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Book Reviews

Hispanic/Latino Literature


Pat Mora        Gary Soto    Pam Muñoz Ryan   


  Pat Mora

Bibliographic Citation:
Mora, Pat.  1997.  Tomás and the library lady.  Illustrated by Raul Colón.  New York: Alfred A. Knopf.  ISBN 0679904018.

The son of migrant workers, Tomás and his brother ask their grandpa to tell them stories.  Once they have heard them all, Papá Grande tells young Tomás to go to the library, so he can them some new stories.  At first intimidated by the big library, he is coaxed inside by a kind librarian, who opens up a whole new world of books to Tomás.


    Based on a true story, Pat Mora's Tomás and the Library Lady tells the story of a young boy, who is the son of migrant workers.  "They picked fruit and vegetables for Texas farmers in the winter and for Iowa farmers in the summer." (Mora 3)  While in Iowa one summer, Tomás goes to the library in search of new stories to share with his family.  Though he is intimidated at first, a kind library lady coaxes him inside with an offer of ice water and books (Mora 9).  The woman's gentle approach draws Tomás into the world of reading.  He is soon lost in a land of dinosaurs and tigers.  "Tomás forgot about the library lady.  He forgot about Iowa and Texas." (Mora 13)  Mora's story emphasizes the power of books and storytelling.

    "This inspiring story is based on the true life of Tomás Rivera, a migrant farm worker who became a writer, professor, and university administrator.  He was chancellor of the University of California at Riverside before his death in 1984." (Peterson)  This fictionalized picture book captures one summer in Rivera's life.  It offers an authentic glimpse into the lives of Mexican Americans, especially the migrant worker experience.  Mora utilizes endearing terms, such as Mamá, Papá, and Papá Grande throughout the dialogue and narrative.  She also intersperses Spanish words and phrases within the story.  She chooses not to use a glossary and instead repeats the phrase's meaning in English for non-bilingual readers.  The grandfather begins his story, "En un tiempo pasado.  Once upon a time . . . ." (Mora 8)  Mora introduces another reason for creating an interlingual story.  The library lady asks Tomás to teach her new words in Spanish.  She would point to an object and he would say its name in Spanish.  "He liked being the teacher." (Mora 19)

    Raul Colón has illustrated Tomás and his imagination in rich, muted colors and soft textures.  Tomás is shown with warm brown skin and deeper brown hair.  Though his characters often lack details and rely on shadows, Colón still manages to capture the young boy and his family's Mexican American heritage.  One critic observed, "Colón's earthy, sun-warmed colors, textured with swirling lines, add life to this biographical fragment and help portray Tomás' reading adventures in appealing ways." (Elleman)  His surroundings are scratched out in the same browns, greens, and yellows.  By keeping the color palette very simple, readers can focus on the story and its message. 

    Though Colón has painted realistic images for much of the story, he allows his imagination to break loose when Tomás begins to read.  Tomás is shown riding on a dinosaur's long neck and hanging onto the reins of a horse (Mora 13, 21).  "Colón's dreamy illustrations capture the brief friendship and its life-altering effects in soft earth tones, using round sculptured shapes that often depict the boy right in the middle of whatever story realm he's entered." (Kirkus)  Colón, however, never lets readers forget what is real.  As Tomás lets his mind wander to greater and bigger things, readers can find him at the bottom of the illustration reading from a book. 

    Though this story carries a wonderful sentiment, I found that the repetition of the Spanish-to-English translations interrupted the narrative flow.  They did not allow young readers the chance to discern the words' meanings for themselves.  Also, while the Hispanic characters are accurately depicted within the illustrations, the Native American scene portrays them in a stereotypical fashion (Mora 21-22).  They are shown bare-chested with feathered headdresses against a background of tepees.  Colón may have concentrated on representing the Latino community, but he did not do the same for other cultural groups.  However, despite its flaws, this is an endearing story that teaches children the power of storytelling and books.  This is a must-read for all children's librarians and teachers. 

Reference List:
Elleman, Barbara.  n.d.  School library journal: The afterlife review. (Accessed July 3, 2006).

Kirkus Reviews.  n.d.  The afterlife review. (Accessed July 3, 2006).

Peterson, Cheryl.  n.d.  Children's literature: The afterlife review. (Accessed July 3, 2006).

  Gary Soto

Bibliographic Citation:
Soto, Gary.  2003.  Afterlife.  New York: Harcourt Books.  ISBN 0152047743.

 Seventeen-year-old Chuy is stabbed to death in the bathroom of a night club.  As his spirit leaves his body, he takes advantage of his ghostly status to look in on his family, friends, and murderer.  Only in death does he discover what truly matters and is able to experience love for the first time. 


