Reading Log: folk tales & poetry

Federico and The Wolf by Rebecca J. Gomez & Elisa Chavarri (traditional tale)

Gomez, Rebecca J. and Elisa Chavarri, illustr. Federico and the Wolf. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2020.

Federico and the Wolf is a spicy retelling of Little Red Riding Hood, bringing the story up to modern times and featuring a Latinx protagonist, the tale borders on being a fractured, trickster fairy tale. In this story, the boy, dressed in a red hoodie, outwits el lobo and rescues his abuelo, hurling hot peppers in order to send the wolf running. The tale is modified and updated just enough to keep kids guessing what will happen next, but still predictable. A mother sends Federico to the outdoor market to collect ingredients to bring to his grandfather at his shop. Along the way, he bikes through the woods encountering the archetypal hungry wolf along the way. When he reaches the shop Abuelo hasn’t shaved (the fur), and the familiar lines ring out, (the better to see you with!). The clever kid himself is able to save the day making the wolf sneeze himself silly (kids will love talking about the time they ate something spicy, or if they like spicy food) so that he and abuelo can make some Wolf’s Bane Salsa. The text is sprinkled with words in Spanish. Bilingual Spanish-speakers will enjoy hearing their native tongue while students who don’t know Spanish will be able to easily understand based on context. While the text is funny and engaging, the illustrations from Chavarri will also keep children hooked on the page. Chavarri also illustrated the bilingual books Rainbow Weaver and Sharuko: Peruvian Archaeologist Julio C. Tello. The illustrations are vibrantly colorful and just plain fun to look at. They are reminiscent of folk art Words in Spanish and English are included on almost every page for students to practice reading.

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As Vardell suggests (90), students can create their own version of Little Red Riding Hood after reading and listening to this tale. Does grandma get eaten, or just put in a box like Abuelo? How will they outsmart the wolf? Kids can act it out, draw it as a comic strip, record a flipgrid, or write the story to create their own fractured fairy tale. Since food plays such a prominent role (the pico recipe is shared at the end), students could also be encouraged to share a recipe that is special to them and make up a story to go with it. Be careful if reading in a community with high food insecurity.

Click here to go to the author’s website.

Click here to go to the illustrator’s website. (Access a free coloring page for the book here.)

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Talking with Mother Earth: Poems / Hablando con Madre Tierra: Poemas by Jorge Argueta, pictures by Lucia Angela Perez (poetry)

Argueta, Jorge. Talking with Mother Earth, Poems / Hablando con Madre Tierra. Toronto: House of Anansi Press, 2017.

This book is a wonderful compilation of bilingual poems paying tribute, in prose and art alike, to the beauties of Mother Earth and indigeneity. Originally published in 2006, this review is of the 2017 printing. The author is an award winning poet for children, a native Salvadorean and Pipil Nahua Indian. Poems address and rebuke the racism experienced by the poet as a young child who looked different than his peers (“and in my chest my heart would boil/ like a volcano getting ready to explode”). He writes of the solace he was able to find in the lessons of his ancestors and in connection with the Earth (“the east is in my belly / where I feel the sun / like a heart warming me / every morning.” The verse is simple yet full of imagery in a way that is suitable for children young and older. The progression of poems acts as a sort of coming of age as the author conveys the emotion of growing up and dealing reckoning with his place in the world. 8This collection of poetry is powerful in its words, and acts as a counter to indigenous erasure of the Americas. Each poem is mirrored in its Spanish and English versions and vocabulary in the native language Nahuatl is incorporated a bit too. The pastel illustrations are light and vibrant and demonstrate the themes of each poem they accompany, incorporating depictions of the young boy surrounded by natural scenes, as well as with imagery of Nahual ancestors. Color and shapes are abundant (“she turns / everything into life /into songs/ into colors”) perfectly pairing with the fragrant text.

Talking with Mother Earth / Hablando con Madre Tierra

Poetry month and Earth day both fall in April and this would be an amazing text to bring to students attention in a study of poetry and appreciations of Earth. Students could write their own odes / poems to Mother Earth, along with an illustration. It could be used for multilingual learners to strengthen vocabulary in English or Spanish in order to talk about the natural world. There is also some language included in Nahuatl!

If librarians are looking to add more bilingual texts or Spanish poetry to their collections, this is a strong choice.

