I am lucky to work in a children’s room with a significantly sized bilingual section. The books you’ll find there cover a wide range of languages. Chinese, Arabic, Urdu, you name it. Of them the largest section by far is the Spanish language section. Of course, what we don’t really include in this section are books that integrate Spanish words into English text, though the stories are predominantly in English. There really isn’t a name for this kind of book, which is a real pity since they serve a definite use. Now you can go about integrating Spanish and English any old way you prefer, but Samantha Vamos has you beat. According to the back bookflap “Samantha R. Vamos was cooking one day when the idea for this book popped into her head.” The idea goes beyond a mere food related plot and ends up being one of the most creative ways of working Spanish elements into a work of English I’ve seen in years. Top off the fact that the art is enough to give your jaw a downward plunge, and I’d say you were dealing with one of the cleverer picture books of the year.
Are you familiar with the cumulative tale format? Well Ms. Vamos takes the idea and twists it a little. A variety of different farm animals aid a farmer and a farm maiden as they work together to make some rice pudding. A donkey picks limes, a duck buys sugar, a hen grates, and by the end everyone has done their part. Of course, in the midst of some dancing the pudding almost gets out of hand, but our heroes are able to save it in time. The end of the book includes a Glossary of Spanish Words and a recipe for the pudding.
I’ll say right here that the way in which Vamos has seamlessly integrated Spanish words into her text is extraordinary. Until now the standard method of doing this was just to throw the words into random sentences and cross your fingers. Best case scenario, you end up with something like Gary Soto’s Chato’s Kitchen. Worst case scenario and the words become jarring and needless. The trick Vamos uses here is to take the cumulative format and make it work for her. Normally a cumulative story doesn’t shake up the words. It’s the old House That Jack Built idea. This did this, that did that, it did it, etc. But Vamos has a different idea going on here. She starts out with an English word on the first reading, then switches that word to its Spanish equivalent when it’s repeated. So the first sentence in the book reads “This is the pot that the farm maiden stirred”. Fair enough. Turn the page and suddenly you read, “This the butter that went into the Cazuela that the farm maiden stirred.” You see what she’s done there? The pot is now the capitalized “Cazuela”. On the next page the butter then becomes the “Mantequilla” that went into the “Cazuela”. It took me a couple pages to figure out what was going on since I’ve never encountered a book that worked in this way before. Once I got a grasp on it, though, I was delighted. What a novel method of teaching kids! Best of all, if the reader doesn’t understand what’s going on, there’s a helpful Glossary of Spanish Words at the back of the book to clarify everything for them. And I would take issue with anyone who says that these words don’t flow. I’m sure that if you pick up the book for the first time without first reading it through you might stumble, but as a whole these lines work nicely with one another.
I am ashamed to say that prior to this book I’d never paid adequate attention to the illustrations of Rafael Lopez. This in spite of the fact that he’s won the Pura Belpre Award for Illustration (as well as an Honor) in the past. The book makes a couple strategic choices with his art that set it apart from the pack. Open the first page and even before you get to the title page there is a gorgeous image of the farm maiden selecting a pot for her cooking. There’s not a word in sight, a rarity. This is followed closely with a two-page title page spread of her leaping through the air, the pages fairly glowing in this yellow/orange riot of color. After that, Lopez scales everything back. There’s just a pure white page standing there with the image of the pot on the table as the only thing in sight. This white background lasts an additional two pages, making me wonder what Lopez is up to. If I read him right, as the reader figures out what the book is doing, Lopez starts his images off slowly. He’s not going to overwhelm you with busyness when the text is so simple. It’s only when you catch on that the colors all leap onto the pages once again. Lopez is working with acrylics painted on grained wood to get these effects. The result is art that explodes in a riot of energy and color. I dare say that this is one of the loveliest picture books I’ve had the pleasure to read all year. I did wonder why the artist chose not to show the animals eating the food they’d taken so much time to prepare, but it’s a minor question.
Unlike a fellow delicious food-related picture book this year (Hot Hot Roti for Dada-ji) this book has a recipe for rice pudding a.k.a. arroz con leche that I would like to try. It’s definitely intended for adults, what with its whisking and stovetop cooking. Oddly the recipe gives no indication of how many people you might be able to serve with it, but that’s okay. Even if it serves just one it might be worth it. It looks tasty.
2011 is turning into a strong year for cumulative storytelling. Between The Book That Zack Wrote and this title, we’re seeing a range of different authors taking a seemingly rote format and giving it a delightful twist. The pairing of Lopez with Vamos also appears to be inspired. This is a book that combines use with beauty. Fun with substance. Think of it as a kind of anti-Little Red Hen. Instead of animals passing the buck, everyone gets involved in the making of the arroz con leche, and everyone gets a taste. You’ll want to too after reading this book. A winning combination of clever writing and striking art, this is one of a kind.
On shelves now.
Source: Final copy borrowed from the library for review.
- Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast
- Brimful Curiosities
- Waking Brain Cells
- NC Teacher Stuff
- Twenty by Jenny
- Latin Baby Book Club
- Imagination Soup
- Saffron Tree
- A star from Kirkus
- A star from School Library Journal
- Publishers Weekly
- Spider Magazine
- Montgomery News
- Download the cover image.
- Download the Activity & Discussion Guide for The Cazuela That the Farm Maiden Stirred.
- Download the recipe for arroz con leche
- Read about where Samantha Vamos got the idea for The Cazuela That the Farm Maiden Stirred here and here.
- Read about Rafael Lopez’s process here.