Jul 31, 2010

Asian American Literature

Say, Allen. 1999. Tea with Milk. Houghton Mifflin. ISBN: 978-0395904954

After growing up in San Francisco, May, a Japanese American feels out of place when her family moves back to Japan.

Critical Analysis:
With this story, Allen Say brings us the beautiful tale of how his parents met and fell in love. Masako, whose American name is May, was born and raised in San Francisco, California. Her parents are both from Japan and after May graduates high school, her dreams of going to an American college are diminished. May’s parents are homesick and move the whole family to Japan. May immediately feels uncomfortable in Japan. Her kimono is too tight, everyone calls her by her Japanese name Masako, and she misses the taste of pancakes and spaghetti. Worst of all, May has to repeat high school because she does not know how to speak, write or read Japanese. May feels like a “Gaijin” (a foreigner) although she looks like everyone else -- black hair and dark eyes. Her parents relish in the culture and traditions of the village, but this only pushes May further away. She is unable to relate to her parents homeland. When May’s mother tells her she should be a “proper Japanese lady” with a husband from a good family, May puts on her bright red dress from California and rides a train to Osaka. Although people stare at her in her colorful dress, she feels better. There are large buildings, busy people, and noise! She loves it and immediately secures a job as an elevator girl in a big department store. One day, May overhears people speaking English and she introduces herself to them. May asks if she can be of any assistance to the family. The family is grateful that May can show them the items they came to buy. The department store manager is elated and May has found herself a new job. She messages home that she has found work and won not return to the small village. Soon after, May meets a young Japanese man named Joseph. Joseph went to an English school, and they quickly learn they have a lot in common. They speak in English, talk about visiting America, and both drink tea with milk and sugar. One evening, Joseph comes with bad news. Joseph is moving and wants May to go with him. Joseph tells May, “…home isn’t a place or a building that’s readymade and waiting for you, in America or anywhere else.” Joseph tells May they can make a life together, wherever they are.

Say’s illustrations convey May’s loneliness perfectly and also give evidence to several cultural markers. A painting of May in her kimono is especially touching, and I found myself staring at it for quite awhile. May’s posture is slouched and low, almost as much as her frown. May appears to fit in perfectly; she wears a kimono, drinks tea, and sits modestly on the floor, but May looks unhappy. On the next page we find May alone in the school yard. She stares at the ground with her book in her hand, but something keeps her from going inside. Page after page we find May donning the same frown. She is often seen staring right at the reader with blank, unfeeling eyes. Everything changes when May travels to the city and meets Joseph. Here, her eyes smile and her face lights up. Tea with Milk is a touching story of how two people feel like foreigners in a place that should feel like home. Recommended for ages 5 and up.

Riverbank Review Book of Distinction, 2000
Bulletin Blue Ribbon, 1999
School Library Journal Best Book, 1999
ALA Notable Book, 2000

“Through choice words and scrupulously choreographed paintings, Say's story communicates both the heart's yearning for individuality and freedom and how love and friendship can bridge cultural chasms.” Publisher’s Weekly

“The pages are filled with detailed drawings featuring Japanese architecture and clothing, and because of the artist's mastery at drawing figures, the people come to life as authentic and sympathetic characters. This is a thoughtful and poignant book that will appeal to a wide range of readers, particularly our nation's many immigrants who grapple with some of the same challenges as May and Joseph, including feeling at home in a place that is not their own.” School Library Journal

Say, Allen. 1993. Grandfather’s Journey. Houghton Mifflin. ISBN: 978-0547076805

Say, Allen. 2009. Erika-San. Houghton Mifflin. ISBN: 978-0618889334

Lin, Grace. 2006. Year of the Dog. Little, Brown Books for Young Readers. ISBN: 9780316060004

Grace Lin, a Taiwan American, sets out to discover her true self with a little help from the Chinese Lunar Calendar.

