June 21, 2018 § 3 Comments
Before I sing the praises of Jessica Love’s triumphant, must-read new picture book, Julián is a Mermaid (Ages 4-8), a story celebrating self-love and unconditional acceptance, I need to come clean on something that happened four years ago in our house.
In 2014, when my children were four and seven, a box arrived from Penguin Group. In the box was a stack of picture books for possible review; all except one were titles I had requested. “I’m going to throw in an extra book, which I bet you would love to write about,” my rep and good pal, Sheila, had told me. My kids did what they do every time a box like this arrives: they dragged it over to the sofa, climbed up next to me, and began pulling out books for me to read. When they pulled out I am Jazz, I didn’t recognize the title or the cover, so I figured it was Sheila’s pick. We dove in blind.
I am Jazz is Jazz Jennings’ autobiographical picture book, co-written with Jessica Herthel, about what it was like to grow up with “a girl brain but a boy body.” From the earliest ages, Jazz identified as a girl. More than simply dressing up as princesses and mermaids, Jazz would correct her parents when they would say, “You’re such a good boy,” responding, “No, Mama. Good GIRL!” In Jazz’s case, it was her pediatrician who identified her as transgender and encouraged her parents to stop cutting her hair and putting her in boy clothing. Eventually, her teachers at school allowed her to join the girls’ soccer team, and she found a group of friends who saw her, not as someone to be teased or feared, but as “one of the nicest girls at school.”
I could feel the intensity in the air as I read. My children bent so far over the pages that I had to ask them to sit back so I could see the words. “Have I just opened a can of worms?” I thought. “Are they even old enough to understand this?” These were actual questions that went through my head.
When I finished reading, I asked if they wanted to talk about the book. “Nope!” they chorused, pulling out the next title from the box. And so, I moved on. And I don’t just mean with the next book. Later that day, I tucked I am Jazz inside one of the cabinets in our office. Are you getting this? I hid the book. I justified my action: “This is a great book, but I’ll get it out in a few years when they’re older. When it’s more applicable to their life or to someone they know.” Yes. I actually thought these things.
The very next day, I walked into my four-year-old daughter’s room to find her paging through the book. How on earth she found it I will never know. She beamed at me: “Mommy, Jazz likes all the same things I do: dance, soccer, swimming, and the color pink!” “Yes,” I said. And then, a few days later, when I was tidying up her room, I hid the book. Again.
A few weeks later, we had friends over for dinner. Long after everyone had finished eating, the adults were still lingering at the table, when my son barged in carrying our children’s dictionary, trailed by his sister and friends. “We need to throw out this dictionary,” he pronounced, with his typical fondness for the dramatic. “It is missing words.”
“What word are you trying to look up?” one of the grown-ups asked.
Instantly, I knew that I am Jazz was circulating around our house again; and—based on the looks everyone was exchanging around the table—making for some pretty riveting conversations upstairs.
As they do more times than I could ever count, my children held a mirror in front of my face. They illuminated my shortcoming—in this case, a bias—which I wasn’t even aware I had. We shouldn’t save “issues books” for the moments the issues arise. Heck, we shouldn’t even label them as “issues books.” My children were intrigued by the idea of transgender, sure, but I have since realized that their interest in this book extends well beyond definitions. I am Jazz is just one more tale in a long line of tales about kids trying to make sense of who they are—a journey every child faces, at every age. Even more, I am Jazz celebrates that journey. Jazz is brave and animated and refreshing. She is who she is, and she doesn’t apologize for that. What child wouldn’t be fascinated by her?
It may have taken three tries, but I am Jazz finally got a prominent place on our bookshelves, and I’m proud to say that, years later, it still floats in and out of both children’s rooms regularly. My children talk about Jazz like they know her, like she’s their friend. “We read Jazz’s book in school today!” my ten year old announced with excitement earlier this year. “Can you believe there were some kids who had never heard of her?” He went on: “My teacher used to date someone who is transgender. That’s cool, don’t you think?” That my children think this is cool—and not weird or scary or confused—owes a great deal to reading I am Jazz when they did.