Check out this article from Rethinking Schools for more ideas on how one teacher used Jorge Argueta’s poetry in her classroom, including using this text in lessons on ecosystems!

*Reviewer’s note: I have only a basic understanding of Spanish so I am basing my observations on the English versions of the poetry. However, in sharing poems from the story in both English and Spanish with \Spanish speakers I have received positive feedback!

Click here to visit the author’s website.

Click here to visit the illustrator’s website.

Click here to visit the publisher’s site.

Talking with Mother Earth / Hablando con Madre Tierra

Reading Log no. 1: picture books


Swashby & The Sea by Beth Ferry & Juana Martinez-Neal (picture book)

Ferry, Beth. and Juana Martinez-Neal, illustrator. Swashby & The Sea. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: 2020.

Click here for Illustrator’s site.

Swashby is a seemingly grumpy recluse who has retired to the sea for peace and serenity, and especially to keep to his salty self. The sea, who features heavily as a character, gives him everything he needs, when he needs and life is as calm as can be on the shore. Until … one day, granny and the girl show up next door… The pacing and predictability of the text, which follows a clear arc, is impeccable, with page turns coming at exactly the right moments, to find what has been written in the sand and how the sea has, repeatedly, “fiddled” with it, “just a little bit.

Children could imagine and draw what messages they would like to write in the sand, or could imagine their perfect day at the beach. With the theme of unintentional and intergenerational friendship, kids could also discuss the qualities of a good friend. The text, for added humor, includes some pirate-speak. The illustrations evoke the calm of a sea shore, with muted tan beaches and blue hues, with just a splash of yellow here and there. In addition to the sea who is personified as a character, children might delight in finding the seagull on almost every page watching carefully over Swashby and his new friends.


How to Find a Fox by Nilah Magruder (picture book)

Magruder, Nilah. How to Find a Fox. New York: Feiwel and Friends, 2016.

Click here to go to the author’s website.

A determined little girl, with camera in hand, is off to find a fox! Adventure ensues! Almost! The book takes us step by step through how to find a fox but readers and the girl will find that foxes are sneaky, and always just out of sight. Kids will delight in finding the fox on every page, hiding in plain sight from the girl. What to do when the fox can’t be found? Kick rocks? Take a nap? Go home? The illustrations are rendered digitally and feature a large part of the narrative arc. At one point, when the girl climbs the tree for a new perspective (vocab!), the book must be turned vertically to see the illustration from her vantage point. At some points, the text is a bit sparse yet the plot remains predictable and engaging. Perhaps it would have benefited from even more repetitious language. While the pacing on each page doesn’t always flow naturally, the page turns usually allow for that dramatic effect and will have kids eager to find out if she finds the fox. It’s wonderful that How to Find a Fox provides representation of a girl of color exploring the wild.

Children can guess the ending, practice making predictions, and talk about the theme of the story (not to give up! be patient! Sometimes what you’re looking for finds you instead!?). Students can imagine they are looking for their own creature (be it a real live or mythological animal) and illustrate a short book of their own about how to find them.

Interior Image
How to Find a Fox, Nilah Magruder

Saturday by Oge Mora (Picture Book)

Mora, Oge. Saturday. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2019.

Click here for the author’s website.

Saturday is the second book from Providence resident Oge Mora. Previously recognized as a Caldecott Honor for Thank You, Omu. This delightful picture book won the 2020 Boston Globe—Horn Book Picture Book Award. Saturday is supposed to be special and splendid for characters Ava and her mom. While the book surely is splendid, this particular Saturday, mom’s only day off work, keeps getting ruined. With visual emphasis on the word Saturday, offering a golden opportunity for children to time in, the book is a collaged sequence of mishaps at every regular Saturday outing. At every turn, of events and the page, after every ZOOM! we are reminded to pause, breathe deeply, and keep going because “today will be special. Today will be splendid. Today is Saturday!” The refrain has been stuck in my head since I read it with classes a few weeks ago, owing to the fact that this lovely little story will most certainly become a classic.