Critical Analysis:
Grace Lin lives in a constant whirling of East and West. Her parents are Taiwanese, but often labeled Chinese by others in the community because they celebrate Chinese holidays. Grace’s parents only speak English in the home, but they speak Taiwanese with relatives. Grace isn’t even her real name; it’s her “American” name that her parents gave her. Her real name is Pacy. The story begins on Chinese New Year, and Grace and her family are preparing to welcome a new year. They set out special Chinese candy (and M&M’s) on a polished silver tray, and their mother makes food that will bring good luck and fortune. With all the festivities, Grace begins to think she is not lucky or fortunate. She worries that she does not have any talent and has no idea what she wants to be when she grows up. Her mother says that it is the Year of the Dog and a good year to “find yourself” because dogs are faithful friends -- honest and sincere. Grace instantly knows that this is the year she will discover who she really is! Surely she is good at something, she just needs to find out what. Several days later there is a new girl at school, Melody. Melody is also a Chinese American. Grace has many friends in school, but until Melody arrived, no one looked like her. Soon, they become best friends. They like the same boys, like the same food (even though her mother makes noodles without oil), and they celebrate the same holidays and traditions. Grace does not feel like she sticks out like a sore thumb having Melody at school. Near the holidays, Grace’s teacher informs the class that they will all be writing their own books for a national writing contest. At first this excites Grace, but soon she realizes she has nothing unique to talk about. She worries aloud, “…finding a book idea was like finding myself. And I wasn’t having much luck with either.” Grace and Melody make a trip to the school library and asked for a “Chinese book” for inspiration. The only book that came remotely close was the Five Chinese Brothers picture book. Grace couldn’t identify with the characters. The brothers had ponytails and she didn’t know any Chinese boys who wore their hair that long. Grace exclaims, “I wanted a real Chinese person book. One with people like us - Chinese Americans.” This inspires Grace to write her own book about her experiences as an Asian American. Will her book win the grand prize, and bring her fame and fortune?

What makes Year of the Dog an especially good Asian American book for children, are the interwoven stories told by Grace’s mother. Although the imbedded stories seem a bit forced at times, they have value. These one-page stories usually have a value lesson attached, but also give the reader a glimpse into the life of a Taiwanese individual. For example, Grace stays up all night worrying about her special talent and is worried about falling asleep in school. Grace’s mother jumps in and tells a quick story of how she would have to stand outside in the hot sun during assemblies. Grace’s mother says, “I stood at the very back, lost in the ocean of black heads.” The assembly speeches were so long that Grace’s mother fell asleep - standing up! The teacher’s were angry and she received bad marks for the day. Grace’s mother ends her story saying, “I could fall asleep anywhere….I was very talented.” Although this is not exactly the talent that Grace had in mind, the story was something with which she could identify. Flashbacks from Grace’s mother are usually paired with a small pencil drawing in the margin. These crude black and white illustrations add to the comical relief, but do not win any style points.

In her author’s note at the end, Grace Lin explains her problems identifying with her predominately Caucasian community. She explains that it was not “gloomy and miserable,” but different. She stood out, and she wished she had a book with which she could identify. These are the reasons why she wrote Year of the Dog and its sequel, Year of the Rat. Recommended for ages 8 and up.

Fall Publisher's Pick, 2006
Starred Booklist Review
ALA Children's Notable, 2006
National Parenting Publications Awards (NAPPA) GOLD Winner, 2006
Texas Bluebonnet Award Masterlist, 2007-2008
Nene Awards Recommended List, 2007
Cochecho Readers' Award List, 2007
NYPL 100 Titles for Reading and Sharing, 2006
Kirkus Best Early Chapter Books 2006
2006 Booklist Editors' Choice for Middle Readers, 2006
Cooperative Children's Book Center Choice, 2007
Boston Authors Club Recommended Book
Great Lakes Great Books Award nominee, 2007-2008
North Carolina Children's Book Award nominee, 2007-2008
West Virginia Children's Book Award nominee, 2007-2008
Beverly Cleary Children's Choice Award (OR) nominee, 2009
Pacific Northwest Young Readers Choice Award (WA, OR, ID)nominee, 2009

“Lin, best known for her picture books, here offers up a charming first novel, an autobiographical tale of an Asian-American girl's sweet and funny insights on family, identity and friendship.” Publisher’s Weekly

“Lin does a remarkable job capturing the soul and the spirit of books like those of Hayward or Maud Hart Lovelace, reimagining them through the lens of her own story, and transforming their special qualities into something new for today's young readers.” Booklist

Lin, Grace. 2008. Year of the Rat. Little, Brown Books for Young Readers. 9780316033619
Lin, Grace. 2009. Where the Mountain Meets the Moon. Little, Brown Books for Young Readers. 978-0316114271

Heo, Yumi. 2009. Ten Days and Nine Nights: an Adoption Story. Schwartz & Wade. ISBN: 978-0375847189

A young girl counts down the days until her newly adopted baby sister arrives from Korea.

