Multilingual Children's Books: A English speaking Parent's List

An annotated bibliography by Wendy E. Betts. Copyright 2005-2011 2007, 2008, 2009

Last Updated 04/13/11

Note to readers: This bibliography is not intended to be remotely comprehensive; it's merely a few books that I've found to be a pleasant way of exposing my child and myself to languages besides English.

Click on the book covers for more publisher's information or to order from Powell's Books.

Picture Books

Pio Peep! selected by Alma Flor Ada and F. Isabel Campoy. English adaptations by Alice Schertle. Illustrated by Vivi Escriva. HarperCollins, 2003 (0-688-16019-0) $14.99

If you, like me, dutifully read your children English-Spanish word books, while trying to stifle your yawns, take note! This collection of traditional Spanish nursery rhymes is how it should be done, offering English speakers a chance to discover Spanish the way children first learn to love language, through delightful sounds and rhythms. Some of the longer rhymes will challenge non-native speakers reading aloud, but most of us can manage verse like "Pito, pito, colorito, donde vas tu, tan bonito?" and have a wonderful time doing it. When the Spanish pronunciation becomes too much for me, I turn to the English adaptations--very free translations that try to keep the sense and feeling of the originals, although the rhythm is often lost.

Of course, this book is not just for English speakers; Spanish speakers can also enjoy it just as a collection of traditional verse. Colorful illustrations, using images and motifs from Spanish and Mexican culture, give additional context for the rhymes, many of which are used in children's games. (2-5)

Mama Goose selected by Alma Flor Ada and F. Isabel Campoy. Illustrated by Maribel Suarez. Hyperion, 2004 (0-786-81953-7) $19.99

The people who brought us Pio Peep (see above) have created another collection of Spanish rhymes for children and it's even better, with lullabies, nursery rhymes, jump-rope songs, riddles and just about anything you could want from the oral heritage of childhood. I appreciated the shortness of most of the selections, which makes them easier for a non-native speaker to attempt, although English translations are also included. Maribel Suarez, illustrator of the delightful Te Amo Bebe, Little One, somewhat overdoes the cuteness here, with lots of snub noses and big round faces, but I like the mix of contemporary and traditional Spanish and Mexican settings in her antic watercolors. This is a very welcome introduction to Latino heritage, appropriate for readers of any background. (3-8)

Sometimes/Algunas veces written and illustrated by Keith Baker. Green Light Readers, 1999; 2007 (978-0-15-205961-3) $3.95 pb

One of my favorite easy readers is now available in an English/Spanish edition. Less is more in this positive but never preachy little look at feelings and self-esteem. The star is an active and adventurous alligator, who reveals that "Sometimes I am happy. Sometimes I am sad." But no matter what happens, "I like who I am. I like what I do." The gentle rhythm of the text gives it the qualities of a song, making its simplicity and repetition feel natural, instead of forced or babyish. Baker's vibrant and expressive acrylic illustrations fill in all the details the text leaves out, showing busy scenes of the alligator as he enjoys his daily life.

This is an unusually attractive beginner's book, an excellent choice for sibling reading. The short sentences also make it a good choice for those learning English or Spanish as a new language, and though some of the flow of the original text is lost in the Spanish translation, reading both versions together--"I like who I am. Me gusta quien soy. I like what I do. Me gusta lo que hago."--works surprisingly well. (2-6/) Alphabet Times Four by Ruth Brown. Dutton, 1991 (0-525-44831-4) OP

More than just an attractive multilingual alphabet, this book will have thoughtful readers intrigued by the connections between languages. For each letter of the alphabet, a lovely watercolor painting illustrates a noun: my favorites are the very hard-to-find chameleon and the x-rayed hands playing an x-rayed xylophone. Underneath the picture, the noun is shown in English, Spanish, French and German, with a pronunciation guide throughtfully underneath. What makes this so interesting is that the words have been carefully chosen to show the similarities between the languages: jaguar and kiwi, for example, are exactly the same word in all four (except that they are capitalized in German.) Other nouns, such as the beginning word ark, have more differences but are still recognizably related: arca, arche, Arche. This book has so much to offer, I'm stunned it's out of print. * (3 & up)

Postcards from Washington D.C./Postales desde Washington D.C. written and illustrated by Laura Crawford. Raven Tree Press, 2008 (0-9795477-0-9) $16.95

Part of the series, "Traveling With Anna," this is a partially bilingual book (English/Spanish) that uses a postcard-to-friends format to describe places of interest in Washington D.C. An eye-catching design mixes formal photos of the sites with casual pen & ink and watercolor pictures of the friendly Anna, who smiles with bookworm glee at the Library of Congress (even though nothing can be checked out,) and gazes soberly at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, putting some flowers under her uncle's name. Each section includes a "postcard" from Anna, enthusiastically describing her trip, plus a few additional facts as text.

