February 02, 2006


A Gift of Gracias. By Julia Alvarez. Illustrated by Beatriz Vidal. Knopf. $15.95.

Doña Flor: A Tall Tale about a Giant Woman with a Great Big Heart. By Pat Mora. Illustrated by Raul Colón. Knopf. $15.95.

     It is the simple, heartfelt tales of a culture that most readily communicate its values to other cultures, making mutual understanding and appreciation possible.  Since so many people share common values such as respect, family members helping each other, even love of animals, these values are most easily transmitted cross-culturally.  And how better to do so than in well-written, well-illustrated, decidedly non-preachy children’s books like these two?

     A Gift of Gracias is a tale from the Dominican Republic.  Although her story has religious trappings, Julia Alvarez is wise enough to point out, in an end note, that in a sense the story is about Mother Earth, not exclusively a particular image of the Virgin Mary.  This is a simple and lovely tale about immigrants from Spain who are having a hard time trying to live by farming in the Dominican Republic.  Maria, born in this new land, is determined to find a way to help the farm succeed.  In a dream, she sees herself planting orange seeds and repeatedly saying gracias for them.  A beautiful lady appears in the dream and identifies herself as Nuestra Señora de la Altagracia – Our Lady of Thanks.  This vision inspires Maria to suggest that her family plant orange seeds and try to grow them – and sure enough, trees grow with unnatural speed and the farm is saved.  Maria’s Papá, on his way to take the fruit to market, asks what gift she wants, and she asks only for a portrait of Our Lady of Thanks.  Papá is unable to find one – but the way Maria eventually gets one becomes a second miracle to add to that of the fast-growing trees.  The very simplicity of the tale makes it deeply affecting, and the excellent illustrations by Beatriz Vidal heighten the mood with their blend of the realistic and the fanciful.

     Doña Flor is a tall tale of the American Southwest and its Spanish culture, told in part with Spanish phrases.  Flor is a giantess: her mother’s singing made corn plants grow as high as trees, so naturally it made Flor grow to giant stature as well.  Flor is helpful and friendly, saying Mi casa es su casa to people, animals and plants alike.  But she becomes irritated when the sound of a huge mountain lion frightens animals and humans alike – and puzzled when she cannot find the “big monster gato.”  Eventually, she gets clues from the animals, the most amusing of which comes from the snake: “Vaya silencios-s-s-amente a la mes-s-s-a mas-s-s alta,” – that is, “go quietly to the tallest mesa.”  And s-s-sure enough, Doña Flor finds the s-s-solution to the mystery there.  It is a delightful one that leads to a heartwarming conclusion.  Pat Mora is an advocate for multicultural education – a controversial cause that she advances effectively with this story that reaches out to families of all kinds.  Raul Colón’s fascinating illustrations, created with a combination of watercolors, etchings and colored and litho pencils, add to the charm and effectiveness of the tale.

No comments:

Post a Comment