Book Review: Me, Frida, and the Secret of the Peacock Ring by Angela Cervantes

 

Review by Jessica Agudelo

DECRIPTION OF THE BOOK: A room locked for fifty years. A valuable peacock ring. A mysterious brother-sister duo. Paloma Marquez is traveling to Mexico City, birthplace of her deceased father, for the very first time. She’s hoping that spending time in Mexico will help her unlock memories of the too-brief time they spent together. While in Mexico, Paloma meets Lizzie and Gael, who present her with an irresistible challenge: The siblings want her to help them find a valuable ring that once belonged to beloved Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. Finding the ring means a big reward — and the thanks of all Mexico. What better way to honor her father than returning a priceless piece of jewelry that once belonged to his favorite artist! But the brother and sister have a secret. Do they really want to return the ring, or are they after something else entirely?

MY TWO CENTS: Paloma Marquez does not want to travel to Mexico City. But thanks to a literature fellowship awarded to her mother, Emma, at a Mexican university, she is left with little choice. She will miss out, she laments, on her familiar Kansas City summer: fireworks, reading by the pool, shopping at the mall with friends (all things she can do in Mexico, too, of course). Upon their arrival, she remains pouty and pessimistic, exasperating even her mother, who tells her, “Seriously Paloma…you’re the only one who complains about a free trip to Mexico.”

Her attitude slowly begins to change on their first night in Coyoacán, when Paloma and her mother attend a party at Casa Azul, Frida Kahlo’s former home turned museum. Paloma cannot help being absorbed by the vivid colors, mariachi music, delicious guanábana drinks, and the intriguing artist whose images permeate the museum. It certainly doesn’t hurt that very cute boys are in attendance, like Tavo, the son of Mr. and Mrs. Farill, the wealthy benefactors of her mother’s fellowship, or Gael Castillo, an aspiring artist, who along with his sister, Lizzie, a talented trumpet player in a mariachi band, recruit Paloma to seek out Frida’s peacock ring. Her encounter with these characters at Casa Azul is no accident. The location is at the heart of the unfolding mystery, not only because it is the scene of the crime, but because all the characters have a connection to it. And, just like Casa Azul houses secrets beneath a vibrant exterior, Paloma soon finds that the outward charm of her new acquaintances belies their true intentions.

Before Paloma decides to join the Castillos in their investigation, she dreams about Frida, who tells her, “It’s true I am missing something…But you’re missing something, too.” Although Paloma is half Mexican (by way of her father, who died in a car accident when she was a toddler), she is disconnected from her heritage, and experiences a bit of culture shock when she first alights in Mexico. She worries about “all these kidnappings going on” and the “drug trafficking kingpin dude.” Her mother, who is white, dismisses Paloma’s concerns as “nonsense,” but admits, “I haven’t done a good job of exposing her to her Mexican heritage.” Cervantes parallels Paloma’s cultural development with the mystery plot, fittingly, since her own identity requires piecing together memories her mother shares of her father, and jotting them down on notecards. It is through Frida, though, that Paloma begins to explore her Mexican side independently. She connects with the icon’s life and art, including her mixed heritage and penchant for self-portraits (likened to selfies in the text). Her exposure to Mexico also serves as exposure for some readers, who may have little to no familiarity with the nation. Although the focus remains on Frida and not Mexico at large, it is a positive step toward creating more positive associations of Mexico for a wider readership.

Although Paloma is initially apprehensive about her possible role in solving a mystery, she cannot help but be intrigued. After all, she is a big fan of mysteries herself, and cannot pass up an opportunity to flex her sleuthing skills. She constantly emulates her favorite literary crime solver, Lulu Pennywhistle, who is both an acknowledgment of the middle grade mystery canon (think Nancy Drew or Trixie Belden), and a subtle commentary on it. Me, Frida and the Secret of the Peacock Ring, is one of very few titles to feature a young protagonist of color, take place in a Latin American city (if any), and focus on the legacy of a female Latinx artist (none; please correct me if I’m wrong). But here now is Paloma Marquez, with keen eyes and note cards in hand, to inspire a new generation of mystery buffs. Art history itself is a favorite subject of the mystery genre for children. Many titles, like the classic From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg, and more recent fare like Chasing Vermeer by Blue Balliett and Under the Egg by Laura Fitzgerald depict novice investigators exploring the history of an artist or artwork to ultimately save the integrity of the art itself, the adults too naive or cynical to do the job themselves, and sometimes even their own fates.

