Monday, November 26, 2007

Children's Books Celebrate Basics: Eating, Learning

Book Review

By Daniel Olivas

In 1991, Tom Low and Philip Lee founded Lee & Low Books to publish multicultural stories that children can identify with and enjoy.

Their press now has published more than 200 titles in hardcover, paperback, lift-the-flap and board-book formats. Its books have won many literary awards, plus critical praise from The New York Times, Publishers Weekly, USA Today, Kirkus Reviews and Smithsonian Magazine. Many of its titles have been translated into Spanish.

Lee & Low Books now brings us two delightful new picture books that touch on very different joys of childhood: eating and learning.

In Yum! ¡MmMm! ¡Qué rico! Americas' Sproutings ($16.95 hardcover) by Pat Mora, we are introduced to the wonderful foods grown in the Americas such as corn, chile, tomatoes, peanuts and papayas.

Mora, an El Paso native and award-winning author of more than 25 books, uses haiku to describe each food. For example, here's her paean to chocolate:

Fudge, cake, pie, cookies.
Brown magic melts on your tongue.
Happy, your eyes dance.

And with each haiku, Mora gives us a little historical background in a sidebar: "Chocolate is made from the seeds in the pods of the tropical cacao tree. The word chocolate comes from the Nahuatl word xocolatl, which means 'bitter water.' " Mora goes on to explain that the "pods were so highly prized, they were even used as money. Yes, money grew on trees!"

Mora's text is beautifully illustrated by Rafael López, who grew up in Mexico City and is strongly influenced by the Mexican muralists. His illustrations possess the rich colors and bold lines of a Diego Rivera or José Clemente Orozco mural. They are a perfect match for Mora's whimsical haiku.

The joy of learning despite living in extreme poverty is the poignant theme of Armando and the Blue Tarp School ($16.95 hardcover) by Edith Hope Fine and Judith Pinkerton Josephson.

Based on events surrounding an actual school run by David Lynch, a former special education teacher from New York, this book tells us about a young boy named Armando who helps his father pick through the trash in a Tijuana city dump. Armando and his father salvage things to sell so that they can help put food on the table. This leaves little time for Armando to think about getting an education.

However, the previous summer, Armando spent time learning at Señor David's "blue tarp school" -- which, at first, confused the boy: "He thought schools had walls, floors, and roofs. But Señor David said a school could be anywhere -- even on a tarp in a colonia."

After a little pleading, Armando's father relents and allows his son to attend the blue tarp school again. Things seem to be going as well as they could, until a fire destroys the colonia's modest homes. This devastating incident brings a newspaper reporter out to cover the struggles of the colonia's inhabitants. One thing leads to another, and eventually a private donor supplies funds to build an actual school building for the colonia. Because this story is based on actual events (which are described in more detail at the end of the book), it is difficult for the reader not to be moved.

Armando and the Blue Tarp School is nicely illustrated by Hernán Sosa, who was born in Argentina and raised in Paraguay. Sosa now lives and works in Denver.

With these two new titles, Lee & Low Books continues to bring handsomely produced, meaningful multicultural literature to children. To learn more about the press, its submission guidelines, and contests, go online to

[This review first appeared in the El Paso Times.]

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