DIA DE LOS MUERTOS

Regional focus:  Mexico

Author:  Roseanne Greenfield Thong

Illustrator:  Charles Ballesteros

Genre:  children’s literature

As a child, cemeteries scared me.  I wasn’t frightened of a potential encounter with a ghost nor was I afraid of bumping into a dancing skeleton.  In fact, ghosts and skeletons were whimsically enchanting to my child mind.  However, I was uneasy with the quietness, the sterile ambiance, the secluded locations that  accompanied cemeteries in the United States.  I grew up in Southern California, and I remember sitting in the back seat of my mom’s Honda Civic, as we drove on the freeways that linked the suburbs to  the Valley to greater Los Angeles, and wondering about the signs that lead to cemetaries in the distance.  They were often found a few miles away from the off-ramps, in unpopulated areas.  

My great-uncle died when I was 15, and his funeral was the first I remember attending.  The silence of the cemetery made me feel as if I needed to hold my breath, as if a simple exhalation would disrupt the balance of the quiet park.  Graves were placed in tidy rows, symmetrical and rectangular.  The green grass was short, freshly cut, too perfect.  And, I couldn’t wait to leave…to exhale, to talk, to feel.

I have lived abroad in Central America for nearly as long as I lived in the USA, first in Costa Rica, and for the past 15 years in Guatemala.  My first encounter with a cemetery in Costa Rica was immediate and striking.  Cemeteries in Latin America are often located in town centers and the bus I rode home from the university circled the local cemetery before chugging up the steep hill to my neighborhood.  The cemeteries were a colorful, chaotic collection of raised graves in a labyrinth of wavy  lines.  Often the ice-cream vendor would be selling home-made treats  for visitors to purchase at the entrance.  During the day, families and individuals passed through the cemetery to “saludar” a dead relative or simply to stroll to their next destination.  The cemetery was alive, and perhaps, for the first time in my adult life, I felt unafraid while visiting.  

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I have never experienced Dia de los Muertos in Mexico, but I have had the privilege of knowing  Dia de los Santos in Guatemala for the past 15 years.  On November 1st, families gather in our local cemetery to sit, to remember, and to honor their loved ones who have passed away.  Words can’t describe the holiday; truly it’s an event to feel.  Abuelos string their guitars and sing to their dead wives, candles twinkle in the night air, the tink-tink of the ice-cream cart dances through the graves.  There is laughter and there are tears.  There is no silence.  Flowers adorn tombs, both large and small.  Again, the cemetery is alive.

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While I acknowledge that mourning and death are strong and difficult topics to confront in any culture, I feel that when death is familiar, and not hidden, when death is a celebration of memories and not an overwhelming tragedy, death becomes a passage, a natural occurrence, a transition that doesn’t need to be laden in fear.

For this one simple reason (although there are many more), I appreciate the celebration of Dia de los Santos/Muertos and look forward to the yearly ritual to remember and honor those who are no longer with us, and poco a poco, I feel more comfortable with the theme of dying.  

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Dia de los Muertos by Roseanne Greenfield Thong is a fantastic tool for sharing the concepts of the holiday with children.  

About:

Dia de los Muertos introduces readers, both young and old, to the traditional holiday of Day of the Dead that is celebrated in Latin American countries on November 1st.   Thong writes in catchy rhymes which make her story fun and enjoyable to read aloud.  We learn of the tradition of creating and eating calaveras (sugar skulls), of decorating altars to honor the lives of those who have passed, and of visits to decorated cemetaries.

What I love:

  • I love that a holiday  that is unfamilar to many, now has a children’s book to explain it’s rituals and importance.
  • I love the joyful and colorul ilustations of Ballesteros.
  • I love that Thong weaves Spanish vocabulary into her story.

Themes: cultural festivities, ancestors, traditions

Discussion:

  • What is your favorite family celebration?
  • Has a person or an animal who was special to you died?  How do you remember him/her?
  • Do you think that our ancesters who have passed away can feel our presence when we celebrate them?  Why?  How?

