Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Yuyi Morales Wrestles the World, or Jumper Cables for an Emotionally Tense and Spiritually Bankrupt Socius

Yuyi Morales Wrestles the World, or
Jumper Cables for an Emotionally Tense and Spiritually Bankrupt Socius

Yuyi Morales (author and illustrator) and Tim O’Meara (photographer). Viva Frida. New York: Roaring Book P, 2014.

When Sam Loomis reached out and switched on the tiny FM radio, the music welled forth, annihilating space and time and death itself.
It was, as far as he understood it, an authentic miracle.
-- Robert Bloch, Psycho (1959)

The artist is the master of objects; he puts before us shattered, burned, broken-down objects, converting them to the régime of desiring-machines…the artist presents paranoiac machines, miraculating-machines, celibate machines as so many technical machines. Even more important, the work of art is itself a desiring-machine. The artist stores up his treasures so as to create an immediate explosion.
-- Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus:
    Capitalism and Schizophrenia

A few years ago I came across a book called Los Gatos Black on Halloween (2006). As a Halloween aficionado, not to mention someone interested in Latino/a literary and cultural studies, to say that I was delighted to find such a book is an understatement. Once I opened the book I of course enjoyed it tremendously. In particular, I loved the illustrations. The artwork that Yuyi Morales provides for Marisa Montes’s text creates a perfectly, tantalizingly gothic visual dimension that draws viewers into a realm of uninhibited creativity. I enjoyed Morales’s illustrations so much, in fact, that I honestly did not want the book to end. With every turn of the page I knew that I would encounter something gorgeous, brilliant, and wondrous. Perhaps the best way to phrase the ability for Morales to captivate an audience is by suggesting that once one enters the realm of her artwork, one does not want to leave.

What makes Morales’s work so compelling? As cliché as it sounds, there is a lot to her work. This, of course, is something that at first glance one might miss. In particular, one of the things that comes across through her work is a tremendously vibrant artistic soul. A reader can instantly and unmistakably see, tell, and feel the powerful creative energy that Morales harbors. What she produces is a manifestation of this precious energy. In this day and age of mass production, autotuned music, focus groups, mass media, and mass appeal—not to mention mass animosity and massive agitation1—Morales and her flourishes of imagination are refreshing, desperately needed reminders that art, beauty, creativity, and inspiration are still possible.

It comes as no surprise, therefore, that her picture book Viva Frida is a wondrous celebration and example of art and creativity. It is a tour de force showcase of Morales’s talents and spirit. With a combination of handcrafted puppets (photographed by Tim O’Meara) and painted illustration, Morales presents a text to which one can only respond with admiration and fascination.2 What is more, as much as one will want to pore over and appreciate this book, it will inspire yearnings (or cravings) within a reader for more art in all of its multifariously finest and liveliest forms—poetry, painting, photography, puppetry. Ultimately, upon experiencing this book one may well want to make art her/himself.

Although the Library of Congress Cataloguing-in-Publication Data lists Viva Frida under “Painters-Mexico-Biography,” it really is not a biography. Rather, with biographical overtures (some more overt than others) Morales’s book really presents Frida Kahlo as a character in an adventure story in which creativity and passion emerge as real, palpable drives and sensations. In essence, creativity and passion constitute the real subject of the book. By the same token, Viva Frida functions as a medium for exploring and indulging and encouraging aesthetic appreciation, sensibility, and creative passion--the sort of abstract energies (or “flows”) that Kahlo embodies and that otherwise get suppressed and squandered through, for example, the spiritually bankrupt emphasis in contemporary K-12 education on standardized testing and the Common Core curriculum.3

Incidentally, before the “story” even begins, the end pages and title page bespeak and incite a passion for art. The end pages feature lovely and colorful flower stencils splayed over a soft background. Such a layout effectively puts the reader in a mode that privileges aesthetic appreciation over, say, the sort of informational processing prioritized by Common Core language arts outcomes. The title page, meanwhile, functions as a splendid emblem of creativity: upon a table (which we might read as an altar of creativity) we find spread out, among other items, a parchment, pastels, a palette, brushes, and papel picado. Gathered in one close-up shot, then, is the stuff of art and inspiration. Also on the title page one spies a key in the paw of what at first is not a readily identifiable creature (the gothicist in me got especially intrigued thinking it was some sinister, babadook-like entity). The creature turns out to be Frida’s monkey pilfering the key from the table. 

