By Tanya Torres
Recently, my nine-year-old son Julian and I visited the Book Fair in Washington Heights (in New York City). Even though he is fascinated by books, I had to force him to go because he had a new toy and would have preferred to stay home. Just imagine, I was going to present a children’s book and I had to force him to accompany me! He did agree finally, but grumbled about it. Once I finished I found myself with a pretty bored and angry kid, but even then I couldn’t leave yet. I had promised to visit Editorial Campana’s table after my presentation and I needed to fulfill this last commitment. So I dragged my grumpy son to the end of the big hall where from a distance I could see Mario Picayo´s eternal hat. After the usual greetings, Mario showed us his book, a colorful trip through the Caribbean entitled A Caribbean Journey from A to Y (Read and Discover What Happened to the Z). At the beginning I thought he was showing me a book for very small children, after all, the alphabet is learnt in Kindergarten. But soon I realized that Caribbean Journey was the most important part of the title, a fact confirmed by the gradual transformation of mood of the future Dr. Julian Núñez –zoologist in training– as his expert eyes alighted on the image of a small bird in the book. It seemed to me –with my knowledge limited to the banana quits, hummingbirds, pelicans and of course the pigeons of New York, it seemed to me that Mario and Julian had opened a door to a parallel universe as yet unknown to me. They began to look all through the book and identify birds. Mario told us his adventures with the penguins from Patagonia, and about the birds that only live in the water or air and have atrophied feet because they hardly use them. I realized that practically every single illustration in the book had some kind of bird, including, for Puerto Rico, the peace dove. And Puerto Rico, the island Julian and I know best, having observed lizards and birds there (he talks and I listen!), is only one of the islands that appears in this colorful, informative and entertaining book full of interesting facts about the islands in and near to the Caribbean sea. Each letter contains a list of names beginning with that letter, and the text, simple enough for very small children to understand and sophisticated enough to entertain and educate older ones, offers way more than any ABC book I’ve seen to date. A simple search in the Internet will tell us that no other ABC book about the Caribbean exists. Another, more complex search allows us to see that these kinds of texts usually are limited to the normal experiences of a traditional US or European child.
A Caribbean Journey from A to Y (Read and Discover What Happened to the Z), published by Editorial Campana is an alternative to bigger publishers that don’t yet know the market or tastes of Latino and West Indian families nor take them into account in their marketing. This book is a learning experience on many levels, in terms of text and illustrations. The simple name of an island is made into new and valuable information to add to children’s vocabulary when we discover that “St.” means saint and that there is a big island that an astronaut comes from. In the illustrations we see people of all colors and sizes, carrying out different activities that are particular to the Caribbean. These are today’s natives, past natives, tourists and dozens of starting points for lessons on history, science music and vocabulary. But a child isn’t given a book only because of the lessons we can get them to learn. A book is an object that activates the imagination and transports them to other worlds. For a nine-year-old child, like mine, a book has to provide just the right details to fire their desires and passion. It could be the birds or the iguanas, the flags, the volcanoes the indigenous people or the yachts. A Caribbean Journey from A to Y (Read and Discover What Happened to the Z) has all of this and more. It’s written to entertain and educate and to leave us with more questions to answer. At the end, the Z surprises us with an invitation to make a leap across the Atlantic and to continue the journey. But as adults we’re not the best judges of books for children. When we left the book fair Julian was smiling and he made a comment in his own classic style: “I could almost say I had a good time.” He’s a pretty severe critic, but he congratulated me for having such interesting friends like Mario. And this same critic, when asked by his mother, expressed his opinion with a short blurb worthy of a book’s back cover: “Great! And it has a big surprise with the letter Z!”
Tanya Torres is an artist, cultural activist and writer who lives in New York. Her articles and reviews have appeared in newspapers like Siempre, Hoy and El Diario/La Prensa among others. In 2002 she was selected as one of the 50 Women of the Year by El Diario/La Prensa (NY).