If there is any topic on the lips and minds of librarians, teachers, and other gatekeepers it is the state of multicultural literature for kids today. Seems a week can’t go by without a new study or proposal to deal with the need for more books about kids of color being published today. Recently I discovered that while books for kids containing Latino characters are rare in and of themselves, imported children’s books from Mexico are downright impossible to find. Most of the Spanish language books for kids you’ll find are translations of American books or imports from Spain. It’s what makes an author/artist like Yuyi Morales such a godsend. Not only are her books hilarious, cheeky, and beautiful all at once, but she brings a perspective that we simply do NOT see. Sure this book was originally published in America, but it has a take we can’t get anywhere else. I’ve loved her books for years but Yuyi’s latest, Niño Wrestles the World? My favorite. Nuff said.
Ladies and gentlemen, Senoras Y Senores, behold Niño, the greatest wrestler of our age. Sure, he may just look like a boy who put on a mask and stripped down to his underwear, but don’t count him out. The biggest baddest contenders fall in his wake. Behold his defeat of the Guanajuato mummy or the terrifying La Llorona. Thrill to the fight between Nino and the Olmec Head or the mysterious Chamuco. Each and every one proves they are no match for Niño’s talents. That is, until his little baby sisters wake up and it becomes clear who really is the champion wrestler in this family.
Now what I’m about to tell you is 100% true. For years I worked as a children’s librarian in New York Public Library’s main branch. Often we’d have class visits from kids all around the city (and from other countries as well). And more than once I was asked for books on the topic of Mexican wrestlers. I kid you not. Fun Fact: No nonfiction or fictional book (aside from the Lucha Libre series by Xavier Garza) exists for children on this topic. Zippo. Zero. Zilch. The oddest result of all of this is that over the years, as publishers ask where the gaps are in children’s collections, the first thing that would pop into my brain over and over was “Mexican wrestlers”. I don’t think they bought it. In fact, Niño Wrestles the World is the very first book of its kind to touch on this topic in ANY aspect since I went on my recommendation spree. You want another book like this one? Good luck to you. Morales knew she had a good thing when she wrote this one up.
One of the current buzzwords ah-buzzing in my ear is the term “imaginative play”. Have you run across this one? The long and the short of it is that the story is about a kid using their imagination in some fashion. Calvin and Hobbes, say, would be the quintessential imaginative play comic strip. Because I have parents that look for these types of books I keep a running roster of titles going in my brain (Hot, Hot Roti for Dada-ji, Mighty Max, etc.). Add to the pile Niño himself. I love that the villains he wrestles aren’t your standard famous Mexican wrestler names, but rather the supernatural creatures and critters that your average Mexican kid would be familiar with. There is a fine tradition of Mexican wrestlers wearing masks that represent these very characters, and there have even been B movies (like Santo Vs. The Mummies of Guanajuato) that precede Niño’s fantasies. Mummies and aliens and the devil himself all make for perfect easily defeated and outwitted foes. Little sisters are another matter entirely.
As I have no typography or design background I don’t know how much I can say about this book without coming off as a doofus. I will say, however, that there were a lot of stylistic choices at work that I approved of. Take the sound effects as an example. They’re not the ones you’d find on your average episode of Batman. Rather than your standard “Bam”s and “Pow”s we have “BLOOP”, “SLISH”, “ZOK”, and “PACHATAS” amongst others. Then there’s the Spanish itself. Incorporated seamlessly into the English text, Morales has opted not to include a Glossary of terms at the end of the book. It’s all about context, something that might bug me in another book but here struck me as appropriate considering the subject matter. That said, I was inordinately grateful for the pronunciation guides. As one of those kids who took French in high school because of her love for the rock opera The Phantom of the Opera, my familiarity with the Spanish language is fairly limited. Fortunately, most of the characters’ names are intuitive and those that aren’t (I’m looking at you La Llorona) are defined crisply and coherently in the endpapers.
As an artist, Morales has tackled various original artistic formats over the years. She’s one of the few illustrators I know who has ever gotten away with using models (My Abuelita by Tony Johnston) while the paints (or were they pastels) of Little Night positively glowed on the pages. Niño is notable in part for replicating an advertising or poster-like style (design major everywhere, rejoice). The stencil-like faded images of the background contrast sharply with the characters, all rendered in acrylics, inks, digital effects, and even salt (?) which visually leap off the page. I like the in-jokes as well. For example, when Niño uses his puzzle to defeat Olmec Head, the image on the puzzle cover is from Just a Minute, also by Ms. Morales. There are, admittedly, a couple moments where it’s hard to figure out what’s going on. Niño’s battle against El Chamuco involves scooters, LEGOs and popsicle sticks, but beyond that I’m not entirely certain what’s taking place in the final “ZZZWAP” sequence. Fortunately it’s so much fun I hardly care.
Then there’s Niño himself. I mean look at that guy. Has any kid in his tighty whities ever looked half as confident as Niño does when staring you down with that smile? The key to the story, to some extent, is the fact that when Niño defeats a villain he does so using games. Whether it’s marbles or puzzles or dolls, Niño’s weapons are the weapons of childhood itself. Little wonder he’s powerless in the presence of his baby sisters. The sisters, for their part, never change expression. They are coy. Little adorable angels/devils, there will be readers out there that more than sympathize with Niño’s plight.
I took this book to Spain it was instantly embraced by my friends in Barcelona. Not only for the clever wordplay and great idea, but for the very art itself. There is something magnificently and universally appealing about Niño. Whether it’s the goofy plot, the eye-popping art, or the fact that there is NOTHING on your bookstore and libraries shelves like this right now, this one-of-a-kind little number is going to lure in boys and girls alike. You’ve never seen anything like it, but after reading it you’ll beg for more of the same.
¡Viva La Lucha Libre!
On shelves now.
Source: F&G sent from publisher for review.
Like This? Then Try:
- The Mighty Lalouche by Matthew Olshan, ill. Sophie Blackall
- Dinosaur Vs. Bedtime by Bob Shea
- Mighty Max by Harriet Ziefert
- Hot, Hot Roti for Dada-ji by Farhana Zia, ill. Ken Min
Other Blog Reviews:
Misc: Get the true behind-the-scenes look at the art over at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast.