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

 

CLICK HERE TO ENTER OUR GIVEAWAY. YOU COULD WIN FRIDA AND HER ANIMALITOS IN ENGLISH OR SPANISH! 

 

Book Review: Stef Soto, Taco Queen by Jennifer Torres

 

Reviewed by Caissa Casarez

Stef Soto, Taco Queen CoverDESCRIPTION FROM THE BOOK’S BACK COVER: Estefania “Stef” Soto is itching to shake off the onion-and-cilantro embrace of Tia Perla, her family’s taco truck. She wants nothing more than for Papi to get a normal job and for Tia Perla to be a distant memory. Then maybe everyone at school will stop seeing her as the Taco Queen.

But when her family’s livelihood is threatened, and it looks like her wish will finally come true, Stef surprises everyone (including herself) by becoming the truck’s unlikely champion. In this fun and heartfelt novel, Stef will discover what matters most and ultimately embrace an identity that even includes old Tia Perla.

MY TWO CENTS: Jennifer Torres doesn’t waste any time introducing the readers to Stef and the people in her life, including Papi and her best friend Arthur in the first scene outside of their Catholic middle school. She notices Papi in his taco truck – known as Tia Perla for the rest of the book – and she gets angry because he had originally promised to let her meet him at a nearby gas station. This is the first of many conflicts Stef has with her parents about maturity at the seventh-grade level. The conflicts are about issues that come up in many houses of middle school students.

One of my favorite scenes of the book is in chapter 3, when Stef reminisces about the early stages of Tia Perla being in her family’s life. From what Torres describes as “kitchen-table whispers” about the kinds of beans and salsa it’ll feature (“nothing from a jar,” insists Mami) to learning the origin of the name (Stef’s pick), the entire scene was sweet and a key part of the story. The chapters in the entire book are short but detailed enough for readers of any age to get a glimpse into Stef’s life.

Despite the joy Tia Perla once brought to Stef, she feels anything but joy about the beloved truck as the book goes on. She tries to be nice to former-friend-turned-popular-girl Julia by offering her a ride home in Tia Perla, but Julia turns around and calls Stef the “Taco Queen” behind her back. This comes after Julia makes a scene before the start of their English class by announcing she has tickets to see local pop sensation Viviana Vega in concert. Torres then takes the readers into more of Stef’s life at Saint Scholastica School – trying to fit in and leave Tia Perla in the dust. Stef’s favorite day of the week is Tuesday, which she realizes is not common, because it’s when she has her art class. “And in art class,” Torres writes, “I never hear Mami’s voice telling me I’m too young, or Papi’s nagging me to be careful. I am in charge of the blank piece of paper in front of me, and I can turn it into something as vivid and adventurous or as quiet and calm as I want.” This part of the story stuck out to me because of the way Torres compares making art with wanting independence.

Stef spends every Saturday helping her Papi and Tia Perla during their busiest day of the week. They travel to farmers markets, parks, and other outdoor common areas in their city to feed the crowds with the scrumptious food they’re known for. Even though Papi seems grateful every time Stef helps him out, she still wants nothing to do with Tia Perla, especially when it gets in the way of her independent life she’s trying to create.

During a stop on one of Tia Perla’s routine Saturdays, Stef visits her other best friend, Amanda, after her soccer game. While the two are cooling off with the help of strawberry soda, they listen to the radio and eventually win concert tickets to see Viviana Vega. Stef is cautiously optimistic about her parents letting the two attend the concert alone – until they say no, despite her papi giving her a cell phone she thinks is to check in with them at the concert.

The book then turns its focus to two more complex and meaningful issues previously introduced before Stef’s blowup with her papi. Stef and her classmates decide to work together in a unique way to get more art supplies (hint: a school-wide event is included). And, in a move that impacts Stef more than she realizes, Papi’s business (and Tia Perla) is threatened by new proposed city rules that would impact all food trucks in the area, specifically the taco trucks. Stef seems more mature than others her age when she mentions translating important notes for her papi and others from English into Spanish.

The book ends with a couple of different twists that I didn’t see coming, but I believe both twists worked really well to help bring the story to a close. Stef learns to love all of the parts that make up her identity – even Tia Perla.

Torres does a wonderful job describing the characters and each place they’re in throughout the book. I felt like I was following Stef and her family and friends through their adventures. The book addresses many important topics that may be tough for some kids and families to discuss, but I believe the issues were written in a way that kids can understand. I felt for Stef during some of the scenes with her parents.

There are some basic Spanish words and sentences in the book, most of which are italicized except for one – Orale! That word appears several times in the book with several different meanings, which I loved. It helped set the tone for each of the different chapters, especially when Stef described each way it was written for each scene.

Overall, Stef Soto, Taco Queen is a wonderful read. It’s recommended for kids in grades 4-7 (ages 9-12), but I would suggest it to anyone looking for a story about a girl trying to find herself in this crazy world.

