Review of the Day: Maria Had a Little Llama / Maria Tenia Una Llama Pequena by Angela Dominguez
Ladies and gentlemen, I stand before you a humbled woman. A woman who “knew” certain facts but, until she saw them working in her own personal life, was made up of knowledge that was almost entirely speculative. Case in point, as a children’s librarian I “knew” (there are those quotation marks again) that nursery rhymes were important to children. But until I had spawned my own sprog I never really saw their power at play. All it took was one little sing/reading of Tomie de Paola’s board book version of Mary Had a Little Lamb and we were off! Suddenly my kiddo had to have every possible version of that same song. So we grabbed titles like the Kate Willis-Crowley Mary Had a Little Lamb, the Laura Huliska-Beith Mary Had a Little Lamb, and even the somewhat misleading Mary and Her Little Lamb by Will Moses. Read enough of the same thing to your kid over and over again and they’ll open to reinterpretations. So when Maria Had a Little Llama walked into my life I was on board. It’s beautiful, bilingual, and a one of a kind little specimen that I’m pleased to report now has a home on my shelves. If you’re burning out on the same-old, same-old, consider cranking it up a notch by ditching the familiar for a little Maria/llama action. You’ll be glad you did.
How does that old tune go? Ah yes. “Mary had a little lamb / its fleece was white as snow / And everywhere that Mary went / the lamb was sure to go.” Of course, should one choose to set the book in Peru, the lyrics could take on a slightly different tone. Instead of Mary we now have Maria. Instead of a little lamb, it’s a little llama. And though the bones of the song are the same (the school, the children, the laughing) author/illustrator Angela Dominguez imbues her book with a distinctive one-of-a-kind flavor and feel.
It’s a surprise to few that children’s books containing Latino characters are rare beasts. In spite of a significant population nationwide, try coming up with a single early chapter book series starring a Hispanic kid. Go on. Name me one. Picture books fare a little better, but usually there’s a didacticism lurking in the wings. A book that contains Spanish words is so often trying to teach those words that the storytelling gets lost in the process. Naturally there are exceptions to this (if your local library doesn’t own a single Gary Soto written Chato title then I advise you to petition them immediately if not sooner) and Angela Dominguez has penned one such book.
Recently I was in Spain and I encouraged my kiddo to count to ten in Spanish for a waiter at a restaurant. When she finished he asked how it was possible that she knew Spanish. I told him that they teach Spanish in daycares these days and he looked puzzled, “Why?” I could have launched into a long explanation about the benefits to the human brain of knowing more than one language, but why get into that? Still, the fact of the matter is that more and more kids are learning Spanish every day and as a result the demand for books that cater to their growing knowledge are in the increase Add the fact that Maria Had a Little Llama sports a familiar tune we all know only sweetens the deal, really.
Some bilingual books for kids feel like afterthoughts. Sometimes this makes sense since the books were originally published in one language and then became bilingual in subsequent printings. But some books just don’t adequately prepare for dual languages even when they come out as bilingual the first time. I don’t want to get to deep into the world of typography, page layouts, and design, but suffice to say when you know you’ll have to make additional space in a book for a translation, inform the book’s artist. In this particular case, Dominguez is both author and illustrator, so she was prepared from the get-go. Part of what I like so much about Maria is the fact that the Spanish lines are apparent and easy to read while also occupying their own space. The English words tend to be in bold with the Spanish slightly less dark below. Then as you read the book the words leap around the page. My favorite comes when we get to the lines “That was against the rules / Eso iba contra las reglas”. Dominguez cleverly places these words on a little framed blackboard hanging on the wall, as if the allusion to the rules were the rules themselves. But what makes it nice is that the attention paid to one language equals the attention paid to another. It’s the moment that clarifies best that this book was meant to be bilingual from the moment it was conceived. Awesome.
Then there’s the art. Picture books set in Peru are not as common as all that on my library shelves. The notable exception I suppose would have to be Love and Roast Chicken by Barbara Knutson, which is a delightful folktale that involves the deliciousness of guinea pigs as part of the plot. Old MacDonald by Jonas Sickler, a lovely little indestructible book, shares the most in common with Maria since it sets its own nursery rhyme in a similar setting (and yes, there are llamas galore). Part of what I liked so much about Dominguez’s book was how seamlessly she integrates the background into the story. There are loads of clever details about the region worked in (at one point Maria walks past a map that shows everything from the Andes to Inca Trails to Machu Picchu) but they don’t feel forced. You are thoroughly immersed in Maria’s world, until an extraordinary wordless two-page spread when it is clear that the author/illustrator wants you to pay attention to something other than the words. The shot is taken from above, looking down over the roofs and houses to a market square where Maria and her llama approach their school. The watercolors do an excellent job of bringing out the reds and purples found in some of the clothing. I also loved that when we reach the last page of the book, not only is the clothing accurate to the region but the instruments some of the folks are playing are completely out of my wheelhouse. I found myself wishing that for all that I loved the book’s sparse, spare feel, it would be great if there was a tiny Afterword explaining what these instruments were. Particularly that harp-like thing on the big guy’s shoulder that’s tied around him by purple bands of ribbon.
Yeah, it sort of works on every level. You can sing it (and therefore use it in a storytime VERY easily), it’s remarkably beautiful, the design works, the multiple languages are awesome, and it stars a kid from South America, which is a rare bright jewel in the publishing marketplace these days. All told, it’s a classy and successful effort. Beautiful from tip to toe, and necessary, this is one of those purchasing no brainers. You’re just gonna love it anyway. Might as well go out and buy this sucker. Satisfaction guaranteed.
On shelves August 20th.
Source: F&G sent from publisher for review.
Like This? Then Try:
- Love and Roast Chicken: A Trickster Tales from the Andes Mountains by Barbara Knutson
- Old MacDonald by Jonas Sickler
- Moon Rope by Lois Ehlert
Interviews: Jules at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast interviewed Angela this year, though admittedly the focus is on Angela’s other 2013 release.
Special Note: If you should find yourself with an F&G of this title, please note that the Spanish in the galley will not reflect the Spanish in the final edition. I had this book vetted by a friend from Spain and a friend from Mexico and they caught many mistakes. However, after checking with the publisher I learned about the changes being made to the final text.
Misc: A behind-the-scenes peek at the book.
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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