The first pages introduce a puppet version of Frida on the heels of the key-holding monkey. She is “searching,” the text indicates, for the monkey with the key. Because we at first do not know why she seeks the monkey with the key, this opening gambit sets a tone of undefined restlessness and adventure. Also implicit in the opening sequence is the notion of something locked up vis-à-vis a yellow, apparently locked wooden box that Frida has with her. Soon enough Frida manages a breakthrough in her quest/restlessness/adventure and “sees” the key/monkey. Once she catches up to the key/monkey, she proceeds to open the locked box. The image that shows Frida and the monkey peering into the box is an utterly charming one that shows them with wide open, captivated eyes. Moreover, the text of “Ah-ha!” combines with the lovely visual to impart a glorious sensation of a discovery, or, better yet, an uncovering. Inside the box is a kitschy dia de los muertos marionette with which Frida proceeds to play.

A number of implications emerge from this sequence of events. On one hand we get a portrayal of the idea that keys to unlocking hitherto repressed or hidden energies can lie in any of a number of things. In the case of Frida Kahlo, her pet monkey Fulang-Chang, who appears in a number of her paintings, can be seen as one such source of or agent for creativity. Hence we get the alignment of the key and the monkey in Morales’s text. That Frida uncovers in the box a crafty puppet waiting for her to “play” with figures play as a medium for accessing that which the puppet embodies: creativity, imagination, art, and, owing to its association with dia de los muertos, culture and tradition. In the process, play/creativity/imagination/art/culture/tradition all emerge as positive energies currently repressed and waiting to be unlocked (or accessed).

Interestingly enough, as Frida plays with the marionette, she has her monkey on her back. Some viewers might just take this arrangement as a pleasant instance of the little primate behaving impishly and so adding to the image’s dominant impression of play and unleashed energy. Another possibility occurs to me, though, one which still reads the monkey in terms of play but with more biographically specific implications. In my alternative reading, I read “play” in terms of creativity and artistic exploration. That is to say, then, I see play metaphorically, and biographically, operating here to suggest the very activities in which Frida engaged as a painter.

Continuing with this biographical line of interpretation, it seems possible to consider the portrayal of a monkey on Frida’s back as she “plays” (i.e., creates/paints) through the lens of the figure of speech in which to have a monkey on one’s back signifies a) shouldering some burden or distress, and b) struggling with addiction. By conjuring up the figure of speech, the image effectively (and actually) starts to point toward the difficult circumstances that the real-life Kahlo endured. That the puppet Frida is playing with a skeleton marionette ends up implying the exercise of a certain control over death (which, we might remember, is an aspect of the tradition of el dia de los muertos anyway). As regards Kahlo’s biography, then, Morales’s image of Frida pulling the strings of the marionette captures the burdened artist’s act of “playing”/creating as a means of controlling or prevailing over death.

With the reading that I am proposing, it thus becomes possible to see Viva Frida as working on different levels: a more surface level that we might regard as more accessible (and amenable) to children and a more metaphorically suggestive one. (Of course, this is generally how children's literature works.) Importantly, realization that Morales’s text works on multiple planes offers a counter to concerns that the text participates in the all-too-common mythologization and romanticization of Kahlo's life by overlooking the grimmer and tougher realities of it.4 Through close consideration, one realizes that Viva Frida does capture Kahlo in different, revealing ways, just not in a complete or necessarily fully realistic way.

To be sure, the sanitized, streamlined presentation or invocation of Kahlo that we encounter in Viva Frida raises a number of critical issues. Is the text problematically misleading and idealizing the Mexican artist? Is this a strategic introduction not only to Kahlo, but also to the concepts of art and creativity for children? Do Morales's objectives authorize this re/presentation of Kahlo? One can make a case for any of a number of positions on these questions.