Anna's postcards are engaging, giving interesting information that will appeal to kids, such as a description of a ritual in Arlington National Cemetery: "A guard marched 21 steps, clicked his heels, faced the tomb, waited 21 seconds, and marched back." After visiting the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, she writes: "Money isn't made of paper. It is really linen and cotton. That's why it doesn't get ruined in the washing machine!"

Postcards from Washington D.C. isn't completely successful as a bilingual book, because only the additional text is offered in Spanish; the postcards themselves, the best part, are only given in English. It's still an excellent resource for English speakers planning a family trip to D.C., for kids interested in other places, or for classroom reading. (6-10)

Fairy Trails by Susan Middleton Elya. Illustrated by Mercedes McDonald. Bloomsbury, 2005 (1-58234-927-4) $16.95

Yes! Si! This clever book is just about perfect for English speakers like me who want to share Spanish with children. Not bilingual in the usual sense, it describes how Miguel and Maria, "on one summer dia, left home to go visit their auntie--their tia." The rhymes and the smartly incorporated Spanish words continue throughout the story, in which the two children meet some oddly familiar folks, such as a housemaid holding a glass slipper, three hungry bears, and an unpleasant character named Humpty Huevo.

The humor, offbeat references, and careful rhymes make this book readily entertaining to both readers and listeners, who will find themselves painlessly learning new vocabulary. In an especially thoughtful touch, a glossary and pronunciation guide are included before the story, so readers can familiarize themselves with strange words beforehand.

I wish the text was better served by the pictures, which have excitingly textured backgrounds, but use an overly flat, formal style for the human characters, who look more like porcelain dolls than people. Nonetheless, this book is fina. (3 & up)

Oh No, Gotta Go! by Susan Middleton Elya. Illustrated by G. Brian Karas. Putnam, 2003 (0-399-34-93-4) $14.99

Elya again very cleverly incorporates Spanish into an entertaining, rhyming story in English. This time, a little girl discovers an urgent need for un bano while driving with her parents. After much driving around (Going past a fountain--la fuente--naturally causes the poor girl to cry "Hurry Papa, Mas rapidamente!"--finally she can go and all is well--but what about all that limonada she has for lunch...? Karas' quirky people are a nice match for this silly story; I especially like the suggestions of madly shaking legs as they pass la fuente. (3-6)

Say Hola to Spanish by Susan Middleton Elya. Illustrated by Loretta Lopez. Scholastic, 1998 (1-880-00064-4) $7.95 pb

Since reviewing Fairy Trails (see above), I've discovered that Elya has written a number of books incorporating Spanish into an English text. This one is less sophisticated than Fairy Trails, but also fun and clever. Instead of a story, the rhyming text introduces various Spanish words: "Your hair is your pelo, your nose is nariz. Your grandmother's pelo is probably gris." The illustrations are pedestrian, but do have fun touches that readers will enjoy, like the shark, dog and alligator reading revistas as they wait for a check-up at the dentista. (3 & up)

Also available: Say Hola to Spanish at the Circus.

My Big Book of Spanish Words written and illustrated by Rebecca Emberley. Little, Brown, 2008 (978-0-316-11803-3) $8.99 board

A typical word book, this one stands out a bit in the crowd because of the vibrancy of its illustrations. Each oversized page features common childhood words in English and Spanish, in categories like "My Colors/Mis colores" and "My room/Mi cuarto." The names of the items are given in thin letters in English and fatter letters in the same color in Spanish, an eye-catching design touch. Cut-paper pictures of the items are simple and easily recognizable, but the bright colors, vivid small details and casual looking layout give them verve. I especially liked the animals page, which features a demure looking cat, a slightly suspicious dog and a pig happily flopped on its bottom. (6 months-3)

My Food/Mi Comida written and illustrated by Rebecca Emberley. Little, Brown, 2002 (0-316-17718-0) $5.95 board book

I was so glad to get this book, because now I can get rid of our similar, but decidedly inferior, Let's Eat/Vamos a Comer. This English/Spanish word book keeps things simple, showing one food item per page; the text is merely the English and Spanish names of the item (including, I'm glad to see, the definite articles for each Spanish noun.) The cut-paper illustrations are bold and direct against white backgrounds, although a few of the foods, such as broccoli/el brecol, aren't easily recognizable. Although I wish there was a pronunciation guide, this is an accessible introduction to basic words in English and Spanish. (9 months-2)

Also available: My Clothes/Mi Ropa and My Animals/Mis Animales.

