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Book Reviews

Latin America


Antonio Skarmeta    Ana Maria Machado    Julia Alvarez    Anthology



Antonio Skarmeta

Bibliographic Citation:
Skarmeta, Antonio.  2000.  The composition.  Illustrated by Alfonso Ruano.  Toronto: Groundwood Books.  ISBN 0888993900.

Living under a dictatorship, Pedro's parents spend every night listening to the radio and contributing to the resistance.  Pedro, however, can think of nothing but soccer and getting a real soccer ball.  His life begins to change when his best friend's father is taken away.  An army captain comes to Pedro's school soon after and asks them to write a composition about what their parents do at night.  Pedro's composition demonstrates that he might have been listening and resisting after all.   


    In Antonio Skarmeta's The Composition, Pedro acts like any typical child.  He complains when he gets a plastic soccer ball for his birthday, instead of a leather one like the professionals use (Skarmeta 1).  He questions everything and is always seeking answers.  While playing soccer with his friends, Pedro sees soldiers pointing machine guns at Don Daniel who owns the grocery store.  They take Daniel's father away because he is against the dictatorship.  When Pedro tells his father about what he saw, he naively says, "Daniel owns the store now.  Maybe he'll give me some candy." (Skarmeta 11)  His childish response demonstrates how little he understands about his country's situation.   

    That night while Pedro's parents are listening to the radio, he asks "Father, are you against the dictatorship?" (Skarmeta 13)  He responds by nodding his head yes.  Only when Pedro hears the words "military dictatorship" on the radio do "all the pieces that had been flapping around loose in his head [come] together like a jigsaw puzzle" (Skarmeta 15).  Pedro may act like he is just a child and not paying attention, but he is slowly absorbing the world and situation around him.  When he asks whether he is against the dictatorship, his mother answers by saying, "Children aren't against anything.  Children are just children."  (Skarmeta 16)

    The next day at school an army captain comes and asks Pedro's class to write a composition about what their families do at night.  Under the guise of a writing competition, the military uses the children to gain more about possible resistors of the dictatorship.  Weeks later the captain returns and hands back the compositions to the children.  Pedro tells his parents about the composition.  Terrified that he might have revealed information about them, his parents ask Pedro to read his paper. 

    Pedro chose to lie in his composition and protect his parents.  Rather than saying his parents listen to the radio about the resistance, he wrote that they sit on the sofa and play chess.  One critic commented, "Pedro's innocuous and blatantly false assertion that his parents play chess every night shows how clearly he has put together the pieces of his parents' resistance and the necessity for secrecy.  Skarmeta's concise and pointed description of Pedro's acquisition of political consciousness and discretion is brilliant." (Budin 2000)  He understands the severity of the situation, despite his naive attitude throughout the story.  "Even though his parents have gone to great lengths to avoid exposing him to their political opinions, Pedro understands the danger of the situation." (Publishers Weekly 2001)

    While he does not set his story within a particular country, Skarmeta offers a harsh view of reality and life under a dictatorship that can be universally understood.  When Don Daniel tries to give his son the keys to the store, the soldiers raise their guns at him and yell, "Careful!"  They refuse to let him hand over the keys, but rather a soldier does it for him after barking, "I'll do it." (Skarmeta 8)  The soldiers are demanding and unkind toward anyone they consider being a traitor to the dictatorship.  The only signs of a particular setting are the names of the characters.  Names like Pedro and Gustavo imply a Latin American background.  Also, the single word written on the school house wall is "resistencia" or resistance (Skarmeta 28).  These two tiny clues develop the story's setting, but do not limit it to one country.

    Alfonso Ruano's illustrations add to the realism of Pedro's situation.  Done in natural tones and colors, the drawings depict the severity of life under a military dictatorship.  When Don Daniel is taken away by the soldiers, his face appears forlorn and downcast (Alvarez 7).  Readers can see the weight on his shoulders.  As the soldiers take him away, his son stands holding the keys peering through two soldiers after his father (Alvarez 10).  The detail on the soldiers' guns and uniforms stands out in the foreground.  Ruano uses realistic drawings to help set the tone of the book.

    One critic warns, "Although well-written for children, the topic is adult and mature." (Michels)  Though this book handles an important topic, it also handles a difficult one to explain to younger children.  Older audiences would have an easier time understanding the importance of Pedro's actions and his part in the resistance.  Another reviewer suggested that the book be used "as a provocative incentive to discussion of different forms of government or the importance of freedom of assembly and discretion . . . ." (Budin 2000)  Because of its unnamed time and place, Skarmeta's story can be applied universally and used to teach children worldwide about the injustices countries suffer.