Once we turn the page which has Frida playing with the marionette, we arrive at an image of her sitting on a knoll with her eyes and hand directed skyward. The text for the page reads, “I know.” The implication is that play/creativity has enabled a new, higher knowledge. Incidentally, we see the puppet barefoot—a detail which suggests the artist’s arrival at a state of heightened sense and sensibility (or sense-ability). All the while, the monkey sits off to a side tangled up with the skeleton marionette. Apparently, Frida has managed to transcend that which both represent.

For subsequent pages, such as “I dream” and “I realize,” the images shift from the relative realism of puppets to painted illustrations. Such a shift suggests a move from material external reality into a psychic, subjective, and fantastic one. The latter is a more contemplative and sensitive space which, the structure of the text suggests, one accesses through creative play. The valorization of subjectivity becomes especially crucial if we consider the ways that the overplanning or overscheduling of children’s lives prevents them from having any time to themselves with their own thoughts and feelings. Without the availability of personal space and time, childhood becomes, or remains, an overstimulated, hyperbusy experience filled with so much white noise and flux that the child never manages to fashion a sense of self.5 Of course, the same can be said for adults. As Paul Virilio indicates in his discussion in The Administration of Fear, “Our societies have become arrhythmic. Or they know only one rhythm: constant acceleration” (27).

One of the things that Frida realizes is “I feel,” which is another key step in the development of subjective selfhood. For this page we see her we tending to the eponymous figure from her painting, The Wounded Deer (1946). But whereas in Kahlo’s painting the deer is pierced by several arrows and features her face, in Viva Frida’s more kid-friendly rendering the deer is a separate entity with a single arrow in a foreleg. The implications are the same, however. As occurs in the painting, we see in Morales’s book Frida’s identification with victimization in the form of literal and figurative piercing (both of which the real-life Kahlo endured).

The puppet Frida’s act of feeling for the deer and tending to it leads to her, now soaring through the sky carrying the bandaged yet bleeding deer to safety on her back, proclaiming, “And I understand/that I love/And create/And so/I live!” While the image for “I love” of a puppet Diego Rivera planting a tender kiss on a beaming Frida’s cheek elides the very complicated matter of Kahlo’s actual relationship with Rivera, the cumulative, refreshing implication is that compassion, love, and art, and the beauty they all entail, are all the essential ingredients of a complete state of selfhood and vibrant life.

To the credit of Morales, her book defies the tenets of contemporary consumer culture, which orients the individual toward thinking that the acquisition and accumulation of material goods is the secret to a fulfilling life. It also provides us with that which Franco Berardi rightly says is needed these days: “poetry” that will “start the process of reactivating the emotional body” (20). The severity of contemporary social, political, and economic oppression and crises has resulted in the decimation of spirit and energy and sensitivity. For Berardi, “poetry” has the potential to remedy our current state of malaise, aggravation, and dispiritedness. In many ways, Morales’s book--even with questions about its re/presentation of Kahlo--is the sort of poetry the contemporary socius needs.

--phillip serrato, San Diego State University, Department of English & Comparative Literature


1 “Getting carried away has taken the place of enthusiasm, and reaction, action. We are in the fit of rage” (Virilio 53).

2 For a video which shows the labor and craftsmanship that went into the production of Viva Frida, see Morales, “Making Viva Frida.”

3 Bearing in mind terms put forth by Deleuze and Guattari, I wonder whether we might read Morales’s book as a counter to or defiance of the containment of different energies or flows which they identify as endemic to any social organization. As they note, “The prime function incumbent upon the socius, has always been to codify the flows of desire, to inscribe them, to record them, to see to it that no flow exists that is not properly damned up, channeled, regulated” (35).

4 See Mencimer for a discussion of the disjunction between Kahlo’s real life and wistful (re)conceptualizations of it.

5 For more on this kind of critique of childhood, see Douglas Wood’s picture book A Quiet Place (2002) as well as John Taylor Gatto’s “Why Schools Don’t Educate.” It is also worth

Works Cited

Berardi, Franco “Bifo.” The Uprising: On Poetry and Finance. Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2012.

Bloch, Robert. Psycho. New York: Overlook P, 2010.

Deleuze, Gilles and Félix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1983.

Gatto, John Taylor. “Why Schools Don’t Educate.” The Natural Child Project. 31 January 1990. 5 January 2015.