Critical Analysis:
Ten Days and Nine Nights is told from the first person perspective of a young girl anxiously anticipating the arrival of her newly adopted baby sister. Every day the young girl visits the calendar and marks off the day with a big red X. As the young girl counts down the days - and nights - her mother makes the long journey to Korea. Soon, there are no days and no nights left, and the big day is finally here! The young girl and her father go to the airport and pick up her new baby sister.

In my experience, children’s literature about the arrival of a new sibling deal with jealousy and feelings of abandonment. Heo gives us a simple story about a girl excited to meet her new sister. There are no undertones of resentment or worries of being pushed to the side and forgotten. The little girl only conveys pure joy for her new family member. Each day she counts down the days with excitement, “I have four days and three nights.” The countdown pages are followed with double-paged illustrations of the young girl’s mother traveling or filling out adoption papers. These illustrations provide no dialogue (add to the simplicity), but the airplane trips and adoption sign in a busy hallway provide all of the necessary clues.

Although we are not directly told that this family lives in America, there are yet again, clues. The young girls’ calendar is in English, the dinner table is set with forks and spoons instead of chopsticks and a multitude of small bowls that are typical of a traditional Korean meal. Also, the young girls’ best friend, Molly, is light haired and light skinned, as well as the doll that the young girl pretends to feed. One last clue, that may also be an unnecessary cultural stereotype, is the illustration of the young girls’ father closing his dry cleaning store called Kose Cleaning. Perhaps this is an autobiographical story and Heo has a family member who owns a dry cleaning store…perhaps not. The author’s note explains that Heo was born in Korea, and having “adopted the United States as my home,” resides in New York City. She also writes that she has several friends who adopted from her home country and in turn, led her to create a story especially for them and their new family. Recommended for ages 3 and up.

Cooperative Children's Book Center Choices Winner, 2010
Parents Choice Award - Picture Book, Silver Honor

“Most books about waiting for the arrival of an adoptive baby are aimed at older children and delve into negative feelings about a new sibling. This one is a worthwhile addition to most collections.” School Library Journal

“Heo’s stylized artwork fills the pages with family warmth in this welcome and endearing addition to adoption books. The calendar device is exactly childlike, as is the girl’s first-person voice.” Booklist

“Heo (The Green Frogs) writes as if the baby's arrival will be unambiguously joyous, and children who read this book will feel this way, too.” Publisher’s Weekly

Friedman, Darlene. 2009. Star of the Week: A Story of Love, Adoption, and Brownies with Sprinkles. Harper Collins. ISBN: 978-0061141362

Parr, Todd. 2007. We Belong Together: A Book about Adoption and Families. Little, Brown Books for Young Readers. ISBN: 978-0316016681

Jul 19, 2010

Native American Literature

Bruchac, Joseph. 1997. Many Nations: An Alphabet of Native America. Troll Communications. ISBN 978-0816743896.

An alphabet picture book featuring Native American Indians.

Critical Analysis:
From “Anishanabe artists making birch bark bowls” to “Zuni elders saying prayers for the day that is done,” Bruchac presents an alphabet picture book featuring traditional Native Americans in their daily lives. Each letter of the alphabet is represented by a Nation’s people or animal. Text is sparse (usually less than 8 words per page), but the full-page illustrations from Robert F. Goetzl pick up where the words leave off. Iroquois planting trees of peace, Klallam carvers, and Shinnecock dancers grace the pages. There are women, men, children, fathers and mothers representing a variety of Nations. Not every page depicts the same type of Native American. Men are wearing breechcloths (a long rectangular piece of hide or cloth tucked over a belt) or leather leggings, women wear tear dresses or shawls, and children peek out of papooses. Skin tones and hair styles also vary. Men have long or short hair, women wear their hair down or braided. No person looks exactly alike. Bruchac and Goetzl did a good job of featuring many different kinds of Native people. Scenery, time of year and landscape also differ from page to page. For example, Micmac hunters trek in the snow and Lummi women gather clams in the sea. Herders, gatherers, hunters, fisherman, and farmers are all illustrated. It would have been impossible for Bruchac and Goetzl to include every Nation or tribe. However, the two did a good job of choosing Natives that represent different parts of the country.

My one complaint is the inclusion of two animals, the eagle and the fox. The animal’s placement can easily be justified, but there was no explanation of how they fit in. Which tribe? Does the eagle or fox have special meaning to a particular Nation? Does the reader have to assume that all animals are sacred or revered to the Native Americans?

Bruchac includs an author note where he states the purpose of the book, the regions that are represented, and encourages for readers to respect and learn more about the original Nations to America. A pronunciation guide and additional resources would have also been a welcome addition. Recommended for ages 3 and up.

