by Jeanne Fain, Middle Tennessee State University, Murfreesboro, TN and Julia López-Robertson, University of South Carolina, Columbia, SC
I have been questioned about my use of Yuyi Morales’s skeletal Señor Calavera in preschool classrooms. Some teachers were initially hesitant to read about him, so I asked Yuyi about her perspectives on him. I wanted to get the insider’s perspective on him and I wanted to hear what children had to say about him. First, we’ll let Señor Calavera share his own search for identity.
WOW! Did you know Señor Calavera has his own My Space account? He does. Maybe you should be his friend there. He’d be a good friend to have because he’s also a decorated story teller. Unfortunately (or fortunately?), something happened on the way to the ALA Pura Belpre book award ceremony.
Jeanne: As I read several reviews, I noted that some reviewers felt Señor Calavera was scary for young children. You have asked children about their feelings about him via your blog, Corazonadas. What would you say is the overall attitude of Señor Calavera and do you foresee that you will have another book with him?
Yuyi: Yes, actually, some of those reviews by parents who thought my books were scary for their children are very dear to me, believe it or not. These are concerned people who, recognizing the power of books, are trying to make choices that THEY as parents can best handle when a book is given to a child. There used to be one reader’s review posted in a popular online bookstore written by a father that claimed that my book had taken the health of his seven children and that not even daily morning exercises under the sun could restore them anymore. I would not be happy to know that my work has damaged any children in any way, but his review gave me an even greater sense of how mighty powerful a person (whether it is a parent, and educator, or a book lover) becomes with a book in his or her hand. Has it ever happened to you? I myself, when I carry a book with me, become fearless.
But indeed from the very beginning there were many people that told me Señor Calavera was scary. Many of them were editors who, when I was first submitting my book for publication, told me that they loved my work but that, unfortunately, they didn’t think they could ever publish it because it will scare for children and it would never sell. I am well aware of the cultural differences that allow me to think of Señor Calavera as playful, made-out-of-candy character (like the sugar skulls that children receive for the celebration of the Day of the Dead in Mexico) while for others is deemed as a rather uncanny choice for a children’s story. But you see, even if I was afraid of Señor Calavera, to me that would be even more reason to put him in a book. Through stories and art we also get the opportunity to explore and meet eye to eye with the things we are most afraid of. In books we to get to know our fears better and even play with them, so that at last the fear subsides under knowledge.
I did wonder about what children actually thought about Señor Calavera once the books were circulating in schools and libraries. Where children afraid of him? During my school visits I decided to ask children about what they thought. For example, I asked groups of them about where they thought Señor Calavera wanted to take Grandma Beetle. It was mostly children in the highest grades who suggested that Señor Calavera wanted to take Grandma Beetle to Heaven, the graveyard, and other places as such — logical choices given the nature of the story. But among the younger kids, the ones for whom most adults are concerned will be really scared of Señor Calavera, the responses abound among the following: Señor Calavera comes to see Grandma Beetle because he wants to take her to the movies, the coffee shop, for a walk, to meet some friends, to a party, and even for a date.
What I induce from this is something marvelous. Regardless of my intention and meanings, children take from my books, and any books, not what I offer, but what they need the most. And so those readers, who are ready to accept the nature of Señor Calavera, do. Those who are not ready simply take from him what they need and what they want.
Señor Calavera is very often in my thoughts. That is why I have created a couple of videos starring him and I also have a Señor Calavera puppet that I bring to my school presentations and, I am happy to report, children are not afraid of him. He is a constant companion to me, so I actually foresee many more things for him.
Jeanne: I am excited to hear that Yuyi is going to include Señor Calavera in more books. I agree that children enjoy him. I also appreciate how Yuyi includes children’s voices in thinking about how her work impacts them.
Julia: I spend a few hours a week in a preschool classroom with children aged 3-5 years old, reading books and singing songs in Spanish. Yuyi is one of the children’s favorite authors. We have read all of her books and watched the videos she’s created. The videos have allowed the children to see how she makes her books and best of all; it has allowed the children to meet Señor Calavera. Señor Calavera is the main character in two of Yuyi’s books Just a Minute and Just in Case. The children adore him.
While in their class last week I played “Invited” (the video starring Señor Calavera at the top of this post) on the Smartboard. Squeals of delight spread throughout the classroom as the children watched Sr. Calavera retrieve an invitation from the mailbox. More squeals followed as he tried to decide what hat he should wear to the Pura Belpre Ceremony.
After watching the video I told the children that there were some grown-ups who think that Señor Calavera is too scary for children. Here is what they had to say about that:
“Scary, but he is so cute.”
“Why would anyone think he is scary? Look at him-he looks cuddly.”
“I am not afraid of him. He is very cute and very funny. He makes me laugh in the books and in the movies.”
“I love his hats and how he dances in the house with the little boy and girl.”
“Why does Sr. Calavera make us laugh? I hope that Yuyi makes more books with him!”
“I hope that she makes more movies with him. He is my favorite puppet!”
We are excited to see more of Sr. Calavera books and videos!
Next week, we’ll return to our discussion with Yuyi about bilingual publishing and her future projects. Additionally, we’ll feature more children’s responses to Yuyi’s work.
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