Pinata! written and illustrated by Rebecca Emberley. Little, Brown, 2004 (0-316-17412-2) $14.95.

Emberley has created many bilingual books but she's probably never had such a perfect subject matter for her mixed media collage illustrations. Her rainbow striped pinata practically bursts from the page and most of the goodies that go inside look tantalizingly tangible. Text in English and Spanish describes the different fun things that go inside the pinata; a short history, instructions for making the pinata and a little quiz on the names of the items are also included. (3-6)

Can You Count Ten Toes? by Lezlie Evans. Illustrated by Denis Roche. Houghton Mifflin, 1999; 2004 (0-618-49487-1) $5.95 pb

I would have to like this book no matter what, because it has that all-too-rare and wonderful thing: a pronunciation guide after each word! Luckily, that's not all there is to like. A short rhyming text introduces a different language per page, with various items to count from one to ten in that language; uncrowded illustrations show a cat-person enjoying around-the-world adventures with a group of children. A continent map at the end shows the parts of the world where each language is spoken, including 20 countries for Spanish and 26 for French. An enjoyable book for fans of both language and counting. (3-8)

Can You Greet the Whole Wide World? by Lezlie Evans. Illustrated by Denis Roche. Houghton Mifflin, 2006 (978-0618-56327-2) $16.00

This companion to Can You Count Ten Toes? (see above) follows a cat-kid on his first day at school. Short rhymes introduce each new situation he encounters and the phrase required--"good morning," "what's your name?" and so on--and the phrase is then given in 12 languages, with a pronunication guide after each one. Again, a color-coded map at the end shows where the different languages are spoken, an intriguing visual which could potentially spark some interesting discussions. Chunky, simply-lined illustrations have a somewhat flat affect but are attractively bright. (4-8)

My School/Mi Escuela by Ginger Foglesong Guy. Illustrated by Vivi Escriva. Rayo/Harpercollins, 2006 (0-06-079101-2) $12.99

This simple Spanish-English word book stands out among its genre for its full-page illustrations. A multicultural group of Ninos/Children (and unusually, one in which white children aren't the majority) go though their day at school, reading Libros/Books, drawing with Pinturas/Paints and enjoying Recreo/Recess together. Instead of the usual one word=one small illustration, each spread shows a long scene filled with children having fun, and the muted colors and soft shading give a cozy look that is very attractive. (2-5)

The Moon is La Luna by Jay M. Harris. Illustrated by Matthew Cordell. Houghton Mifflin, 2007 (978-0-618-64645-6) $15.00

I always appreciate the cleverness of books that integrate Spanish words into an English text, but the short verses in this book go one or two step beyond the usual, working pronunciation and jokes based on it into the mix as well. Here's one of my favorites:

In Espanol, papá means "dad."
("paPA" is how it is said.)
But papa (said "POP-a") doesn't mean "dad,"
It means "potato" instead.
So watch how you say it,
Unless you would like
a Potato to tuck you in bed.
That one almost illustrates itself--but to make it even funnier, it comes right after a verse joking about how una cama (a bed) is pronounced like the English word "comma"; in the corner of the illustration for that page, which shows a boy in bed, we see a potato striding into the room, ready to tuck in the startled boy on the next page.

Aside from an occasional scansion glitch, this is a natural for reading aloud, but the short verses, familiar words, silly jokes and clean, light design make it approachable for beginning readers as well. (It's a shame the cover makes it look so much like a book for toddlers; I hope that won't put older readers off.) Overall, this is a happy marriage of information and humor. A Spanish sounds pronunciation guide and a glossary are included. (4-8)

Tito the Firefighter by Tim Hoppey. Illustrated by Kimberly Hoffman. Raven Tree, 2004 (0-9724973-1) $16.95

Eight year old Tito, who lives in East Harlem, is bilingual: "I speak two languages, ingles and espanol." This comes in very handy one day, when he sees his firefighter friend Richie trying to understand a man who only speaks Spanish. Tito translates: there may be a fire! And so Tito gets to ride with the bomberos in el camino de bomberos. And even though it turns out to have just been a cooking accident, he'll always remember getting to be a bombero for a day.