Connections:

  • Make an altar to honor a special friend, family member or pet who has passed away.  Decorate your altar with photos, food that the person/pet enjoyed, flowers, and streamers.
  • Draw a picture of your favorite family celebration.
  • Print out and color a calavara.   Find  templates here and here.

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Her Right Foot

 

Regional focus:  The United States

Author:  Dave Eggers

Illustrator:  Shawn Harris

Genre:  children’s literature

I recently spent 5 days in Houston, Texas.  I’d never been to Texas and while I had a few preconceived notions of the Lone Star  State, my prototype of the region was ambiguous at best.  Prior to my visit to Houston, the top five images that came to mind  were:

  1. Cowboy boots
  2. George Bush
  3. Oil
  4. BBQ
  5. Pace Picante Sauce

Some months ago I had seen “Anthony Bourdain:  Parts Unknown”  the Houston TV episode, hence, I knew that the state had more to offer than nachos and cowboys–don’t get me wrong, I love nachos and cowboys–but I also love culture and diversity.  

At first sight, Houston appears to be suburbia at its finest.  Track houses with square gardens expand throughout the city, Target, Barnes & Noble, and Whole Foods are abundant, and mega-highways create maze like structures.  On the surface, Houston doesn’t seem different from other US cities that have “grown up” in my lifetime.  I could have been in my childhood suburb of Valencia, CA or in Tempe, Arizona.  

However, behind the suburban veil, Houston displayed a surprisingly more authentic persona.  

My first lunch was at an Indian restaurant, and at the table next to me, a group of friends chatted vibrantly in Spanish.  At night, I ate at Mai’s Vietnamese Restaurant  and spotted at least 10 different cultural groups.  While shopping at Target, I heard Portuguese, Spanish, Polish and other languages I couldn’t decipher.  

Not only did these cultural groups exist in the same environment, they also seemed to co-exist…that is to say, to live together, work together, speak together, while maintaining their cultural identity.  

One of my favorite pastimes is perusing  book stores in new cities, hence when I stumbled across a book store in a shopping center, I was lured into the wonderful world of stories and illustrations in the children’s section.  On display was Dave Egger’s, Her Right Foot, a profound children’s book that was published last year.  Egger’s story brings to life the history of the Statue of Liberty, and on a much broader level, speaks of the statue’s symbolism of welcoming  immigrants with love, grace, and empathy.  The current news is daunting, and I am not naive in thinking that immigration today is “a bowl full of cherries.”  However, when visiting places in the United State like Houston, where cultural diversity exists and in many ways thrives, I feel a tiny bit of recoil to the angst I often experience when thinking of the boundless hardships that current  immigrants encounter in the “land of the free.”  Her Right Foot expresses the powerful message of acceptance that our statue proudly stands for, and as Entertainment Weekly so perfectly stated, “a friendly reminder of how America can be at its best.”

About:

Her Right Foot tells the story of how the Statue of Liberty came to be one of the most famous landmarks in the United States and shares an array of fun historical facts of her creation. In addition, Eggers zooms in on Lady Liberty’s right foot, that is in constant motion, alluding to the idea that she is always moving, always acting, never stagnant in her plight to protect our values of equality, freedom and diversity.

What I love:

  • Her Right Foot is a story that children of all ages will delight in, and that adults will treasure.
  • Her Right Foot reminds us of the origins of the United States, a country rooted in the journey of immigrants.
  • Harris’ illustrations, made with cut paper and ink, are playful and vibrant.

Themes: immigration, freedom, acceptance

Discussion:

  • Why do you think people for different countries might  immigrate to the United States?
  • What is freedom?  Why is freedom important?
  • Would you like to visit the Statue of Liberty?  Why or why not?

Connections:

  • The Statue of Liberty is a symbol (an image that represents and idea or concept) of liberty and freedom.  Design your own symbol of liberty.  How would you represent liberty in an immense  statue?
  • Harris uses paper and ink to create his illustrations of the Statue of Liberty.  Experiment with collage (cutting and gluing paper scraps together) to create your own version of the Statue of Liberty.
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  • Investigate why the Statue of Liberty is green.  The statue was originally a dull brown when it was inaugurated in 1886.  What happened?  You will find an explanation here  and can even conduct your own experiment to see how the statue slowly changed from brown to green.

