Floating on Mama’s Song: Flotando en la canción de mamá.
Written by Laura Lacámara
Illustrated by Yuyi Morales
HarperCollins, 2010, 32 pp
Imagine magically floating around the Cuban countryside joyfully singing with your family (animals included). Laura Lacamara’s story feels like a Cuban folktale or fable from the beginning with lush life-like plants and vibrant, yet soft, tropical colors and “the delicious smell of fried plantains and black beans [that] hung in the air.” It is not Mama’s familiar, beautiful singing that shocks her daughter as she returns home from school, but Mama and the dog Tito are actually floating, carefree. Anita rushes to tell Grandma and baby brother Orlando but discovers Grandma, whose “heart is a bitter grapefruit” doesn’t share this excitement. As the story’s conflict arcs, more Cuban traditions are revealed as the reason for Grandma’s bitterness. With the happy ending also comes a realization that this same conflict could occur in any place in the world. That dichotomous theme of needing cultural distinction and validation and at the same time needing affirmation that we are all very much alike is actually satisfying. Awarded a Junior Library Guild Selection for 2010 and a Tejas Star Book Award finalist for 2011-12, very positive reviews have kept this story popular with children and educators.
Children as young as four, but as old as ten or twelve, will emotionally connect with this tale and its layers of complexity. The expressive artwork and lyrical prose can “hook” a youngster for the short book, or a reader might delve into the healer who throws the coconut shells and open up a discussion of the rich Santeria belief system still prevalent in Cuba today. Similarly, small black and white photographs on Grandma’s wall could go unnoticed or could lead to an exploration of 1950’s Cuba before the Revolution. And, couldn’t that search naturally lead to a discussion about what things are like in Cuba now or the many different versions of Cuban history around that time period? Few children’s books have multiple potential layers with such aesthetically pleasing artwork and story. Even the happy ending could easily hold a couple of unstated “morals” if older students wanted to turn it into a Cuban version of an Aesop’s fable. Many possibilities for critical discussions can remain below the surface or be a bridge for dialogue on a plethora of issues. In 2008 Monica Brown, an experienced bilingual Latina writer of children’s books, said one of her goals is “to open minds and ears to the joy and power of words, decreasing cultural isolation and increasing pride, self-esteem, and a sense of possibility that Latino/as, too, can have public voice, an artistic voice, a space – a community – where their stories are honored and celebrated” (p. 318). Floating on Mama’s Song: Flotando en la canción de mamá embodies that sense.
Author Laura Lacamara’s mother was an opera singer on stage at the famous Gran Teatro de la Habana before her family came to the U. S. when Laura was only a baby. Laura’s father had been an artist as well as an art director at a large advertising agency. This is not a story of their perils, but a celebration of her family’s culture. She is proud of her Cuban roots and embeds her first authoring of a picture book (she has illustrated two others) with things Cuban: ever-present music, loving family, small village countryside, a nearby healer (Santeria), and nosy Cuban neighbors as she reveals in an author of the month interview in 2012 on Houston public radio.
Yuyi Morales illustrated eight picture books previous to Floating on Mama’s Song: Flotando en la canción de mamá. Her website shows the incredible processes and details that go into each of her works of art using clay, feathers, oils, computer designs, photographs, paintings, and other mixed media. It is indeed striking. After winning the 2008 Pura Belpre Medal, “Morales became the first author/illustrator to be three times recognized by the Pura Belpre Committee and was established as one of the leading children’s book creators working today” (http://virginia-hamilton.slis.kent.edu/2013-conference/). Put on your favorite Cuban-influenced music, check out this book and allow the possibilities to float around in your mind.
Pairing the book Floating on Mama’s Song with other Latina/o picture books would effortlessly expand the discussion of magic. Cristina Garcia’s The Dog Who Loved the Moon (2008) shares the Cuban setting and the love of music and dancing; but, it also incorporates a puppy that is lovesick for the moon. Paco the puppy cannot find his joy until the magical moon bends down and gives him a kiss, freeing him once again to dance and move to the music. Clara and Señor Frog (Campbell Greeslin, 2007) is set in Mexico where Señor Frog is an artist extraordinaire with many fans. Clara’s mom marries him and soon afterward Clara and Señor Frog bond over the magic they feel as they each create their very own original art work. For a non-fiction pairing, most children will naturally be curious about Cuba, the island nation. Too in-depth for children who are 4-8 years old, Cuba: Enchantment of the world (David K. Wright, 2009) or Countries of the World: Cuba ( Jen Green, 2007) are books that are a natural fit and provide stunning photographs that might be shared with younger children. Both of these selections can provide larger, stunning photographs of the island, the National Opera House in Havana, musicians and dancers, and other things of interest native to Anita’s Grandma’s heritage from Floating on Mama’s Song.
Brown, M. (2008). From a writer’s perspective: recreating images of community in multicultural children’s books. Language Arts, 85(4), 316-321.
Stephanie Knight, University of North Texas, Denton, TX
WOW Review, Volume V, Issue 3 by World of Words is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. Based on work at https://wowlit.org/on-line-publications/review/v-3/