WOW Review: Reading Across Cultures Volume 3, Issue 3


Dancing with Dziadziu
Written by Susan Campbell Bartoletti
Illustrated by Annika Nelson
Harcourt Brace, 1997, 40 pp.
ISBN: 978-0152006754

Dancing with Dziadziu begins with Gabriella performing her snowflake ballet routine for her sick grandma, Babci. Although Gabriella is dissatisfied with her performance, Babci is reminded of the music that she danced to with Gabriella’s grandfather when he was still alive and she tells Gabriella the story of her Polish parents’ cross-Atlantic voyage to the United States. When Babci falls asleep, Gabriella finds her mother in the kitchen preparing an early Easter meal because she is afraid that Babci will not live to Easter. Later, Babci tells Gabriella more stories of her life growing up in the United States, and Gabriella feels connected to her grandmother. On Sunday, the family invites the priest to their house, and they celebrate the early Easter dinner with Polish food, making Babci smile. After dinner Gabriella is able to perform her snowflake routine just right for Babci, and she realizes that dance connects her to her grandmother.

Dance is a tradition that connects people in Gabriella’s family, regardless of the generation. Gabriella knows that she will always remember and honor her grandparents through her dance performances; thus she is able to cross the generational and cultural divide with her grandmother. This theme can provoke a discussion of how traditions are passed down through generations and the ways that we are connected to others although we have different cultural experiences growing up. Other books that would lend themselves to exploring grandchild-grandparents relationships and traditions in families are The Keeping Quilt (Patricia Polacco, 2001), Thundercake (Patricia Polacco, 1997), and Tortillas and Lullabies (Lynn Reiser, 2008).

As a Polish immigrant, I found that many cultural elements included in this picture book are authentic. Gabriella compares her grandmother to a round loaf of bread, a staple of the Polish diet. Babci talks about Polish songs, including the polonaise, polka, and mazurka. The traditional polish clothing and headdress depicted in the book are authentic, including the flowered skirts and vests decorated with beads, braided women’s hair, and halos of ribbons and flowers. A reference to a prized tea set is also reflective of important values in Polish culture. The Easter meal that the family prepares, which includes ham, kielbasa, horseradish, lamb butter, and Paska bread, represents an authentic tradition for Polish Catholics.

The life that Babci describes as an immigrant reflects Polish immigrants’ 20th century experiences, including having to bathe in a washtub, raising chickens, baking bread, and heating the house and water with coal. Anne Nelson’s illustrations portray all of these details and events realistically. Furthermore, Nelson illustrated the text using printmaking, an art form that is practiced in Poland, adding to the authenticity of the text.

At first, as a Polish-speaking reader, the inclusion of the word Babci seemed problematic to me. Polish nouns have declensions based on the context of the sentence. To me, Babci is equivalent to saying Grandmother’s, not Grandma. However, through personal correspondence, the author indicated that Babci is a regional word for Grandmother. Thus, the author represented this family based on what she knew of Polish immigrants in her region (Pennsylvania).

One issue of authenticity is the Easter meal. While all of the foods included in this meal are authentic, the family eats them for dinner. Traditionally, Poles celebrate Easter with a big Sunday breakfast following the morning mass. Although it is possible that this family’s custom has changed because several generations have lived in the United States, the fact that Babci insists on a traditional Easter meal makes me question why the family did not eat it at breakfast time. Also, a staple in the Polish Easter meal is pisanki – colored eggs. While the illustrator included two illustrations of pisanki in the story, they are not mentioned in the text.

Throughout the book there is little use of Polish words to represent Polish concepts; instead only the English translations are used. This takes away from the authenticity of the text, as many Polish immigrants and their descendants think of their traditional foods and customs in the original language, not in their English translation. The colors, illustrations, and immigrant experiences portrayed in Dancing with Dziadziu represent authentic Polish immigrant experiences, but this authenticity is affected by the lack of Polish words. Perhaps if Bartoletti had researched the language of immigrant families, she would have found that words that represent traditional foods, customs, and people are retained in their original language, and would have been able to create a more authentic representation of the language used within Polish families.

Margaret Grabowski
Donna Independent School District, Donna, TX

9 thoughts on “WOW Review: Reading Across Cultures Volume 3, Issue 3

  1. Pingback: Mirror
  2. Monique Stone says:

    After reading the commentary about Mirror- I was very curious about how my Moroccan student would respond. I mentioned that it was all rural- and didn’t that bother her? She said to me very quickly- Did you read this part? The writer explains that she only just happened to travel in the rural parts. This book is really good”

    I teach English as a Second Language in the South Western United States. I have several students from North Africa. Many are young and are quite homesick. I decided to see how they might respond to representations of their cultures in children’s books available in the United States. I did not have enough lead up time to do justice to an explanation of cultural authenticity, so I used questions such as, do you think this book is fair? do you think this book is good? Should I read this book to my son to teach him about your country?

    I can’t say that one student from Morocco can completley decide the authenticity of a text, but her approval for my son’s library means a lot to me.

