This spring, 26 native-Spanish-speaking third-graders from inner-city Denver assisted me in analyzing and critiquing René's book. These students are not just English Language Learners, or ELLs, as many school systems narrowly define them. I prefer the term EBEs, or Emerging Biliterate Entities,* to describe them.
Yes, they are learning English, but they're also learning more Spanish, along with science, math, history y muchísimo más. And, they are learning the countless aspects of America's multicultural society to function each day and succeed in the future. The critique you read below is one example of the contributions EBEs make to the literary discourse each day for their adopted country.
First, here's the publisher's description of the book: "A timely and inspiring story. Mario is leaving his home in El Salvador. With his father by his side, he is going north to join his mother, who lives in the United States. She has sent Mario a new pair of shoes. He will need good shoes because the journey north will be long and hard.
"He and his father will cross the borders of three countries. They will walk for miles, ride buses, climb mountains, and cross a river. Mario has faith in his shoes. He believes they will take him anywhere. On this day, they will take him to the United States, where his family will be reunited."
As the teacher of these lessons and author of this post, I edited some of what follows. The ideas, insights, opinions y todo lo de más are of the students' making.
The Students' Critique:
It's not possible to share all the ideas of all the kids because there's more than 26 pages' worth. The comments below were often posed by several of them, and other questions were sent to René Colato Laínez (RCL) that he will answer on his or the Los Bloguitos website in June. You can also go there to see great critiques of the book by adult and latino reviewers. Below you will exclusively find what children think of it.
Analysis of My Shoes & I.
Like most of the class, third-grader Edgar and Alan comment on what they learned about literary personification from the book: RCL wrote a good book because he explained it really well and wrote some wonderful details. Like when he personifies his shoes and says "uno, dos, tres and that they are ready to keep going and cross the finish line."
Sarahy had a personification question: Did this happen to you, that you treated a thing like a person?
BryanG said: The illustrations help the story because there are some tricky words and sometimes the illustrations have the meaning of the word.
BrianC wonders how an adult could know so much about latino kids' experiences: I enjoyed the themes and personifications like a personal connection I made to when he personified his shoes, saying "sana, sana, colita de rana." That's what I say to my favorite toy dinosaur. Also I wanted to know if someone helped him write the book.
Did students feel My Shoes & I was a believable story?
Unlike children's books written by many non-latinos and translated into Spanish that may not connect to the world of bilingual students, René's did pass the kids' standardized test of authenticity. BrianC's last sentence above was often repeated by others, and I was uncertain whether they were questioning RCL's authorship or the fact that his publicity photo makes him look like their older brother. I finally answered this, at least for myself: the kids couldn't get over how real the story was for them, how much they connected with it, how much of their short lives was featured in the story.
RubenM: I think Rene did write a WOW! believable story because he wrote spicy words instead of dead words. And I like the pictures.
Xitlaly: René wrote a good story because it has personifications.
NancyR: I believe that RCL did a believable story because it teaches people many things, like not giving up or that you have to believe in yourself.
Brisa: Yes I do think this is a good and believable story because it is a little funny and sad.
Jaider: Yes I think this is a good book because it made me sad and happy and it had new words.
To some students, like BryanG, the question about believability was simpler: I think he wrote a believable story because he says that a boy and father moved from El Salvador to Guatemala to Mexico and the U.S. and people move like that to other places.
Jaclyn: I think yes, because Mario had to cross from El Salvador to Guatemala, Mexico and to the U.S.
One student summarized well everyone's amazement over seeing parcels of their lives in print, as if René might have followed them around with a video camera. Adal: Where did you get the information?
How students identify or personally connect with the story.
Because a book is written in or translated into Spanish doesn't make it culturally relevant. It requires something more true to life, like what it's like to have to wear worn-out shoes or what it's like walking a path most Americans never had to experience. Xitlaly: The book made me think of when I went to Utah. I walked all the way until we found some houses and got in a taxi. This book also made me remember when my dad crossed from Mexico to the U.S.
Lesley wanted to know: Did René really need to cross the border when he was younger?
Marianay: How did you come up with the story? Did you have to walk all the way from where you were born to come here?
Rafael: I made a connection to the story. When I like something I take care of it and play with it.
RubenM: A personal connection I made is when I was in Mexico and everyone's shoes had holes in the bottom of the soles.
JaclynI: I made a personal connection that when I went to Nebraska my shoes got dirty.
Nancy: The personal connection that I made is that when I want something I never give up because I really like it. I also believe that I can do it, like when I did CSAP (Colo.'s standardized test) I believed in myself.