Mencimer, Stephanie. “The Trouble with Frida Kahlo.” Washington Monthly June 2002. 5 January 2015.

Morales, Yuyi. “Making Viva Frida.” 4 September 2014. 7 January 2015.

Virilio, Paul. The Administration of Fear. Los Angeles: Semiotext(e). 2007.

Wood, Douglas. A Quiet Place. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2002.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Visual Brilliance/Narrative Deficiency

Visual Brilliance/Narrative Deficiency

José Manuel Mateo (author) and Javier Martínez Pedro (illustrator). Migrant. New York: Abrams, 2014.

The first thing that one notices when picking up José Manuel Mateo and Javier Martínez Pedro’s Migrant is the elegance of the book as an artifact. The large, rectangular text is bound in black cloth and a black bow. Such packaging is an interesting gesture to restore to the book the sort of reverence and specialness that gets lost these days with the gaudier tendencies of cover design.1 It effectively puts the reader into an appropriate mode by prompting a mature approach to the subject of the book and the book itself as a work of art.

Opening it one discovers an accordion fold-out that extends to a length of over 4 ft. This fold-out features one continuous 9 x 54 in. illustration extending from top to bottom. The written narrative appears in a blank margin to the left of the illustration. In the “Author’s and Artist’s Note” at the end (or bottom) of the book, the reader learns that the illustration is in the form of a codex. As Mateo and Pedro explain, “Rather than use separate pages and then bind them together, as we do today, the ancient people would use one long sheet of amate and then gather it in an ‘accordian’ fold. It’s called a codex.” The use of the codex for the purposes of this book is quite powerful and merits high appreciation. Separate illustrations on separate pages have the effect of chopping up a story into compartmentalized pieces (one only has to bear in mind the popular saying of “just turn the page” to realize the internal disconnection/amnesia that actually occurs within a conventional picture book vis-à-vis the distribution of the art and narrative being across disparate pages). The use of a codex here positions the reader to process the connectedness of that which in another mode would be regarded as disparate elements. It enables broader and more comprehensive thinking and perception by literally laying out (or, we might say, insisting on) connectedness. Specifically, the use of the codex to tell the story of migration is a brilliantly apt decision (more on the aptness of the codex for this kind of narrative in a moment).

As regards the story that the codex illustrates, in all honesty, the book presents a familiar story. The narrative voice belongs to a Mexican boy2 who describes for the reader his life in Mexico, his trek to the United States with his mother and sister, and, finally, a little bit about his hard life in the United States. The structure is what one typically finds in migration narratives (such as Francisco Jiménez’s The Circuit and Amada Irma Pérez’s My Diary from Here to There). So, too, is the content. The narrator recounts economic troubles in Mexico, the trauma of leaving home, the undertaking of a dangerous journey north, fear of getting caught in the course of the journey, and the stress of living in the shadows of the United States while eeking out a living working menial jobs. Of course there is a poignancy to the narrative, which renders it a potentially valuable read for children to help them think about migrant experiences. As Leo Chávez has pointed out with regard to Mexican immigration in the United States infosphere, by and large coverage of immigration has been “limited at best,” serving more to stoke xenophobia than to impart insight and illumination that could provide “a more complete picture of undocumented immigrants” (Shadowed Lives xi). Narratives such as Migrant offer to redress the inadequacy of popular understandings of migrant experiences.

Yet there is something quite dissatisfying about the narrative of Migrant owing to its relative lack of depth (which is why The Circuit and My Diary from Here to There immediately stand out as working much more effectively). Basically, Migrant reads likes a very, in fact excessively streamlined account of a migration experience, with its efficiency occurring at the expense of details and development that would have made it an even more compelling and illuminating (and haunting) approach to its subject matter. For example, once the boy’s mother resolves to take her children to the United States to reunite with the father (who is already in the United States and had been sending money home but has suddenly stopped), we learn that the child, his sister, and his mother illicitly hop a train for a ride north. We learn nothing about the trials and tribulations of the train ride, however, other than the fact that “When the train stopped, all of us who were travelling up on top of the roofs of the cars got down quickly. …[M]en who looked like the police were chasing after people and putting them in yellow trucks.” As the text elides details about this and other aspects of the migrant experience, thus smoothing out the migrant experience, the text becomes increasingly dogged by the sense that more could have been done to nurture fuller respect for the ordeals endured by migrants.