  3. Yun-Hui Tsai says:

    I remember when I read Yenika-Agbaw’s “Images of West Africa in Children’s Books: Replacing Old Stereo-types with New Ones?” in the book “Stories matter: the complexity of cultural authenticity in children’s literature”, she argued that “a fair comparison would have been to compare urban life and children from similar socioeconomic backgrounds in both regions”. however, at that time, my first, shallow reflection was that “there is no such thing as a ‘fair’ comparison”, since these two kinds of kids/lives do exist in this world, so would this kind of comparison. I was wrong. And I am glad I realized that. By reading the book Mirror and this review I now understand that authors of children’s literature should keep in mind that their works have the impact deeper than we imagine, therefore they must possess the social responsibility to provide authentic and non stereotype stories to their young readers, who have less knowledge and sensitivity to read critically. I was really impressed that there are so many similarities the Baker designed in the book, even the color of each family member’s clothes, that makes readers connect two countries almost effortlessly. However I also noticed that if Baker didn’t choose to portray them this way, this book could inevitably end up in just another “unfair” comparison. This is such a outstanding book with beautiful illustrations and noble themes. But just because it’s so success and wild recognized, we should also pay more attention on its influence, either positive or negative.

  4. Taylor Yagow says:

    I think this review is really exceptional! The respect she shows for both cultures is great! I especially enjoyed her interruptions of the differences and yet the main purpose of the book Mirror was to focus on similarities as what connect all of us. I found some books that I thought would go well alongside Mirror, “Why I Love Australia” by Bronwyn Bancroft, Bundle of Secrets: Savita Returns Home by Mubina Hussanti Kimani and Ikenna Goes to Nigeria by Ifeomas Onyefulu. These are just other suggestions. I personally liked these three because they go into the cultures that Mirror compares in a child friendly way.
    I found Mirror to be a beautiful book with extraordinary illustrations. It really made me think about the stereotypes that we all make and that our similarities are really what hold us together.

  5. Annette Fiedler says:

    I found this review of Mirror expressed wonderfully; I enjoyed the intensive review and information provided here. I enjoyed this book greatly and felt that the images of the cultures told a beautiful story of culture and identity. The story that each side of the book represented was told in a way that children of all ages could understand. I brought this book into my classroom and my students’ had many questions, but the exposure to the literature was great. I am usually not a huge fan of wordless picture books but this one is one that grabbed my attention and I would like to do into depth more so with it and my future lessons in my classroom. There is a lot to expose our children to in this text and doing so will invite them into many different culture related discussions.

  6. I loved the design of this book! It was a “clever” way to capture my attention. I studied it forward and backwards the first day I had it because I was so intrigued with the design. This is a powerful book with a deep message, I thought, that shows we are all just people living life. In certain aspects we connect in the way that we live and in other aspects we don’t, but that is what makes it all so very interesting. The details of the illustrations are quite detail oriented. It certainly is a book that can be studied repeatedly and you will discover something interesting within the illustrations.
    The review is done nicely. I enjoyed reading her thoroughness of the book and that she reflected on the positives and slightly negatives. Authenticity is an important aspect that we have discussed throughout this semester. The reviewer discusses that the cultural authenticity was done correctly and portrays each culture accurately except for the magic carpet. I agreed with her. Usually there are words or situations that cause you to think that something does not seem right. I didn’t have that with Mirror. This is a great picture book to own!

  7. Dana Gray says:

    I enjoyed reading this review. I think the book Mirror was very unique and beautiful. The pictures were so crisp and naturally stunning. Baker obviously took great care and consideration in the images she chose to represent and compare. As the reader it was very apparent to me that her goal was to show similarities while highlighting differences. I think that this book could be appreciated for is central message and beautifully crafted images, we shouldn’t get too carried away with judging the book on its relevance and representation within a social-political responsibilities of the author.

    I do think that Short raised a good point, describing how the boy drew pictures of the magic carpets, and how that connection to Arabic is overdone and could be construed as negative. I did not view that as a negative quality.

    Overall this is a beautiful thought-provoking book that I will soon be adding to my library.

  8. Lanika Rodrigues says:

    I definitely enjoyed the book. Honestly, I believe it is more complex than many picture books I grew up with as a child and critiqued when I was old enough to babysit. The differences were actually what stood out most to me–the greater the differences, the more similar the families. For example, at the end of the story, when the Australian family settles in to enjoy some time away from the constant overflow of technology by the fireplace, while on the other hand, the rural, Moroccan family chooses this time to enjoy technology together as a family…it’s still family time, with the members enjoying each others’ company; it’s just done differently for the families. It reminds me of trying to read a book in a mirror: while a human face reflects exactly in a mirror, a book will always read backward in a mirror. This story’s ending example is no different: while there are places in the book where there are similarities between the cultures, it is still a fascinating joy to explore the differences, just as much as holding the book to the mirror.

    Because of such symbolic complexity expressed in this book, I see the lack of political societal structure representation as negligible, particularly when considering its main target audience. It is, after all, a PICTURE book, written for children whose parents and primary adult environments very likely teach stereotypes about people of foreign origin. Children in this case often see the attacked culture from very simple perspectives simply because ignorant perspectives are exactly that: simple. The author, therefore, appears to be using the very stereotypes (for example, the notorious “magic carpet”) to bring respect, rather than ridicule, to the different cultures. After all, when we look into a mirror, we might not always like what we see–yet often what we dislike about ourselves just might be what others see in us as beautiful. The book, the author, doesn’t focus on political structures because that isn’t the heart of the book. The heart of the book is to bring us back to the very simple truth: that no matter what our differences, at the end of the day, we are beautiful when we work together, especially when we work together to bring out the good in others, no matter how far away that may be.

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