Reference List:
Budin, Mirian Lang.  2000.  School library journal: The composition review.  (Accessed March 25, 2006).

Michels, Dia L.  n.d.  Children's literature: The composition review.  (Accessed March 25, 2006).

Publishers Weekly.  2001.  The composition review.  (Accessed March 25, 2006).


Ana Maria Machado

Bibliographic Citation:
Machado, Ana Maria.  2002.  From another world.  Translated by Luisa Baeta.  Illustrated by Lucia Brandao.  Toronto: Groundwood Books.  ISBN 0888995970.

Four friends meet a girl named Rosario while staying in old coffee plantation that has been converted to an inn.  But the friends soon learn that Rosario is different from other girls.  She has no shadow, and she lived over a hundred years ago as a slave.  Rosario makes Mariano promise to write down her story because she has been waiting so long to tell it and it is an important story to tell. 


    Ana Maria Machado's From Another World tells the story of four Brazilian friends who encounter an unusual girl named Rosario.  "Standing next to the door wearing a long white dress and a turban on her head, black skinned and barefoot as if she'd just come out of one of Debret's drawings, stood a girl about our age.  Perfectly clear.  But kind of transparent." (Machado 44)  A slave girl who lived and died over a hundred years ago, Rosario has been waiting to tell her story. 

    While staying in the annex of an inn, the four friends listen as Rosario begins to recount her life as a slave under a cruel master.  Her story starts when the master, Sinho Pecanha, learns of the Gold Law that Princess Isabel passed to abolish slavery (Machado 94).  He was angry at his loss, so he had all the slaves gather in the senzala and locked them inside.  Then Sinho Pecanha proceeded to set the quarters on fire because "if he couldn't have slaves, he preferred to set them on fire" (Machado 98).  Only Rosario's younger brother, Amaro managed to escape because he was in the woods. 

    The story shocks the four friends and brings them to tears.  Mariano says, "I can't speak for my friends, but as I listened I felt so ashamed of being white and Brazilian.  I had studied slavery in school, so what Rosario was saying wasn't exactly new.  But it made me so mad, I couldn't even speak." (Machado 82)  The novel reveals a lot about Brazilian history and how it effects the present.  "By the end, [Mariano] figured out that knowledge of the past is important to understanding the present." (Publishers Weekly 2005) 

    In addition to the Brazilian history, Machado integrates Portuguese words throughout the novel.  The slave quarters were known as the "senzala" and Rosario has to leave before the "carijo" rooster crows. A glossary located in the back of the book helps readers define these words, but most should be able to figure them out from context clues.  Machado has also included a brief history of Brazil and slavery during the time that Rosario lived.  This helps readers give background to the story and plant it more firmly in reality. 

    The soft black-and-white drawings resemble the paintings throughout the inn.  They help the reader envision Rosario as a slave in a turban and barefoot.  When she first appears before the four friends, the drawing depicts her standing next to the others' shadows (Machado 45).  Her shadow is missing.  This clarifies to the reader that Rosario is ghost and not like other children.  It also depicts the style of clothing that Brazilian slaves used to wear.  The illustrations help establish a time and place for Rosario. 

    One critic states, "Some of the author's original mood must have been lost in translation because the book gets off to a very slow start and the dialogue is quite choppy.  Mariano's speech pivots from sounding like a babbling child to a mature adult later on, making it difficult to determine his age.  But once the premise is revealed, the novel takes on a faster pace and offers a fascinating picture of Brazil's culture and history, cleverly wrapped in a ghost story." (Monaghan 2005)  I agree that the story got off to a slow start.  Also, the dialogue was not always befitting young children like Mariano and his friends.  However, once Rosario began telling her story, I could see that the book contained a very powerful and important message.  Even though the story is set in Brazil, slavery existed in the United States and is a part of our history.  This connection can be used to bridge the gap between the two cultures for young reader.  The story is a fast and easy read, which makes it a good story for reluctant readers as well. 

Reference List:
Publishers Weekly.  2005.  From another world review. (Accessed March 25, 2006).

Monaghan, Kimberly.  2005.  School library journal: From another world review. (Accessed March 25, 2006).

Julia Alvarez

Bibliographic Citation:
Alvarez, Julia.  2000.  The secret footprints.  Illustrated by Fabian Negrin.  New York: Alfred A. Knopf.  ISBN 0679993096.

