We're thankful this week to have a post by Betsy Bird. Betsy is the Collection Materials Specialist of Evanston Public Library and the former Youth Materials Specialist of New York Public Library. She reviews for Kirkus, runs the School Library Journal blog A Fuse #8 Production, hosts the podcast Story Seeds, and runs the podcast Fuse 8 n’ Kate. Betsy is the author such books as LONG ROAD TO THE CIRCUS, her debut middle grade novel out NOW, with art by David Small.
About ten years ago, as I was working at New York Public Library’s Children’s Center at 42nd Street, we hosted a class of local schoolchildren. After our standard presentation they were allowed to come to the reference desk to ask for books on specific topics. All at once ten kids were in front of me, all asking the same thing: “Where are your books on Mexican wrestlers?” A decade or more has passed since I received that query and yet the answer has remained fairly static. There just ain’t that much out there, kids. Until now. Who could have predicted that Raul the Third would be so adept at spinning off side characters from his popular Vamos! picture book series into easy books of their own? And, even better, side characters with direct ties to the sport of Mexican wrestling? Tag Team and Training Day both star El Toro, a masked Mexican wrestling hero who is not without flaws. In Training Day El Toro needs to practice but, much to the dismay of his coach (a rooster named Kooky Dooky), he keeps avoiding it. In Training Day El Toro and his partner La Oink Oink discover that they must take matters into their own hands when they find that their beloved wrestling stadium is a complete mess. Both books inject a much needed shot of adrenaline into the easy book format. Not only are the colors bright, eye-popping, and vibrant, but the content is brimming with excitement. Sure, one of the books focuses primarily on cleaning, but when you’ve got El Toro and La Oink Oink doing the work it’s anything but dull. I’d also like to pay special tribute to the plot of Tag Team. The book takes pains to show that when El Toro discovers that the stadium is in disarray, he doesn’t call up the female La Oink Oink to help him clean up because she’s a girl. Instead, it is the equality of the two that makes them an excellent team. El Toro calls her up because she is his partner, sharing both the victories and the hardships that come with that relationship. This is a book about being a team through both the good and the bad. As for the language, simple words are the norm. It is also worth noting that incorporating Spanish words and terms into easy books is a splendid method of paying tribute not merely to Mexican and Mexican-American culture, but also to the importance of normalizing other languages in our easiest literature for youth. With any luck, perhaps these books will mark a new trend in culturally explorative, exciting easy book fare. So long, Dick and Jane! With El Toro and friends, they’re here to save the day from the banal and mundane once and for all.