International Reading Association Teacher's Choice Award

“The pictures tell much more than the text and they demonstrate the wide diversity among the native peoples of North America.” Children’s Literature

“The stated purpose of this project is to exemplify the diversity of Native nations, both past and present. This intention is beautifully carried out, but leads to unfortunate, yet probable confusion.” School Library Journal

Shoulders, Michael & Debbie. 2006. D Is for Drum: A Native American Alphabet. Sleeping Bear Press. ISBN: 978-1585362745

Red Hawk, Richard D. 1998. A, B, C's: The American Indian Way. Sierra Oaks Publishing Company. ISBN: 978-0940113152

Have children create their ABC book using items that are important to them and their heritage.

Leitich Smith, Cynthia. 2002. Indian Shoes. Harper Collins. ISBN: 978-0060295318

Six contemporary short stories of a Seminole-Cherokee boy named Ray and his Grampa Halfmoon.

Critical Analysis:
Ray is a teenage Seminole-Cherokee boy being raised by his Grampa Halfmoon in Chicago, IL. By reading the six vignettes, it is evident that the two have a very close relationship. The reader is never told the circumstances that led to Grampa Halfmoon’s main guardianship role, but we quickly realize the deep, loving, and respectful relationship they share. Ray and Grampa Halfmoon are eager to please each other, and the two solve a few of life’s little problems. In one story, Grampa Halfmoon lends Ray his pants after the tux shop neglects to deliver the bottom half of Ray’s special attire at a wedding where he is to be the ring-bearer. Grampa adorns a lace tablecloth and peeks through the doors as Ray walks down the aisle with the wedding rings in his pocket. In another story, Grampa gives Ray a very disastrous hair cut the day of a big baseball game. Grampa’s solution involves hair dye that incorporates the team’s colors. Ray is embarrassed of his hair at the game, but the heat proves too much - he has to remove his hat. The crowd goes wild with support over Ray’s orange and purple do. When Ray goes to give his Grampa a thumbs-up in approval, he can nott believe his eyes! Grampa’s hair is decorated in the same neon colors as Ray’s. Grampa Halfmoon and Ray always appear as a team and two peas in a pod. They never argue or squabble when something goes wrong and they share in their (small) misery and joy. The two men put their heads together and always come up with unique, often humorous, solutions to life’s small issues.

Throughout each story, Ray mentions how much he misses his aunts and uncles in Oklahoma. He compares the lakes in Illinois to the lakes in Oklahoma. He also knows how much his Grampa misses his family and in the “Indian Shoes” story, Ray acquires, after a lot of bargaining, a pair of old moccasins. Ray and Grampa miss Oklahoma, but they also know that they are happy, and lucky, to have each other.

Grampa Halfmoon mentions Ray’s father in a few stories. In the “Don’t Forget the Pants!” story, Grampa tells Ray “You look like your Daddy did back when he got married. Except shorter, don’t you know?” It is a sweet moment paired with a pencil drawing of Grampa adjusting Ray’s belt. Another touching moment involving the memory of Ray’s father was during the “Night Fishing” story. Grampa tells Ray, “I used to take your Daddy fishing like this. Back when he was your age. I can still feel ‘im here, now and again.” Ray agreed and the two fished quietly under the stars. Again, this moment is paired with a pencil drawing of Ray and Grampa fishing under the moonlight.

Indian Shoes takes a peak into the lives of two contemporary Native Americans living in a big city, and is a good representation of the modern day Native American. The two tackle life’s ups and down with humor, understanding and respect. Language and dress fall in line with other recent juvenile realistic fiction reads. They experience the same issues that the average American may face. Indian Shoes is a refreshing look at a mixed-blood boy and his special relationship with his grandfather. Recommended for ages 8 and up.

Notable Children's Trade Book in the Field of Social Studies (NCSS/CBC)
Planet Esme's Don't-Miss List, 2002
Finalist, Friends of the Austin Public Library Award/Texas Institute of Letters
Best Children's Books of the Year, Bank Street College of Education, 2003
Cooperative Children's Book Center, 2003
NEA Native American Book List
Chicago Public Schools Fourth Grade Recommended Reading, 2003
Featured title, Texas Book Festival
Children's Crown Award List, 2004-2005
Featured title, Read On, Wisconsin

