Bilingual Books for Kids: Commentary and Reviews

By Jessica Powers

Editor’s Note: Given a box of bilingual books for kids, reviewer and columnist Jessica Powers delves into more than a slew of reviews, asking and perhaps answering the much larger question of the role and responsibility of bilingual book publishing. Included in Jessica’s box of books:

Goodnight, Papito Dios by Victor Villaseñor. Illustrations by José Ramírez. Piñata Books, 2007. ISBN: 978-1-55885-467-3. Hardcover, 32 pp., full-color illustrations.

Butterflies on Carmen Street by Monica Brown. Illustrations by April Ward. Piñata Books, 2007. ISBN: 978-1-55885-484-0. Hardcover, 32 pp., full-color illustrations.

We Are Cousins by Diane Gonzales Bertrand. Illustrations by Christina E. Rodriguez. Piñata Books, 2007. ISBN: 978-1-55885-486-4. Hardcover, 32 pp., full-color illustrations.

The Woodcutter’s Gift by Lupe Ruiz-Flores. Illustrations by Elaine Jerome. Piñata Books, 2007. ISBN: 978-1-55885-489-5. Hardcover, 32 pp., full-color illustrations.

I Wish I Was Strong Like Manuel by Kathryn Heling and Deborah Hembrook. Illustrated by Bonnie Adamson. Raven Tree Press, 2008. ISBN hdbk: 978-0-9770906-7-9. ISBN pbk: 978-0-9770906-8-6. 32 pp., full-color illustrations.

Paco and the Giant Chile Plant by Keith Polette. Illustrated by Elizabeth O. Dulemba. Raven Tree Press, 2008. ISBN hdbk: 978-0-9770906-2-4. ISBN pbk: 978-0-9794462-3-8. 32 pp., full-color illustrations.

Postcards from Washington D.C.: Traveling with Anna written and illustrated by Laura Crawford. Raven Tree Press, 2008. ISBN hdbk: 978-0-9795477-0-6. ISBN pbk: 978-0-9795477-1-3. 32 pp., full-color illustrations and photographs from postcards.

Little Zizi by Thierry Lenain and illustrated by Stéphanie Poulin. Translated by Daniel Zolinsky. Cinco Puntos Press, 2008. ISBN: 978-1-933693-05-7. Hardback, 32 pp., full-color illustrations.

Amadi’s Snowman by Katia Novet Saint-Lot and illustrated by Dimitrea Tokunbo. Tilbury House, 2008. ISBN hdbk: 10987654321. Hardcover, 32 pp., full-color illustrations.

Let’s start with a confession.

I have strong opinions about bilingual books for kids, especially those for Latino/a kids, mostly because I used to work as an editor and publicist for a publishing company that specialized in these kinds of books. The strongest opinion I hold is the belief that there should be an organic reason why a book is bilingual. If a book is published in both Spanish and English, then it should have some culturally, historically, or regionally specific reason why. I don’t mean to say that only Latinos can write books about or for Latinos. But I don’t think you can translate Thumbelina into Spanish and claim, Voila!, that you’ve published a multicultural book. And I don’t think that willy-nilly providing a bilingual version of any old children’s book into a foreign language is actually productive. The question I always ask when I see such a book is, “Who is this book for? Is it for Latino/a kids who might read this book because they recognize themselves in it—or is it for us, so we can feel like we’re doing something good, since multiculturalism in children’s literature is the ‘in’ thing right now?”

Reviewing a group of bilingual picture books together was helpful because it reminded me that my prejudices are not always accurate. It also was great to see that there are a lot of different kinds of bilingual picture books kids being published, with different themes, and different purposes. Though the quality was uneven, and I still wondered whether some of the books really should have been bilingual, overall this group of bilingual Spanish picture books for kids proves that there are a lot of quality books about Latino and Spanish culture for children, as well as great books for teaching Spanish to kids.