Published earlier this spring, Julián is a Mermaid also raises the subject of gender identity, though it does so with a subtlety and ambiguity that would likely not have been possible were it not for predecessors like I am Jazz. With mesmerizing illustrations, just 23 short sentences, and as much unspoken as spelled out, this picture book is visual storytelling at its best. Julián’s journey unfolds only over the span of a few hours; and yet, encapsulated in these hours is a multi-faceted glimpse into how high the stakes are when we risk being seen for who we really are.
When the story opens, Julián is riding the subway with his abuela and reading a book about a subject near and dear to his heart: mermaids. A moment later, as he looks up, three tall, svelte women dance into his car, sporting elaborate hair styles and identical aquamarine fishtail dresses. We don’t need text to tell us what Julián is thinking: mermaids in the flesh.
As Julián watches these women, he begins to picture himself as a mermaid, fantasizing silently about throwing off his clothes, growing a gold-tipped pink tail, and swimming alongside a school of brightly-patterned fish through water colored the same shade of aquamarine as the ladies’ dresses.
A large, intricately-designed indigo blue fish approaches him with a necklace offering. In these waters, Julián is not only joyful and uninhibited; he (she) is also adored.
As Julián and his abuela depart the train and walk home, Julián’s mind is still on the three ladies.
“Abuela, did you see the mermaids?”
“I saw them, mijo.”
“Abuela, I am also a mermaid.”
At this point, it’s impossible to decipher what the boy’s grandmother makes of all this. Her coiffed white hair and voluminous shape combine with pronounced, imposing facial features, mostly bent towards frowning. Her only response to Julian declaring himself a mermaid is to peer silently down at him—and then, on the next page, inform him that she is going to take a bath and that he should “be good” while she’s out of the room.
The three nearly wordless double spreads that follow—as Julián dramatically sheds his clothes, rigs up a headpiece from flowers and palm fronds, and tears down the white lace curtains to create a mermaid tail—are so ripe with expression, movement, and gorgeousness, we fall completely in love with this child (if we weren’t already). Heck, you don’t even have to like mermaids—my daughter reminded me that she doesn’t—to agree that this costume is nothing short of extraordinary. And, yes, there is make-up involved.
Cue dramatic tension, as the grandmother emerges from the bathroom, wrapped in her own white swathe, and stands staring at her grandson, who is now posing like a Greek goddess. As abuela turns silently and walks off the page, Julián’s big eyes stare after her intensely, worriedly. On the next page, his expression turns downcast. He lifts the end of his tail, as if seeing it for the curtain it is. He glimpses himself in the mirror, as if struggling to recognize himself. There is not a single word of text—and yet, our hearts are in our throat, watching this child question himself. (In an interview featured on the blog, Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, author-illustrator Jessica Love talks about the evolution of her art for this book, which she originally painted on a white background, until she realized that layering color atop of brown paper bags actually allowed her to infuse the facial features of her brown-skinned characters with greater emotion. The result is pitch perfect and absolutely stunning.)
But then, the grandmother returns—“Come here, mijo”—wearing a colorful headscarf and an indigo dress with a white pattern that will be familiar (to observant readers) from the earlier aquatic scene of Julián’s imagination. She holds out a pink beaded necklace, which Julian takes with a wide grin.
Once again, abuela leads him outside and down the street. She leads him straight into the heart of the Coney Island Mermaid Parade, a crowd of people wearing octopus tentacles and jellyfish headpieces, swishing and swaying in unapologetically bright fabrics and tall heels. “Mermaids,” whispers Julián.
At last, abuela’s face seems to soften into a smile, as she says the words Julián most needs to hear: “Like you, mijo. Let’s join them.”
As Julián marches alongside these kindred spirits, alongside his accepting abuela, we glimpse in him the same joy and freedom from his private fantasy earlier in the day. We are reminded of the power of being seen, of being loved, for exactly who we are.
