Thursday, April 26

Fiesta Fiasco

by Ann Whitford Paul
illustrated by Ethan Long
Holiday House 2007

Conejo, Iguana and Tortuga stop by the market on the way to their friend Culebra's party to purchase birthday gifts for him. Iguana thinks Culebra would like a globo but Conejo convinces him that a sombrero would make a better gift. Similarly when Tortuga considers a fine tazon Conejo insists on a camise. And when Iguana and Tortuga point out that their friend would like a nice libro Conejo instead thinks pantalones make more sense.

Conejo, being a trickster rabbit, knows that his friend Culebra is a snake and his excuses for each of the gifts -- "He can wear the pants once he grows his legs" -- allows him to appropriate the useless gifts for himself once they are opened at the party. Dressed in Culebra's hat, shirt and pants he is expelled for being a rude friend while Culebra, Iguana and Tortuga continue to enjoy the fiesta.

Shame-faced Conejo returns with proper gifts, the book, bowl and balloon originally considered at the market. Snake is happy and while the four friends settle in for some fine birthday torta they discuss whose birthday comes next. Mine! Shouts Conejo excitedly, and everyone knows exactly what to get him: a touristy outfit of a sombrero, camise and pantalones.

Telling the story with Spanish words peppered and reinforced throughout with pictures allows for an easy immersion lesson in bilingualism. It feels a bit awkward up front as the characters settle in at the market but quickly the words become familiar as the story gains it's momentum and pacing. The bright-colored cartoon illustrations are warm, humorous, and give very solid contextual clues about how the characters feel and what they are talking about.

There's a fine line between a book like this which feels like a tale told from the Mexican desert and the deliberate teaching books of Dora the Explorer. Whenever I see anything Dora I get this hinkey feeling climbing up my back, as if the books were intended to help gringo children better communicate with the children of their nannies and housekeepers. There's something that rings just a tad false about all that PBS bilingualism, even while I know that it's really intended for the Spanish speaking children in the audience. The wording and the lessons feel so deliberate in a way that the other educational programming doesn't and it sits poorly with me.

Not so much in Fiesta Fiasco, where the limited and simple vocabulary (with a pronunciation guide for parents on the copyright page) are aimed at playfully at introducing new language to readers for whom all words are new language. Like I said, it's a fine line, but one I think is well handled here in a non-pedagogical way.

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