canada and the United States were built by people who valued freedom and opportunity. That is part of the reason so many came to North America in search of a fresh beginning in spite of the challenges,” writes Maxine Trottier in the story’s afterword. Those opportunity seekers include seasonal laborers, also called migrants, who remain a controversial part of today’s North American labor force.

Among those migrants are Mennonites who left Canada in the 1920s and moved to Mexico: “There they hoped to farm, withdraw from the modern world and find religious freedom.” They kept their Canadian citizenship, which allowed them to return to Canada to work when their Mexican farms could not sustain them. That migration continues today … because “[t]heir farms in Mexico, while no longer successful enough to support them, are still their homes.”

Anna is her family’s youngest child. She “feels like a bird,” as her family travels north in the spring and back south every fall, “chasing the sun, following the warmth.” She wonders what a “stay in one place”-sort-of-life might be like, but she knows she’s more like a jack rabbit who makes homes in abandoned burrows just as her family moves into farmhouses “filled with the ghosts of last year’s workers.”

Too young for labor, she watches over her worker bee family. She sleeps curled like a kitten with her sisters, while her puppy-like brothers snooze in another room. Her large family endures the local stares, while Anna peeks through the apples in the grocery store filled with people and things she doesn’t understand. She imagines feeling the solidity of the trees around her, which stay grounded through the fall and snow, but when the geese fly away, “with them goes Anna … like a feather in the wind.”

Illustrator Isabelle Arsenault who also brought her whimsical magic to one of my favorites, Spork by Kyo Maclear, imbues Anna with innocent curiosity in her little red dress with her matching red cheeks. Moments of Anna’s imagination come vividly to life, as the geese sport various headscarves and hats just like her family, the giant jack rabbit bounds out the door with last year’s ghosts looking on, the kitty-sisters are sleepily dazzled by the moon and the stars, while the puppy-brothers lie sprawled every which way on a “blanket that barely covers them all.”

The final spread – especially touching – of the large departing family, some of them already off the page, captures Anna mid-air as she jumps from a tree swing in answer to a sister’s wave to go: Anna and her family, closely reassembled, begin their unified journey back home.

Readers: Children

Published: 2011

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Filed under ..Children/Picture Books, .Fiction, Canadian, Latin American

The Hummingbird’s Daughter by Luis Alberto Urrea

If I hadn’t had Luis Alberto Urrea himself read the majority of his novel to me via iPod, I would never have known the proper pronunciation of Parangarícutirimícuaro, not to mention a few choice insults! Good thing I also bought the book, because I wouldn’t have known how to reproduce such lyrical vocabulary!

Daughter is my fourth Urrea title, and my first novel by him. His Border Trilogy was so additive, I read them all in less than a week. This book was no different. When I didn’t have the headset on during my training runs, I made up some of the 18.5 audible hours with the actual book, especially when I was just too impatient to find out what happened next!

At the center of this magnificent tome is an Urrea relative: “TERESA URREA WAS A REAL PERSON,” writes Urrea in capitals in his “Author’s Note.” Although he grew up believing she was his aunt, he would later learn that Teresa’s father was the first cousin of Urrea’s great-grandfather. As epic as Teresa’s story is, so, too, is Urrea’s 20-year effort to recreate his legendary ancestor on the printed page.

Born Niña García Nona María Rebecca Chávez in Sinhaloa, Mexico during the last decades of the 19th century to a 14-year-old servant girl impregnated by the wealthy philandering rancher Don Tomás Urrea, Teresa renames herself after Saint Teresa, predicting that “‘I am going to be her.’” Abandoned by her mother, Teresa is raised first by her abusive maternal aunt, then saved by Huila, the revered midwife and potent healer.

As a teenager, Teresa is finally recognized by her father as his daughter, and she is duly trained in the ways of a proper young lady. When violence strikes Teresa’s young life, she reawakens with the power to heal. Her reputation grows as the “Santa de Cabora,” and as the pilgrims multiply seeking her wisdom and miracles, the nervous Mexican military accuses Teresa and Tomás of inciting seditious activities against the government.

Surrounding father and daughter at the story’s center is a sprawling cast of characters, both major and minor, from a self-immolating Indian teacher to a worm-infested stranger to a bee whisperer to a putrid half-dead young boy who arrives in the night … to a vengeful first wife, two fighting half-brothers, and a dream-travelling sweetheart.