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The First Rule of Punk

I am the mother of a tween.  According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, a tween is defined as:

  1. Between
  2. Preteen

As I reflect on my  current  state of motherhood as mama to my nearly 12- year-old Emma, the word that resonates  with me is surreal.  How did my first born suddenly transform into an almost teenager?  She’s  as tall as I am, and, we have been sharing shoes for the past six months.  Equally as boggling is the idea that I am the mother of an almost teen!  While I celebrated my 40th birthday this year, my internal identity is at a constant 28-years -old, the age I was when Emma was born.  When I was in my early twenties, and envisioned motherhood, I often saw myself as the mother of a baby, or a toddler, or an eight-year-old, yet I rarely thought about mothering a teen.  Hence, my present day-to-day with a tween in the house has a dream like quality to it.  Emma will graduate from primary school this year, she’s desperate to dye the points of her silky blond hair blue, her favorite past-time is filming herself or her sister performing remakes of songs by artists I’ve never heard of.

And yet, she continues to hold onto the fringes of her childhood innocence.  She enjoys having a snack after school prepared by mom, she is totally  oblivious to her own beauty and she still solicits cuddles before falling asleep at night.

Luckily for us both, my tween hasn’t given up our ritual of bedtime stories.   While we are no longer reading Beatrix Potter and Eric Carle,  we do take delight in loosing ourselves in the pages of great novels read aloud before the lights are turned off.

We both relished The First Rule of Punk by Celia C. Pérez which just happens to highlight 12 -year -old Malu, in the midst of tween life.  Emma loved the voice of Malú, one of curiosity, authenticity and sensitivity.  As a mother, I appreciated reading a story with a confident girl  main character to my daughter.

Regional/Cultural focus:  The United States with attention to latino culture

Author:  Celia C. Pérez

Genre:  juvenile fiction

Twelve year old Maria Luisa (Malú) is beginning the school year in a new city.  She’s not happy about the changes on the horizon, and  she’s only mildly open-minded about attending a different school.  Her father, who hasn’t made the move to Chicago with Malu and her mother, owns a record shop a thousand miles away.  He and Malú share a deep love for music, especially rock.  He reminds his daughter that the first rule of punk is, “always be yourself.”

Taking this message to heart, Malú embraces the challenges of being “the new student” at a delicate age.  The reader discovers that Malú is fiercely independent, funny, empathetic, and a little rebellious.  She loves designing zines, practicing music with her band, The Co-Cos, and skateboarding.  As the novel progresses, we journey with Malú through her tween days, as she finds her  voice (both literally and figuratively)  and claims her own unique identity.

What I love:

  • The zines that are woven through The First Rule of Punk are engaging, fun and innovative.
  • Malú is an ordinary girl with an extraordinary spirit.  She is a positive and real role model for tweens.
  • Pérez incorporates Mexican-American culture and history into Malu’s story.  We learn of Lola Beltran, a celebrated Mexican singer and explore cultural celebrations such as Dia de los Muertos.

Discussion:

  • What kind of music do you like?  Do you have a favorite band? What genre of music speaks to you?  Why?
  • Malú uses zines as a way to express herself.  How do you express yourself?
  • Do you ever feel that the rules are your school are unfair?  Why?

Activities:

  • Create you own zine.  Find ideas here.
  • Look at different altars made for Dia de los Muertos.  Arrange your own altar to remember and honor friends, family and pets who have passed away.  17d19b78c3dca98f2f152dc17f0fa922
  • Investigate Lola Beltran and learn more about her life.

Before We Were Free

Every other Sunday morning, I reunite with 7 junior high students at the neighborhood school in Santiago Atitlan.  I could write an entire essay about how these seven students are exceptional, pushing the boundaries of social and cultural norms, dreaming big, and vibrantly confident, but that would be a post for a different blog on young,  emerging leaders in rural Guatemala.