Goodnight, Papito Dios coverGoodnight, Papito Dios is a great bedtime story to read to kids to make them feel safe, warm, and loved before they go to sleep. The little boy in the story is listening to his father tell about the song his mother used to sing at night before he went to bed: each page is a variation on the song. Although repetition is the key to many successful children’s picture books, this was a little more repetitive than most and needed a stronger plot. The illustrations are fanciful and colorful and will appeal to little boys.

Butterflies on Carmen Street coverButterflies on Carmen Street is a delightful story about a young girl celebrating Butterfly Day and learning all about monarch butterflies. The little girl’s grandfather is symbolically paired with the butterflies as a fellow traveler, giving a human face to the process of butterfly migration. The grandfather traveled from southern Mexico to this part of the United States while the butterflies will make the opposite trip. The curious little girl is given a caterpillar, which she takes home, names Tiger, and loves like any other pet until the day it becomes a butterfly and she has to let it go. Like the book, the illustrations are colorful and will give parents lots to talk about with their kids. This is a great book to use to spark interest in caterpillars, cocoons, and butterflies, especially the Monarch.

We Are Cousins coverWe Are Cousins is a very simple book about family and belonging that can be read to very small children, as well as children in kindergarten or first grade. Though the storyline is simple, and the words few, the message is one that all kids love to hear—that blood is thicker than water, that families stick together. The illustrations also add a lot to the story that the words don’t impart. For example, though the story doesn’t talk about the personalities of each cousin, the pictures show which cousin is mischievous or which cousin resents having to wear hand-me-down clothes. I didn’t grow up around my cousins, and this book made me jealous of all the fun I missed.

The Woodcutter's Gift coverThe Woodcutter’s Gift was definitely my favorite out of all these books. Not only are the illustrations quirky, colorful, and fun, but so is the storyline. When a lightning storm strikes down the tree in the center of the small town, nobody knows what to do with the wood. The woodcutter has an idea, however—an idea that he keeps secret from the curious townsfolk, who keep snooping around trying to find out what he’s doing with all that wood. Finally, he reveals his master plan—and it puts their town on the map. I won’t ruin the surprise—but I can say that this is a book I’m glad to have in my library for the day I have kids.

I Wish I was Strong like Manuel coverI Wish I Was Strong Like Manuel is a likeable story about brothers wishing they could be like each other. Willie wishes he could be strong like Manuel—and he keeps doing things to try to make himself appear strong, like putting water wings under his sweater to make himself look like he has muscles, or doing things to gain strength, like climbing twelve flights of stairs. But in the end, Willie discovers that Manuel wishes he could be tall just like Willie. So in the end, Willie realizes he has something to feel good about. Kids will recognize themselves, their insecurities, and their jealousies in this book. Oh, and besides all that, the illustrations are fun, too, and will make kids laugh.

Paco and the Giant Chile Plant coverPolette’s Paco and the Giant Chile Plant is a retelling of the classic Jack and the Beanstalk. Although it starts out similar to the familiar tale, it ends with a huge twist. Instead of Paco/Jack escaping with the ogre’s talking harp or hen that lays golden eggs, and reaping the monetary rewards of his theft, it turns out that Paco’s father is trapped inside the body of the giant and he’s released when magic chile juice sprays all over him. So Paco returns home to his mother with a different kind of gift—instead of riches, he brings his father. Though the tale itself was fun to read, the use of Spanish words interspersed in the text seemed forced. They didn’t flow well and were somewhat awkward. As a teaching tool, it might be fine, but it made the story seem rather didactic. The illustrations were very appropriate for this book—fanciful and fun but with a classic dreamy feel that went well with the magical tale.

Postcars from Washington D.C.: Traveling with Anna coverPostcards from Washington D.C. is a fun and quirky way to teach kids about the U.S. capital. The illustrations complemented the text nicely: Crawford used photographs from actual postcards but also drew illustrations of Anna herself and peppered the text with other little drawings, such as a line of people waiting to get into the Smithsonian. The postcards written in Anna’s voice allow the reader to learn about Washington D.C. through the eyes of a kid, but these are supplemented by brief facts on each page related to the postcard text. For example, on the page with a postcard of the White House, we not only learn from Anna that the White House has 132 rooms with 3 elevators, a movie theatre, and over 30 bathrooms—the kind of facts a kid might find interesting—but we also learn through the “fun facts” section that President Benjamin Harris kept a pet goat at the White House.