Perhaps most strikingly, the actual crossing is way too simplified. After managing to elude arrest at the train stop, the narrator says, “Later we came to a very high wall. We had to jump over it. Suddenly some police arrived and let their dogs loose…I was very scared. But then they called the dogs back. Who knows why…” Honestly, I find such a portrayal baffling and ultimately frustrating. The crossing experience is far more complicated and risky and scary than jumping over a high wall, especially if one is entering the Southern California region (as indicated by the sentence, “That is how my mom, my sister, and I arrived outside Los Angeles”). That a migrant would just jump a wall grossly overlooks assorted challenges that crossing can actually entail. And that dogs were let loose only to be called back "who knows why?" comes across as a narrative cop out.

In short, the details portrayed in the narrative progressively do not add up to a realistic portrayal. My reason for holding up verisimilitude here as a touchstone for evaluating the authorial choices in Migrant come back to maximizing insight into and respect for migrant experiences.

Incidentally the author’s biography features the disclaimer, “He has not lived or suffered the experience of migration, but he wrote this story considering what could have happened to him and his family at one time.” To be sure, it is fully possible for one to write a story about what one has not lived through. Doing so requires that one do a lot of research, however, to ensure proper handling of the experience. Migration leaves me with questions about how much homework Mateo invested into the development of this narrative. As the narrative stands, it seems more a caricature of migration as opposed to a nuanced delving into the experience. The implication in the author’s biography that this narrative is a product of authorial speculation only irks me even more because it only underscores the unactualized potentiality of this kind of book as a book for children. Indeed, un-researched speculation seems to be masquerading as a testimonial that channels the spirit and nature of migrant experiences.

Authorial presumptions about children’s literature might also account for the thinness of the narrative. The biography for Mateo indicates that he “writes poetry, stories, and essays. …He has worked as an editor for many years and is now currently teaching university students.” No mention is made about writing for children. If it is the case that he has no prior experience writing for children, it could of course wonderful that he has undertaken this project. The genre always needs new voices to help it grow and evolve. But the problem—one which I noted yesterday in my review of Dale, Dale, Dale: Una fiesta de números—is that writers can easily underestimate the genre, perhaps by underestimating children. The narrative of Migrant broaches some gritty realities, but it leaves these realities unexplained, and it overlooks others. Even if this occurs because of the child narrator—which is intrinsically a narrator who occupies a position of incomplete knowledge and understanding—it would have been in the best interest of the book to disclose more than it does—even in the guise of being written by a child migrant—rather than just duplicate what the author imagines to be the limited perspective of the child.

Now, to come back to the codex…this part of the book is astonishingly intricate, and as such it demands close reading on the part of the child audience. Above all else, and as suggested above, the singularity of the codex makes it possible for the reader to realize the ongoing simultaneity of the social dynamics that the narrative points toward. That is, the codex, defies liner, sequential modes of story and history through a synchronic representation which brings to mind what Fredric Jameson dubs “the spatialization of time” (Stephanson and Jameson 6). Explaining what he means by “the spatialization of time,” Jameson says, “Time has become a perpetual present and thus spatial” (6). Bearing in mind this idea as well as additional glosses such as “Our relationship to the past is now a spatial one” and “Our theoretical categories also tend to become spatial: structural analyses with graphs of synchronic multiplicities of spatially related things” (6), we might consider the temporal, geographical, historical, and relational implications of Pedro’s codex. All at once Pedro’s codex covers and cuts across these different dimensions, rendering them simultaneous and ongoing. While Jameson goes on with regard to “spatialization replacing temporalization” to say, “This is bewildering, and I use existential bewilderment in this new postmodern space to make a final diagnosis of the loss of our ability to position ourselves within this space and cognitively map it” (7), it strikes me that a productive, powerfully complex cognitive mapping—one that explodes the cognitive foreclosure that diachronic representations otherwise engender—is precisely what Pedro accomplishes with the spatialization that he performs.