“Ray Halfmoon, a Seminole-Cherokee boy living with his grandfather in Chicago, is at the center of Smith's (Rain Is Not My Indian Name) slim collection of six tales. Though the author affectingly portrays the strong bond between grandson and grandfather, the narrative bogs down with flowery or overwritten passages.” Publishers Weekly

“Smith adds her voice to the precious few authors portraying realistic contemporary life for Indian children. Although she tells little of his background, the author uses six vignette chapters to introduce Ray, an affable mixed-blood Cherokee-Seminole boy living in Chicago with his Grampa Halfmoon”….” Shoes is a good book for any elementary-aged reluctant reader, and a necessity for indigenous children everywhere.” School Library Journal

“"A very pleasing first-chapter book from its funny and tender opening salvo to its heartwarming closer. An excellent choice for younger readers." Kirkus Reviews

Leitich Smith, Cynthia. 2001. Rain Is Not My Indian Name. Harper Collins. ISBN: 978-0688173975.

Erdrich, Louise. 2002. The Birchbark House. Hyperion Books. ISBN: 978-0786814541

Erdrich, Lise, 2002. Bears Make Rock Soup: And Other Stories. Children’s Book Press. ISBN: 978-0892391721

A collection of short stories portraying the unique relationship between Native Americans and animals.

Critical Analysis:
Erdrich, a Ojibwa tribal member, presents fourteen short stories demonstrating the unique and magical relationship between the Plains People and animals, such as the bear, deer, moose, and crow. “Black Bear Sleeping in a Tree” portrays a tired bear sleeping in a crow’s nest. The People (Natives) hear Crow squawking and come to see what the commotion is about. The bear will not leave the crow’s nest under any circumstances. The women bring out a big bowl of berry soup. This wakes the bear and he finally joins the others. In a different story, the bears aid the People in a great time of need. The “Bears Return the Lost Children” story shows the bears as heroes. After two children wander off in the snow, the People begin to worry when snow falls and darkness comes. The bears are able to find the children before the “spotted ghosts could take them.” The bears grabbed the children and carried them safely home. Confused? Me too!

Just a few stories in, I know that this compilation of stories is way far out in left field. I asked the questions, “Why?” and “What?” at the end of every tale. In the “Bears Return the Lost Children” story we are told that bears can sometimes “roam the edge of the spirit world.” This is how the bears see the ghosts coming for the children. Obviously, the ghosts represent Death, but the reader gets no explanation of why this would be possible. Do all animals walk a line between spiritual and earthly worlds? In a separate story, “Bears Make Rock Soup”, we are told by the women, “Rocks are the bones of the earth” and “They hold mysterious life.” Two sentences later, the bears make rock soup. Again, why? Is this a very poor attempt to portray Native Americans and animals as spiritual beings? If so, what is the meaning of bears making rock soup?

The stories go on and confusion mounts. Moose cry and deer spirits are trapped on Earth because hunters hunted too much. Birds torment panthers by laughing them into exhaustion, and Canadian geese have “strong medicine,” although we are not told what kind or for what purpose. These stories are too high-fantasy to hold cultural value in my opinion. The wild antics and actions of the animals go without any explanation. The reader is continually asking questions after each story. Young readers may be too overwhelmed with the mythical and fantasy elements of each story. Teachers and parents will have a hard time explaining why bears see ghosts and deer spirits are trapped on Earth.

The only saving grace to this picture book is the illustrations by Fifield, an Oneida tribal member. During the Introduction, we are told by the author that the paintings were first and the text followed. This makes perfect sense! The illustrations were absolutely beautiful. They seemed to be the only culturally authentic aspect of the book. The People have a variety of skin tones and the scenery is stunning. The “Broken-Winged Dance of the Loon Clan Women” is especially exceptional. The black and white costumes of the women contrast brilliantly with the muted blues and greens of the marsh and the browns of the hills in the background. The illustrations could easily stand alone. The stories do not measure up. Appropriate for ages 5 and up.

Minnesota Book Award (Multicultural Category), 2003

“. . . Fifield's watercolors, in vabrant earth tones, cover half or two-thirds of each wide spread. Her piecework-like compositions solidly straddle the line between realism and imagination. . .." Kirkus Reviews

“The stylized watercolors carry the narratives, which are ever-so-slightly dull. Lessons are small and obvious; the human-animal connection can be strained, but there is a low-keyed gentleness of spirit…” School Library Journal

Erdrich, Lise. 2003. Sacagawea. Lerner Publishing Group. ISBN: 978-0876146460

Jul 9, 2010

Hispanic, Latino(a) Literature

Mora, Pat. 2009. Book Fiesta!: Celebrate Children's Day/Book Day; Celebremos El dia de los Ninos /El dia de los Libros. Rayo; Bilingual edition. ISBN: 978-0061288777

Children and families celebrate Children’s Day/Book Day by reading all over the world.

