P is for Pinata: A Mexican Alphabet by Tony Johnston, illustrated by John Parra (Sleeping Bear, 2008).
The glory of John Parra’s artwork is what this book is all about for me. Stop by Parra’s website for more examples of his work. Each entry is a folk-artsy treasure unto itself.
Tony Johnston has done a great job choosing a wide range of entries to diversify our understanding of Mexico, including aspects of culture, geography, agriculture, and history. She writes both a longer description of each entry, plus a short rhyme— most likely to make the book more appealing to a wider age range of kids. The rhymes don’t always work, but here’s an quirky example of a more successful one.
D is for Diego Rivera
Diego painted everything, from radishes to chilies.
He painted Aztec history — and lots of calla lillies.
Johnston uses the term Aztec in much of the book, although I have seen Mexica being used more often these days. Also, there are fewer entries that focus on Mayan history and only one that mentions the Olmec.
But my main question about the book comes from the entry for the 1968 Olympic Games. It stands out as completely bowdlerizing an infamous chapter of Mexican history.
Unfortunately, before the Games, a student demonstration and its bloody result marred the event. But even so there was a strong feeling of camaraderie. In Mexico the world gathered—united for sport; united for peace.
Here’s NPR’s version of what happened. Most historians call it the Tlatelolco massacre.
This excerpt leaves me turning around the perennial question about how to portray true history to kids— history that includes the oppression, repression and violence of our world — without painting a world that is beyond a kid’s understanding.
Would it have been better have a different entry for O altogether? For me, yes. Leaving the impression that the 1968 Olympics was an event promoting peace except for a small, bloody student disruption is actually distorting the truth. And I’m not sure that there is a way to responsibly portray the massacre to kids. So better to leave this piece of history for older high schoolers or college students to unpack and understand.
(Image source: www.johnparraart.com)