Thus, while the narrative of Migrant comes up short, there is much to say about—and do with—the artwork.

--phillip serrato, San Diego State University


Source: Bowman
1 The difference between Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret with a dust jacket versus the book without one encapsulates this tension. When one sees the book with its dust jacket, one encounters a high-colored design concocted to imply a certain vibrancy as well as some secret or adventure waiting to be unlocked. Overall it all gives the feeling of overdesign. In contrast, without a dust jacket one holds a thick, hardback volume with a simple black cover. Regarding the book without its dust jacket, one blogger describes it (in a post aptly titled "Why you should read every hardcover with the book jacket OFF") as “A minimal and simplistic cover that mirrors interior pages. Stark black, with a knocked out frame. I prefer this version. It’s as if it is a canvas, waiting for Brian to show up to fill it with illustrations” (Bowman). The book without the dust jacket also just seems more elegant and so appropriate for this book, whereas the dust jacket just whores the book out by resorting to the usual visual gimmickry in an effort to catch the eye of passersby. As elitist as it may sound, I am struck by the thought that there is something to be said for an aesthetic of elegance and for returning elegance to the book (not always, but where appropriate).

2 Unless I have missed something, I do not think there is anything in the text to indicate that the narrator is in fact a boy. But in the “Note” at the end the author and artist say, “In our codex, we tell of a boy and his sister and mother, and how they left their house in Mexico to search for a new hope, in life, a place where there is work.” While they thus pin down the gender of the narrator, it occurs to me that leaving it unspecified would have been more interesting.

Works Cited

Bowman, Erin. "Why you should read every hardcover with the book jacket OFF." 18 August 2011.

Chávez, Leo. Shadowed Lives: Undocumented Immigrants in American Society. Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt Brace, 1992

Stephanson, Anders and Fredric Jameson. “Regarding Postmodernism—A Conversation with Fredric Jameson.” Social Text 21 (1989): 3-30.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Case in Point That the Counting Book Should Not Be Taken Lightly, or At Stake: The Integrity of Chicano/a Children’s Literature

Case in Point That the Counting Book Should Not Be Taken Lightly, or
At Stake: The Integrity of Chicano/a Children’s Literature

René Saldaña, Jr. (author). Carolyn Dee Flores (illustrator). Dale, Dale, Dale: Una fiesta de números/Hit It, Hit It, Hit It: A Fiesta of Numbers. Houston: Piñata Books, 2014.

Yesterday I took a look at a book titled Green Is a Chile Pepper. Today I have before me a book with the subtitle A Fiesta of Numbers. With these and other texts, I cannot help but immediately cringe at the incessancy with which publishers and writers (and other artists) turn to and invoke spiciness and fiestas for the sake of signifying Latino/a cultures. There is certainly a marketing component to this tendency. References to spiciness and fiestas provide different parties with convenient, shorthand tropes for signifying both multiculturalism and fun. Whether this phenomenon is publisher-driven, a matter of authorial inclination, or a combination of both is something that I do not know. But it is a pattern that I find tired, delimiting, and offensive. I find it tired because signification and alignment of Latino/a cultures in terms of spiciness and fiestas has been overdone. It is also delimiting because it tracks both textual representation and authorial imagination in specific directions. Finally, such a tendency is ultimately offensive because it continues stereotypical, reductionist figurations of Latino/a cultures. In a word, then, invocations of spiciness and fiestas in book titles trigger an immediate, in fact familiar concern.1

René Saldaña’s Dale, Dale, Dale: Una fiesta de números/Hit It, Hit It, Hit It: A Fiesta of Numbers is a bilingual counting book for very young readers. The objectives of a book such as this one include helping children learn to count, introducing or reinforcing (depending on the language proficiencies of individual children) basic Spanish vocabulary, and introducing or reinforcing (depending on the cultural experiences and orientation of individual children) Latino/a culture. Notably, with this last objective, which I have deliberately denoted with the singular form of “culture,” the text ends up contributing to the homogenization of Latino/a cultures. This occurs via the absence of any ethno-cultural specificity. Granted, Saldaña might not have had the space in this book to incorporate such signification, or perhaps he felt it was not a priority in this book for very young readers. In any case, as readers and reviewers we ought to note the Dora-the-Explorer effect that the lack of cultural specification has in children’s texts, namely the construction of Latino/a identity and culture in terms of a flattened-out, singular formation. (This is an issue that arose with Green Is a Chile Pepper in yesterday’s review).