    In Gary Soto's The Afterlife, he tells the story of the murder of seventeen-year-old Chuy.  While getting ready in the bathroom at Club Estrella, he cannot help but let his mind wander to Rachel, who he was supposed to meet later.  It was because of these happy thoughts that Chuy turns to the guy next to him and tells him he likes his yellow shoes.  This one compliment sets him off and causes him to stab Chuy.  Soto uses this abrupt action to shock readers and follows it with a cold cruelty.  As the murderer wipes his blade on Chuy's shirttail, he says, "What did you say to me, cabrón?" (Soto 3) 

    Some critics might balk at the notion of killing off the main character in the first couple of pages, but Soto demonstrates that Chuy's existence does not end with his death.  One book reviewer said, "With his poetic training, Soto's evocative language creates a vivid vision of life after death filled with regret, guilt, and even humor." (Jones 2003)  As Chuy rises out of his body, he realizes his pain is gone, but so is his last year in high school and his time with Rachel (Soto 4).  He also notices the transformation he has undergone so quickly.  Chuy says, ". . . in my heart I didn't harbor hate for the dude who stuck me.  It was weird.  He had just taken my life, but I wasn't angry with him.  In real life, people would just look at me and I would get mad.  But where was my anger now?  Maybe in death all that goes.  And fear, too.  I wasn't scared at all." (Soto 10)      

    As Chuy's life ends, the real story begins.  He says, "Dead, with my eyes wide open, I began a new life without a body.  I had nothing to fear." (Soto 13)  He quickly learns what he can and cannot do without his body.  One critic wrote, "To pull off this horror conceit in a realistic teen novel, Soto creates a set of rules for the afterlife about how ghosts move, about how they can communicate with the living, and even about the span of afterlife." (Jones 2003)  When Chuy sees a quarter lying on the street, he bends down to pick it up, only to have his hand shove right into the sidewalk (Soto 17).  He could slip through doors and walls, but nothing could be his.  The second thing Chuy picks up on is that he has little control over his movements.  The wind blows him off course like he is a balloon (Soto 17-18).  Only by tightening his stomach muscles can he hang on a little bit.

    Soto adds another human emotion to Chuy's story, love.  Though he has moved through his story on his own, Chuy is shocked when he comes across another ghost.  Having committed suicide, Crystal demonstrates regret and guilt over her decision (Soto 112).  Unlike Chuy's release from bad emotions, she carries hers into the afterlife.  Her death, however, gives Chuy the chance to experience the love he never got to taste while alive.  One critic noted, "Although the romance works, Crystal is not as fully developed as Chuy, and their back-story chance meeting years ago is one of the few misfires in the story." (Jones 2003)  Their connection at times seems unlikely and unbelievable, but it provides Chuy with a portion of the dream he wanted out of life.  He ends by saying, "I loved her like no other.  She flew at my side, southward toward what, I now knew, is called the afterlife." (Soto 158)

    Based upon Soto's own experiences growing up in the barrios of Fresno, The Afterlife presents an authentic Chicano experience.  Soto intersperses his character's language with Spanish words.  Throughout the story, Soto uses Spanish words to refer to family members, such as mi'jo, papi, tío, and familia.  He emphasizes the importance of the extended family among Chuy's culture.  The teenager insures that he visits those who are important to him.  To add to the atmosphere, Soto also adds in foods like menudo, carne asada, chicharrones. 

    Because of his extensive use of Spanish words and phrases, Soto has included a glossary of all the terms that were not explicitly defined.  Only on a few occasions does he repeat a word's meaning in English within the same sentence.  He allows the reader the chance to first discover its meaning from the context.  In addition to these cultural markers, Chuy speaks in teenage slang throughout the narrative.  He constantly mutters "dawg" to himself and refers to Angel as his homie.  His use of Spanish curse words help to further define Chuy as a Latino teenager.               

    I found the concept behind this novel to be intriguing.  Though readers are never given a justifiable reason for Chuy's murder, they are still able to look past this oversight to gain a glimpse into the afterlife.  He learns about family, friends, and love without the benefit of having a body.  As one book reviewer quoted, "This great piece of young adult literature shows that realism is not necessary to explore the teen experience in an honest way." (Jones 2003)  Young readers will be able to identify with Chuy's experiences with being average and overlooked as a teen, while being exposed to the Chicano culture in an authentic and honest way. 

Reference List:
Jones, Patrick.  2003.  VOYA: The afterlife review. (Accessed July 3, 2006).


  Pam Muñoz Ryan

Bibliographic Citation:
Ryan, Pam Muñoz.  2004.  Becoming Naomi León.  New York: Scholastic Press.  ISBN 0439269695.

Naomi and her brother have lived with their great-grandmother, Gram, ever since their mother left them seven years ago.  When she suddenly reappears, Naomi's world is turned upside-down as Skyla tries to take her daughter back to Las Vegas with her.  In order to keep their family together, Gram and the siblings journey to Oaxaca, Mexico to find the children's father.  Along the way, Naomi not only learns a lot about her Mexican heritage, but herself as well.


