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Celebrating Culture with Books

Posted by Terry on September 29, 2009 at 8:00 AM in Picture BooksSeasonal Books
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One of the great riches of our country is its people. For five centuries people of different cultures have come to the United States, bringing with them experiences and traditions that enrich our communities.

One way to share those experiences is through stories. Before there were books, history and customs were shared through storytelling. You may have even heard a story or two from a favorite relative. Within these stories you can find the history, traditions, customs, and beliefs of a society or group of people. Thankfully, authors and illustrators have collected generations of these histories, folktales, myths, and legend in children's books.

In celebration of National Hispanic Heritage Month, which runs from September 15 to October 15, I pulled together some of my favorite picture book tales. Some are oral histories; some offer original interpretations of well-known stories; and still others show the universal tradition of myths and legends.

burros_tortillas.jpgBurro's Tortillas
by Terri Fields / Illustrated by Sherry Rogers
Now that the corn was tall enough to make tortillas, a burro called his friends coyote, bobcat, and jackrabbit to help him. This picture book builds Spanish words into a story, which offers a twist on the Little Red Hen.

Juan Quezada
As told to Shelley Dale / Illustrated by Shelly Dale
A young boy asks his grandfather to tell him the story of Juan Quezada, a famous potter. Quezada comes across some clay pots. Curious, he wants to learn how they were made and he begins to experiment. Eventually he figures out how to replicate the process. The entire village helps make the pots. Quezada becomes a famous artist, and his pots are displayed in museums. This bilingual picture book biography introduces kids to primary sources, as Juan Quezada tells his life story.

nacho_lolita.jpgNacho and Lolita
By Pam Muñoz Ryan / Illustrated by Claudia Rueda
Nacho, a rare pitacoche bird, lives in a mesquite tree at the Mission San Juan Capistrano. He is a lovely but lonely bird; so when the swallows arrive in spring, he enjoys a wonderful life. In the fall, his friends must fly south, and he is lonely again, uncertain that they will return. He wants to do whatever he can to assure they come back to the Mission. This is a picture book built around a Mexican legend.

paco_chile.jpgPaco and the Giant Chile Plant / Paco y Planta de Chile Gigante
By Keith Polette / Illustrated by Elizabeth O. Dulemba
When Paco's mother runs out of money, she sends him to the market to sell la vaca (the cow). On the way, Paco meets a man who trades him a bag of magic chile seeds for the cow. Paco plants the semillas de chile and waits. When the plant erupts from the ground, Paco immediately grabs some chiles and climbs to the top ... only to be discovered by el gigante terrible. This is much more than a Spanish-added version of the classic story.

poinsettia_miracle.gifThe Miracle of the First Poinsettia: A Mexican Christmas Story
by Joanne Oppenheim / Illustrated by Fabian Negrin
It is Christmas Eve (la Noche Buena). Everyone is happy ... even Papa, who just lost his job. Juanita is sad. True, there are no extra pesos for toys or candy, but more importantly, she doesn't have a gift to bring to church for the Baby Jesus. When everyone went in for services, Juanita stayed outside. A stone angel in the garden helps her find the perfect gift. She is skeptical of carrying weeds into church, but she does as the angel suggests. Will people laugh at her? This is a picture book story with a folk legend about how the Poinsettia became part of Christmas.

There are a number of wonderful online resources for exploring Hispanic culture through books. One of my favorites is Colorín Colorado, a PBS-affiliated website that provides resources, ideas, and activities that bridge the Spanish-speaking and English communities with bilingual resources. I regularly use their Books and Authors page and the underlying booklists to help me discover new books to share with my daughter.

Picture books give us an opportunity to visit places and learn new things without the inconveniences of luggage fees or jet lag. Through these stories we can immerse ourselves in the rich traditions of our personal, family, or community's heritage. Where have your picture book travels taken you? Leave a comment to share your journey with us!


Vonna writes...

I love the idea of using picture books to let a child travel the world. This would be a good idea for a school auction item, an around the world with picture books collection.

TerryAuthor Profile Page writes...

That would be so cool! I love the idea of an auction of picture books that would take us around the world. Hmmm, where should we start our trip?

Mary Ann writes...

Lovely book suggestions. It's so important to share stories from all backgrounds.

One story I particularly loved reading with my children was My Diary From Here to There by Amada Irma Perez. It's a heartfelt story about a young girl whose father needs to leave their home in Mexico to find work in Los Angeles, and the family's journey to join him.

TerryAuthor Profile Page writes...

That sounds like a lovely book, Mary Ann. My daughter is Latina and though I am not, I am always trying to find books that help her celebrate her culture ... books that celebrate the journey are especially sweet for us.

BookChook writes...

Just building on Vonna's idea, how about we have a Sharing Story Day where we do try to go around the world with picture books??? Each blogger could come up with a special picture book, then we plot the flight!

TerryAuthor Profile Page writes...

Another brilliant Book Chook idea! That would be a lot of fun ... Would you like to start our journey on a specific day or just pick one? It might be fun to go around the world with holiday stories ... though I like Dawn's idea of the various versions of a specific fairy tale, too.

Dawn Morris writes...

You're heading right up my alley, Terry! I'd love to add Domitila: A Cinderella Tale from the Mexican Tradition, adapted by Jewell Reinhart Coburn to this list. You can take a trip around the world simply by reading the many versions of Cinderella.

I must say, though, that some of my favorite trips with picture books are to imaginary worlds! That's the wonder of children's literature; there doesn't have to be a line drawn between fantasy and reality...

Thanks for a great post, Terry.

TerryAuthor Profile Page writes...

How fun! Taking a trip around the world with the various versions of just one story would be a great way to show how universal stories are ... so many of them "arrived" at the same time, so it's not as though they were passed across cultures (at least not initially). Maybe we should combine your idea and Susan's idea into a page for the Literacy and Reading Wiki. What do you think?

Lynn writes...

I also love My Dog is Lost/Mi Perro Se Ha Perdido by Jack Ezra Keats (

My husband is from New Zealand, and my in-laws have been sending our 2 year old picture book paperbacks in the mail every now and then. I LOVE exposing him to New Zealand authors that are hard to find in the U.S. When we finally get back over there with our son, I'll have to haul a suitcase home. I'm buying out the shelf of NZ-focused children's books for him!

TerryAuthor Profile Page writes...

Oh, how wonderful that your in-laws/grandparents can expand your reading world. I like My God is Lost/Mi Perro Se Ha Perdido, also. I would love to hear about some of your favorite Kiwi children's books.

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