Monday, December 3, 2012

Becoming Naomi León by Pam Muñoz Ryan

Ryan, Pam Muñoz. 2003. Becoming Naomi León Cover. Jacket art by Joe Cepeda. Jacket design by Marijka Kostiw. Image from

Ryan, Pam Muñoz. 2004. BECOMING NAOMI LEÓN. New York: Scholastic Press. ISBN 0-439269695

Shy and quiet Naomi Soledad León Outlaw is contented with her life. She lives with her great-grandmother and her younger brother, Owen, in the Avocado Acres Trailer Rancho in Lemon Tree, Oklahoma. She doesn’t think much about the father she doesn’t remember and the mother who abandoned her until one evening when her mother, who now calls herself Skyla, arrives at the door. Although the siblings are initially excited about meeting their mother, it soon becomes clear that Skyla has plans to separate her children. She lavishes gifts on Naomi, but blatantly ignores Owen, who was born with his head tilted to one side and one leg shorter than the other. When Skyla and her new boyfriend threaten Naomi, Gram and her neighbors Fabiola and Bernardo pack up the trailer and head to Oaxaca, Mexico to find Naomi’s father. In Mexico Naomi not only discovers her family, but also finds her voice and becomes Naomi León, Naomi the Lion.

Muñoz has created a believable juvenile character and the text is written in first person past tense from Naomi’s point of view. Naomi is very artistic and observant. She is also aware of the emotions of those around her. Although it is clear that Muñoz knows the back story of each of her characters, the story is told from Naomi’s perspective. There are times when Naomi is able to tell something is wrong and she can describe her feelings, but is not able to put a label on it. The most notable instance is the way in which Muñoz candidly relates the issues of Skyla’s alcoholism, anger, depression, and the abandonment of her children.

There is a strong relationship between the siblings and although Naomi is often annoyed by her little brother it is clear she loves him. Naomi and Owen share a common hope of being wanted and loved by their family. This theme is underscored by the titles of the chapters, which are names for collective groupings of animals, such as “a shiver of sharks” and “a piteousness of doves.” The twenty-one chapters are divided into three sections. The first section, “A Rabble of Yesterdays,” takes place in Oklahoma. “A Passel of Todays” covers Naomi’s visit to Mexico and the outcome of the custody hearing. The final section is a three page epilogue, “A Murmuration of Tomorrows,” that ties up all the loose ends of the story and provides a platform for Naomi to reflect on how the events of the book shaped her, “I hoped by father was right, that like the figures we carved from wood and soap, I was becoming who I was meant to be, the Naomi Soledad León Outlaw of my wildest dreams” (p. 246).

Owen, born with deformities, perhaps caused by Skyla’s alcohol or drug abuse, has developed ways to cope with the taunts of the other school kids. Owen wears a strip of transparent tape on the front of this shirt. Naomi cannot explain it, but she knows it makes Owen feel safe. Even though he has had more than his share of hardships, Owen is an optimistic boy. He is clearly hurt when his mother ignores him, but he chooses to think positive. For instance, when Naomi harshly tells Owen that “Skyla would probably like you better, too, if you tried to please her,” she immediately wants to take back her words, but Owen decides to see the bright side of the situation. He finds a penny on the ground, “Hey Naomi. ‘Find a penny pick it up, and all the day you’ll have good luck’!...I found a penny and our mother came back and she’s coming to our conference today…I think that’s very lucky” (p. 69). Owen maybe optimistic, but his character is not a stereotype of the happy-go-lucky disabled person. Muñoz’s characters are three dimensional and although Owen tends to be positive, Naomi is close enough to her brother to see the pain beneath the happy surface.  

Finding your voice is a major theme in the book. Although Naomi was not born with physical deformities, she continues to be deeply traumatized by her mother’s actions. When she was first left at Gram’s she did not speak and during the majority of the book she is quiet and shy. She knows what she wants to say, but cannot seem to make it come out of her mouth. When Owen is teased at school Naomi notes, “I wanted to tell him to leave us alone, but as much as I tried I couldn’t say a word” (p. 67). Naomi’s voice strengthens as the story progresses so that when she is asked to speak up at the hearing she is able to confidently tell the judge her opinion. She remembers, “It was as if the stampede crashed through the wall in front of me” (p. 236).

There are cultural markers from three distinct cultures in this book—Oklahoman, Mexican (specifically from the Oaxaca region), and Aztec. These markers are put into relief by the contrast between Lemon Tree, Oklahoma and Jalatlaco, Mexico. We see Mexico for the first time through Naomi’s observant and hopeful eyes and this allows Muñoz to describe Jalatlaco vividly.