Told primarily in English, with embedded Spanish words, this exciting story may well inspire English-speaking children to want to be bilingual too. Hyper-realistic, computer-enhanced illustrations give lots of visual detail, though the super-clean and bright streets of the city seem improbable. (4-8)

Grandmother's Nursery Rhymes/Las Nanas de Abuelita complied by Nelly Palacio Jaramillo. Illustrated by Elivia. Henry Holt, 1994; 1996 (978-0-8050-4644-1) $7.95 pb

Whether you want to expose your kids to a bit of South American culture, try reading a little Spanish, or just enjoy some unfamiliar nursery rhymes, this collection of rhyming riddles and lullabies has something for you. Many of the rhymes are adivinanzas, riddles for which the answer is a letter or an object; I particularly like the riddles for the five vowels, subtly illustrated to suggest the shapes of the letters. (Though the answers are also right there, removing any real mystery.) These verses are short and sweet enough for English speakers to attempt the Spanish versions, but the translations also seem to do an excellent job of keeping the rhythm and sense of the originals; even a poem which is a play on young children's classic mispronunciation of Spanish numbers is entertaining in English:

estaba la reina
sentada al bufete.


A one
is two,
a tree,
what for,
a fife
my sis,
the queen
did kiss.

Exuberant, sometimes slightly surreal watercolors of plump babies, loving parents and other happy people and animals cozily surround the text, giving the unfamiliar rhymes a comfortably familiar, nursery-rhyme feel. (2-6)

Come Out and Play written and illustrated by Diane Law. North-South, 2006 (978-0-7358-2060-9) $9.95

To a text that's merely the numbers from 1 to 10 in English, Spanish, German, French and Chinese, one boy starts a line of hand-holding children, finding other kids one by one from all around the world. From Alaska to the desert the line travels, picking up kids from their smiling parents, with interesting items to count on each page. In the final scene, all ten of the children play ball in a sunny field together. (One can only pity the poor fur-clad Inuit child.)

There's something uncomfortably reminscent of Disney's "It's a Small World" ride about this book, in the way the non-Western children and their families are all dressed in uber ethnic garb. (A French girl, of course, wears a beret.) Unfortunately, the clothing and scenery are the only clues to indicate where each child is from, and oddly, there isn't any particular relationship between the languages given and the children's nationalities. (Where is a Chinese-speaking child?) A better organized and more informative book is Can You Count Ten Toes? (see above.) Nonetheless, the very simplicity of this book has an appeal, as does the ever-growing line of happy children. The brightly colored, collage-style illustrations make them look a bit like paper-dolls and has me longing to pick them up and play with them. (2-6)

In the Leaves written and illustrated by Huy Voun Lee. Henry Holt, 2005 (0-8050-6764-7) $16.95

The lovely colors and familiar symbols of fall provide an atmospheric background for this story using Chinese characters. As Xiao Ming (pronounced Schow Ming) and his friends visit a farm, he takes the opportunity to show them how to write some of the characters he's learned--like grain and fire, which when put together mean autumn. The children discover that many of the characters actually look like the words they represent, and that they go together in interesting ways. Lee's illustrations make interesting use of cut-outs and stencils, giving the pictures a rich, textured look that goes well with the autumnal setting. For those who want to know more, boxes at the beginning and end of the story show the included characters with approximate Mandarin Chinese pronunciations. (4-8)

Rooster/Gallo by Jorge Lujan. Translated by Elisa Amado. Illustrated by Manuel Monroy.

A rooster begins and ends the day, opening its beak to bring up the sun, and eating the stars to clear the sky. An evocative text is paired with equally evocative illustrations, showing a night-blue rooster lit with stars. This mysterious little poem is short enough for even beginning Spanish speakers to read fairly easily, and quite lovely whether read in Spanish or English. (2 & up)

Un gato y un perro/A Cat and a Dog by Claire Masurel. Illustrated by Bob Kolar. North-South, 2003 (0-7358-1835-5) $13.95

A cat and a dog who fight like... well, cats and dogs, find they can help each other out one day when the cat's favorite toy falls into a pond and the dog's favorite toy gets stuck up a tree. Whimsical paintings give drolly ferocious expressions to the animated pair as they glare, jeer and scoff at each other: "Perro sucio!/Dirty dog!" "Gato perezoso!/Lazy cat!" This short tale is pretty easy to read, but best for readers with some prior knowledge of Spanish or English pronunciation. Also available in English only.