The ciguapas live underwater in caves and only come out at night to hunt for food because they are so afraid of humans.  However, they have a secret that keeps them safe from people:  their feet are on backwards.  Their footprints pointed in the opposite direction they were going, so that humans could not find them.  A young ciguapa named Guapa threatens to expose the ciguapas secret all because of her curiosity and boldness.  Instead, she learns that humans are not so bad after all.   


    Based on a Dominican legend, The Secret Footprints by Julia Alvarez tells the story of the ciguapas.  These beautiful creatures with golden skin and jet black hair live underwater in “cool blue caves hung with seashells and seaweed.” (Alvarez 1)  The ciguapas only come out at night to hunt for food because they are afraid of humans.  However, they have a secret that helps protect them from discovery.  Their feet are on backwards, so that when they walk they leave footprints going in the opposite direction (Alvarez 3).  In the tribe, there lives a young ciguapa named Guapa.  Unlike the rest of her people, she is not afraid of humans.  She tempts fate by sometimes going hunting before night falls.

    Once she got too close and awoke a small boy.  Though he called to her “in a friendly way,” she hurried away curious about what it was like to be a human child (Alvarez 7).  Scared that her boldness would reveal their secret, the tribe appealed to their queen and asked her to speak to Guapa.  After being told of the dangers of getting too close to humans, Guapa promises “with all her heart that she [will] be very, very careful” (Alvarez 9).  She tries very hard to keep her promise.  

    “But one afternoon, Guapa forgot.” (Alvarez 12)  She saw the sun sparkling down through the water and went up to take a closer.  Alvarez vividly describes the alluring daylight and its wonder, which draws Guapa above water.  "The air seemed splashed with gold.  Birds with feathers the colors of rainbows were practicing their favorite songs.  Palm trees were swaying, as if they were listening to a catchy tune in the breeze." (Alvarez 12)  The author's writing envelopes the reader into the story and the lush, tropical setting. 

    Guapa comes upon the human boy and his family having a picnic.  When they go for a walk, she rushes to steal some food from their basket.  The family fears she has twisted her ankles, so they all go to find a doctor.  Everyone goes except the little boy.  He makes her comfortable and goes to get her water.  Guapa slips away unnoticed leaving behind a seashell as a gift.  She returns to her people and shares with them that "some human beings can be kind" (Alvarez 26).   

    Alvarez infuses her Dominican culture into the words of the story.  The ciguapa in the story is named Guapa, which means "brave and bold, and also beautiful, in Spanish" (Alvarez 4).  When she stumbles upon the little boy, he calls "Hola!" out the window to say hello (Alvarez 7).  More importantly, the "pastelito" or small pastries are what tempt Guapa to risk exposing the ciguapas' secret.  The words are seamlessly integrated into the story.  Even though Alvarez does not define all the Spanish words, they are easy to figure out from the context and the illustrations.

    One book reviewer noted, “Alvarez’s language flows as effortlessly as the vivid colors in the pictures, setting a mood of ease and tranquility echoed in the rounded forms and curving lines of the illustrations.  This gentle tale, with its images of glowing color, conjures up a touch of magic.” (Scotto 2000)  Fabian Negrin's soft pastels help establish the mysterious and mystical tone of the story.  “The brilliant blues, greens, and yellows of a tropical island set the mood for this bit of magical realism from the Dominican Republic.” (Scotto 2000)  Negrin uses lush tropical plants and animals to create the island setting for the story.  He depicts everything from palm trees to sandy beaches to tropical birds.  All of this helps develop the Dominican background for the story.

    Within the back of the book, Alvarez has included an "About the Story" page.  She describes how she first heard the ciguapas' tale when she was a little girl in the Dominican Republic.  Then she compares the version she grew-up on with the ones she was exposed to once she moved to the United States.  Alvarez explains that some writers believe the legend stems from the Taino Indians, who inhabited the island when Columbus and the Spaniards arrived in 1492.  This added section creates an additional depth to the story.  It emphasizes the importance the story has in the Dominican culture and their history.       

    This story provides readers with an opportunity to read a Dominican folktale.  Combining Spanish phrases and a lush island setting, The Secret Footprints tells a unique and enchanting story that will capture young readers.  I believe the illustrations will draw in the youngest audience, while the older children will have fun learning to pronounce the Spanish words.  This book provides a bilingual experience for the non-Spanish speaker, while introducing a historic Dominican legend.   

Story Extension:
You can have the children draw their own version of what they think the ciguapas look like.

