Culture 3: Hispanic American or Latino/a Lit

  How Tía Lola Comes to Visit Stay by Julia Alvarez 
Alvarez, Julia. 2001. How Tía Lola Comes to Visit Stay Book Cover. Book cover illustration by Tatsuro Kiuchi. From

Alvarez, Julia. 2001. HOW TÍA LOLA CAME TO VISIT STAY. New York: Dell Yearling. ISBN 0440418704

The year Miguel turns ten is full of change. His parents separate, which means Miguel must move with his mother and younger sister, Juanita to a small town in Vermont. In addition to missing his father and friends in New York City, Miguel’s vibrant Tía Lola comes to visit from the Dominican Republic. Although Miguel is initially embarrassed by his aunt’s outgoing personality, by the end of the year he learns to appreciate Tía Lola unique ability to enchant everyone she meets.

The book is divided into ten episodic chapters that read like short stories. Time passes quickly as the story charts one calendar year, from January to December, in Miguel’s life. Life lessons mixed with laughter as a year of birthdays, visits to New York City, baseball games, and family dinners passes by.

Alvarez has created strong characters that grow as the story progresses. The most notable, of course, is colorful and vibrant Tía Lola. She is a larger-than-life, almost magical character. It is heartwarming to watch Miguel’s relationship with his aunt change from one of embarrassment to pride, love, and appreciation. Another influential character is Miguel’s father. Even though he only appears in a few chapters, it is clear that Miguel admires his father very much and struggles with being separated from his beloved Papi.

Although Tía Lola is the title character, the story really belongs to Miguel. But even though the book features a male protagonist, boys and girls alike will identify with Miguel’s desire to fit in with his peers and to be noticed for his talents and accomplishments. Through Miguel’s story readers will learn about Dominican Republic culture, but universal themes are the focal point of the book. These include: divorce, sibling rivalry, change, being the new kid, and friendship.

The New England small town setting is very important to the story. Alvarez contrasts the quiet Vermont farm with the hustle and bustle of Miguel’s former home in New York City. Additionally, juxtaposing Tía Lola’s Dominican Republic bold culture with the sedate Vermont community provides a noticeable distinction. Miguel comes to understand that his aunt must adapt to her new surroundings just as he is doing.

Although Spanish words are used, the writing style and reading level make this book suitable for children 8-12. Spanish words are printed in italics for easy identification. This is especially helpful for young readers who are still sounding out words and increasing their vocabulary.

An author’s note at the end of the book explains that the Spanish used in the book is Caribbean Spanish and that Alvarez has tried to define all words and phrases within the context of the story. In addition to teaching the literal definitions of Spanish words, Alvarez provides insight into the cultural implications of terms. For instance, the title of the last chapter is La Ñapa, which Tía Lola explains is “the little bit more that comes at the end” (p. 131).

For the most part Spanish terms are incorporated seamlessly into the story, although there are a few instances where Alvarez’s tone becomes didactic. This is most evident when Tía Lola tries to teach Juanita and Miguel about the use of genders in the Spanish language, “In Spanish, words have to be masculine or feminine. She [Tía Lola] doesn’t know exactly why that is. The male words usually end in o, and the female words in a” (p. 65).

Review in KIRKUS REVIEWS: “Peppered with Spanish words and phrases, Alvarez makes the reader as much a part of the ‘language’ lessons as the characters. This story seamlessly weaves two culturas while letting each remain intact, just as Miguel is learning to do with his own life. Like all good stories, this one incorporates a lesson just subtle enough that readers will forget they're being taught, but in the end will understand themselves, and others, a little better, regardless of la lengua nativa—the mother tongue. Simple, bella, un regalo permenente: simple and beautiful, a gift that will stay.”

Review in BOOKLIST: “Alvarez's first book for young readers sometimes reads like a docu-novel, but the warmth of the individual characters and the simple music of the narrative will appeal to middle-graders. So will the play with language. Tia Lola teaches Miguel and Juanita Spanish as she talks, so the English translation is right there in the text. They teach her English, which she practices on everyone in town with hilarious effect.”

Review in SCHOOL LIBRARY JOURNAL: “Readers will enjoy the funny situations, identify with the developing relationships and conflicting feelings of the characters, and will get a spicy taste of Caribbean culture in the bargain.”

Review in PUBLISHER’S WEEKLY: “As likable as Tia Lola is, some readers may have trouble believing her quick transformation. In addition, Miguel's long-distance father appears more involved in the boy's life than his own mother (with whom Miguel lives); the mother's character is never fully developed.”