Opposites/Opuestos by Gladys Rose Mendoza. Illustrated by Dan McGeehan. Me & Mi Publishing, 2003 (0-9679748-6-0) $6.95 board

This simple word book of opposites is enlivened by cleverly planned illustrations. I particularly like the group of snakes in the "day/dia," who almost disappear, except for their gleaming eyes, in the "night/noche." A cat licks its lips over a "full/lleno" bowl, then tidily wipes his mouth on a napkin wwhen it's "empty/vacio." And an ant enjoys a comfy read "in/adentro," which some less fortunate ants are working hard "out/afuera." The vivid, even glowing, pictures are a touch too clunky and cutesy for my taste, but its other good points make me like it anyway. And unlike most bilingual books, a pronunciation guide at the end gives both Spanish and English pronunciations, making this book useful for Spanish speakers learning English as well. (2-4)

Los Gatos Black on Halloween by Marisa Montes. Illustrated by Yuyi Morales. Henry Holt, 2006 (0-8050-7429-5) $16.95

Embedded Spanish words in a spooky English verse offers readers an essential Halloween vocabulary, as los esqueletos rattle bones, los fantasmas drag their chains and las brujas guide their broomsticks. All of the awakened creatures of the night are on their way to a monstruous ball; the purposeful progression of the sometimes truly frightening creatures and the complex, murky illustrations sucessfully build up a chilling mood, but the familiar ending, in which all of los monstruous are scared away by trick-or-treating kids, seems anticlimactic. Although this is primarily Halloween as celebrated by kids in the U.S., visual allusions to Spanish culture give the book a richer polish. (6-10)

Listen to the Desert/Oye al Desierto by Pat Mora. Illustrated by Francisco X. Mora. Clarion, 1994; (0-618-11144-1) $6.95

I don't know any better way to introduce Spanish (or English) to a young child than with this near-perfect bilingual book. A simple poem about animals sounds in the desert, each page has two repeated lines, the first in English, the second in Spanish: "Listen to the toad hop, plop, plop, plop./Listen to the toad hop, plop, plop, plop./Oye al sapito, plap, plap, plap./Oye al sapito, plap, plap, plap." The rhythm, repetition and onomatopoeia carry the reading along effortlessly, making the English and Spanish halves fit together in a lyrical whole. Accompanying watercolors use attractive Southwestern/Native American motifs, with brightly colored geometric patterns adorning each page. * (2 & up)

Uno, Dos, Tres: On, Two, Three by Pat Mora. Illustrated by Barbara Lavallee. Clarion, 1996 (0-395-67294-5); 2000 (0-618-05468-5) $6.95 pb

This rhyming story about two sisters shopping for birthday presents for their mother is primarily in English, but incorporates the Spanish numbers from one to ten smoothly into the story, with frequent repetitions for easy learning. It is also set in Mexico, with vividly colorfully illustrations of a Mexican market. A pronunciation guide is included at the end. (3-6)

Just a Minute written and illustrated by Yuyi Morales. Chronicle, 2003 (0-8118-3758-0) $15.95

Count to ten, in English and Spanish, as a wily Grandma tricks Senor Calavera (i.e. Death) into passing her by: "Just a minute... I have just one house to sweep." With illustrations that are both beautifully colorful and very funny--the skeletal Senor Calavera is a hoot as he checks his watch and impatiently rolls his... eyes?--this is a charmer from beginning to end. Winner of the 2004 Pura Belpre Award for Best Latino Illustrator. (4-8)

Yum! Yuck! by Linda Sue Park and Julia Durango. Illustrated by Sue Rama. Charlesbridge, 2005 (1-57091-659-4) $9.95