When the novel ends after some 500 pages, Teresa is just embarking on the next major part of her life. History shows that she has more than a decade and a half of adventures left before her final departure … dare we hope that the story will continue? Six years have passed since Urrea published this installment. Let’s hope he won’t take another 14 to finish the conclusion …?

Readers: Adult

Published: 2005

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, Latin American, Latino/a

The Good Garden: How One Family Went from Hunger to Having Enough by Katie Smith Milway, illustrated by Sylvie Daigneault

María Luz’s family is in trouble. Their land in the hills of Honduras, which provides them with the corn and beans they need to live, has “lost its goodness.” In order for the family to survive, María Luz’s father must leave home and find work. He must make enough money to pay for next season’s seeds; otherwise, the family will be at the mercy of the coyote, the grain buyer who also makes exorbitant loans and then takes the land when poor farmers cannot make payments. While he is gone, Papa entrusts his daughter to “care for our land,” and plant the winter crops.

Three months have passed, and María Luz returns to school … and meets the new teacher. Don Pedro Morales knows quite a bit about the land, about how to “feed the soil and make it good again.” With his guidance, villagers learn  about composting to renew the soil, terracing to make flat surfaces that will keep plants from washing downhill, and planting marigolds – “the smiles of the soil” – as natural pest repellents.

By the time her father finally returns, María Luz’s garden is thriving. As her radishes grow, the coyotes come calling, offering too-low prices for her harvest. Again, Don Pedro intervenes, encouraging the villagers to go to the markets themselves to sell their bounty. Again, the families profit from their sales, but also save by buying their seeds directly from the merchants. With the help of one man’s vision, María Luz’s family and their fellow villagers break the cycle of abusive dependence on the coyotes.

Happy beginnings are that much more joyful when they turn out to be true stories. María Luz’s family is based on a real family that avoided a food crisis with the assistance of the real-life Don Pedro Morelos, a Honduran teacher named Don Elías Sanchez. For decades, Don Elías helped tens of thousands of families like María Luz’s to reclaim the land; he also taught poor farmers to invest in medicines and education for their children. Although he passed away in 2000, his legacy continues, led by Honduran agronomist Milton Flores.

Author Katie Smith Milway writes from personal experience, having coordinated community development programs in Latin American and Africa. Illustrator Sylvie Daigneault brings Milway’s vision to gorgeous life on overflowing full-page panels filled with uncertain fears, hopeful activity, and future promise.

The Good Garden is both visual testimony as well as a life-affirming story of humanity. Helping one family at a time can save a whole village and far beyond … that one action can and will multiply the bounty of the good garden again and again. And true stories like this prove that there’s hope yet for our human race …

Readers: Children, Middle Grade

Published: 2010

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Filed under ..Children/Picture Books, ..Middle Grade Readers, .Nonfiction, Latin American

Colibrí by Ann Cameron

Even though “Uncle” calls her Rosa Garcia, Tzunun Chumil knows her real Mayan name, and that in Spanish, Tzunun is ‘colibrí,’ which means “hummingbird.” She knows somewhere that she has a mother and father that once loved her very much, that she lived a happy life filled with colorful joy.

Now at 12, Tzunun wanders from village to village, often leading “Uncle” by a stick as he pretends to be blind, misleading the unsuspecting into giving him coins. Her peripatetic existence is lonely, her relationship with “Uncle” strained and uncertain, but “Uncle” is convinced that she will lead him to a great treasure one day so he will not let her go.

Tired of waiting for riches, “Uncle” seeks a fortune teller who not only confirms that Tzunun will guide him to wealth, but more importantly, shows Tzunun a glimpse of the love and nurturing for which she has been hungering for some eight years. In search of his easy life, “Uncle” drags Tzunun to a big city where his longtime friend Raimundo has a plan … and Tzunun has no choice but to participate.

Author Ann Cameron, a longtime resident of Guatemala, clearly writes with cultural sensitivity and resonating knowledge. To hear actress Jacqueline Kim narrate the audible version of Cameron’s memorable novel proves to be a hypnotic, almost addictive experience. Her controlled cadence hauntingly reveals Cameron’s unflinching glimpses into Guatemala’s troubled history – of massacres, colonialism, the kidnapping of young children for international adoption – presented just right for younger readers.

Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult

Published: 2005

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Filed under ..Middle Grade Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, Latin American