Book Review: Side by Side/Lado a Lado by Monica Brown, illustrated by Joe Cepeda


Reviewed by Maria Ramos-Chertok

Side by Side/Lado a Lado CoverDESCRIPTION FROM THE PUBLISHER: Every day, thousands of farmworkers harvested the food that ended up on kitchen tables all over the country. But at the end of the day, when the workers sat down to eat, there were only beans on their own tables. Then Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez teamed up. Together they motivated the workers to fight for their rights and, in the process, changed history.

Award-winning author Monica Brown and acclaimed illustrator Joe Cepeda join together to create this stunning tribute to two of the most influential people of the twentieth century.

MY TWO CENTS: Growing up, my mother told us we had to boycott grapes. At that time, I only understood farmworkers were treated badly and Cesar Chavez was helping them. Years later, I’ve found a bilingual children’s book that would have helped me understand, not only the history of the farmworker movement, but who Cesar Chavez was and how he and Dolores Huerta worked together to inspire a national consciousness about the treatment of farmworkers. I love that this book introduces Dolores and Cesar as children and connects their early life experiences to the decisions they made as they grew up. I value the discussion of poverty, which the author introduces by explaining that Cesar’s family ended up working as migrant farmworkers after they lost their home. Given the shame and confusion children are apt to feel when their family faces eviction and/or loss of a home, the book offers an important perspective on family displacement by following Cesar throughout the loss, showing how it impacted his life as an activist for human dignity. It also does a good job of showing how a teacher, Dolores Huerta, became a social justice leader, adding a texture and dimension to those in the teaching profession that students might not otherwise get an opportunity to witness.

The illustrations by Jose Cepeda really welcome readers into the story and younger children will be engaged visually. His illustrations are lively and are reminiscent of comic book characters.

I learned several things about the early lives of Caesar and Dolores that enriched my understanding of them as people and about the farmworker movement, so while the book is focused on ages four to eight, I suspect adults will learn something new as well.

Given that I longed for bilingual children’s books when my two sons were growing up, I only wish I had known about this book earlier. I applaud our local library for having a copy on display and bringing it to my attention.

TEACHING TIPS: The story offers educators the chance to engage their students in discussions about social justice. While there are many ways to talk about how and why people have to fight for human rights, this book offers a slice of American history that has resonance with contemporary issues related to the working and living conditions of the people who grow and pick our fruits and vegetables. Teachers might even bring in some fruit or veggies and ask children to think about how it ended up at the supermarket or fruit stand. Making a connection between planting, cultivating, growing, harvesting, marketing, and shipping and the human beings behind each step could be a valuable lesson on introductory economics.

There’s a deeper issue that surfaces in the book about “Why people do things that hurt other people?” (or why would a person do something that hurts another person?). Pre-school and elementary school aged children would already have a frame of reference for exploring the motivations and psychology behind this universal question. Along these lines, I offer one cautionary note related to the issue of how the landowners and bosses are portrayed. The author writes that “mean bosses sprayed the plants with poisons that made the farmworkers sick.” I understand the need to provide accessible language and concepts for four to eight year olds, as well as the desire to avoid delving into profit margins, racism, immigration, landowners versus farmworkers and economic class. Yet, there may well be children in one class/school/community who come from both farmworker families and farm owning families. As such, I think it is important to explore the term “mean” and work to avoid polarized thinking/labels. I’d recommend focusing young children on what motivates someone who’s being “mean” and the consequences of mean treatment:

  • What makes people act in a mean way?
  • Why are people mean to some and not to others?
  • What happens when you are on the receiving end of someone who is mean?
  • What if the person being mean has power over you (e.g. boss, police officer, parent)?

Children know about these issues first-hand, and I’d suspect they’d have amazing insights.

I also see Side by Side being used to talk about work and career. So many adults ask kids what they want to be when they grow up, and that pressure can make kids feel like they have to provide an acceptable response. This book provides insights into how your calling can find you. It also shows how one’s chosen profession, teacher in Dolores’s Huerta’s case, can morph, grow, expand and change over time.

The book offers a wonderful opportunity to explore friendship. By highlighting the platonic partnership and bond between a man and woman working toward a common vision, it shows a model of what two people can do when they unite. The idea of strength in numbers or working in pairs can be explored by asking students about the benefits of working with someone else on a school project or a sports team.

The book can also be used to discuss feminism. Many people think about Cesar Chavez’s connection to the farmworker movement. This book highlights Dolores Huerta’s work as a bold and fearless leader in her own right. She is an important role model for girls, displaying courage, skills to inspire and mobilize, and political savvy. For lessons that focus on women in American History, she would be a great person to showcase.

Finally, because so much of the telling of history has to do with who is telling the story, Side by Side provides a perspective on history that departs from the dominant culture’s narrative on landowning, California’s natural agricultural bounty, modernization, and unionization.

I’d recommend reading the Note for Parents and Teachers at the back of the book to gain more context and facts about Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta.