A postscript: This has been a gut-wrenching week of news, as we listen to reports of refugee children being separated—ripped apart—from their families at our border and by our government. Children who may never see their loved ones again. Julián is a Mermaid is not a political book. It is not a book with a shove-it-down-your-throat message. But it is a profoundly touching story about the power—the fundamental necessity—of unconditional familial love. About how, under the gentle tutelage of love and acceptance, children can bask in the joy of childhood, can grow into adults to be proud of. Every child deserves this treatment.
Did you enjoy this post? Make sure you don’t miss any others! Enter your email on the right hand side of my homepage, and you’ll be guaranteed to receive a new post in your inbox 2-4 times a month.
Review copies by Penguin and Candlewick, respectively. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!
May 17, 2018 § 8 Comments
Update published May 18, 2018: When I went to bed this past Wednesday night, scheduling my post to go live early the following morning, I had no idea I would be entering a media maelstrom. I had no idea that, just ten days earlier, allegations had surfaced about Junot Diaz and numerous instances of sexual misconduct. Some of my readers have asked how I could sing the praises of a book whose author may have exploited his power, particularly towards aspiring women writers of color. I am deeply sorry for offending, especially if I unintentionally implied that this new information about one of the most accomplished figures in the literary and academic world does not by necessity altar the discussion of his accomplishments. The truth is that I did not know about these allegations prior to publishing my piece below. Had I been aware, I would have stayed silent, even about a book as wonderful as Islandborn.
And yet, I will not pretend that I am not devastated. I am devastated personally, because Diaz has been a literary idol to me for my adult life, one of the most brilliant minds I have ever experienced. I am devastated for the Latinx community, for which Diaz has been a monumentally important voice, although there is inherent danger in tokenism (as stated astutely by this recent piece in the Washington Post). I am devastated that Diaz’s gut-wrenching autobiographical piece, published just one month ago in The New Yorker—about the destructive impact that his repressed sexual abuse as a child has had on himself and his adult relationships—will now be dismissed as a preemptive justification for forthcoming allegations and not a much-needed voice for the atrocious job our society does in supporting victims of abuse. I am devastated for Diaz’s own alleged victims, the latest voices to remind us that to be a woman today still means to fight for agency at every turn, often at the expense of physical and emotional scars. I am devastated for Islandborn’s illustrator, Leo Espinosa, whose incredible art for this book should have been Caldecott worthy, but is now sullied by its association with the person who wrote the words.
Above all, I am devastated for the children, especially the vibrant, brown-skinned, big-haired souls like Lola herself, who may now never find this book. Islandborn gives voice to an inclusive, celebratory perspective which is both critical and long overdue—and not just in the Latinx community. It is about discovering heritage. It is about the power of imagination and the quest for identity. It is about facing down Monsters. I love this book. My children love this book. And yet, I understand that it may be impossible to untangle a writer from his work. I will refrain from actively promoting my post any further, but because my post was written without knowledge of the accusations, I have decided against censoring it. I will leave the decision to seek out the book up to you.
Our family spent this past Spring Break in Belize, where the sights, sounds, and smells surpassed even our wildest imaginations. I will not pretend that we immersed ourselves in the local culture, since the time we spent outside resorts was carefully orchestrated by Belizean tour guides; but we did glean much by talking with these guides and drivers, asking questions about their backgrounds and their lives. Nearly all of these native Belizeans had at one point spent time working and studying in the United States—somewhere in the range of seven to ten years—and spoke of their experience with fondness. Many had expected to remain longer. “What made you decide to come back to Belize?” my children and I would ask.
The answer was always the same. Predictably accompanied by a triumphant smile.
“I was homesick!”
Even as they spoke about the poverty of their people, the bureaucracy of their government, and the turbulent threat of natural disasters, they spoke with greater affection about the warmth and the water. About the coral reefs. About the jaguars living in government-protected jungles. About the “perfect food chain” of the rainforest, whereby predator and prey were so well balanced that insect repellent was often unnecessary. About their big families, their festivals, and their food. The pull of these things was too strong.
