Spanish picture books

Fiesta Femenina is a collection of captivating stories with wonderful characters.  They are drawn from the legends of the indigenous people of Mexico and the book is a celebration of the strong women central to these traditional tales. The stories also illustrate the cooperation and kindness that are the essence of Mexican culture and enchant readers with a magical world where these values persist and prevail.

Mary-Joan Gerson wrote Fiesta Femenina using a language that will reach a wide range of readers. It is an obvious and excellent choice for native Spanish speakers at home or at school and for other children in immersion programs.  In addition, educators and parents can read these stories with Spanish language learners of different levels and in many settings.

The characters in these stories draw children, and older readers too, into a magical world. Most of them, including the gods, are touchingly human. Characters in folktales are often generic, but these have personality. They speak plainly and express their emotions. Children reading the stories will be cheering for these characters to succeed and happy for them when they do.

The stories in this collection feel distinctly Mexican. Within the general structure of a narrative, storytellers make choices about which aspects of the plot or characters to emphasize and what kind of language to use. In Fiesta Femenina, the people and gods are consistently kind, generous, patient and helpful. They cooperate and forgive with the complete and practical sincerity that is an essential part of Mexican culture.

The characters also speak a standard Mexican Spanish. Their dialog is completely conversational, with structures and vocabulary that children use everyday. Of course, Spanish language learners will not understand every word of these stories, but they do not need to. Hearing new words and structures in context, they will learn.

In general, these stories have the pacing that we associate with fairytales. They are great learning tools because they are plot-driven. The motivation of the characters is clear and so are the consequences of their actions. Many of the stories depend on patterns: Rosha asks three animals to help her, Tangu Yuh visits three regions, the Virgen of Guadalupe appears to Juan Diego three times, and in Blancaflor there is a series of episodes, each with an internal pattern.  These repeated structures make sections of the stories predictable and reinforce language with minor variations.  At the sentence level, the author and translator use the most common word order, repeating subjects and avoiding long complex structures.

Children will love these stories for the characters and the magical worlds they inhabit.  Maya Christina Gonzalez opens a window into those worlds with her vibrant illustrations.  The strength of the art matches the strength of the women.  Like the characters, the pictures are full of life and color and will spark the imagination of young readers. Fiesta Femenina is a wonderful visual experience.

The eight stories are different lengths. Teachers and parents can start with Por qué la luna es libre and Rosha y el sol, both short, accessible stories. La diosa hambrienta and La leyenda de Tanga Yuh are also short and easily used with Spanish language learners.

I do not want to summarize the stories because they are too much fun to read. However, I will mention a few things that could be helpful if you are teaching these stories to children learning Spanish.

Spanish picture books

Por qué la luna es libre

This is probably my favorite story in the collection because it is so clever! It is short, simple and wonderfully suited to reading or telling in class. You will love the characters of the sun and the moon. The moon is happy and resourceful, and the sun is very much in love and really trying, but never has a chance. This story will make children laugh.

I am planning to use  Por qué la luna es libre with a group of beginners when we talk about clothes.  I think I will use simple paper cut-outs as puppets, so the children can retell it with me.  This song, ¿Cómo es la luna?, would also tie in well, because in the story the changing shape of the moon is key.

Por qué la luna es libre would also make a wonderful play for children to present.

Rosha y el sol

This story would also work well with beginners. Rosha is a character that children will love for her (justified) anger, determination and bravery.  I like the way she scolds her brother for trapping the sun, but not for cutting her hair.  This little girl has her priorities straight.

The story lends itself well to an activity with cause and effect.  As a follow-up, it could be as simple as providing the students with a list of causes and effects and having them match them.  Activities like this help students retell the story, too.

La diosa hambrienta

This a perfect story to use when you are talking about body parts. I would like to have the kids draw the Diosa Hambrienta, who has eyes and mouths all over her body.  I imagine that they will find it a little creepy and have fun with it.  Also, they will never, ever, forget tengo hambre after hearing this story.

The gods in this story are very human and kind. They want the Diosa Hambrienta to be happy. When things go wrong, they feel terrible and go to the other gods and explain.  I love the image of the gods working together. They do not have all the answers, but they keep trying.

The story explains the creation of Mother Earth and how she reuses, or eats, everything.  It would fit in well with a unit on the seasons or the water cycle.

La leyenda de Tangu Yuh

This story has the clear message that cooperation leads to happiness and success. The people of three different regions learn to appreciate their different abilities and to understand that all of them contribute.

The three areas – south, central and north – are key to the structure of this narrative.   A map with drawings to represent what happens in each area would be fun to make and would help the kids retell the story.

Blancaflor

Blancaflor is a longer story, but it is easily broken into episodes. There is lots of repetition within episodes and in the overall structure.  Because it is longer, this story lends itself well to a graphic organizer, or to a list of events that students order as they read.

This is a fun story with lots of action and the nicest daughter of the devil that you can imagine. Students will enjoy the action and the very satisfying ending.

Verde Ave

This is the story of a daughter who defies her powerful father, is turned into a bird, and flies away from home. The story tells how her mother never gives up hope of regaining her daughter, and the ends she goes to in order to be with her again. It is a story of patience, resistance and the selfless love of a mother for her daughter.

This story lends itself to talking about how to describe personalities and an activity where students match the characters to adjectives.  They can apply the same adjectives to friends and family.

 La Virgen de Guadalupe

This is a story that all students of Spanish should read, and this version is wonderful. The character of Juan Diego is much more complete here than in most of the versions I have read.  As he explains that this religion is new to him, puts up with the taunting of the guards and wonders if the bishop will speak his language, students will get a glimpse into how hard this is for him. Rather than just recounting a series of events that lead to a miracle, this is the story of a man in extraordinary circumstances. Students will admire his resolve and cheer his success.

Malintzín de la montaña

This is the most difficult story in the collection because it deals broadly with the conquest of Mexico by Cortez. It is also a very important part of Mexican culture and a story that every student of Spanish should know.

This version of the story portrays Malintzín as an intelligent, resourceful woman and acknowledges that no one knows her motivations. The author describes the different attitudes toward this famous figure.  I appreciate the balanced presentation, and I think that students will too. This would be an excellent story to teach with a unit on the conquest.

Disclosure: The author sent me a copy of the book to write this article. All of the ideas and opinions are my own.

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