WHERE TO GET IT: To find Side by Side / Lado a Lado, check your local public library, your local bookstore, or IndieBound. Also, check out GoodreadsAmazon, and Barnes & Noble.


 monica6ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Monica Brown, Ph.D. is the author of many award-winning books for children, including Waiting for the BiblioburroMarisol McDonald Doesn’t MatchMarisol McDonald no combina The Lola Levine series including: Lola Levine is Not Mean!Lola Levine, Drama QueenLola Levine and the Ballet Scheme, and Lola Levine Meets Jelly and Bean. Find Monica on Facebook at Monica Brown, Children’s Author, on twitter @monicabrownbks, or online at

For other posts about Monica Brown, click here and here.


second_pic_4x6_72ABOUT THE ILLUSTRATOR: Joe Cepeda is an award-winning illustrator of children’s books who also works in magazine illustration. He lives in California and serves as president of the Society of Illustrators of Los Angeles. For more information, visit his website.



Joe Cepeda did a two-part interview with us about his work. To read those posts, click here and then here.


Extra: A movie about Dolores Huerta released on September 1, 2017. Here is the official trailer:


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)  She is a trainer with Rockwood Leadership Institute and a member of the Bay Area chapter of Write on Mamas. For more information, visit her website at

Illustrator Joe Cepeda Talks to Latin@s in Kid Lit, Part 2

By Lila Quintero Weaver

We’re continuing a fascinating conversation with acclaimed illustrator Joe Cepeda. His work graces many Latin@-themed children’s books. Did you miss the first installment? Go here.

Lila: When did your interest in art begin? How did you train for a career in illustration?

Joe: When I was young, I enjoyed drawing enough that my mom enrolled me at the Los Angeles Music and Art School in East Los Angeles, a small jewel of a place where I first tried painting. By my teens, though, I stopped going and after graduating high school found myself headed to college to study engineering. It took me awhile before I changed all of that. Initially, I thought I’d be an editorial cartoonist, but as soon as I got a brush back in my hand, I realized I wanted to do something that had an artfulness to it as well. Illustration afforded the perfect combination of content and creative articulation for me.


To be honest, my training was largely guided toward editorial work. I sort of fell into children’s books. Creating a piece for a magazine article is much like doing work for a cover. There is a certain amount of seduction employed in influencing a magazine reader to stop and read an article, much the way you’d want someone to pick up a book off a shelf. A combination of abstraction, mystery, emotion, and information might play a role in creating that single image that will lure the audience in.

From the books I’ve illustrated, I pretty much taught myself sequential image-making and continue to do that. With a portfolio largely lacking any real samples that reflected page-turning sensibilities, it was very fortunate that I was signed up to illustrate those first books. I believe that it was an inclination to write a picture as much as illustrate one that may have been evident to my first editors and art directors. They seem to have responded to that and took a risk. I’m grateful to them for doing so.


Lila: Most of us have no idea how an illustrator goes about his work. Can you give us a tour of the process?

Joe: In many ways, the real work is done throughout the sketch phase. For editorial work, I usually create a few alternate ideas for a director to choose from. The sketches need to be tight enough for the director to envision the finished art.

For books, the sketch process is more comprehensive. The first sketches are thumbnails in which I mostly brainstorm, trying to find the basic rhythm, character introduction, action, choreography of the story, etc. The second phase of sketches, laid out as a dummy (a design/template that allows you to see the whole book planned out) focuses on the essential content of the story, as well as soundly composing the images. This is the working plan to be shared with editors and art directors. It’s important to understand that this design is as much for others as it is for oneself. This is where mistakes are caught.

Finally, in the last draft of sketches, details are included to a more specific degree. The emotions of your images many times are expressed in the details of your illustrations. It’s where things become funny, scary, thrilling, suspenseful, etc. This shouldn’t be confused with complexity—a simple picture has as much power as an ornate one. Once the dummy is okayed, it’s on to the finished work. Almost all of my books have been executed as oil paintings over acrylic under-paintings on illustration board. A recent book I illustrated was delivered as digitally rendered finishes. Whatever your medium of choice, the more confident you are of your plan, the more enjoyable the last part of the process will be. I leave color out of the initial plans because I prefer to be responsive when it comes to that, leaving a level of spontaneity for the end.

Milagros_jacket_finish72Lila: Let’s close out this conversation by returning to a book cover, the one you recently did for the e-book version of Meg Medina’s Milagros: A Girl from Away. It’s breathtaking, truly exceptional. I know Meg was thrilled with it!