When we meet people from other countries who are living in the States—driving taxis or working in kitchens or taking care of children—how often do we inquire about the places they’ve left behind? How often do we assume that, just because they’ve come here for a “better life” or a “better education” or “more opportunities,” the place they left is necessarily inferior, unattractive, unsafe, overcrowded? What if we encouraged our children to not only recognize the heritage of their immigrant classmates and neighbors, but to celebrate it, to help them carry it proudly inside them?
There is an abundance of things to love about Islandborn (Ages 5-9; Spanish version also available), a new picture book from two immigrants themselves: Pulitzer-Prize recipient Junot Diaz, originally from the Dominican Republic, and Colombia-born Leo Espinosa. Not the least of the treasures found in these pages is the American teacher who kicks off the story, presiding over a class where “every kid…was from somewhere else” (the George Washington Bridge in the background cues that this is upper Manhattan or the Bronx). Ms. Obi lovingly instructs her students to “draw a picture of the country you are originally from, your first country, and bring it in tomorrow,” an assignment that is greeted with cheers by everyone in the class. Everyone except the story’s young heroine.
Lola knows her family is from “The Island,” but she left there before she could make any lasting memories of her own. Dalia instantly announces she is going to draw pyramids; Matteo remembers a “desert so hot even the cactus fainted”; and Nelson—normally so distracted he has forgotten his name on occasion!—is already hard at work constructing a mongoose. Lola sits on the playground amidst all the chatter, channeling her “Abuela’s psychic”: she closes her eyes and puts her fingers on the sides of her head. Nothing comes.
Lola may be from an island, but she quickly remembers that she herself is not one. Her apartment is nestled in a vibrant community of Caribbean immigrants, which means she is surrounded by family and friends with memories aplenty from which she might draw. If there was ever an artistic representation of “it takes a village,” this story is it, as Lola goes on a journey to elicit information about her heritage from various folks, then uses her own powerful imagination to fill in the blanks. She doesn’t just record these memories of the Island on the pages of her sketchbook; she internalizes them. In time, she will even begin to feel the truth of her grandmother’s words: “Just because you don’t remember a place, doesn’t mean it’s not in you.”
We, as readers, begin a journey every bit as rich and magical as the one Lola is on, owing in large part to Espinosa’s impossibly gorgeous mixed-media illustrations, which pulsate on the page in colors most of us only dream about, spectacularly blending reality with memory and imagination. The urban landscape of Lola’s current life, with its muted reds and browns, becomes overlain with bright tropical foliage and exotic creatures, including “bats as big as blankets” (in the words of Lola’s cousin Leticia) and dolphins that “bow good night” during red-orange sunsets. The streets are filled with movement, as a street vendor selling empanadas describes to Lola an Island where “even in their sleep people dance,” and another tells her that “the people are like a rainbow—every shade ever made.”
Can we pause to reflect on how far picture book illustration has come? When I was young, I wished my bedroom walls could look like the colorful jungle scene Curious George (naughtily) paints, after climbing through the window of a stranger’s apartment in Curious George Takes a Job. To think what I would have thought if I’d been exposed to the likes of Espinosa’s art! Heck, I wouldn’t have wanted these illustrations on my wall; I would have wanted to climb into them. “I hope you are going to talk about the pictures,” my ten year old remarked to me this morning, when I told him what book I was writing about, “because they are A-MAZ-ING.”
Just because Islandborn’s illustrations are front and center doesn’t mean the narration is any less lovely. Junot Diaz has long been considered a master of language; and the lyricism in his debut picture book—an Island so alive it feels like “the inside of a drum”—is beautifully and perfectly suited to a child audience. Even more, Diaz crafts a young heroine whose curiosity, thoughtfulness, and persistence eventually make everyone around her share a piece of themselves. Lola not only celebrates their shared heritage, but she herself grows in poise and self-awareness through these exchanges. A man in the barber chair tell her about Island mangoes the “size of your head.”
