Bilingual Picture Book Review: Little Roja Riding Hood by Susan Middleton Elya, Illustrated by Susan Guevara

Little Roja Riding Hood by Susan Middleton Elya, illustrated by Susan Guevara
Rating: Five Stars!
Age Range: 3-7

Little Roja Riding Hood

Little Roja Riding Hood

Sona is at home with Shaiyar, our six month old. I’m at the library by myself to work on my fiction and have just sat down at a bright red cushioned booth (you heard me right: A booth!) at a little library in Clark, New Jersey, when I spot this book on display. I debate between “work on my novel” and “read bilingual picture book” for a few seconds before making the only logical decision that can be made in a situation like this: I pick up the book, return to the booth, and read it with much glee, my laptop taking a nap on the corner of the table. I feel like ordering a hamburger and a milkshake. Libraries, unfortunately, don’t do this (I asked).

This is my first experience with a bilingual book aimed at people who don’t already speak and understand the language fluently. I read Punjabi books to Kavya in Gurmukhi script and Hindi comics written in Devanagari script. She enjoys listening to the stories and understands what is happening, and it increases her vocabulary. But Sona can’t read these books to her because she can’t read those scripts and used to be able to pretend to read the story and just make things up (also known as LYING). But those days are gone. Even if she can’t read entire words yet, Kavya knows when someone is tricking her.

We are both very excited about Kavya starting a dual language Spanish curriculum at her school this year, but it’s also been daunting trying to figure out how to prepare her for it and prepare ourselves for reenforcing what she learns. Neither of us speak much Spanish. I can confidently order a beer and be obnoxious at a lucha libre event, count up to 30, and randomly name objects, some colors, and precisely two pieces of fruit. Sona isn’t that much better, even though she claims she is.

Little Roja Riding Hood is a refreshing look at the story of Little Red Riding Hood, but I also like that it is intended for  children who like to read kickass stories, and at parents who can learn Spanish vocabulary right alongside the kids. Many of the bilingual Spanish books I’ve found in Kavya’s age range tend to assume at least one parent has fluency in Spanish. I found a bilingual version of The Princess and the Pea at a bookshop in NYC a few months ago and it is structured like a lot of books claiming to be bilingual: there’s the English text, followed immediately underneath it by the Spanish text. This is incredibly basic, but I can’t read this without sounding like I’m reading an instruction manual and I can guarantee after the first line, Kavya would be like, “How about you just read the English part?”:

“Once upon a time there was a prince who wished to marry a princess. But he wanted to be sure she was a true princess.”

“Había una vez un príncipe que quería casarse con una princesa. Pero quería estar seguro de que fuese una princesa de verdad.”

On another note, who the fuck does this prince think he is.

I like that the glossary for Little Roja Riding Hood is all the way in the front and there is just enough repetition to understand phrases and words, but not enough to bore someone. I’d imagine even a kid who speaks Spanish would gain something from the story.

The story more or less follows the popularized version, where the woodcutter saves the day just in the nick of time. Except there is no woodcutter: PLOT TWIST! In the same vein of stories like The Paper Bag Princess or the Princess Knight, it takes aim at subverting the idea of the powerless female protagonist and puts Little Roja Riding Hood in control of her own fate using the same suspension of disbelief you use to imagine a woodsman just happens to be outside grandma’s house.

A quick run down of the sequences:

Roja’s mother is watching a gripping telenovela as she makes hot soup for Roja to take to her sick abuela, who lives just past the woods. On the way, Roja gets distracted by flowers and meets a devious lobo with a mustache and a bandana (and a duende!).

He gets information from her about her sick abuela and tells her to pick flowers for a bouquet to bring her. Being a doofus, she does just that, while the wolf takes her red cape and finds the sick abuela’s house.

He sits in a chair and the sequence of “what big eyes you have” begins. Just as he’s about to eat her, the grandmother leaps up and grabs her Jesus statue to beat him with, and Roja shows up, to discover what’s happening and throws boiling hot soup onto the wolf’s face, making him flee from the scene. Finally, they decide to invest in a security system and the grandmother always checks to see who is at the door before letting anyone inside.

The story unfolds in verse and it is pretty impressive how the Spanish and English words blend together to form rhythmic endings as well progress plot. Like these towards the end:

“Just then, little Roja burst in through the door.

And Grandma? No need to play dumb anymore.

“I won’t be your lunch,” said Gran. “Phony nieta!”

“Some soup, Wolf?” said Roja. “My mom’s best receta!”

She swung la canasta and out flew the soup,

too hot for Lobo, who soon flew the coop.”

photo 2-2When I first looked at the illustrations, I was immediately reminded of one of my favorite children’s story from the 1990s (yes, I was too old for them then too): Chato’s Kitchen, and sure enough it’s the same illustrator: Susan Guevara, who is still kicking major illustration ass during those 20 years since Chato’s Kitchen. The illustrations also add to the liveliness of the story and presents a classic European folktale structure with a forest and evil beast involved, decreases the eeriness and tension, and amps up the emotional payoff (and boy does it pay off). And most importantly, adds elements of Latino culture and modern culture throughout, starting with obvious things like the mother watching a telenovela in the kitchen,  the abuela with her laptop, but there are many subtle things she adds as well like the mischievous duendes on the laptop charger, on the wolf’s mustache, three blind mice just hanging out in the scene, prayer charms, a Jesus statue, birds saying,“¡Cuidado!

photo 5-1At the beginning of summer, I wrote a blog post about my daughter feeling the narrative chokehold of the stories she was being exposed to: books, television, merchandise, with girls serving a very specific purpose (to look pretty and wait for a man to save them) and particularly that her face and hair didn’t belong in these stories, which was shared on Africa is a Country as well as  The Good Men Project.  I am pleased bilingual stories like this exist that challenge patriarchal narrative points considered to be set in stone as far as folktales and fairytales are concerned.It’s a step in the right direction towards more diversity in books (check out #WeNeedDiverseBooks) , but I can’t do my explosive bhangra moves just yet: Roja needs to be a shade browner. This isn’t a telenovela, populated by light skinned people, where incidentally that guy in the image above would have about as much of a chance of getting the role of the passionate lover as he would on Days of Our Lives. ¡Ay el escandalo!

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