Los Gatos Black and the Courage of Children

by Julia López-Robertson, Lillian Reeves, Francie Kneece, Erin Thompson & Molly Williams, University of South Carolina

Book jacket for Los Gatos Black on Halloween by Marisa MontesThe last book in our exploration of El Día de los Muertos is Los Gatos Black on Halloween written by Marisa Montes and illustrated by Yuyi Morales (2006). Los Gatos tells the rhythmic story of Halloween night from the other side of the grave. Toward the end of Los Gatos, however, the story takes a subtle glance at the Americanization of Día de los Muertos. At the onset, the author clues us in that Los Gatos takes place in October, not November, clearly marking this a story about Halloween and NOT Día de los Muertos. Later, however, on the page with the lines, “The gravesites shiver, headstones shake./Las Tumbas open, tombs awake./The corpses with their cold dead eyes,/Los muertos from their coffins rise” (p. 16) — the words seem to be illustrating spooky scenes and by that point, we are easily caught up in their melodic beat. Yet the dead rising are depicted by the illustrator as those whose lives clearly would be celebrated – a mother and a son reuniting, a general, another sophisticated looking older man; they are not, in other words, depicted as the typical Halloween monsters. It turns out the monsters, in the eyes of the ghosts, are the kids who come trick-or-treating in the final pages of the book. At that point, the eager children arrive at the home where the dead have gathered, disrupting the preparations for Día de los Muertos, but the children are illustrated as doing so unknowingly. The children do not look scared and do not run at the sight of the dead or the ghosts, despite what they may know from their own cultures about ghoulish creatures; they genuinely peek and peer into the house with curiosity. This revelatory and poignantly ambiguous final scene, focusing on the porch of the home, is reminiscent to other porches where choices about acting in favor of justice and change have also taken place.

An unlikely connection: To Kill a Mockingbird

Perhaps most famously, some of Harper Lee’s concluding words in To Kill a Mockingbird ([1960], 2010) are given on a porch by the novel’s young protagonist. The scene depicts a child, Scout, choosing to see the ghoulish outcast, Boo Radley, as having social worth beyond that for which Scout or Boo’s community have ever given him credit. Scout, who, along with her brother, Jem, and their friend, Dill, spent the entire book demonstrating equal amounts of fear and awe at the very words “Boo Radley”, has revised her own social position at the end of the novel to align more with, or possibly to even surpass, Atticus’: “Atticus said you never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them. Just standing on the Radley porch was enough” (p. 321). Like Scout’s reflections on the Radley porch, the porch in the Los Gatos is also a gateway into new conversations, a vulnerable and ambitious space pivoting between cultures, generations, and languages. Most strikingly, these spaces are conceptualized as points of departure from group mentality, allowing for the individual child, if they so wish, to acknowledge themselves as change agents. By the end of To Kill a Mockingbird, Scout is ready to take on this challenge; she throws off the moniker “Boo” when she’s narrating that final porch scene, which seems to indicate she has come to a new awareness about her own naming practices and chooses to abandon the one that belittles the man who saved her brother’s life.

Student Response: Erin

Los Gatos is a fun rhythmic poem about Halloween, using Spanish vocabulary for the creatures. A new creature is shown with each stanza, which is written in a way that allows even those who do not know any Spanish to be able to decipher the meaning of the words based on the context. In addition, Montes has included a glossary in the back to help translate the words. Each spooky creature has come out in the night, and they are all making their way to one place—the haunted mansion! Readers are in for a silly ending to a spooky tale when they see all of the creatures celebrating at a “monstrous ball,” until they are scared away by none other than a group of trick-or-treaters!

I think Montes has taken a comic approach to a potentially frightening idea, especially to younger readers. Yuyi Morales, the illustrator, created such creepy depictions, but the mood is lightened when you see the skeletons doing a dance. It is fun to think about how we are all scared of these spooky creatures, but Montes turns it around and tells children that they are really afraid of us. It makes these creatures not so frightening anymore.

Los Gatos can be integrated into the classroom in a variety of ways. I think it is a fun approach to discussing different cultures and pointing out similarities and differences. This would be a simple way to show how two different cultures celebrate holidays very similar in nature. It can help children make connections with each other and other’s cultures. Medd & Whitmore (2001) point out the importance of social learning and students scaffolding each other. This book could be such a great conversation starter. Not only is it something that can work across a variety of cultures, but also something a child could explain. They can explain and discuss how they celebrate this holiday, why they celebrate it, notice the similarities and differences, and make connections with one another. It is just one additional way to enhance the community in a classroom. It can also be used to discuss poetry. The text uses rhyming words and a consistent rhythm. It can help early readers because of the predictable rhyming text, as well as the supportive illustrations that correlate well with each stanza.