More sophisticated readers of the genre may foresee the revelation of the story’s villain, but the lack of suspense is offset by the fantasy of slipping into the role of crime solver, just as Paloma experienced. And indeed, her discoveries about herself are as integral to the narrative as the whereabouts of the ring. When readers catch a glimpse of Rafael Lopez’s stunning cover art for Me, Frida and the Secret of the Peacock Ring, they may not think they are holding a mystery at all. No dark doorways or creepy staircases. No pointed flashlights or magnifying glasses. Instead, there is Paloma gazing directly at the viewer, evoking Frida’s signature portraits, framed by lush, floral elements, and of course, a peacock (although there is no real peacock ring, Frida was famously an animal lover). She is inviting readers to take a look at all she has uncovered.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Angela Cervantes is the author of the critically acclaimed novels Gaby, Lost and Found and Allie, First at Last. Angela is the daughter of a retired middle-school teacher who instilled in her a love for reading and storytelling. Angela writes from her home in Kansas City, Kansas. When she is not writing, Angela enjoys reading, running, gazing up at clouds, and taking advantage of Taco Tuesdays everywhere she goes.

Click here for a recent Q&A with Angela Cervantes.

 

J_AgudeloABOUT THE REVIEWER: Jessica Agudelo is a Children’s Librarian at the New York Public Library. She has served on NYPL’s selection committee for its annual Best Books for Kids list, and is currently a co-chair for the 2018 list. She contributes reviews of English and Spanish language books for School Library Journal and is a proud member of the Association of Library Services to Children and REFORMA (the National Association to Promote Library and Information Services to Latinos and Spanish Speakers). Jessica is Colombian-American and born and raised in Queens, NY.

Book Review: Frida Kahlo and Her Animalitos by Monica Brown, illus. by John Parra

Review by Maria Ramos Chertok

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: Frida Kahlo and Her Animalitos, written by Monica Brown and illustrated by John Parra, is based on the life of one of the world’s most influential painters, Frida Kahlo, and the animals that inspired her art and life. The fascinating Mexican artist Frida Kahlo is remembered for her self-portraits, her dramatic works featuring bold and vibrant colors. Her work brought attention to Mexican and indigenous culture, and she is also renowned for her works celebrating the female form. Brown’s story recounts Frida’s beloved pets–two monkeys, a parrot, three dogs, two turkeys, an eagle, a black cat, and a fawn–and playfully considers how Frida embodied many wonderful characteristics of each animal.

MY TWO CENTS: Any story for children that involves a positive relationship with animals is captivating, and this story certainly is. It shows how animals played a supportive and nurturing role in Frieda’s life and also how they became her artistic muse. I enjoyed learning the names of her animals and about how she responded to the stresses of having to be bedridden at two separate times in her life by using imagination, creativity, and art to liberate her mind, find enjoyment, and express herself.

This book was published in both English and Spanish. Given that I like to read to my children in both languages, I often prefer having both languages accessible in one book. And, I can see the value in marketing to distinct audiences.  I experienced the Spanish language version as more layered and nuanced and that may be because Spanish is my second language, so I had to work harder and focus more to read it and, therefore, got more out of it.

The earth-toned illustrations by John Parra are a great accompaniment to the text and drew me into the story with ease, bringing the animals and characters to life.

At the end of the book, there is an Author’s Note that provides background information on Frieda and more information about her paintings and career as an artist. The book references Frieda’s close relationship with her father, who is described in the Author’s Note as German Hungarian. Throughout her life, Frieda described her father as Jewish, but neither the book, nor the Author’s Note mention this, which piqued my curiosity since, as a Latina Jew, that had been one of the things that drew me to Frieda Kahlo. In doing a small bit of research, it appears that a 2005 book traced her paternal lineage and concluded that she was from Lutheran stock. Yet, it wasn’t completely clear to me if that included a thorough examination of her paternal grandmother, Henriette Kaufman’s lineage. Regardless, it remains curious as to why Frieda talked about her father as Jewish. Various commentators have opinions on this issue. I did learn that she changed the spelling of her name to include the “e” during World War II, so that the spelling would more closely resemble frieden which is the German word for peace.