*Tía Lola tells Miguel and Juanita about the legend of the ciguapas (p. 18-19). Read more about these creatures and compare them to other mythical creatures such as yetis, the Loch Ness monster, dragons, goblins, gargoyles, harpies, and krakens. Start with this picture book adaption of the ciguapa legend by Alvarez:
Alvarez, Julia. 2002. THE SECRET FOOTPRINTS. Ill. Fabin Negrin. ISBN 978-0440417477

*Tía Lola loves to tell Miguel and Juanita stories before bed, so read some of these adaptations of legends from the Dominican Republic:
Alvarez, Julia. 2005. A GIFT OF GRACIAS: THE LEGEND OF ALTAGRACIA. Ill. Beatriz Vidal. ISBN 978-0375824258

*Other chapter books that focus on Dominican Republic culture:
Joseph, Lynn. 2000. THE COLOR OF MY WORDS. ISBN 978-0060282325

*Non-Fiction books about the Dominican Republic:
Foley, Erin & Leslie Jermyn. 2005. DOMINICAN REPUBLIC. ISBN 978-0761419662
Temple, Bob. 2010. DOMINICAN REPUBLIC. ISBN 978-1422206249

*Other Tía Lola books:
Alvarez, Julia. 2010. HOW TIA LOLA LEARNED TO TEACH. ISBN 978-0375864605
Alvarez, Julia. 2011. HOW TIA LOLA ENDED UP STARTING OVER. ISBN 978-0375869143
Alvarez, Julia. 2011. HOW TIA LOLA SAVED THE SUMMER. ISBN 978-0375967276

*Other children’s books by Julia Alvarez:
Alvarez, Julia. 2010. RETURN TO SENDER. ISBN 978-0375851230

¡Yum! ¡Mmmm! ¡Qué Rico!: America's Sproutings by Pat Mora, Illustrated by Rafael López

Mora, Pat. 2007. ¡Yum! ¡Mmmm! ¡Qué Rico!: America's Sproutings Book Cover. Illustrated by Rafael López. Book cover designed by  Rafael López. From

Mora, Pat. 2007. ¡YUM! ¡MMMM! ¡QUÉ RICO!: AMERICA’S SPROUTINGS. Ill. Rafael López. New York: Lee & Low Books. ISBN 978-1584302711

This collection of fourteen haikus celebrates foods from North and South America, from peanuts to pineapples, corn to cranberries. The poems are supplemented by information on the origins of the food and the etymology of the name. Beautifully vibrant and textured illustrations tie the poems together.

All of the poems in this collection evoke positive emotions and experiences. Mora deftly picks words that fit together like puzzle pieces. The result are tightly wrought haikus with a playfully musical feeling. The tone is celebratory and joyful. Mora’s haikus bring to life the texture, as well as the taste, smell, and sound of each food with descriptors like, “gooey,” “crunch,” and “syrupy.”

Each two-page spread features a single poem about one food and surrounded by the vibrantly colored illustrations. In addition to the haiku, Mora includes a sidebar with information about the origin of the food and its name(s), the region it is commonly grown/eaten in, and other information including good times to celebrate the food and the symbolism in different cultures.

This book focuses on the countries within the two American continents – North America and South America. A map is included at the beginning of the book and supplemental information on each page focuses on how the foods were grown, cooked, and named in these regions. Mora includes a short list of resources on the copyright page with an accompanying note explaining that linguists and botanists are still discovering new information about the etymologies and indigenous plant histories of the foods in the book.

López uses acrylic paint on wood panels to create highly layered whimsical illustrations. The illustrations are playfully fantastical. For instance, in many illustrations the children seem to be flying through the air as if they are too excited by the delectable foods to keep their feet on the ground. Thick brushstrokes of highly saturated colors combined with crisp edges create a textured world that compliments the sensory nature of Mora’s poems.

Cultural markers can be found in Mora’s choice of foods and in López’s illustrations, most notably the people. They feature children and adults of many races and skin colors, although the majority of the characters are dark-haired and brown skinned. This makes sense because the indigenous people of the Americas had these attributes.

Sharing food in a communal atmosphere is highlighted in the illustrations that show families and friends happily eating food together. In addition to presenting the final product (an vanilla ice cream cone, a slice of chocolate cake, a juicy red tomato), making of the illustrations show kids and adults planting, tending, and harvesting the plants that grow the foods. When sharing this book it maybe necessary to introduce some of the foods to children. Corn, vanilla ice cream, and chocolate are familiar to most kids, but cranberries, papayas, and prickly pear are not commonly found in most households.