“They make you want to cry?” Lola said. (She loved mangoes.)
“That’s it exactly!”
As Lola is swept along on this colorful current of beauty, she begins to wonder why anyone would leave such an Island in the first place. The ensuing conversations lay the groundwork for us to dialogue with our own children about the difficult choices facing immigrants and refugees. Lola listens to talk about the oppressive heat on the Island (“on you like five bullies”) and the terrible hurricanes, including one that blew through the Island when Lola was an infant, causing her mother and grandmother to take refuge with her under the bed (“Like the biggest baddest wolf of all! It huffed and puffed and blew thousands of houses into the sky!”).
The gravest insight comes from Mr. Mir, the elderly superintendent of Lola’s building, who originally refuses her invitation to talk about the Island. Later, when Lola again approaches him, he gently explains the reason for his hesitance. Long before Lola was born, “a monster fell upon our poor Island….For thirty years the Monster did as it pleased. It could destroy an entire town with a single word and make a whole family disappear simply by looking at it.” While Junot Diaz never names the island in question, lending more universality to his story, we assume from his own childhood that he writes about the Dominican Republic; the Monster, then, would be the dictator Rafael Leónidas Trujillo, whose bloody rule began in 1930. Like Lola, young readers won’t know or understand the specifics of Trujillo’s rein, but these details are not important for this story to resonate. The underlying message here is that one’s heritage is often a cross-section of beauty and hardship, love and pain.
Mr. Mir goes on to explain that, while the story about the Monster is important, so too is the story about the men and women who rose up to defeat it (“what a titanic battle that was.”). Mr. Mir himself might have been an original “slayer of monsters,” but he explains to Lola that she, as a descendant of the Island, is a “daughter of heroes.” The courage of her ancestors nestles like a seed inside her today. As Lola prepares to transfer all of these found memories—the good and the bad—into a collection of drawings she can show off at school, we realize that, as much as Islandborn celebrates heritage, it is also a tribute to the power of imagination as a way to connect with our community and ourselves.
Islandborn reminds that each of us comes from somewhere, whether we remember that place or whether it’s passed down to us through the bloodline of our ancestors. Delving into these histories, even nudging others to do the same, makes us more flavorful, more colorful, and more insightful about the world we live in. Perhaps we will even begin seeing through Lola’s eyes, overlaying exotic memories onto the patchwork of our daily lives. Perhaps we will even seek out such places on our own, as good as—or better than—stepping into these lush pages.
Did you enjoy this post? Make sure you don’t miss any others! Enter your email on the right hand side of my homepage, and you’ll receive a new post in your inbox 2-4 times a month.
Review copy provided by Dial Books for Young Readers. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!
March 3, 2016 § 4 Comments
When I was eighteen, I spent a few months abroad, living with a Vietnamese family in the beautiful coastal city of Nha Trang. I hadn’t known the family before arriving at their front door, and I knew exactly two words of Vietnamese. The father spoke a bit of English; the other members of the family spoke none. In my first moments in the house, nothing prepared me for the blow that I felt: the adrenaline that had coursed through my veins in the weeks leading up to my trip suddenly emptied, pooling beneath my feet, as I took my first inhalation of the unabated loneliness that would become a frequent companion in the days ahead.
The father was a carpenter and gone for much of the day, leaving me surrounded by smiling women, who chatted incessantly with one another but largely averted their eyes from me; and boisterous, inquisitive toddlers, who liked to peek around doorways, explode into giggles, and dash away. That first full day was painfully void of activity. I was there to teach English to the children in the neighborhood, but I had not received permission to enter the schools, so I had to wait until the children could come to me. Sure, I had things I could do on my own. I had novels to read. I had my Walkman. Eventually, I would procure a bike and spend my days touring the city, mingling in coffee shops with men and women who wished to learn English, and taking in the breathtaking views along the coastline.