TEACHING TIPS: The first thing that came to mind when I read this book was the image of all young readers demanding that their parents buy them a monkey! From a teaching perspective, this presents a wonderful opportunity to discuss the history of animal rights, the distinction between domesticated and wild animals, and the importance of animals being in a habitat that promotes their long-term survival. While Frieda loved all her animals, her “domestication” of a fawn and a pair of monkeys should be stressed as something unique and not to be emulated, especially because any naturally wild animal that becomes domesticated is typically not able to return to the wild successfully.

I see a second opportunity to engage in a classroom discussion about support animals (Emotional Support Dogs/ESDs, Mental Health/Psychiatric Service Dogs, Therapy Dogs, Guide Dogs for the visually impaired/blind) and how animals are used in various ways to help people.

In the U.S., it is estimated that 44% of all households have a dog and 35% have a cat. This statistic could be used to launch a conversation about why people have pets and what role pets play in our lives. For older children, this discussion can lead to the role that zoos play in society and a debate about the pros and cons of zoos.

Some 2017 resources include the film A Dog’s Purpose (for children/teens). For teachers, reading the book The Zookeeper’s Wife or seeing the 2017 movie adds an interesting angle to zoos. The new release The Dogs of Avalon (August 2017) expands the conversation about animal rights and justice.

Another route to explore is Mexican art and the role that both Frieda Kahlo and Diego Rivera (who is referenced in the book) played in shaping the field through their contributions as painters. As a creative activity, it might be fun for children to do self-portraits with pets they have and/or with animals they like (the latter for children who don’t have pets).

WHERE TO GET IT: To find Frida and Her Animalitos, check your local public library, your local bookstore, or IndieBound. Also, check out GoodreadsAmazon, and Barnes & Noble.

Click here for a Coloring Activity Sheet.

Click here for a Discussion Guide.

Click on the image below to see the book trailer!

 

monica6ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Monica Brown, Ph.D., is the award-winning author of Waiting for the Biblioburro/Esperando al Biblioburro, Marisol McDonald Doesn’t Match/no combina, and the Lola Levine chapter book series, including Lola Levine is Not Mean, Lola Levine, Drama Queen, and Lola Levine and the Ballet Scheme. Her books have garnered starred reviews, the Americas Award, two Pura Belpré Author Honors, and the prestigious Rockefeller Fellowship on Chicano Cultural Literacy. She lives in Arizona with her family and teaches at Northern Arizona University. Find out more at www.monicabrown.net.

 

Parra paintbrushABOUT THE ILLUSTRATOR: John Parra is an award-winning illustrator, designer, teacher, and fine art painter. His children’s books have earned many awards including, the SCBWI Golden Kite Award, ALA’s Pura Belpré Honors, The Christopher’s Award, the International Latino Book Award, and many more. In 2015, John was invited by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York to present a special event about his work and career in art and illustration and in 2017 John’s art will be seen on six new Forever Postal Stamps from USPS titled: Delicioso. He currently lives with his wife Maria in Queens, New York. John graduated from Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California. Visit him on the web http: //www.johnparraart.com/home.htm, or follow him on twitter @johnparraart.

 

ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Maria is a writer, workshop leader and coach who facilitates The Butterfly Series, a writing and creative arts workshop for women who want to explore what’s next in their life journey.  In December 2016, she won 1st place in the 2016 Intergenerational Story Contest for her piece, Family Recipes Should Never be Lost.  Her work has appeared in the Apogee Journal, Entropy Magazine, and A Quiet Courage.   Her piece Meet me by the River will be published in Deborah Santana’s forthcoming anthology All the Women in my Family Sing (Jan 2018) http://nothingbutthetruth.com/all-the-women-in-my-family-sing/.  She is a trainer with Rockwood Leadership Institute www.rockwoodleadership.org and a member of the Bay Area chapter of Write on Mamas.  For more information, visit her website at www.mariaramoschertok.com

 

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