Critical Analysis:
Book Fiesta takes the reader all over the world as families and libraries celebrate Children’s Day/Book Day. We visit the desert, the ocean, and everywhere in between. Children are seen reading to their friends, their pets, and even some unlikely animals. People are reading in cars, trains, planes, and even in a submarine. A book is always a good companion anywhere, anytime.

Book Fiesta is a bilingual picture book that celebrates Children’s Day/Book Day. The author, Pat Mora, created a day especially for children that celebrate literacy and language. In 1997, the first Children’s Day/Book Day was held in cities across the nation. Today the tradition is strong and more libraries, schools, and communities observe this day. Book Fiesta shows the simple and pure joy of reading. Children and adults of all different shades and sizes are portrayed reading a book they enjoy. We visit all different regions of the world and see a multitude of animals joining in the fun. Children will be able to recognize themselves in the story and possibly even see a house or region that is similar to their own.

Each page is paired with a Spanish translation. The dedication page and book jacket are presented in both English and Spanish. Signs celebrating Children’s Day/Book Day are also in both languages. There isn’t one part of this book that isn’t represented by both languages. Mora also takes the time to include people of all walks of life (young, old, people with disabilities, etc.). Children and adults are pictured wearing garb traditional to their culture, and people are in their natural setting. Nothing seems out of place or forced.

The illustrations remind me of Mexican earthenware often found in flea markets. Colors are bold and loud, taken directly from the landscape. Cool green, like the grass and trees in Spring, warm gold, like the desert sand, and rich blue from the sea. Each illustration is double-paged with one vertical page that has an over-sized moon with smiley eyes. Children will want to spend time pouring over every page looking for something new each time. Book Fiesta is book that illustrates the “bookjoy” that Pat Mora often speaks about. Recommended for everyone!

ALA Notable Children's Books, 2010
Pura Belpre Award, Illustrator Winner, 2010
Mildred L. Batchelder Honor Book, 2010

“The straightforward, bilingual text in Spanish and English is beautifully illustrated in bright, bold, acrylic paintings that integrate books and letters into timeless scenes of multicultural children cavorting, exploring, and, of course, reading.” Booklist

“This lively selection will motivate and excite children about the adventures they can go on through reading.” School Library Journal

“A happy assortment of multicultural children, adults and friendly critters celebrate books and reading in recognition of El d'a de los ni-os/El d'a de los libros. Joyful and vibrant scenes convey the theme of the universal pleasures of reading every day and everywhere-under trees and in boats, on trains and planes, in the car and at the library.” Kirkus Reviews

Mora, Pat. 2009. Gracias/Thanks. Lee & Low Books; Bilingual edition. ISBN: 978-1600602580

Guy, Ginger Foglesong. 2007. Fiesta! Greenwillow Books. ISBN: 978-0060882266

Plan and celebrate your own Children’s Day/Book Day using the suggestions from Pat Mora.

Soto, Gary. 2005. The Afterlife. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. ISBN: 978-0152052201

Young Chuy is murdered and begins to float through town saying goodbye to family and friends when he forms a few relationships on his way to the afterlife.

Critical Analysis:
Chuy, a seventeen-year-old Mexican-American, is stabbed in a Fresno, California dance club bathroom after he makes the mistake of complimenting a cabron (young man) about his shoes. After Chuy realizes he is dead, he begins to travel to familia (family) and amigos (friends) to say goodbye. He sees his loved ones grieving him in different ways. His best friend Angel cries and pours himself into his chores, while his mother gives Chuy’s primo (cousin) Eddie a gun to kill the murderer. Even in death, this distresses Chuy. He pleads and begs Eddie not to kill his killer. Luckily, Eddie can’t bring himself to avenge Chuy’s murder. After the visit, Chuy stumbles upon another ghost, Chrystal. Chuy falls easy and fast for Chrystal. Chuy shows her how to travel through the city without being carried off by the wind (they float), and while she is reluctant to tell the story of her own death, Chuy finds true amistad (companionship) with Chrystal and tells her everything about himself including his untimely death in a restroom. Soon, Chuy begins to notice that parts of his body are beginning to fade away. It starts with a foot, but soon, his hands and arms desaparecer (disappear). It doesn’t take long for Chuy and Chrystal to realize that as he begins to say goodbye to his worldly life, he is fading into the afterlife.