The illustrations are vibrant with contrasting compositions made from collage shapes. At each step in the sequence, there is a new vista, a zoom out of one of the places they’ll go on Saturdays, and then, as they encounter misfortunes, an up close highlight of the two characters focusing on how to get through. Children delight in finding text in the images from the collaged pieces. The plot becomes predictable and the repetition allows for deep engagement and enjoyment. In the end, we find a clear wrap up of the theme conveyed throughout, the best part of Saturdays is spending them together. The text can be used with children to model coping strategies when things don’t go as planned, as well as to make connections to self by writing or drawing about a favorite day spent with loved ones. When reading to a group I would try to be sure that there are no iffy mother-child situations that could cause the book to be a trigger.


Use Your Imagination by Nicola O’Byrne (picture book)

O’Byrne, Nicola. Use Your Imagination. Somerville, MA: Nosy Crow, 2014.

Click here to visit the author’s bio via Candlewick.

Rabbit and wolf take readers through a silly retelling of a classic fairy tale or two. Rabbit is bored, alone on a blank white page but for a wolf’s giant shadow (foreshadowing!) overcasting him and looking like it’s going to gobble him up. Wolf shows up claiming to be a librarian ready to take Rabbit on an adventure through a story. Together they plot out the elements of the story in order to imagine a delicious fairy tale. Unfortunately for the wolf, the rabbit realizes he can use his imagination to escape becoming dinner.

The text is bold on the page, playing with fonts in order to call attention to different elements as well as be large enough for listeners in a group to be able to read when reading in chorus. Textual patterns evoke Little Red Riding while listeners can chime in to answer the wolf’s questions and use their own imaginations to create story possibilities and predict the ending – which changes with a simple twist. The illustrations, which feature the characters on a stark white background for the majority of the story, allow young children to pinpoint the story elements – characters, setting, etc. – while also keeping them engaged through the animal’s facial expressions and the occasional parrot appearance. When the plot twist occurs, the abrupt change is illustrated by leaving behind the white background for a bright red rocket ship taking off against a blue gradated background that opens up to a full four block page.

The story can be used to help teach young learners the basic elements of the story (character, setting, problem, resolution) as well as to work as a springboard for them to use their own imaginations and create a new story, perhaps also featuring Rabbit and Wolf… and parrot!

Picture Book – The Thing About Bees: A Love Letter by Shabazz Larkin

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Larkin, Shabazz. The Thing About Bees: A Love Letter. San Francisco: Readers to Eaters, 2019. (Publisher Link)

A father pens a love letter, a love letter for bees, a love letter to his sons. The Thing About Bees is a beautiful ode to bees and summertime, a love letter to the wildness of childhood. With vibrant, rhyming language, the author – who admits to having a fear of bees himself – tells his kids, and all young readers, why we need bees. Without bees there’s no more “avocados for tacos,” or “picnics with watermelon.” The bees and kids, in fact, are not unalike, buzzing, stinging, filling us with fear, but also bringing so much joy. The illustrations are stark and vibrant. Informational content about different types of bees (the kind vs. the kinda menacing) and their place in the circle of life (a guide on pollination) is included in the end pages. So much depends on the bees, on the nurturing love conveyed in this perfect book. I love that it persuades children to face their fears by addressing something so commonly misunderstood – and feared – in nature. I love to use in the classroom and to ask students to write their own love letters to something or someone in nature.

Evaluation, updated 6 June 2021: This book is a work of art. The text is short and lilting, allowing the child time to focus much of their attention on the beautiful visuals. The illustrations are impressionistic snapshots of the two boys and their father, as they point and gawk at bees. The bees flit around the pages with looping tails of flight, that transform into doodles on the pages where the text is on the adjacent page to the illustrations. The colors of the illustrations and the pages themselves are soft, warm pastels, inviting the reader into a place of comfort, where they are safe from fear. A couple of the pages are more abstract, with the children painted as bees, as wearing bee costumes against a large yellow flower center that gradates from white to black. As for the text itself, there is rhythm and rhyme. Much of this lyrical ode to bees, and children, is written as rhyming couplets, with references to those things that are so much of a child’s experiences of the world as they are young, food and fears. The author speaks directly to the child listening and invites them in with a voice that is kind and playful. At it’s essence, this picture book is meant to be, as Horning wrote, enjoyed “as a shared experience between a fluent reader and a prereader” (87).

Check out the book trailer from author Shabazz Larkin:

Horning, Kathleen. From Cover to Cover: Evaluating and Reviewing Children’s Books. CollinHorning, K.T. (2010). From cover to cover: Evaluating and reviewing children’s books. New York, NY: HarperCollins.