    In Becoming Naomi León, Pam Muñoz Ryan expertly spins the tale of a soft-spoken eleven year old.  Naomi lives with her great grandmother and her brother in a trailer park located in Lemon Tree, California.  Naomi is constantly teased by her classmates who view her as "nobody special."  They make fun of her full name, Naomi Soledad León Outlaw.  Despite her teacher's suggestion of ignoring them and Gram's faith in positive thinking, Naomi cannot figure out "How to Get Boys to Stop Making Fun of My Name" (Ryan 5)  Ryan has developed the two siblings as contrasting characters.   Unlike his sister, Owen is oblivious to any taunts or torments.  He is blissfully unaware of his frog voice, his uneven legs, and his love for Scotch tape.  

    Naomi soon learns that her name is not the biggest problem in her life.  When the children's mother returns with a new boyfriend and a new name, Naomi and Owen do not even recognize her.  Ryan accurately portrays the girl's inner conflict with Skyla's sudden reappearance.  Naomi explains, "Part of me couldn't wait to see her again.  The other part of me was wringing my hands like a contestant in the Worrywart Olympics.  All of a sudden I had a million questions." (Ryan 25)  It is these questions that Naomi searches for the answers to throughout her story. 

    Though Naomi and Owen are half-Mexican, they have limited exposure to their Hispanic background.  During Blanca's first day at Buena Vista Elementary, she approaches Naomi and immediately begins speaking to her in Spanish.  When Naomi has to stop her and explain that she cannot speak the language.  Blanca assumes from Naomi's outward appearance that she has an intimate knowledge of the Mexican culture.  Naomi takes after the Mexican side of her family, while Owen takes after their mother's Oklahoma side.  "Gram had taken to calling [Naomi] 'brown shaggy dog' because of [her] wild mop and [her] predisposition to brown-ness (eyes, hair, skin)." (Ryan 11)  Owen may have brown eyes but his fair skin and blonde hair make him look like a Dutch boy (Ryan 11). 

    Since their mother left them with Gram seven years earlier, the brother and sister have spent their days eating Wednesday chicken bake, wearing polyester clothes, and watching Wheel of Fortune.  Their only Mexican cultural experience has come from Gram's friends, Fabiola and Bernardo.  At first, the couple uses Spanish words sparingly throughout the beginning of the narrative.  Ryan chooses to repeat the meanings in English.  When Bernardo notices something is wrong, he says, "¿Qué pasó?  What happened?" (Ryan 35)  He repeats the words for the benefit of the non-Spanish speaking characters in the story (and monolingual readers).

    As Gram and the children travel with the couple to Oaxaca City to find their father, the readers are introduced more in-depth to the Mexican culture.  Bernardo and Fabiola teach the Outlaws to pronounce Spanish words and names.  As the main language of the setting shifts from English to Spanish, Ryan begins integrating foreign phrases more subtly and with more frequency.  Like Naomi, readers are forced to use the context around the words to discover their meanings.  Naomi also takes readers along as she learns more about her Mexican heritage.  She describes the Mercado de la Merced with its stalls and tables crowded with colors and smells.  She spies a woman on the floor selling tamales as she nurses her baby and an entire table of different chiles towering as high as her shoulder (Ryan 155).  The market was unlike anything she had experienced before.  Ryan uses the foods and items for sale to establish the story's background with everything from quesillo to fireworks to piñatas to tortillas.  She does not depend on only stereotypical items to develop her Mexican setting. 

    Ryan also uses cultural celebrations as a backdrop for the story's narrative.  Naomi is introduced to Las Posadas, where neighbors gather to reenact Mary and Joseph's search for a room at an inn.  With singing and candlelight, the whole community comes together to celebrate the religious holiday of La Navidad.  Naomi also learns about her family's role in Oaxaca's festival, La Noche de los Rábanos.  For over a hundred years, a León has entered and carved in the competition.  This year is Naomi's turn to demonstrate her talents by carving alongside Bernardo and his family.  She finds where she fits in her family tree.  Naomi says, "I hoped my 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." (Ryan 246)

    I thoroughly enjoyed this story.  Raised by her white great-grandmother, Naomi had had little exposure to her Mexican heritage.  Readers get to follow her as she learns more about her culture, her language, and her family.  As she is introduced to new foods and festivals, she learns more and more about who she is.  One critic noted, "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." (Morrison 2004)  I believe that young readers will be able to identify with Naomi's struggle to find her own voice and place in this world.  The seamless integration of Spanish words and phrases adds to the cultural authenticity without interrupting the narrative flow.    

Reference List:
Morrison, Sharon.  2004.  School library journal: Becoming Naomi León book review. (Accessed July 3, 2006).


Other Multicultural Book Reviews:

International    African American    Native American

Asian Pacific American    Inclusive Literature

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