Adults, I have a little secret. Have you ever wanted to sound smart at dinner parties? Knowledgeable in the ways of the world and how it works? It’s easy to do if you know the secret. Come closer… I’ll whisper it to you. Read nonfiction children’s books. Seriously, do that and watch as your brain expands. If I can talk with any competency about the Donner Party or the siege of Leningrad or the Pentagon Papers, it is because I read nonfiction written for people half my age and younger. Most recently I learned about olinguitos. Ever heard of them? If not, you aren’t alone. These shy little rainforest denizens were only discovered and announced as recently as 2013. Not too much is known about them, which makes placing them into picture books a bit of a challenge. Author/illustrator Lulu Delacre had a plan, though. All she’d need to do would be to turn the story of the discovery of olinguitos into a bilingual/alphabet/nonfiction/search & find title. You see? Easy peasy. Or, put another way, so incredibly difficult that no one else would have ever attempted it. But that’s what I like about Ms. Delacre. Sometimes the craziest ideas churn out the most interesting books.
A zoologist from Washington D.C. is in the cloud forest today. He is searching for the elusive olinguito, a squirrel-like mammal that dwells in the trees. Along his path we meet the rainforest in an abecedarian fashion. From the A for the Andes to the M of moss and monkey, finally ending with Z for the zoologist himself, the book observes the many denizens that call the cloud forest their home. The book is entirely bilingual and backmatter (also bilingual) consists of notes on the “Discovery of the Olinguito”, facts about the Cloud Forest, information about the illustrations, hints on how to be an explorer, a heavily illustrated Glossary, “More Helpful Words”, and an extensive list of Author’s Sources.
I’ve read plenty of Spanish bilingual picture books in my day. In doing so, I’m a bit handicapped since I don’t speak the language. Still, there are things that I can observe from my end. For example, the difficulty Ms. Delacre must have faced in writing two texts, both of which had to contain specific letters of the alphabet. Now the primary language in this book, to a certain extent, is the Spanish. For each letter the Spanish sections get a lot more use than the English. Take the letter “J”. In the Spanish language section it reads, “Jigua jaguey y jazmin brotan, crecen en tal jardin.” Pretty straightforward. Now in the English: “Jigua, fig, and coffee trees sprout and grow in this garden.” Were it not for the “jingua” we’d be out a J. To be fair, sometimes the two languages get equal use of a letter. “I”, for example, is “insectos incredibles y una inerte iguana” and also “incredible insects, and a resting iguana.” However, more often than not the Spanish gets more words with the chosen letter. This is particularly true near the end of the book where the English translations at times completely do away with the letter at all. In “X” and “U” (surprisingly) not a single word in the English portions begin with those letters. What is clear is that the Spanish is the focus of the book. With that in mind, the book acquires another potential use; excellent reading for people learning Spanish.
It’s been a long time since I reviewed a Lulu Delacre book. I think the last time I seriously considered one was when Ms. Delacre illustrated Lucia Gonzalez’s The Storyteller’s Candle. There, the book integrated newspapers and other mixed media to tell the tale of two children introducing their immigrant neighborhood to the library. Here, the art is also mixed media but there’s a smoothness to it that was lacking in Storyteller’s Candle. In the back of the book Ms. Delacre mentions that there are real pressed leaves and flowers in every picture (something I entirely missed on my first, second, and third reads). There is also a zoologist in every picture, like a fuzzy little olinguito-seeking Waldo. Add in the colors, angles, and gorgeous spreads and you’ve got yourself one heck of a colorful outing. Ms. Delacre even mentions in her note at the book’s end that, just to be honest, these pictures are entirely too clear. “I decided to remove the clouds and limit the vegetation. I represented the fog and mist with squares of translucent paper framing the alphabetic letters. This allowed the species to be in plain sight.” Not only is she honest but creative as well.
I’ll level with you that I’m not entirely certain how one goes about using this book with kids. That is not to say that I don’t think it can be done and done well. But what Ms. Delacre has conjured up here isn’t a simple book. It’s not simplistic. The English text lacks much of the fun alliteration of the Spanish, which means the teacher or parent who reads this with their non-Spanish speaking children will need to span that gap themselves. It’s not a readaloud in the sense that you can just read it to a group without comment. This is an interactive text. You need to be spotting the zoologist, naming the vegetation and animals, flipping back and forth between the pictures and the glossary for clarification on different names, etc. In other words, this book requires the adult reader to be an active rather than passive participant in the reading process. Olinguito is more than mere words on a page.
There’s a soft spot in my heart for any book that proves to kids that there is more out there to find and discover than they might expect. The oceans haven’t been mapped out. Outer space remains, in many ways, a mystery. And hidden in the rainforests are tiny creatures just waiting to be discovered. Our world still needs explorers. If it takes one tiny mammal to prove that to them, so be it. A clever, lovely, wise little book. Knowledge of Spanish helpful, but not required.
On shelves now.
Like This? Then Try:
- Parrots Over Puerto Rico by Susan L. Roth
- Water Rolls, Water Rises / El Agua Rueda, el Agua Sube by Pat Mora, ill. Meilo So
- Living Fossils: Clues to the Past by Caroline Arnold, ill. Andrew Plant