Although the title seems to denote a bilingual book, there are only two Spanish terms in the poetry. Counting the Spanish in the title, “¡Qué rico!” and one word in the illustrators dedication there are only four Spanish terms, all of which are defined on the copyright page. I enjoyed the incorporation of Spanish terms into the book, but it would have nice if Mora had included words from other indigenous languages of the Americas.

ALA Notable Books for Children
Américas Award for Children’s and Young Adult Literature
A to Zoo, 7th edition

Starred review in BOOKLIST: “This inventive stew of food haiku celebrates the indigenous foods of the Americas. Each of the 13 poems appears on a gloriously colorful double-page spread, accompanied by a sidebar that presents information about the origin of the food. From blueberries to prickly pears to corn, the acrylic-on-wood-panel illustrations burst with vivid colors and stylized Mexican flair.”

Review in KIRKUST REVIEWS: “More interesting as social science than as poetry, but visually gorgeous.”

Review in SCHOOL LIBRARY JOURNAL: “The sense of whimsy is further underscored in López's colorful acrylic on wood-panel illustrations. Artful compositions and brilliant complementary colors bear out the book's multicultural themes.”

*Bring in some of the foods celebrated in these poems. First, read the poem. Second, eat the food. Finally, read the poem again. Ask kids if they had eaten that food before. If not, did they guess what the food would taste like from the poem?

*Read each poem like a riddle and see if kids can guess the name/topic of the poem.

*Other books of poetry by Pat Mora:
Mora, Pat. 1994. THE DESERT IS MY MOTHER: EL DESIERTO ES MI MADRE. Ill. Daniel Lechon. ISBN 978-1558851214
Mora, Pat. 1996. CONFETTI: POEMS FOR CHILDREN. Ill. Enrique O. Sanchez. ISBN 978-0606170727
Mora, Pat. 1998. DELICIOUS HULLABAOO/PACHANGA DELICIOSA. Ill. Francisco X. Mora. ISBN 978-1558852464
Mora, Pat. 1998. THIS BIG SKY. Ill. Steve Jenkins. ISBN 978-0590371209
Mora, Pat. 2008. JOIN HANDS! THE WAYS WE CELEBRATE LIFE. Photos George Ancona. ISBN 978-1580892025

*Other collections of food/eating themed poetry:
Argueta, Jorge. 2009. SOPA DE FRJOLES/BEAN SOUP. Ill. Rafael Yockteng. ISBN 978-0888998811
Argueta, Jorge. 2010. ARROZ CON LECHE/RICE PUDDING: UN POEMA PARA COCINAR/A COOKING POEM. Ill. Fernando Vilela. ISBN 978-0888999818
Morrison, Lillian. 2005. I SCREAM, YOU SCREAM: A FEAST OF FOOD RHYMES. Ill. Nancy Dunaway. ISBN 978-0874834956
Philip, Neil. 2004. HOT POTATO: MEALITME RHYMES. ISBN 978-0618315543

Neighborhood Odes by Gary Soto, Illustrated by David Diaz

Soto, Gary. 1992. Neighborhood Odes Book Cover. Illustrated by David Diaz. From

Soto, Gary. 1992. NEIGHBORHOOD ODES. Ill. David Diaz. San Diego: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich. ISBN 0152568794

In twenty one non-rhyming poems, Soto describes and celebrates the people, places, foods, and experiences of children growing up in a Mexican-American neighborhood. Soto incorporates Spanish terms into the poems, which are accompanied by ten dynamic black and white prints by David Diaz.

Soto’s poems convey joy and respect for simple acts of living, from eating a salty, crunchy chicharonnes to flipping through an album of family photos, in short, non-rhyming lines that are presented in long columns.  The poems are playful and candid; Soto does not shy away from the messy aspects of childhood. Everyday events, people, and objects are celebrated, thereby elevating them from mundane to special.

A common thread of pride runs through the poems in this collection. The characters are proud of their siblings, parents, family, friends, pets, and the accomplishments of these people. This makes the ode format especially appropriate. Love in its many forms is present in nearly every poem, but it is not overly sentimental or sugary. Even Ode to La Llorona, which seems at first to be a poetic retelling of the Latino legend, turns out to be an ode to childhood.

The rhythm and meaning of these poems are best conveyed when read aloud. Soto deftly describes the colors, sights, sounds, and tastes of a Mexican-American neighborhood with words that roll, melt, tingle, and tumble on your tongue. The poems are circular, beginning with a narrow focus and expanding the perspective as the poem progresses until the elements intermingle and Soto brings us back to the original subject, usually with a humorous twist. Most of the poems are written in present tense, although a few feature flashbacks, such as Ode to Mi Perrito, or discuss past events, like Ode to Family Photographs.