TEACHING TIPS: This book could be used to discuss the idea of working together to help solve problems, especially in the face of adversity. Stef’s art teacher, Mr. Salazar, helped his class raise money to bring in more art supplies, even though he was skeptical about their idea at first. The book could also be used in a way to discuss local politics for students. Not many middle-school students get involved with politics in such a way that Stef did, but I believe the book would be a good way to teach students how to make a difference in their community.

jtorresABOUT THE AUTHOR (from the book’s back cover): Jennifer Torres was 17-years-old–a senior at Alverno High School in Sierra Madre, California—when the first time a story of hers was published in a newspaper. The story was about making tamales with her family, but it was also about love and tradition and growing up. She went on to study journalism at Northwestern University and the University of Westminster. Today, she works as a freelance journalist and is the author Finding the Music, a picture book from Lee & Low. Jennifer lives with her husband and two little girls in central California. Stef Soto, Taco Queen is her debut novel.

BOOK LINKS: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, IndieBound, GoodReads

 

assertABOUT THE REVIEWER: Caissa Casarez is a proud multiracial Latina and a self-proclaimed nerd. When she’s not working for public television, Caissa loves reading, tweeting, and drinking cold brew. She especially loves books and other stories by fellow marginalized voices. She wants to help reach out to kids once in her shoes through the love of books to let them know they’re not alone. Caissa lives in St. Paul, MN, with her partner and their rambunctious cat. Follow her on Twitter & Instagram at @cmcasarez.

American Stories of Opportunity, Hope, and Ambition: A Guest Post by Author Jennifer Torres

 

By Jennifer Torres

Melissa, an 8th grader who plans to go to MIT and be a college math professor.

Melissa, an 8th grader who plans to go to MIT and become a college math professor.

Escalon is a Spanish word that means “step” or “stepping stone.” It is also a small town in the heart of California’s agricultural Central Valley, surrounded by dairies and almond orchards. Just off Main Street there, across from American Legion Post 263, is the library where Melissa, an eighth grader, volunteers to read to younger children, sometimes in English and sometimes in Spanish.

“I think it’s important to read to kids because they get to know new things when they read a book,” she told me. Melissa’s own favorite books, she said, are mystery and fantasy novels. “It’s like a whole new world.”

Just like Melissa, many of the children who visit the Escalon Library are the sons and daughters of Mexican immigrants, families who saw, in the United States, a step toward opportunity and who courageously took it.

Stef Soto, Taco Queen CoverThose stories are American stories, and I hope that readers will recognize them in Stef Soto, Taco Queen.

The fictional Stef Soto, like millions of very real children in the United States who have immigrant parents, is a first-generation American.

Just like Melissa, Stef sometimes translates for her mom and dad.

Just like Stef, Melissa has parents whose hearts thunder with hope and ambition for their daughter.

“I want her to remember where she comes from, but her future is here,” Melissa’s mom, Adriana, told me in Spanish as she helped her daughter lead an arts-and-crafts project at the library. (She credits the San Joaquin County Office of Education’s Migrant Education department for encouraging her to become an advocate for Melissa’s learning). “I want her to graduate, to go to college, to have a better quality of life.”

She and her husband have encouraged Melissa to begin investigating colleges, to think about what she wants to study, who she wants to be.

“I’ve decided I want to go to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology,” Melissa said, braces glinting. “I think that’s a good one for what I want to do.”

What she wants to do is teach math. When I asked her what grade, she hesitated, sheepish about correcting me.

Finally, she shook her head. “No, I want to be a math professor. Like at a university.”

Just like I did—in a family that includes first-, second-, third- and fourth-generation Americans, as well as some who still live in Mexico—Stef is growing up speaking and listening to a vibrant mix of English and Spanish. We both find comfort in friends and family and warm tortillas, smeared with butter.

And just like all of us, I think, she is trying hard to figure out exactly where she belongs. Too often, for too many, it can feel like a here or there question.

But as I have learned, as students like Melissa remind us, and as characters like Stef discover, our stories are so much richer than that.

“I get to have both cultures,” Melissa said. “And I want people to know that immigrants are people—smart people—who want a better future, and so they came to this country. I think it’s really brave of them.”

jtorresFrom the author’s website: Hi there. I’m Jennifer. I live with my family in California’s Central Valley, and I write stories. I used to work as a newspaper reporter, writing stories about real people, whose lives told us something about our world and maybe about ourselves. Now, I write books for young readers—books with make-believe characters whose stories, I hope, are just as full of life and truth as the real ones.

Check out my picture book, Finding the Music, published by Lee & Low Books, and look out for my debut middle-grade novel, Stef Soto, Taco Queen, coming January 2017 from Little, Brown Books for Young Readers.