Reference List:
Scotto, Barbara.  2000.  School library journal: The secret footprints review. (Accessed March 25, 2006).


Anthology Edited by Naomi Shihab Nye

Bibliographic Citation:
Nye, Naomi Shihab, ed.  1998.  The tree is older than you are.  New York: Aladdin Paperbacks.  ISBN 0689820879.

In this anthology, English translations appear alongside poems and stories in their original Spanish.  This anthology groups together these writings with paintings and artwork from Mexican artists as well. 


    In The Tree is Older than You Are edited by Naomi Shihab Nye, the anthology presents a bilingual collection of poems and prose paired with Mexican artwork.  The collection was produced by sixty-four Mexican writers and painters.  "The poems were originally written in Spanish except a few which were written in Tzotzil, a Mayan language." (VOYA)  By including the poem in its original language, readers are able to get an idea of the culture the writing stemmed from.  It allows them to compare it to the English translation. 

    The poets and writers included within the anthology include new and old names.  "Poets of a new generation along with already well-known authors are included, featuring such artists as Octavio Paz, Nobel Prize winner; Angelina Muniz-Hubeman, winner of the Premio Xavier Villarrutia; and Jose Emilio Pacheco, winner of the National Poetry Prize." (VOYA)  In addition to poems, the collection includes folktales and prose stories that are an inherent part of the Mexican culture, such as the Mayan story, "The Rabbit's Ears." (Nye 82-83) 

    The title of the book comes from the first poem entitled, "The Lemon Tree."  Jennifer Clement ends her poem by writing, "Remember, / the tree is older than you are / and you might find stories / in its branches." (Nye 11)  The poem gives structure to the entire anthology.  Built like a tree, the collection branches off into different poems and stories, but it maintains it firm Mexican heritage roots.  A book reviewer noted, "Each page holds the promise of a small jewel, poems that transform the ordinary experience into extraordinary insight." (Italiano) 

    "The text is accompanied with beautiful color illustrations produced by Mexican artists such as well-known folk artist Rudolfo Morales and children's book illustrator Gerardo Suzan." (VOYA)  Though the styles vary, the artists are all of Mexican heritage.  "The illustrations, which appear every few pages as illuminations, employ a variety of styles and mediums, all produced in full color.  Often magical and sometimes playful, the artwork completes the experience of being welcomed into a mysteriously friendly world in which there is much to be discovered and shared." (Italiano) 

    Each painting or artwork is paired with a poem or story.  The illustrations help to draw out the meaning of the writing, so that even if readers only read the poems in their original language they could still gain some understanding to their meanings.  Jennifer Clement's "The Lemon Tree" is couple with "The Seed" painted by Jose Jesus Chan Guzman.  The illustration depicts a young woman walking barefoot through a jungle gazing up into the tree limbs and branches overhead.  Guzman's drawing emphasizes the importance of the last line of Clement's poem.  The anthology allows pairs up the painting, "The Coyote and the Rabbit" with the Mayan folktale, "The Rabbit's Ears." (Nye 80-83).      

    Aside from the original languages, the anthology's culture comes through its illustrations.  The illustration, "Homage to Frida and Diego" depicts the faces of these two famous Mexican artists on ordinary objects.  The drawing, "Life" by Jose Jesus Chan Guzman depicts a small boy seated next to an altar adorned with flowers, food, and the Mother Mary.  This altar represents the annual Mexican celebration of "El Dia de Los Muertos" or "Day of the Dead" (Nye 73).  Not only do the illustrations portray the present, they delve into the past.  The Mayan culture is represented throughout the artwork as well.  "Rainy Day" by Carmen Equivel shows children dressed in modern clothes standing and gazing at a tower decorated with Mayan symbols.  Dwellings and houses can be seen in the background (Nye 22).

    This amazing anthology provides insight into the Mexican and Mayan cultures through poems, prose, and artwork making it an excellent read for older children and teenagers.  By providing both the English and original language versions, readers are able to compare the two and try to figure what each word means.  This forces the reader to examine the writings more closely, and in turn notice more details about the culture they embody.  A section on the contributors gives a brief background on every artist and writer allowing readers to learn more about them.  Notes on the folktales provide readers with more background on the origins of the stories.  I think that this would be an enlightening read for children and older readers with beautifully written poetry and prose and evocative artwork that captures the Mexican culture.    

Reference List:
Italiano, Graciela.  n.d.  School library journal: The tree is older than you are review.  (Accessed March 25, 2006).

VOYA.  n.d.  The tree is older than you are review.  (Accessed March 25, 2006).


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