This book talk is based on an advance review copy. Quotes and details may vary in the final version.
DESCRIPTION FROM THE BOOK JACKET: Lupe Impala, El Chavo Flapjack and Elirio Malaria love working with cars. You name it, they can fix it. But the team’s favorite cars of all are lowriders—cars that hip and hop, dip and drop, go low and slow, bajito y suavecito. The stars align when a contest for the best car around offers a prize of a trunkful of cash for the best car around—just what the team needs to open their own shop! ¡Ay chihuahua! What will it take to transform a junker into the best car in the universe? Striking, unparalleled art from debut illustrator Raúl the Third recalls ballpoint-pen-and-Sharpie desk-drawn doodles, while the story is sketched with Spanish, inked with science facts, and colored with true friendship. With a glossary at the back to provides definitions for Spanish and science terms, this delightful book will educate and entertain in equal measure.
MY TWO CENTS: Look in the children’s section for graphic novels from the Latino perspective and you’ll find precious few choices. Look there for books about lowriders and your choices will be still slimmer. Here is Lowriders in Space, ready to fill both spots with a joyous, celebratory tale. You don’t need deep knowledge of the lowrider culture to appreciate this middle-grade graphic novel, brought to you by the author-illustrator team of Cathy Camper and Raúl the Third.
In the opening pages, we meet three animal characters with Spanish names, all of whom work for a car-repair shop. The shop is called Cartinflas, and this is just one of many playful allusions and verbal jokes in this book. (Cartinflas plays on the name of the famous Mexican comic actor, Cantinflas.) Lupe Impala, (a wolf) busts gender stereotypes as a female lead who knows her way around car engines. Her sidekicks, the octopus El Chavo Flapjack and the mosquito Elirio Malaria, each specialize in key aspects of automobile revamping in the lowrider style. Elirio’s fine-tip proboscis doubles as a paintbrush that turns out the sweetest racing stripes and airbrushed scenes you could imagine. El Chavo’s eight tentacles go to work washing, polishing and buffing cars to a high sheen.
The trio dream of going into business for themselves, but where will they find start-up money? A car competition with a hefty cash prize gives them hope, but there are tough challenges to meet. First, they must find a car to work their magic on. They settle for a rusty heap sitting on cinder blocks. Now for car parts. At an abandoned airplane factory, they pick up mini air compressors and a box of rocket equipment. After attaching the parts, they’re in for a surprise when Lupe cranks the engine and it launches the car into the stratosphere. High above the earth, the car gears down into bajito-y-suavecito mode, low and slow: this is the cruising speed that lets low riders see and be seen. While the transformed auto travels outer space, it takes on loads of flash and bling borrowed from stars, asteroids and others elements of the galactic realm.
There’s much to love in this kid-friendly graphic novel. The story arc follows a familiar trajectory: the protagonists meet every challenge successfully and win the sought-after prize. Kid readers will be cheering. But my hat’s off to Cathy Camper for elevating the storyline above the predictable. She does this through original settings and characters, including the lowrider car itself, and with the inventive twists of space travel and comical astronomy. Her text engages the ear with musical language that includes alliteration, onomatopoeia, and bursts of G-rated street slang in English, Spanish, and Spanglish.
Kids will eat up the comics-style art. Every page offers levels of visual puns and charming details that invite readers to study panels closely. The color scheme and the drawings give off a retro historieta vibe, fitting for a story about lowrider culture, which was born in the 1950s and is rooted in the Mexican American community. I’m not familiar with the ballpoint-pen doodle style that Raúl the Third credits as his inspiration, but I dig it!
TEACHING TIPS: The back of the book contains a glossary of Spanish phrases, factual information on the tongue-in-cheek astronomy that appears in the story, and a thumbnail summary of lowrider history.
One bonus of graphic novels is their appeal to devoted bookworms and reluctant readers. Kids seem to instinctively grasp the multiple levels of interaction offered through their blend of text and images. Teachers may want to approach Lowriders in Space—and any graphic novel—in two steps. Read through it once purely for the story. Revisit it at a slower pace to more fully absorb the images. Raúl the Third’s art is rich with details, charming secondary characters, and visual puns that sharp-eyed kids will relish hunting down. These may not be central to the story, but they sure contribute to the fun. For example, it’s one thing to read that there’s a fast-food joint called Sapo Bell in the background of one scene—it’s another to spy the goofy sapo sitting out front. Middle-grade readers are sure to love such hidden gems.
Lowriders in Space encourages kids to celebrate a fun aspect of Mexican American culture that should be respected, not ridiculed or stigmatized. Too often when lowriders appear in popular culture, they’re thrown in for kitsch points. This usually results in stereotyping and negative connotations. Teachers can use this text to combat the lazy disregard involved in stereotypical usage and replace it with the dignity that comes with cross-cultural appreciation.
If you’d like to learn more about lowrider history culture, here are some suggested resources:
Be sure to read Cathy’s guest post on Latin@s in Kid Lit!
Cathy Camper is a librarian focusing on outreach to schools and children in grades K-12. She lives in Portland, Oregon. Raúl the Third teaches classes on drawing and comics for kids at the Museum of Fine Arts and the Institute of Contemporary Art. He lives in Boston, Massachusetts.
And now for a big treat, the official book trailer for Lowriders in Space!