Muñoz denotes Aztec and Spanish words in italics. She also takes care to mention words that are Aztec, rather than Spanish. Words and definitions are well integrated into the dialogue and narrative of the text. Muñoz does not coddle the reader; she may use a word many times in the text, but she only defines it once. Pronunciation is cleverly incorporated into the text. For instance, when Naomi sees a sign for Quesillo in the market she sounds out the word, “Keh-sill-owe,” to which Fabiola nods approvingly and says, “It’s pronounced keh-see­-owe…but you are learning very fast, Naomi” (p. 156). As the story progresses and Naomi learns more about her Mexican heritage the number of Spanish words in her narrative increases.

Food is a major cultural marker throughout the story. In Oklahoma Gram cooks a particular food for each day of the week, “Wednesday chicken bake,” (p. 4), “Thursday pork chops” (p. 45), but in Jalatlaco Naomi discovers many new flavors. She eats buñuelos, fried tortillas with a syrupy glaze sold by street vendors and crusty pan dulce, sweet breakfast bread.

Two holidays are celebrated during Naomi’s visit to Oaxaca, Las Posadas and La Noche de la Rábanos, and both are integral to the plot. Muñoz uses these festivals to not only showcase the culture of Oaxaca, but to illustrate the sense of community and family Naomi experiences during her visit. La Noche de la Rábanos is only celebrated in the central plaza of Oaxaca and this grounds the story in a very specific setting. The traditional customs of Las Posadas are described in vivid detail and Muñoz provides explanation without becoming didactic or taking the reader out of the story.

ALA Notable Books for Children
Americas Award for Children’s and Young Adult Literature nominee
Book Sense Book of the Year nominee
Children's Catalog 19th Edition
Pura Belpré Honor Book

Starred review from KIRKUS REVIEWS: “Naomi's matter-of-fact narrative is suffused with her worries and hopes, along with her protective love for her brother and great-grandmother. Ryan's sure-handed storytelling and affection for her characters convey a clear sense of Naomi's triumph, as she becomes ‘who I was meant to be.’”

Starred review from PUBLISHER’S WEEKLY: “Sharing her protagonist's love of language, artistic sensibility and keen sensitivity, Ryan creates a tender tale about family love and loyalty.”

Review from SCHOOL LIBRARY JOURNAL: “Ryan has written a moving book about family dynamics. While she explores the youngsters' Mexican heritage and gives a vivid picture of life in and the art of Oaxaca, her story is universal, showing the strong bonds and love that make up an extended family. All of the characters are well drawn, and readers will share Naomi's fear until the judge makes the final decision about her future.”

Review from THE BULLETIN OF THE CENTER FOR CHILDREN’S BOOKS: “Realistic danger from the monstrous Skyla, quick strategizing by Naomi and Gram, and the incomparable thrill of international travel on the lam provide a peppery vitality to this carefully crafted story, in which Naomi's expedition to find her father gives her a chance to grow into her name of Naomi the Lion.”

*Have kids look carefully at the names of the chapters. Why do you think Muñoz choose to name each chapter after a different grouping of animals? What does the title provide insight into the contents of the chapter? Why do you think Naomi finds collective animal groupings so interesting?

* Muñoz provides a reader’s theater script that covers the events of the first few chapters. After kids perform the script, encourage them to adapt another section of the book into a reader’s theater script.
Muñoz, Pam Ryan. “Reader’s Theater Script – Becoming Naomi León.” (n.d.).

*Learn more about the holidays mentioned in the story, Las Posadas and La Noche de la Rábanos. Bring in photographs of the radish sculptures:
“Radish Night.” as posted on Flickr. Last modified December 11, 2011.

*Show this video that shows the radishes before and after carving. It also showcases some of the flower and corn husk sculptures:
Oaxaca – Noche de Rabanos. Uploaded by Cicada4u. February, 2012. YouTube Video.

*Carving is a major element in the book, so bring in soap for the kids to carve. Helpful resources include:
“Soap Carving for Kids,” The Wonder Years (blog), April 19, 2012,
Suzauki, Howard K. 1999. SOAP CARVING: FOR CHILDREN OF ALL AGES. ISBN 978-0764308598

*Other middle grade books by Pam Ryan Muñoz:
Muñoz, Pam Ryan. 1999. RIDING FREEDOM. Ill. Brian Selznick. ISBN 978-0439087964
Muñoz, Pam Ryan. 2002. ESPERANZE RISING. ISBN 978-0439120425
Muñoz, Pam Ryan. 2007. PAINT THE WIND. ISBN 978-0439873628
Muñoz, Pam Ryan. 2010. THE DREAMER. Ill. Peter Sis. ISBN 978-0439269988

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