“Espacio between my pigtails”: Language and Laughter in Juana and Lucas

JuanaandLucasOne of the challenges of writing across cultures is how to include languages other than English in your text without having to pause the narrative to explain what all those foreign words mean. As a writer, I don’t tend to think of my audience as primarily American or Indian, and I’ve sometimes had to deal with puzzled editorial comments. Of course, it’s the job of editors and copyeditors to aim for clarity, so the default solution in many books (not mine, I hasten to add) has often been the parallel, parenthetic translation.  Or the glossary. Or both. Not ideal. Parenthetic translations tend to make even a good text didactic, and they can manage to  edit one with potential right into oblivion. It’s enough to give anyone a headache in the espacio between their pigtails.

Juana Medina bursts through this challenge with uncommon entusiasmo. Her irrepressible child character, also named Juana, lives in Bogotá, Colombia with her parents and her canine best friend, Lucas.

The fictional Juana in this cheery chapter book loves fútbol, eating brussels sprouts, drawing, and Astroman. Math is a bit of a challenge, and as for The English, that takes our young hero completely by surprise. She finds the language mind-bendingly difficult—nada de fun! It isn’t until a family trip turns the linguistic tables yet again that Juana applies herself to English, and discovers that she can habla it just fine.

JuanaandLucas2.jpgMedina’s lighthearted first person text and lovably wacky illustrations topple the accepted parameters of familiar and foreign and make the reader laugh all the way to understanding. No glossary exists to suggest that reading this book is an academic task, and in fact none is needed. Every single Spanish word is completely comprehensible in the context of the carefully wrought sentences and paragraphs. By the time you take a breath to ask, “Now what did that mean?” the answer breezes into view like a charm.

Winner of the 2017 Pura Belpré Author Award. Published by Candlewick Press. These comments are based on a copy borrowed from my local library.

Mirrors? Windows? How About Prisms?

9781406306552Monica Edinger has an interesting post about some of my favorite chapter books, the Anna Hibiscus books by Atinuke.

Elsewhere, I’ve suggested prisms as a concept, something to add to the usual array of glassy metaphors about reading. I maintain that cultural content in children’s books needs to be woven into the story so the authors intention is not stamped all over it. It needs to be taken for granted by the character concerned, the way Anna takes her melded identity. Simultaneously, it works when it is knowingly complicated–as in  Atinuke’s decision to use the noun “Africa” instead of “Nigeria,” or my own decision to avoid italics in Hindi or Tamil language words in some of my books. My character would not set those words apart as “foreign” so why should my narrative do so?

For the most part you can only render cultural content in this way, knowingly, only when it is deeply familiar to you. Speaking of which, here’s a writer to watch.