Once Dale, Dale begins, problems only accrue. It opens with the image of a young boy in his bedroom. The balloons that flank him indicate it is his birthday. In both English and Spanish, the text reads, “Today is my birthday, and I am so excited.” When one turns the page, though, one basically crashes into an image of the boy gazing at a colorful piñata. The accompanying text reads, “One piñata filled with candies.” For me, going from the first 2-page spread to the next had a rather jarring effect owing to the abrupt nature of the switch that occurs. At first the text operates in a storytelling mode as it introduces the boy and the setting. Then suddenly, and with no reason or transitioning provided, we see the kid staring, in an eerily transfixed manner in fact, at a piñata. It turns out that with the piñata page commences the counting that will occur in this book. The problem that I found myself running into with this arrangement is that the first pages set me up for a narrative but then with the turn of the page the text launches into counting mode. The absence of any bridging or cuing to signal a switch from narrative into counting mode flummoxed me, and it took me a few moments to re-orient and realize what the text was (unexpectedly) doing.

The lack of a sense of what we are counting or why we are counting only adds to the confusion. The text does not embed into its narrative frame any purpose for counting. In effect it also does not provide a motivation for counting. As the text progresses, it counts off things like “Two hours until the party,” “five wrestling masks,” “seven bottles with bubbles,” and “eight bags filled with marbles.” Eventually the counting culminates with “twelve children ready to swing at the piñata.” But with no purpose set forth at the outset, there is a rather meandering feeling to the whole book.

The fact that the text counts up (as opposed to counting down) feeds such a feeling. When a counting book counts down, there is a clear superstructure as well as a sense of anticipation. In a word, we know where the text is going. This provides an audience with a set of coordinates that provide a sense of progress into and through the text. Moreover, it provides a goal or endpoint. In the case of Dale, Dale, Dale, once the text starts counting up (with no explication, mind you), the reader has no idea for how long the counting will take place (not to mention no sense of what we are counting toward). The whole effect is one of disorientation and aimlessness. At the very least some kind of indication of what we are counting toward would have been useful. In fact, I find myself thinking that a countdown to the beginning of the party (in the vein of “two hours until the party”) with narrative description of party preparations interspersed into the countdown would have been more effective. It would have given a sense of telos and anticipation to the counting that occurs, and it would have provided an alternative to the seeming arbitrariness of what is selected to be counted in this book, which leads to my next point…

To be sure, all of the things counted in this book fall under the umbrella of the birthday party. Thus there is technically thematic coherence. But there remains an unsettling, increasingly frustrating feeling of randomness with regard to what is counted. Partly this occurs because what is being counted does not make full sense. For example, the narrative introduces us to “six tops,” “seven bottles with bubbles,” and “eight bags filled with marbles.” But then toward the end, we encounter “eleven cousins celebrating with me.” As such the numbers simply do not add up. If there are eleven cousins, why are there seven bottles of bubbles and eight bags with marbles? And why are we counting them at all? Owing to these sorts of questions, I found growing within me the feeling that Saldaña and his publisher underestimated, in fact under-respected, the subgenre of the counting book. I cannot help but think that a more effective counting book would have been put together more thoughtfully, more methodically, and more purposefully.

The book eventually arrives at “twelve children ready to swing at the piñata,” at which point the traditional “Dale, dale, dale” piñata song is introduced. Incidentally, this detail suggests to me another possibility for this counting book. It occurs to me that another approach would have been to organize the book around counting down to one piñata (rather than count up from it). If the piñata constitutes a kind of focal point for this experience, such an impression could be conveyed in the book by counting down to it. Such an arrangement would, among other things, then mimic the vectoring of attention at the party toward the piñata by orienting the attention of the narrative and the reader toward it, too. Then we could have the piñata song, which figuratively and literally revolves around the piñata at which the countdown would have arrived. This would have also aligned better with the last page of “And I get to go first, the happiest boy in the whole wide world!”

