Review by Sonia Alejandra Rodriguez, PhD & Ingrid Campos
Originally posted on Latinx in Kid Lit
DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: There is much Juana is going to miss as she moves from Mexico to New York, but nothing more than her abuelo. Through letters to her grandfather, Juana details her flight, he new apartment, and her first days of school, where everyone speaks a language she barely understands. When Juana makes her first friend, though, things begin to change.
OUR TWO CENTS: In Grecia Huesca Dominguez’s Dear Abuelo (2019) Juana and her mother immigrate from Mexico to New York. Through letters written to Abuelo, who is back in Mexico, she details her feelings about new and anxious experiences, like traveling on a plane for the first time, settling in her new apartment, and her first day of school. On the bus ride, Juana notices everyone speaking in English, she has trouble understanding and speaking despite having practiced. In school, Juana’s teacher does not pronounce her name correctly; this incident makes her feel discouraged. In the following letters, Juana tells Abuelo that she’s met a new friend, Elizabeth, who is also from Mexico. Elizabeth speaks both English and Spanish and explains to the teacher how to say Juana’s name correctly. Juana finds the library and meets the librarian. The librarian shows Juana books written in Spanish, and this inspires Juana to write stories in English and Spanish.
Teresa Martinez’s illustrations center a young, brown girl with bright rosy cheeks and short curly hair. Martinez’s vibrant illustrations of Juana’s experiences align brilliantly with her feelings, such as depicting the feeling of anxiety or nervousness with her use of grey and darker backgrounds and using splashes of bright greens, oranges, and yellows to capture Juana’s feelings of zen and excitement. Mexico is represented with the use of bright flower garlands across the pages and those flowers are lost when Juana lands in New York in the middle of winter. At first, there aren’t any flowers at school because Juana has a difficult time fitting in. Once she meets Elizabeth, after the teacher pronounces her name correctly, and after finding books in Spanish, the flower garlands around the frame of the pages return. Not only are the flowers a connection to Mexico, but they also represent growth and opportunity.
A significant aspect in Dear Abuelo is the use of the letter format to tell the story. The story ends with Juana maybe one day writing her own stories, but the entire book is an example of just that. The letters are a powerful device that allows Juana to process her emotions that come with leaving one’s homeland behind and needing to start anew. The letters are also a wonderful way to strengthen long distance family relationships, which helps Juana feel less lonely. The letters also suggest that Juana is taking control of her own narrative; she is in control of the story she tells.
Another significant aspect of Dear Abuelo is the importance of embracing the uniqueness in names and the importance of connecting with family history through naming. The mispronunciation of (im)migrant student names in the American classroom is a far too common experience. Continual mispronunciation or mockery of a student’s name because they don’t sound or look “American” is an imperialist and white supremacist practice to try to other, marginalize, and erase people’s history, culture, and future. We appreciate that it was Elizabeth, also a child, who had the courage to disrupt assumed power relations and correct, and teach, the teacher how to say Juana’s names. It is also important that the teacher was open to learning something new.
Dear Abuelo focuses on the Mexican immigrant experience that many children coming to the U.S at a young age might relate to. This picture book illustrates common hardships, including having a language barrier, the trouble of meeting new people, or finding interest in activities like the ones Juana participates in the book, such as playing in gym class or riding the bus. Other picture books that center a similar experience and conversation include Juan Felipe Herrera’s The Upside Down Boy (2006) and Amada Irma Perez’s My Diary From Here to There (2009).
Grecia Huesca Dominguez and Teresa Martinez do an excellent job at balancing the struggles young immigrants experience with the joys of still being a child. We wholeheartedly recommend this book to children and parents to read together and discuss the similarities and differences between Juana’s experiences and those of the readers.
- Ask students to write letters to one another, to the teacher, to someone in their family.
- Encourage students to also include an illustration or a flower garland border (or a different symbol that represents something about themselves).
- Ask students to write about the origin and/or history of their names, about being the “new kid” at school, or about making friends.
- More advanced students can probably write about the more difficult themes around immigration and belonging.