The teen reading group has been meeting for two years now, and the participants self selected  themselves to meet twice monthly and use books as a tool to explore culture, current events, history,  literature and their own personal stories via books.

Recently we finished reading Before We Were Free, by Julia Alvarez and I was impressed and inspired, yet not surprised by the conversation generated by our circle.

Guatemala’s current President, Jimmy Morales, who has been in office for 1.5 years, has recently been under scrutiny by national and international organizations.   Just three years ago, former President Otto Perez resigned after national protests and he was subsequently arrested.  He was accused of fraud.

Hence, when a group of teens is encouraged to explore the theme of freedom, especially in the light of corruption, conversation becomes thought provoking, genuine and real.  As we compared the current stories of Guatemalans to those living in Alvarez’ book in The Dominican Republic under Trujillo’s dictatorship in the 5o’s and 6o’s  we we able to identify similarities and differences.  Most intriguing was our conversation about civil disobedience…when do we feel compelled to break rules in order to obtain personal freedom or the freedom of a group of people?

I do not know how the next weeks will transpire in Guatemala.  There is talk of planned protests and social media is overloaded with criticism of the current state of affairs.  However, I do know that the 7 teens in our reading circle are confident, critical thinkers, and leaders who, even at a young age, are capable of generating ideas about what’s just, on a personal and political level.  They are also aware of the power of their own voices, and sometimes, during periods of conflict, our voices  become the strongest resistance.

Regional focus:  The Dominican Republic

Author:  Julia Alverez

Genre:  juvenile historical fiction

In Before We Were Free, we meet 12 year old Anita de Torre in the year 1960, in the Dominican Republic.  We quickly learn that many of Anita’s extended family members have emigrated to the United States and that her Uncle Toni has been missing for some time after displaying opposition to the dictatorship of Trujillo.  Through the eyes of a young girl, we witness the fear, hope and struggles that are a constant presence for those living through a time of political unrest, all the while confronting the day to day of adolescence.

What I love:

  • Alvarez educates the reader about the history of the Dominican Republic, the Trujillo Dictatorship and Las Mariposas.
  • Before We Were Free is a true “coming of age story.”
  • Before We Were Free is less intense than Alvarez’s adult novels such as In the Time of The Butterflies, but equally as impactful.
  • What’s not to love about a strong, young, curious, female main character!

Themes: freedom, adolescence, war

Discussion:

  • In your own words, describe freedom.  How do you know that you are free?  Or lacking freedom?
  • Throughout the book,  Anita keeps a diary where she can record her thoughts, when she unable to speak them.  Do you keep a diary?  Why or why  not?
  • Can you remember a time in history or currently when a group of people or an individual has fought for freedom?  When? Why?  Where?  What happened?

Connections:

  • Research a recipe from the Dominican Republic such as Tostones (fried plantains) and prepare them for your friends and family.photo-1
  • In Before We Were Free, we learn that the Dominican Republic from 1930-1961,  was ruled by dictatorship, or a government in which  power is controlled by one person or a small group of people.  What kind of government exists in your country?  Explain how the government of your country functions.
  • In the book, Anita refers to “The Butterflies/Las Mariposas.”  Investigate and learn about the Butterfly Sisters and the important roles they played in the history of the Dominican Republic.28d0b5fa2cd600a0c24eb27f03710b61

 

Blueberries for Sal

Today’s Sail Away Story post is our first edition  of  “A little birdy told me…” in which we will feature guest writers sharing about their favorite children’s books and schools from around the world.  

Meet today’s “little bird,” Christine Banas.  The words that come to mind when I think of Christine are writer, mother and grandmother, early childhood education specialist for children with different capacities, photographer, and world traveler.

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As we hug the last days of summer (the first day of Autumn is September 22), Christine  highlights a childhood classic of summer in the USA.

Summer! Such a rich word conjuring up images ranging from wild splashing in a rolling surf, lying on a worn dock as the sun bakes you dry, to ice cream dripping down your arms as you try to catch its deliciousness before it all melts. Long days and short nights signal that special time of freedom especially in the northern part of the United States. Wintry days eke into fall and spring making it a longer season than the calendar would have you believe. As a result, I found summers in Maine to be exceptionally precious. The warm sun when it finally brightened the countryside christened the blueberry bushes with sweetness beyond words. My children and I would spend early mornings picking the dewy blue orbs that my mother-in-law would turn into muffins, pies, and jam.