Student Response: Francie

Los Gatos Black is a rhyming book that creatively entwines Spanish and English. Montes’ rich text, paired with Yuyi Morales’ brilliant illustrations, make it no surprise that the book won the 2008 Pura Belpre Medal for the narrative and Honor for the illustrations. Though the book features characters like goblins, ghouls, and the walking dead, children will most likely be more humored than frightened by the text and illustrations. Through rhymes, the story tells the tale of classic Halloween personalities, gathering for the Monstrous Ball. Children will howl with laughter at Morales’ illustrations in which “las brujas boogie, muertos bop, los esqueletos do the hop.” Young readers, struggling to comprehend English or Spanish, will benefit from the close proximity of words meaning the same thing written in each language.

This book is one that will effectively reach young ELL students. According to Hadaway (2009), “concentrating reading in one area may be the best technique for supporting English language learners” (p. 39); a Spanish-speaking student struggling with English comprehension will find more ease with the text because its focus on Halloween. Ideally, this will help the young reader relate the Spanish terms to the illustrations then to the English version of the word located close by. This idea of narrow reading focuses on a child’s ability to gain new vocabulary through text that focuses on a central topic, in this case, Halloween.

Student Response: Molly

A bilingual rhyming picture book about familiar scary characters going to a house for a monster ball, each page has a stanza about the different “guests” on their way to the ball. The title refers to the first scary characters we meet in the book: the black cats. Each page uses at least two Spanish words that the reader can easily define based on their context in the sentence, even without any prior knowledge of Spanish (the author also provides a Spanish glossary in the back of the book). The best part about this book is even though the characters seem scary, in the end we learn their biggest fear is children dressed up on Halloween night which makes the “scary” characters now laughable. Montes also uses predictable text on each page by always using four lines and an AABB rhyme scheme. Children will enjoy the rhythm and flow of the language on each page.

The illustrations are bold and appropriate. The reader can use the pictures to help with the meaning of the Spanish words. Morales also does an excellent job of illustrating these scary characters in a humorous way; for example, the vampire is combing his hair and looking at himself in a mirror, the witches are riding their escobas like surf boards, the werewolf is wearing eyeglasses and a tie, and los esqueletos even have a pet skeleton dog. Even though this book appears scary from the cover, children will enjoy finding the hidden humor this book contains.

As I began reading this book, I was skeptical at first because I felt like it would be a scary book for young children. Once I learned the monsters’ fear, however, I realized the book clearly was not meant to convey a scary message. Once I looked back through the pictures, I further realized the hidden humor in the book and felt like this would be a great read-aloud for Halloween. I also think the use of Spanish words is very well executed because it introduces Spanish words in a way that is easy to understand without being overwhelming.

Teacher Education

As instructors, then, how do we reconcile our ambitions for an emancipatory pedagogy while also maintaining an engaged pedagogy? (Allen & Hermann-Wilmarth, 2004, p. 219). Are we sending our students out as change agents, are we acting as change agents ourselves, and are we sufficiently bringing volume to the issues that have bearings on the lives and communities of our students and their families? Are we bold enough to hope and to act upon that hope that our students have the ability to cultivate the same courage as Scout, the same courage as the young people on the porch in Los Gatos?

The call here then becomes how do pre-service teachers create/name their culture/cultural practices and then, hopefully, how do they go a step further and see that culture integrating with other cultures and other perspectives in classrooms with similar or divergent groups of children or adults? This type of classroom dynamic must be sought with the intention of making the knowledge available to children that we, as populations of diverse people, are more similar than our differences suggest and when we recognize those similarities, we can then learn from experiences different from our own; we can pool larger cultural, linguistic, and social resources; and we can open doors that lead to a stronger democratic enterprise. These are the things that are illustrated on the porches in these American stories; these are the things that are more relevant to our practice than anything else that we may do as teachers. As Louise Rosenblatt (1965) might have suggested, this sharing and this cultural creation has to be about democracy, in its simplest forms. What do we want our students (young people or pre-service teachers) to do? We want them to know how to put themselves in someone else’s shoes, and like Scout and like the children in Los Gatos, we want them to choose to look at the world from another’s perspective and see, when they are looking from their own perspective again, if they can bring about change and then to know the world as it exists beyond themselves.

References

Allen, J. and Hermann-Wilmarth, J. (2004). Cultural construction zones. Journal of Teacher Education, 55, 214-226. doi: 10.1177/002248710426354.

García, O., & Kleifgen, J. (2010) Educating Emergent Bilinguals: Policies, programs,

and practices for English Language Learners. New York: Teachers College Press.

Hadaway, N. (2009). A Narrow Bridge to Academic Reading Educational Leadership, 66(7), 38-41.

Lee, H. (2010). To kill a mockingbird. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.

Montes, M. and Morales, Y. (2006). Los gatos black on Halloween night. New York: Henry Holt and Company, LLC.

Rosenblatt, R. (1965). Literature as exploration. New York: The Modern Language Association.

Journey through Worlds of Words during our open reading hours: Monday-Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Saturday, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.

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