The book features ten illustrations, each sitting to the left or right of its corresponding poem. The illustrations show slices of life and are clearly tied to specific poems. Such as the illustration of the García brothers sitting under the leafy pomegranate tree that accompanies Ode to Pomegranates. Using sharp lines and shapes Diaz skillfully contrasts black and white to create flat images that match the tone of each poem.  For instance, the illustration that accompanies Ode to the Sprinkler shows a young boy jumping with wild abandon through the rays of water, while the weeping woman of Ode to La Llorona is depicted in a long, flowing scarf scattering candy among swirling waves of water. 

The cultural markers in the text include several references to brown skin, use of mostly Latino names, and foods, as well as Spanish terms. The illustrations place an emphasis on the universality of the experiences, so the cultural markers are present mainly in the text. The people depicted in the black and white illustrations are “everypeople”; they could be of any race. One of the few illustrated cultural markers is the elaborate wedding cake that accompanies Ode to Weddings.

There are thirty-three Spanish words and phrases printed in italics in the poems and defined in a glossary at the end of the book. The terms are incorporated into the poems in a natural manner, as though the narrator of the poem is used to switching between languages. Some poems have only one or two terms, while others are more heavily peppered. If a reader is unfamiliar with a term it can be disruptive to have to flip to the glossary, it would have been more convenient if the terms were defined in footnotes or sidebars.

ALA Recommended Book for Reluctant Young Readers, 1993
Best Books for Children, 5th-7th editions
Books For Growing Minds, March 2005

Review in KIRKUS REVIEWS: “Diaz's occasional illustrations, with the sharp-edged black areas of woodcuts or paper silhouettes, are angular and stylized to near abstraction. Soto's language leans slightly toward the formal (as befits an ode) and is sprinkled with Spanish words, clear in context but also translated in a glossary.”

Starred review in HORN BOOK: “David Diaz's contemporary black-and-white illustrations, which often resemble cut paper, effortlessly capture the varied moods happiness, fear, longing, shame, and greed — of this remarkable collection.”

Review in SCHOOL LIBRARY JOURNAL: “Although Soto is dealing with a Chicano neighborhood, the poetry has a universal appeal. A minor drawback is that the Spanish words are not translated on the page, but in a glossary; to consult it interrupts the reading. Still, children will surely recognize the joy, love, fear, excitement, and adventure Soto brings to life…Black-and-white illustrations blend well with the astute verbal imagery. Each selection is an expression of joy and wonder at life's daily pleasures and mysteries.”

Review in PUBLISHER’S WEEKLY: “The tight clumps of language reproduce the quality of rapid and playful conversation. Affectionate without being overly sentimental, the collection provides a good introduction to contemporary poetry as well as a fine homage to a Chicano community. Diaz's woodcuts complement the poems perfectly: the silhouettes are fanciful and dynamic but do not draw attention from the words on the page.”

*Bring in pomegranates, tortillas, and chicharrones for children to eat before or after reading Ode to Pomegranates, Ode to La Tortilla, and Ode to Los Chicharrones out loud. Ask kids to write an ode to their favorite food.

*Ask children to bring in a few family photographs and read Ode to Family Photographs. Ask them to write a poem about their photographs. What would you want to tell someone who doesn’t know the person in the photograph?

*Read an adaption of the scary legend of La Llorona – The Weeping Woman before reading Soto’s Ode to La Llorona. Try one of these illustrated picture book versions:
Anaya, Rudolfo A. 2011. LA LLORONA – THE CRYING WOMAN. Ill. Amy Córdova. Trans. Enrique R. Lamadrid. ISBN 978-0826344601
Anzaldua, Gloria. 2001. PRIETITA AND THE GHOST WOMAN/PRIETITA Y LA LLORONA. Ill. Maya Christina Gonzalez. ISBN 978-0892391677
Hayes, Joe. 2004. LA LLORONA – THE WEEPING WOMAN: A HISPANIC LEGEND TOLD IN SPANISH AND ENGLISH. Ill. Mona Pennypacker & Vicki Trego-Hill. ISBN 978-0938317869

*Other books of poetry by Gary Soto:
Soto, Gary. 2002. FEARLESS FERNIE: HANGING OUT WITH FERNIE & ME. Ill. Regan Dunnick. ISBN 978-0399236150
Soto, Gary. 2006. A FIRE IN MY HANDS: A BOOK OF POEMS. ISBN 0152055649
Soto, Gary. 2007. CANTO FAMILIAR. Ill. Annika Nelson. ISBN 978-0152058852
Soto, Gary. 2012. PARTLY CLOUD: POEMS OF LOVE AND LONGING. ISBN 978-0547577371

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