Review of the Day: niños: Poems for the Lost Children of Chile by María José Ferrada, ill. María Elena Valdez
It used to be that historical horrors were routinely hidden from children. They might get the rough general outlines of the past, but children’s books weren’t being used as teaching tools in that particular way. There would be the odd novel that alluded to the Holocaust, but that was the exception. And then, a shift occurred. It wasn’t that we decided that children were made of Teflon and we could throw every terrible historical event at them at once. Rather, publishing made the slow choice to acknowledge that many kids have the ability to learn from the past. As such, we’ve seen books that can speak on a wider range of terrible things come out recently. Books that talk about Hiroshima, what happened on 9/11, the Oklahoma City bombing, and more. But of course, these are all events with ties to America. What happens when the terrible event doesn’t touch you directly or indirectly at all? What if it happened to other people in another country far away? If we hope to foster a burgeoning sense of empathy in kids, niños: Poems for the Lost Children of Chile might be a good place to start. Oddly sweet, melancholic, and peaceful, this is poetry as remembrance as well as healing. It is also very much one of a kind.
Under the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, people disappeared. People died. And by the time his seventeen year long rule ended, thirty-four of the dead were children. In this book, each child is given one poem. They consider raindrops, the future, seashells, flowerpots, ants, light bulbs and more. They are the poems of children discovering their world. These poems are here so that we do not forget. These poems are here so that we always remember.
In size and shape, this book would seem to bear very few similarities to a title published in 2020 called I Wish. Yet it only takes the most tender of glances to see that these two books complement one another perfectly. Both are imports to America, one from Mexico, the other from the Netherlands. Both contain poems of children separated from us by time and circumstance. And in both cases these poems are an intoxicating mix of wonder and beauty, though with a dark current running beneath it all. These books acknowledge the darkness in the world and combat it with poems. Strange poems. Odd poems. Poems that show how a child’s brain is always noticing and wondering with a complexity adults have long since forgotten. In niños we wonder what their lives might have been, even as we acknowledge that their lives are nothing like our own. It’s enough to make me wonder why books from other countries aren’t afraid to confront the sheer strangeness of being a child through poetry. We Americans, in contrast, are a bit more interested in having our poetry books follow some pre-ordained, thematic track (baseball poetry, science and nature poetry, etc.). Once in a while, it’s good to read a child poems that stretch the gray matter in a direction where it hasn’t been stretched before.
Of course one key difference between niños and I Wish is that in niños Ferrada is putting words into the mouths of children that have no say in the matter. Who’s to say that the personalities on display here are the same personalities of the real children? Maybe Soledad hated the rain or Jessica was afraid of ants. I pondered this for a little while. Was the book doing something wrong? What if someone did this with the kids killed at Sandy Hook? But as I flipped through the book a couple times, it occurred to me that Ferrada makes a clear distinction between the Soledad who is speaking in this book and the Soledad Esther Torres Aguayo who was killed when she was only four. The children’s full names are all placed at the end of the book with their ages. The poems, meanwhile, just have a first name. This makes the kids whose voices appear in the poems both a part of the real children who are gone, and yet a kind of acknowledgment of the fact that this is fiction not fact at work. Ferrada’s work here is not documentation but a form of honoring the idea of childhood and the children that were lost as a whole. This is her method, but it is only one method. There are others waiting to be tried.
Ferrada does this rather clever juxtaposition right at the beginning of the book that’s interesting. She begins the book with a section just called ““Niños” where she gives a little background on what was happening in Chile during this time period. After talking about the thirty-four children she writes, “To those children, and to the memory that helps us defeat monsters, we dedicate this book.” The first poem comes immediately after this is called Alicia and it starts in this way: “Of all the gifts she’s been given this birthday / her favorite are the balloons / that decorated the house for the party.” And it tells of a girl that wishes she could let the balloons fly out the window for the wind. After all, it must have a birthday of it own, right? Even if we don’t know it, it must have one.” This poem is all light and life and birthdays. It provides a kind of sweet chaser to that aforementioned underlying darkness. And the more I read, the more I came to admire the structure of it all. You get to the last of the children, and then a list of their names and ages when they died. Then, just when you think that you’re done, you turn the page and find one last poem. “Pablo” it’s called. And under the poem, a poem that begins “When I grow up I’ll be a tree, a cloud, a wave, a snail” the book reads “Pablo Athanasiu, victim of a system of persecution and extermination that knew no borders, was part of this list until August 7, 2013, the day when the Abuelas of the Plaza de Mayo found him alive.” It’s the drop of hope at the end. The only way to end this book on the right note. It works.
And the poems are good. In her heartbreaking 2020 import Mexique, Ferrada dove deep into the rift that occurs when children are made to bear the brunt of adults’ actions. But where that book felt necessary but difficult, here she imbues such joy in these poems. Gabriel: “He likes to imagine that the stars are holes in the sky. / When the sun hides itself, / the Earth is covered by a black coat. / It is so old it has holes – / thus, those lights.” They’re all like this, to varying degrees. The children think and ponder and investigate and wonder. The overall impression is that they are all truly enthralled with life and its mysteries.
Accompanying these thoughts is the art of María Elena Valdez done in watercolors, graphite, pastels, charcoal, and colored pencils. These aren’t portraits of the kids. Rather they’re the impressions left by the poems. Color is there, but it’s limited. Restrained. And the graphite provides a bit of literal foreshadowing. And best of all, there’s a connection between them if you really look. I very much enjoyed watching the silhouette of Rafael, with rings around the orange in his pocket, mimicked by the rings of the rain in “Soledad”, and how “Hugo” then combines both the rings on the ground and the silhouette of a boy, tying the three poems together. There are lots of little connecting details like this, but you have to stop and look for them.
There are as many ways to present collections of poetry to children as there are stars in the sky. Reading this, I think a slightly older child, one in the fifth or sixth grade, would get a lot out of this. Some kids gravitate to stories of historical horror shows. I remember fielding requests from kids looking for Anne Frank/Titanic/Donner Party books when I worked the children’s desk. This book is quieter than those. It demands a certain level of respect, and then dares to give you something of high literary quality in the process. In the right hands, it teaches and informs but also presents some darn good verses. I’m sure that Ms. Ferrada had no plan in mind when she finished it at last. What we as parents and teachers choose to do with it is our business. But as a collection of poetry, it’s a standout. One that deserves to be remembered long after we too are gone.
On shelves March 23rd.
Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.
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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