Jaider: My connection to this story is that when the dogs were chasing Mario he was scared and when dogs chase me I'm scared.
Christopher: It reminded me when I had my new shoes and I got them dirty and my shoes got a hole in the sole. My personal connection is when he was talking to his shoes and says "sana, sana, colita de rana," saying everything would be all right. Mario kept going and he never gave up.
BryanG: A connection I made is when my mom and my dad went to the U.S. from El Salvador to L.A.
Daniela: A personal connection I made was when I bought new shoes I really loved they became dirty and didn't fit me anymore.
NancyR: What inspired you to do this book and how did you think of so many good ideas?
Leslie: I did a connection with My Shoes because I had some shoes I liked a lot and one day I saw them ripped because my puppy bit them. Rene, how did you do this wonderful book? Have you gone through these things in your life?
Kids gauge if the book is correctly aimed at 5-8 year olds.
AlexN: Yes it is kind of hard but I think they can.
LesleyE: I do agree that this book should be intended for kids 5-8 because it is not so easy and it's not so hard. I think this book would be good for my neighbor who is five years old.
Adal: I agree because they can read it if they practice.
Marianay: I agree this is for 5-8 year olds because the words are too easy for 9-16.
Edwin: I think yes because everybody can read the book and 5-8 year olds can read.
Brisa: I agree this book is for 5-8 because it could be funny to someone or sad to someone. For me, it was sad.
But not everyone agreed on this, like Jaider: I disagree because there are hard words for 5-8 years olds like package. [Which he can now read.]
Christopher: I think this book is for 3rd grade because it is a little bit hard to read and the letters are too little.
It was a lot simpler for Leslie: I agree because it is not our decision; it's RCL's decision.
And then there's Daniela: I disagree the book is for kids 5-8 because it is a very wonderful book that everyone would like to read. Even adults should read it.
The kids decide whether they'd recommend the book.
Daniela: It is a very fabulous book and almost everyone would like it.
Lizbeth called it: a cool book. My comment to RCL is I love your book, because we could take it along on a trip.
Rogelio: I think RCL did a really good job of writing the book.
But for various reasons not everyone agreed, like Alan: I think I disagree because the 5-year-old wouldn't read it. I think it needs to be 7-9.
Edgar: I disagree because this book is too easy to read and I think it is higher level.
RubenM: I say no because it is a good story and I think it should be for 4 to 10 year olds.
NancyR: I disagree. The story is so wonderful I think everybody should hear it because it teaches us a lesson and talks about how they don't give up.
Marianay asked René: How does it feel being an author? This and other kids' questions made me realize that many identified with him in a way that would not have happened by reading a Junie B. Jones book. Some now have an inkling that they could possibly become writers like him. He's Spanish-surnamed, so are they. He wrote about the unique, immigrant experience, like theirs. His book encompassed the sadness, fears and hopes of crossing into a new country--theirs.
I also thought that the kids' frequent usage of the author's first name, René, significant. How many times have you heard a kid refer to Junie, instead of Junie B. Jones? I think it represents an internalized personal connection that he is a human being-turned-friend because they feel he is so much like them. At least, that's my take.
What I've tried to present for teachers, parents, kids, or anyone who wants a culturally relevant gift for a latino child is a summary of the effect that My Shoes & I had on 26 Denver biliterate students of Mexican, Guatemalan and Salvadoran heritage. They were engaged in reading, discussing, analyzing and writing about the book for so many hours, I continually worried they'd become bored or tired of it. That didn't happen. Much of that was due to the rigor imparted from their regular teacher Estherrose, as well as to the students' own yearning for knowledge and love of lit.
Or maybe the reason lies in Adal's answer to if and why he thought My Shoes was a good book:
"Yes, because we are learning about worlds."
Maestro Rudy Garcia
* EBEs = Emerging Bicultural/Bicultivados Entidades* [entities] This is a take-off on the thinking of bilingual researchers and educators N. Commins and K. Escamilla concerning how native Spanish-speakers have been labeled.
The old term of ELLs, or English language-learners, dehumanized children by delimiting the focus of their learning to English, as if that were the most important, or even only, description of them and their learning. Learning English is not the key to academic success; it is just one important, cultural aspect of a much wider spectrum of knowledge they could and should acquire.
Yes, they are special, special entities, I term them. Entity: for me the word conjures visions of sci-fi or fantasy, beings with special powers and abilities, sometimes from far-off worlds. The EBEs' world is indeed far off from what most Anglo American children experience. As Laínez's book describes, it's a world that can begin in places that others can read about, but only imagine.