But that first day, I had no idea where to begin, no one with whom to converse. I was miles away from the only pay phone with which to contact my parents, and I felt at once displaced from the bustling activity around me and foolish in my utter uselessness. I stared at the wavy line of ants making their way across the wall of my bedroom, a room that had been vacated for my exclusive use and whose previous occupants would sleep on reed floor mats in the other bedroom for the duration of my stay.
And then something happened. The grandmother of the family came into the room and placed on the floor in front of me a bowl of rambutans (or chom choms, as the Vietnamese affectionately call them). I had never seen or heard of this small round fruit—the size of a ping pong ball—whose translucent flesh is encased in a tough skin covered with long, coarse, brown hairs. The old woman had a face that was at once soft with wrinkles, severe with dark, piercing eyes, and sly with the hint of a smile. I never saw her without her fine grey-black hair pulled immaculately back into a tight bun. Now, she nodded—once at the bowl on the floor, and then a second time to acknowledge my “thank you,” which I hoped was uttered with enough enthusiasm to mask the confusion and hesitancy that I felt. She then began to leave.
When she reached the doorway, she looked back. She said something that I imagined was, Go on. Eat. I crouched down and tentatively picked up one of the hair-covered balls. The grandmother let out a low guttural sound—whether in exasperation or in an attempt to conceal a laugh, I’ll never know. But then she did something that I will never forget. She walked back and sat down on the floor beside me. She put her hand on mine. With heartbreaking gentleness, she took the fruit from me, showed me how to squeeze it in just the right place so that the skin popped open, then how to peal off the thin paper membrane inside and pop the grape-like ball into my mouth. I followed her example, once, twice, three times, until at last she smiled and nodded her approval.
But still she didn’t leave. Instead, she began to eat beside me. We didn’t talk, but for every chom chom that I ate, she ate one. In the distance, I could hear the banging of pots and pans in the kitchen; I could hear the barking of dogs and the cackle of laughter from the nail salon across the street. But my corner of the world—where I sat, sharing a bowl of fruit with a stooped stranger sixty years my senior—was quiet. I can’t explain it exactly, but that silence felt like the biggest hug in the world.
Generosity. That’s the word that came to mind in that moment with the chom choms—and still comes to mind every time I reflect on that memory. It’s also the word that comes to mind each time I read Mango, Abuela, and Me (Ages 5-10), a new picture book by Meg Medina, with illustrations by Angela Dominguez, in which a young American girl seeks to bridge the language divide between her and her Spanish-speaking grandmother, after the latter comes to live with her.
I’m talking about a generosity that goes beyond sharing. That goes beyond opening your home or sharing your bedroom (which the girl in the story must do with this near stranger—something I’m guessing my own children would not embrace nearly so readily).
I’m talking about a generosity that comes from taking time—really taking the time—to connect with someone, to make that person feel in a single moment that she is seen and heard and understood. It’s a generosity that is extended when we open up our hearts. And it’s a generosity that I fervently want my own children to understand, to experience, and to deliver—again and again—in their lives.
Mango, Abuela, and Me begins with disconnection. Young Mia is initially reserved around her “far away” grandmother: she knows little about the older woman’s past, including the sunny tropical (unnamed) country where she has spent her entire life; and Mia’s limited Spanish means she can’t tell this woman much about her own life. In the hours between school and the time her parents come home from work, Mia and her grandmother sit side by side in their respective loneliness.
My español is not good enough to tell her the things an abuela should know. Like how I am the very best in art and how I can run as fast as the boys…And her English is too poquito to tell me all the stories I want to know about Abuelo and the rivers that ran right outside their door.
But Mia is both perceptive and determined; and although she vents privately to her Mami (“Abuela and I can’t understand each other”), she begins to brainstorm ways to unlock the silence between them. She channels her favorite teacher and points out English words as she goes about her chores (Abuela in turn answers with the Spanish translations). Mia even tapes homemade labels to household items.
And yet, even as Abuela begins to pick up more and more English, there’s a sadness that hovers over her—and which Mia can’t penetrate.