This is a great teaching tool, but it’s also a fun book to read. The Spanish is actually limited to a translation of the fun facts; Anna’s postcards are solely in English. I’m sure this was a space issue—there wasn’t much room on the page for more text. Nevertheless, that was disappointing and makes this useful more for kids who are learning Spanish, rather than useful as a book for Spanish-only speaking kids. The other puzzling thing about this book was that there was no apparent reason for it to be bilingual—there was nothing specifically related to Latino or Spanish culture, and the setting (Washington D.C.) is not especially populated by Latinos. Further, none of the facts related to Latino or Spanish heritage or history in any way. The only reason for its being bilingual that I could gather was that these are the sorts of books Raven Tree Press publishes.

Amadi's Snowman coverIn Amadi’s Snowman, Amadi thinks he doesn’t need to know how to read to be a businessman in Nigeria. He looks up to the older boys who wash cars and engage in petty trading—they don’t know how to read, and they seem to be doing well, making far more money than Amadi himself makes. He already knows his world well enough to do what they’re doing, so he squanders his opportunities for learning. However, when an older boy he knows introduces him to the world of snow through a picture book, he suddenly starts hungering for knowledge of the world he doesn’t know and decides that he will learn to read after all.

The colorful illustrations and storyline will introduce American and European children to a world that most of them don’t know—a world where kids don’t always go to school and don’t always learn to read, a world where kids learn other skills to make it through life. The book reminds young readers that, in western culture at least, knowledge is stored and transmitted through books. Without those tools, your entry into certain kinds of information and certain kinds of worlds is limited—a lesson Amadi learns, fortunately, the easy way. Just like Amadi is introduced to the world of snow and ice through books, kids in the United States and Europe will be introduced to the world of sub-Saharan Africa through this particular book.

Little Zizi coverIn Little Zizi, Martin’s just a normal kid with a normal life and normal worries until the day at the swimming pool when one of his classmates named Adrian gathered everybody around and mocked the size of Martin’s zizi. “With such a little zizi, you can’t make babies,” he told Martin. That night Martin started to worry because there was a girl he liked, Anais, and Anais had told him she wanted ten babies. When Adrian decides that the winner of a peeing contest will also get to be Anais’s boyfriend, and suggests that Martin, with his little zizi, will never win the contest, Martin starts practicing how to pee at night. But no matter how hard he practices, or how hard he tries, or how desperately he wants to have a big zizi and pee the furthest of all the boys, he loses the contest. Lucky for him, Anais doesn’t want Adrian to be her boyfriend. She asserts her right to choose her own boyfriend, thank you very much, and she chooses Martin, with whom she will have ten children someday when they are grown up.

This book was originally published in France. American parents may not think this is an appropriate topic—after all, it’s not often that you hear the word “penis” and “children’s picture book” spoken in the same sentence. But this is a charming love story, and it tackles a fear that is very real in a funny and even tasteful way (yes, despite the subject matter, this is actually a very tasteful book). Little boys get mocked for the size of their zizis in school playgrounds, just like little girls get mocked for growing breasts before everybody else or not growing breasts when everybody else grows them. Not many writers and illustrators would have the fortitude to tackle such a topic in a children’s picture book but they’ve done exceedingly well. The book is funny and sweet, with a gentle reminder that love has nothing to do with our physical appearance—a lesson that surely we can all agree upon.

(P.S. The folks at Cinco Puntos Press told me they have been collecting various penis jokes ever since reviewers started taking a crack at explaining Little Zizi to prospective readers, librarians, teachers, and parents. I’m afraid I have no jokes to offer but I do love this book.)

###

Jessica Powers is a writer and lives in the Bay Area. Her novel The Confessional (Knopf, 2007) explored race, violence, religion, and friendship on the U.S. Mexico border. You can read her blog at www.jlpowers.net.