In any case, even the ending of the book I find disconcerting. Between the opening of “Today is my birthday” and the close of “And I get to go first,” I find the narrative voice an uncomfortably egocentric one. To be sure, someone else would point toward the importance for a child’s self-esteem the importance of having a special day for him/herself. One might therefore protest that a child is entitled to the sort of indulgence that frames Dale, Dale, Dale. I cannot help but feel, though, that the emphasis on individual specialness—in this book as in contemporary childraising practices—runs the risk of overshooting the nurturance of healthy self-esteem and, instead, nurturing an unattractive and problematic privileging of the self. While some might chafe at such a reading of the text and what it portrays, I wonder whether there are ways to recognize a birthday and an individual child in a healthier manner, one that does not perpetuate what Jean Twenge describes in her book Generation Me: “young people have been consistently taught to put their own needs first and to focus on feeling good about themselves” (72).

Part of what informs my thinking at this point is the fact that the warmest part of the book is the reference to the “eleven cousins celebrating with me.” This moment provides a heartening sense of family and an appreciation for others. Development of the text in this sort of a direction or around this kind of an image could be a way to more safely avoid the egocentrism-breeding effects of the text’s current emphasis on the self.

Finally, as regards the illustrations, I frankly find them more unsettlingly uncanny and off-putting than captivating or fun or even interesting. Carolyn Dee Flores’s images appear to be photographs that have been turned into prismacolor pencil drawings (akin to live action being computer processed in films such as The Polar Express with Tom Hanks and A Christmas Carol with Jim Carrey). The effect in the case of Dale, Dale, Dale is a surreal one, unfortunately, that neither facilitates a connection between the viewer and the artwork/text nor invites an interest in the artistry itself. A particularly creepy image is the one that accompanies “five wrestling masks.” Besides the fact that the text provides no narrative reason for the presence of five lucha libre masks amidst these party preparations, the accompanying illustration features the birthday boy striking odd poses in each of the five masks. What I find unnerving is that the poses come across as a combination of zombie lurching and gangbanger posturing. Consequently, this particular series of images seems especially uninviting. That this illustration creates such a presumably unintended impression is emblematic of how the illustrations end up estranging the reader from this picture book.

Ultimately, I find Dale, Dale, Dale disappointing not just because of the numerous problems and concerns I note above, but because, for the sake of the children reading books such as this one and for the sake of the integrity of the genre of Chicano/a children’s literature overall, we need books that do more than just feature a Chicano/a author or feature Latino/a content. Children’s literature in general, and the counting book in particular, are not to be taken lightly. It is a disservice to children and to the field of Chicano/a children’s literature when they publishers and authors prove guilty of such negligence.

--phillip serrato, san diego state university


1 All of these issues bring to mind a point that Guillermo Gómez-Peña develops in his performance piece, “The New World Border: Prophecies for the End of the Century:

The Federation of U.S. Republics’ fragile sense of self is sustained by a government- sanctioned transnational media culture that is broadcast via Reali-TV, Empty-V, radiorama, and telefax. Its mission is to transmit an idealized and apolitical version of who we are, but unfortunately, it must contend with rebels who operate pirate radio and TV stations throughout the borderless and still nameless continent.

Still, F.U.S.R.’s experience in overthrowing revolutionary groups has made it clear that the best way to contain rebellion is to offer an easier alternative. That’s why they’re undertaking the current campaign of the amigoization of the North, better known as Operation Jalapeño Fever. This multicultural consumer training project promotes sexy and inoffensive Latino products that range from taco capsules and chili spray to inflatable Fridas and holographic naked mariachis.

In the titles of Green is a Chile and A Fiesta of Numbers, we see demonstrated Chicano/a and other Latino/a texts’ complicity with Operation Jalapeño Fever.

Works Cited
Twenge, Jean. Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled—and More Miserable Than Ever Before. New York: Free P, 2006.
Gómez-Peña, Guillermo. “The New World Border: Prophesies for the End of the Century.” Gómez-Peña, Guillermo. The New World Border: Prophecies, Poems & Loqueras for the End of the Century. San Francisco: City Lights, 1996. 21-47.