Joe: Thanks for the kind words. Milagros is a great story and it was a wonderful opportunity to illustrate the cover of the e-book. After reading the manuscript, I couldn’t help responding to Milagros as a girl between two worlds. It’s the “between” part that intrigued me as a source for creating a provocative image. Milagros is not only traveling from one place to another, as she does in the story, she’s also between the clarity of a wide-open sky and the deep mystery and profundity of the ocean. The magical realism of the story, in my mind, calls for a more symbolic and open-ended image. Alternative ideas depicted Milagros closer to the viewer, larger in the design. This would emphasize Milagros more. A reader might respond to that kind of image, “That girl looks like me, i want to read about her.” It’s certainly popular to create covers that are more character-based, but, I’m glad that we decided to go the other way, that is, emphasizing the mystery, the peril of the journey, and the hopefulness and optimism of Milagros’ spirit. A reader here might ask, “Where is that girl going? What is she facing? Is she lost? Is she on her way somewhere? Is she safe? Will she get there? What will she find? Keeping her small in the design also helps the reader ask, “Who is she?” My first sketches didn’t include the manta ray, inclined to depict Milagros navigating her way alone, but, as we discussed, it’s a central part of the story. I’m glad mantas are such mysterious and, perhaps, very poetic creatures. I wanted it to have an ambiguous posture… is it a threat to her, or is it a witness, or, even something more? For me, the more questions you ask when looking at a cover, the better a cover does its job.


To learn more about Joe’s craftsmanship and illustration technique, see this extensive interview by Kathleen Temean.

Want to see Joe in his studio and hear more of his story? Here’s a video interview, worth the double click-through!


Illustrator Joe Cepeda Talks to Latin@s in Kid Lit, Part 1

By Lila Quintero Weaver

Long before I met Joe Cepeda at the National Latino Children’s Literature Conference in 2012, a post card of the cover illustration of Pam Muñoz Ryan’s Esperanza Rising was tacked to my then-11-year-old daughter’s bedroom wall. Every time I glanced at that soaring figure, my spirits lifted. Surely part of the book’s enormous success can be traced back to Joe’s luminous cover painting of Esperanza floating above the California earth, but that’s hardly the end of his contribution to children’s literature.

Lila: Welcome to Latin@s in Kid Lit, Joe! Thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to talk art and books. Let’s start our conversation with Esperanza Rising. How did you come up with the concept?

Joe: After seeing the title, it wasn’t too difficult to imagine young Esperanza in the air. My first sketch depicted Esperanza with her hair and dress floating behind her as if she were flying. Almost immediately, however, I changed it and flipped her dress and pretty dark tresses to sweep in front of her. What I realized is that I didn’t want to show Esperanza as if she were navigating in the air on her own. I wanted her to be swept away by the wind. Everyone who has read the book knows that Esperanza’s life changes from one day to the next and I wanted the image to reflect that life-altering event, as well as the hopefulness her story and name literally implies.

EsperanzaJacket72 copy 2Lila: What does it mean to you to have your work as the cover of such a powerful story?

Joe: A great deal. It’s never a bad thing to have your work associated with a story that has such resonance. In contrast to doing an illustration for a magazine, which has a very short life, a book hangs around longer. A book that continues to reach so many readers, year after year, is wonderful for the life of the image as well. Beyond that, one is always striving to create work that might emotively uplift the reader. It’s a beautiful story and if the cover helps to do just that, it’s very gratifying.

Lila: Your list of children’s books includes quite a few with Latino or African American characters. Does being Latino influence your development of minority characters and the worlds they inhabit? SideBySide_04_72

Joe: This is always a bit of a difficult question to answer, perhaps because I think very little about it when I’m illustrating books about people of color. I’d say the books that I see that seem to miss the mark ethnically/culturally seem to overthink it. There are a lot of things I may consider in developing a character before I get to their ethnic depiction. Does she wear glasses? Is she thin? Short? Should he be neat or a bit of a slob? Is he forgetful? Would he wear a hat? Many of the of the character’s inclinations and look are not included in the manuscript. By the time I get to the character’s cultural look, it kind of takes care of itself.

I wrote a story, The Swing, that took place in a neighborhood just like the street I grew up on. I’m Chicano, and I could write and illustrate that story about Chicano neighbors from a very immediate and intimate place. East Los Angeles isn’t Spanish Harlem, though, nor is it Little Havana. It seems to me illustrating stories about those Latino communities wouldn’t be all that different than illustrating a story about Inuits in the Arctic, Mongolians living in Yurts, or a story set in the Deep South. I’m respectful of the content and information that presents itself in illustrating stories of people of color, but I don’t live there that long. My preference is not to develop minority characters as much as illuminate the story that’s being told. For me, every step toward “development” is one toward information, accuracy and specificity, which is all fine and good, but it might also be one more step away from grandness and magic… and the informal joy of uncertainty and open-endedness.

MiceAndBeans4_75 copy

Lila: What’s on your drawing board right now?

Joe: Starting a new bilingual book based on a kid’s song. Writing a story for a picture book. Lunch.


And that’s not the end of Joe’s fascinating interview. Please stay tuned for tomorrow’s  follow-up post!

 second_pic_4x6_72Joe Cepeda is an award-winning illustrator of children’s books who also works in magazine illustration. He lives in California and serves as president of the Society of Illustrators of Los Angeles. For more information, visit his website.