This ingenious little book has it all: not only is the text composed entirely of exclamations in different languages, but it even adds up to a story. It starts with pictures of children happily licking their lips as they say words like "Geshmak!" (Yiddish) and "Bah-bah!" (Farsi.) Opening up a flap reveals that the kids are enjoying tasty snacks in an open air market, where one of them says "Yum!" Next we see laughing children, and must open a flap again to see what they're laughing at. Disaster strikes, turning all the yum food "Pwah!" (French) and "Foo!" (Russian) and causing sad sounds like "Buuah..." (Spanish) and "Hai-Hai..." (Hindi.) But all ends happily. The expressive illustrations of the large, multicultural cast of kids make it easy and fun for English-speaking children to try and guess what English word will be revealed when the flaps are turned. * (2-6)

Moon Over the Mountain/Luna Sobre La Montana by Keith Polette. Illustrated by Michael Kress-Russick. Raven Tree, 2009 (978-1-932748-85-7) $16.95

A traditional Asian folk tale about a man who seeks greater and greater power is dressed up here with a southwestern setting, embedded Spanish, and some very eye-catching illustrations.

Agipito is a poor stonecutter who must work very hard cutting piedras. One day Agipito wishes he could be a rich merchant; the Spirit of the Desert grants his wish and he wakes up as a comerciante rico. Agipito is contento... until he notices how much stronger the sun is.

I appreciate multilingual books with embedded language and this one is well done, with the words always following an introduction of the English, for clarity. "Day after day, he cut out stones for large houses and churches. Many casas grandes and iglesias were built with these piedras. (The Spanish words are printed in red.) The book would be enjoyable just for the text, but it's the illustrations that really make it -- rich, bold, expressive depictions of Agipito as el sol, el viento and la gran montana.

I was bothered by the book's ending, which disrupts the obvious circular nature of the story for a puzzling happy ending that rings false. It's still a good choice for readers looking for this type of book.

If I Had a Paka by Charlotte Pomerantz. Illustrated by Nancy Tafuri. Greenwillow, 1982; 1993 (0-688-11900-X) $14.00

"I like arroz y habichuelas
I'm not at all fond of beans and rice.
Grandma isn't like other abuelas.
She gives me arroz y habichuelas
Other abuelas, not half so nice,
Are always giving me beans and rice."

This inventive collection of poems takes words from eleven diverse languages and uses them in a playful, whimsical way that is utterly delightful. Each poem takes a different approach to making the foreign words understood, with context, translations and straight-forward illustrations all helping to show their meanings. Although the origin of the words are listed, the emphasis is less on learning than on simply appreciating and having fun with the unique sounds of different languages, including English. (3-6)

Animals Speak written and illustrated by Lila Prap. North-South, 2006 (978-0-7358-2058-6) $15.95

If you've ever wondered what a chicken says in Russian, Danish or Retoromanian, look no further. This attractively simple book offers different sounds for 14 familiar animals: in English a bird chirps, in Bosnian it says "civ" and in Romanian it says "cirip." Adults can enjoy seeing the differences and similiarities in the sounds, and of course the appeal to children is obvious; they will also enjoy the bold outlines and speckled textures, which give an intriguingly different look to this book by a Slovenian illustrator. For those who want to extend their animal vocabulary further, end pages include phonetical lists showing each animal noises in 41 different languages. (2-4)

My Little Word Book/Mi Libro Pequeno de Palabras photographed by Roger Priddy. Priddy Books, 2005 (0-312-49462-9) $9.95

"My Little" is something of a misnomer for this large, chunky board book, which includes pages of vocabulary for just about anything a young child might be interested in. Sharp, colorful photos of objects and children illustrate the sections on topics like Comida y bebida/Food and drink, Cosas que Andan/Things that go, and Tu cuerpo/Your body. Most of the photographs are shown separately against simple white backgrounds, but occasional spreads of mixed objects against color add visual interest to the design. A Spanish pronunciation guide for each word is included at the back. (1-4)

Margaret and Margarita/Margarita Y Margaret written and illustrated by Lynn Reiser. Greenwillow, 1993 (0-688-12239-6) $14.00; Mulberry, 1996 (0-688-14734-8) $4.95 pb

An ingenious idea is turned into a unique book for English-speaking, Spanish-speaking or bilingual children. Two little girls named Margaret and Margarita are walking with their mothers, each wishing for someone to play with. "Look, Margaret" says her mother. "There is a little girl and her mother. Oh dear, they do not speak English." "Mira, Margarita" says her mother. "Alli est una nina con su madre. Oh no, no hablan espanol." But Margaret shyly says "hello" to Margarita, who shyly says "hola" to her, and soon Margaret is able to introduce her mother to her new amiga, Margarita and her gaitita (little cat), Susana, while Margarita introduces her new friend Margaret and her little rabbit, Susan.