When the memory of summer was buried under a foot of snow, my children loved reading the book, Blueberries for Sal written and illustrated by Robert McCloskey. It reminded us of an activity we shared and opened us up to a story about the love of mothers and their child.

Regional Focus: Maine, a state in the United States

Author: Robert McCloskey

Illustrator: Robert McCloskey

Genre: children’s literature

This timeless story, though probably set in the late 1940’s in Maine, takes us on a blueberry picking trip with Little Sal and her mother. They set off for Blueberry Hill with their metal pails to pick berries for mother to can for the winter. Little Sal picks a few berries and puts them in her pail. Then she picks three more berries but she eats them before they make their kuplink, kuplank, kuplunk noise in the pail. Mother works her way up the hill but Sal’s little legs are getting tired. She eats all of her berries and then reaches her hand into mother’s pail and helps herself. Mother suggests Sal go collect her own berries so she plops down in a clump of bushes and proceeds to eat the berries.

At the same time, a mother bear and Little Bear are working their way up the opposite side of the hill. They are preparing for winter by eating as many berries as they can so they get big and strong to make it through the winter. Little Bear would lag behind his mother and then have to hustle to catch up to her. Finally, he tires and sits down in a clump of bushes and, proceeds to eat berries.

Meanwhile, Little Sal has finished eating and looks for her mother. Instead, she finds Little Bear’s mother and begins walking behind her. Simultaneously Little Bear has lost his mother as well and begins walking behind Little Sal’s mother. Eventually, both mothers turn around and realize they have the wrong little ones following them! All ends well with the mothers and their little ones reunited and everyone has gathered more than enough blueberries.

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What I love:

  • There is an innocence and simplicity to this story that speaks of a child’s fearless independence and ability to be in the world yet is secure in the unspoken knowledge that her/his mother is always there to protect them.
  • The illustrations are broad stroked in black and white and look almost like woodcuts that capture the detailed expressions of each of the characters and their surroundings.
  • The story shows an activity that touches on what many readers have probably never had the chance to enjoy. I love that we see how both animals and humans have similarities—they need to provide nourishment for winter and sometimes they even eat the same type of food.

Themes: mothers and their children, nature, respect

Discussion:

  • How are human mothers the same or different from animal mothers and their offspring?
  • How do you think Little Sal felt when she couldn’t find her mother? How would you feel if you got separated from the adult you were with?
  • Little Sal and her mother are picking blueberries together. What activities do you do with your families?

Connections:

  • What are some ways animals prepare for the winter? Why do they have to make these preparations?
  • Little Sal’s mother talks about wanting to “can” the blueberries so they can eat them over the winter. What is she talking about? Learn about how food can be preserved so it lasts a long time.
  • Make a batch of blueberry muffins or a blueberry pie so you can experience baking and eating this blue fruit.  Find a simple recipe here.  images-2

 

The Jungle

I am back home in Guatemala, land of eternal spring, after spending a month of summer in California.  I’ve lived abroad now for more years than I have spent in my country of origin, and I continue to be fascinated by my observations as I come and go, traveling  between countries.  For me, global travel has become something of an art.  I can pack  for myself and my family with little stress the day before our departure, I have learned to quiet the internal critic that longs to compare lifestyles here and there, and the nerves of a potential passport left behind or the crises of a forgotten bathing suit are virtually non-existent.  I suppose the art of travel is somewhat zen, be here now, at it’s finest, and I take great pleasure in the practice of gracefully transitioning in new places.  This said, even after all these years, I relish my first days back in Guatemala, when I feel as if I have been given a new lens to see my ordinary world with.  Suddenly, the lush green of the banana tree leaves seems a little brighter.  The magenta  petals of the buganvilia on the foot path to my house radiate color.  The huipiles (traditional embroidered blouses) that the women wear in my village appear more extraordinary in their texture and design.  