Chuy is depicted as an average Mexican-American teenage boy growing up in a mostly Latino neighborhood in Fresno, California (author’s hometown). He is focused on dating “chicas” (girls) and hanging out with his “carnals” (friends). Although The Afterlife is a young adult novel written in English, there are many Spanish words interwoven in the text. I am sure that Soto thought including Spanish words (interlingualism) would add to the richness of the Spanish language and to the characters themselves, but I personally felt that they are distracting. Although Soto provided a glossary in the back of the book (5 pages in length), the one word I needed to look up wasn’t listed. For me, this defeats the purpose of having the glossary and added to my frustration. Growing up in California myself, I could easily picture Chuy’s neighborhood. The fenced in yards with barking dogs, and the low-rider cars with booming music, all are typical of such a neighborhood. Soto did a fair job of describing this Fresno suburb, but I should point out that not all of Fresno has neighborhoods like this.

Although the setting is believable, the main character Chuy and plot are too farfetched. I give props to Soto for killing off the main character on page 4, but Chuy’s adventures (Raider’s game and a ride-along with the garbage men) are over the top. Chuy skips his own funeral for a professional football game. Young men are selfish, but is the reader supposed to believe Chuy would rather sit in the stands with drunk strangers than be near his family one last time? At this point, the story seemed to take a drastically wrong turn. The love interest of Chrystal (a ghost) comes into play far too late. Chrystal’s character doesn’t have time to develop (we find out why she died two chapters away from the end of the story) and Chuy is absolutely enamored with her from the beginning. He is in love with Chrystal only hours after meeting her. I understand Chuy is seventeen, but even with hormones, this love story goes to fast. After all, Chuy doesn’t even have hormones! Also, why didn’t he see ghosts around town before Chrystal? Fresno is a big city. Are we to believe no one but Chuy and Chrystal died that afternoon? Just pages away from the conclusion of the story, we are introduced to a homeless man, Robert. Chuy meets him in the park when he notices Robert's ghost coming out of his body. Chuy tries to heal the ghost (bringing down his fever), but is unsuccessful. Robert dies and Chuy teaches him how to float with the wind. Hours later, Chuy and Robert come face to face with Chuy’s murderer. What happens next is absolutely absurd it pains me to write about. Robert, homeless man, takes over the murderer’s body and they exit the bus leaving Chuy dumbfounded. In the last chapter, Chuy finds his murderer looking dazed after the Robert came out of his body. Robert says he was trying to "steer this guy right." Why would the homeless man care? Did he not have family to say goodbye to? The reader is never sure because just a few pages later, the book ends abruptly with Chuy and Chrystal floating into the afterlife. "She [Chrystal] flew at my side, southward toward what, I now know, is called the afterlife." Again, not sure how they come to the conclusion that they are going to the afterlife, but off they went. I also had issues with Chuy’s style of language. Generally he would speak like a regular teenage boy. Using word like dawg, dude, and crib, but then he would say, “Don’t worry baby, it ain’t nothing.” I don’t recall ever hearing that from anyone younger than 50 years old. Personally, I feel Soto squandered a great opportunity to discuss death and violence among young Mexican-American communities. For me, he tried to pack too many elements into one story. Ghost story, interracial violence, love story, and the added Spanish words just didn’t work well together. Appropriate for ages 13 and up.

ALA Quick Pick for Reluctant Young Adult Readers, 2004
New York Public Library Book for the Teen Age
Skipping Stones Honor Award, 2004
TAYSHAS High School Reading List, 2004-2005

“After a strong start, The Afterlife seems to become a series of brief images that drift off as though in a dream. Soto's simple and poetic language, leavened with Mexican Spanish with such care to context that the appended glossary is scarcely needed, is clear, but Chuy's ultimate destiny isn't.” School Library Journal

“The murder remains a mystery—Chuy says, "Nice shoes" to the dude wearing yellow shoes and the next minute Chuy is dead. This was a reason to be killed? Perhaps it shows the senselessness of a brutal murder and a life wasted. Chuy meets another recently dead teenager who is remorseful for taking her own life, but the book does not dwell on the remorse. The pair now flit together to her house, the car where she committed suicide, back to her parents. Interesting concept, but hard to know the real substance of the book.” Children’s Literature

Soto, Gary. 2006. Buried Onions. Graphia. ISBN: 978-0152062651

Soto, Gary. 1998. Petty Crimes. Sandpiper. ISBN: 978-0152054373

Morales, Yuyi. 2008. Just In Case: A Trickster Tale and Spanish Alphabet Book. Roaring Brook Press; Bilingual edition. ISBN: 978-1596433298

When Senor Calvera travels to Grandma Beetle’s birthday party, he meets a ghost who convinces him to bring presents all represented by the Spanish alphabet.