Although it could be used as a language-learning tool, the main point of this story is that language doesn't have to create barriers. The clever theme is implemented with a clever design, in which the English and Spanish portions of the book mirror each other in content, with the English written in red and the Spanish in blue. As Margaret and Margarita become friends, they start to learn each other's languages and the two separate stories become one bilingual, multi-colored story. The illustrations also emphasize the theme, playfully using perspective to show the two discouraged mothers sitting far apart and turned away from each other on a long, long bench, while the two small girls come together in the foreground. (The interesting uses of perspective also save the pictures of the plump, beribboned little girls from becoming overwhelmingly adorable.) The text of the book is, by necessity, rather dully simple, but the pleasure of easily learning foreign words makes up for it. It's a shame though that no pronunciation guide is given, for either language. (2-6)

Hello World written and illustrated by Manya Stojic. Scholastic, 2002 (0-439-36202-4) OOP (scheduled to be reprinted in paperback in 2009; many used copies available online)

This picture book could hardly be simpler, yet grabbed me instantly with its potential to inspire interesting discussions about language. Aside from a short introduction, each page is just a large illustration of child's smiling face, the word "hello" in an identified non-English language, and a phonetic spelling. But the way the words are grouped makes it very easy to see intriguing similarities in spelling and/or pronunciation between different languages. Several African, Indian and Asian languages are grouped to show the complete opposite -- that their words for hello are totally disparate from each other. The historica, political and geographic reasons for all this may be too complex to share with young children, but just the idea that even people from the same country may not speak the same language is a useful one. There's an index of languages but unfortunately no information on where each one is spoken.

Fingerpaint style illustrations focus entirely on the children, each of whom is visually distinctive in some small way. I particularly like the vast variety in skin tones; no child looks exactly like another. There's no other detail, and for the most part Stojic avoided outfitting the characters in any ethnically typical (or stereotypical) ways, keeping the focus on what they have in common: their welcoming smiles. (2-4)

Counting Ovejas by Sarah Weeks. Illustrated by David Diaz. Atheneum, 2006 (978-0-689-86750-7) $17.99

A little boy who's trying to sleep finds himself counting sheep against his will when they start wandering in ever expanding numbers into his bedroom. "Una oveja blanca./One white sheep. Adios, oveja blanca!/Good-bye, white sheep!" says the boy, gesturing the first sheep out of his room. As the groups of sheep get bigger, the boy has to use increasingly strong measures to get them out: "Nueve ovejas azules/Nine blue sheep" are pushed with a bulldozer, and "Diez ovejas amarillas/Ten yellow sheep" are airlifted by the boy in a personal rotocopter. The tired boy thanks the sheep and falls asleep, only to be cozily surrounded by ten sheep who must have found their way back.

The text here seems very simple, but I really like how it's written: the repetition of phrases highlights the unique words for colors and numbers, and the Spanish and English texts flow into each other so smoothly and invitingly, it only makes sense to read both together. (Though you can choose to read just one, if you prefer.) Best of all, a phonetic pronunciation guide is given under each line, though unfortunately in Spanish only. The illustrations in acrylic and pencil are also attractive, with bright, glowing colors, lots of interesting implied textures (the sheep fur is made up of dozens of spirals), and splotchy-colored backgrounds that add a dreamy effect. The juxtaposition of the old-fashioned looking night garb of the boy and the striking modern colors gives a distinctive, unexpected look. (2-6)

Calavera Abecedario written and illustrated by Jeanette Winter. Harcourt, 2004 (0-15-205220-4) $16.00.

Loosely inspired by Don Pedro Linares, a skilled maker of cartoneria (papier-mache objects), this book opens with several pages describing the Linares family making calaveras (skeletons) for the Day of the Dead. This leads into the real meat of the book, a strikingly illustrated Spanish alphabet featuring very busy skeletons: a Bruja stirs a potion, a Jardinero waters plants and a merry Ilustradoradraws pictures for children. Traditional colorful clothing against a deep black background make the pictures eye-catching and there are some lovely visual touches, like a skeleton Frieda Kahlo ("K) drawing a self-portrait, and a skeleton doctor who manages to look very concerned for his patient, despite his lack of skin or actual features. A final spread showing all the skeletons together makes me wish the book were bigger: it would make a gorgeous poster. (3-12)

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