“In as much as language has the power to connect, it can also be an obstacle,” author Meg Medina recently said, during the December meeting of the Children’s Book Guild of Washington DC, which I was fortunate to attend. The vivacious Medina titled her talk, “Writing the American Family,” and she spoke passionately about the disparity between the 54 million self-identified Latinos living in the United States—seventeen percent of our population—and the mere 3.5% of books published in 2013 that were by or about Latinos. “The American family needs to be everybody,” she said, “not just the white Anglo-Saxon family.” Specifically, Medina sees herself as writing for the English-dominated Latino children: those who identify strongly as Americans and who are more likely to welcome and experience Latino culture if it’s presented in the language in which they are most comfortable (English).
Mango, Abuela, and Me is semi-autobiographical, inspired by Medina’s own grandmother, who came from Cuba to live with Medina’s family in Queens, New York. Despite Medina’s fairly proficient Spanish as a child, she remembers coming up against numerous aspects of her American life (like Girl Scouts), which she couldn’t adequately convey to her grandmother. And vice versa.
While Mia’s dilemma will rightfully appeal to Latino children privy to similar struggles with cross-cultural clashes, it would be a mistake to assume that Medina’s story is intended solely for a Latino audience. Both my (Anglo-Saxon) children have requested this story many times. They are drawn to the inter-generational relationship, to the instinctual, human yearning for connection on both sides. “We read like we eat,” Medina also told us, a lovely notion that we read different books to get different things. Sometimes, it seems to me, we read books because the people in them look like us and and lead lives like ours (all the more reason why publishers need to heed the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign). But we also need to read things about people who look different from us and lead lives different from ours—but who feel many of the same things we do. This is how we connect with our society and with the world.
Mia eventually recognizes Abuela’s loneliness for the homesickness that it is. With all the innocence and optimism indicative of childhood, Mia reaches across the language divide and touches Abuela’s heart. On a routine errand to the pet store with Mami to pick up food for Mia’s hamster, the girl catches sight of a large golden-green parrot; she suddenly remembers the red feather that Abuela unpacked from her suitcase the day she arrived. Mia implores her mother to buy the parrot. “For Abuela. Like the parrot that lived in her mango trees! He can keep her company when I’m at school.”
The loquacious parrot, which Mia and Abuela name Mango, not only brings with it much needed frivolity (Abuela teaches him how to give beaky kisses and to bob his head when she sings “Los Pollitos” to him), but it serves as the basis for a new, more intimate kind of language between the two of them. (The un loro is also autobiographical, only Medina points out that her parrot never uttered a single word in its THIRTY years of life.) Each time Mia and Abuela teach the parrot an English or Spanish word, something bigger occurs: exchanges arise about memories of the past and hopes for the future.
…now when Abuela and I are lying next to each other in our beds, our mouths are full of things to say. I can tell her about my buen dia and show her my best pintura of Mango.
Abuela reads my favorite book with only a little help, and she tells me new stories about Abuelo, who could dive for river stones with a single breath and weave a roof out of palms. I draw pictures for her. She still misses their old house, she says, but now only a little bit.
I regret that I didn’t stay long enough in Vietnam to grasp more of the language. And yet, I feel an undeniable connection to the people I met there, one that goes beyond many of the relationships I’ve had here in the States. Perhaps it is not coincidental that, when we lay aside the hangups of syntax and pronunciation, we begin to notice the language of humanity: the smiles, the laughs, the nods, the frowns, the tears. Never did more than a few hours go by on any given day when I—and whomever I was talking to—didn’t resort to waving our hands or scrunching up our faces or otherwise looking like two dancing monkeys trying to get our point across. And we would laugh—oh, how we would laugh—at the surprising revelation that, stripped down, we are all so much the same.
Did you enjoy this post? Make sure you don’t miss any! Enter your email on the right hand side of my homepage, and you’ll receive a new post in your inbox every time.
Review copy provided by Candlewick. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links are provided mainly for ease and reference–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!