Critical Analysis:
Senor Calavera is excited to attend Grandma Beetle’s birthday party. He puts on his best hat and tie, and sets out on his bicycle. Minutes into his journey, Senor Calavera meets Zelmiro, a ghost. Zelmiro convinces Senor Calavera that he needs to bring Grandma Beetle a birthday present. Although Senor Calavera is worried he will be late to the party, he goes looking for a gift. Senor Calavera brings back gifts that coincide with the Spanish alphabet; A - un acordeon (accordion), B - bigotes (mustache), and C - cosquillas (tickles). Zelmiro convinces Senor Calavera that he may not have chosen the best gift and Senor Calavera searches many times for the perfect present. When Senor Calvera reaches the present that begins with the letter Y, (Yerbabuena - an herb to sooth), he realizes that the party has started and he will miss out on all of the fun. Senor Calavera hops on his bike and races to the party with a basket full of presents for Grandma Beetle. Zelmiro has an idea of his own and trips Senor Calavera and his bike making him lose all of the beautiful presents. Just when Senor Calavera thinks he has no present to give, he realizes he has the letter Z left. Senor Calavera bring Zelmiro to the party, and to the reader’s surprise, Zelmiro is Grandpa Beetle!

Just in Case is a trickster tale and Spanish alphabet picture book. Senor Calavera is a skeleton from Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), a Latino holiday that celebrates the lives of loved ones who have died. Senor Calavera looks like a typical Day of the Dead calavera; skeleton with whimsical features (flowers for eyes) and a pencil thin smile. Zelmiro is a ghost, but keeps his normal, human features and never appears scary or frightening. He looks like a normal Latino man, but he floats in the air instead of walking on the ground. Zelmiro smiles and has a good time watching Senor Calavera find gifts for Grandma Beetle. Just when Senor Calavera thinks he has chosen the perfect item, Zelmiro convinces him otherwise by saying, “But I wonder, are they what Grandma Beetle would love the most? Why don’t you look again, my friend? Just in case….” Senor Calavera is always tricked into thinking his present isn’t good enough, and he sets off to look for another. At the end, Senor Calavera realizes that friendship is the best gift to give.

The alphabet aspects of the trickster tale is icing on the cake. The items chosen to represent the alphabet are not typical choices and they are paired with the English translation. There was no A for apple and B for ball. Morales chose items that are important and meaningful to the Hispanic and Latino culture or fanciful items that added to the fantasy elements of the story. For example; E - Escalera (a ladder to reach past the sky) and O - un Ombliog (a bread called belly button). These items are chosen with great care and not necessarily the first thing that comes to mind. This adds to the authenticity of the tale. Illustrations are bold and rich keeping in line with the Latino culture. Senor Calavera’s white bones do not appear ordinary when set in front of a rich orange sunset and pale blue clouds. Children might recognize Senor Calavera from Morales’s book Just a Minute. In this story, Senor Calavera is death and calls on Grandma Beetle. Grandma Beetle has ideas of her own and leaves Senor Calavera waiting. Both books would make great read-alouds and are recommended for ages 5 and up.

Pura Belpré Medal Book Award, Illustration, 2009
Pura Belpré Medal Book Honor, Narrative, 2009
ALA Notable Children's Book, 2009

“Part ghost story and part alphabet book, this trickster tale transcends both. Librarians will want to share it for the beautiful language, the spirited artwork, and the rightness of the ending.” School Library Journal

“Drenched in rich hues, the light-filled illustrations add a whimsical dimension to this trickster tale and Spanish alphabet book. When disaster strikes and all the presents fly from Calavera’s bike basket, there is nonetheless a happy ending that brings both story and alphabet to a rollicking conclusion. This companion to Morales’ award-winning Just a Minute (2003) will be a hit for storytime.” Booklist

Morales, Yuyi. 2003. Just a Minute!: A Trickster Tale and Counting Book. Chronicle Books. ISBN: 978-0811837583

Have children decorate index cards using the alphabet. Have them choose items that are important to their household and culture.

Talk about what gift they would want to bring to Grandma Beetle’s birthday party.

Talk about the gift of friendship and how meaningful a true friend can be.