In the 1960s,at a time when few foreigners traveled to the deep rainforests of Central America,  children’s book  writer and illustrator Helen Borten journeyed to Guatemala as a single woman, with the intention of learning about the jungles close to the equator and sharing her story with children.  Many of her books are celebrated for her focus on the senses and The Jungle, is no exception.   Just this year, Enchanted Lion Books reprinted The Jungle which was originally published in 1968.  While I don’t live in the jungle, I do live on the shores of  mystical Lake Atitlan, in a village surrounded by 3 ancient volcanos.   No matter how many times I come and go, I cherish the lens of  perspective that travel provides me.  

If you are craving a glimpse of Guatemala, I recommend that you delve into Borten’s  The Jungle, rich in both words and images, where you will indulge in the vitality of the senses uncovered in the rainforest.

Regional focus:  Guatemala

Author:  Helen Borten

Illustrator:  Helen Borten

Genre:  children’s literature

In Helen Borten’s The Jungle, we slip into the natural world of a dense rainforest.  We learn of the flora and fauna who inhabit different layers of the jungle and witness the wonders of wildlife  as one simple day passes in nature.  Borten uses a mixed media approach to illustration, combining block print with collage to create striking images in earth tones of life in the forrest.  She crafts delicate prose that transport the reader to the heart of the jungle.

What I love:

  • Borten’s layered,  mixed media illustrations will enchant both young and old readers.
  • The book has a dreamy essence, as if you could shut your eyes and transport yourself to an forest still untouched by human influences.

Themes: rainforest life, food chain, day and night, habitat

Discussion:

  • What animals did we read about in the story?  What animal did you find most unusual?  Why?
  • What does morning look like in the rainforest?  Afternoon?  Evening?
  • What animals live at the tops of the trees of the rainforest?  And what animals live below the trees, low on the ground?

Connections:

  • Imagine that you are a scientist on an expedition in the Guatemalan rainforest.  Write or draw a short page of “notes” of your observations.
  • Experiment with natural prints in the style of Helen Borten.  Use found objects in nature such as fruits, leaves and sticks to stamp on paper.  LeafPrints_mainpic
  • Using different textures of paper, make a mural of the rainforest which shows the different caps of vegetation in the jungle.  c6d81583d21dce445b1cf134e11956f1

We all Went on Safari

I haven’t traveled to Africa yet, although I am confident that my wanderlust will guide me there in the coming years.  Until then, I continue to visit Africa in books.  I like to dream of a time and place when animals, big and small,  roamed freely on an peaceful and plentiful Earth.  

If I had a pair of ruby slippers, I’d tap them together and step into the pages of  We all Went on Safari.  I’d  join Arusha, Mosi and Tumpe as they admire the animals of Tanzania from a distance with wonder, respect and honor.  

Regional focus:  Africa/Tanzania

Author:  Lauri Krebs

Illustrator: Julia Cairns

Genre:  children’s literature

In We all Went on Safari we meet Arusha, Mosi, Tumpe and their Maasai friends in Tanzania as they take us on a walking safari through the African grasslands. As we turn the pages of Kreb’s story, we encounter native animals like elephants, lions and monkeys. Along the way, we  learn to count in Swahili.

What I love:

  • The book contains an illustrated guide to counting in Swahili, a map, notes about each of the animals and facts about Tanzania and the Maasai people.
  • The story uses repetition, which invites children to participate in read a-louds.
  • Krebs weaves gentle rhymes and descriptive adjectives into her writing.
  • The illustrations by Julia Cairns are playful, vibrant and whimsical.

Themes: counting, habitat, African animals

Discussion:

  • What animals did you most like in the story?
  • How old are you in Swahili?
  • How are you similar and different from the children in Tanzania?
  • Where would you like to explore with your friends? Why?

Connections:

  • Investigate a specific animal from Tanzania.
  • Make animal masks with supplies found at home. Play “safari” in your garden.
  • Design your own Maasai necklace with a paper plate and paint.African Necklace Craft