The Day of the Dead is rooted in Mexico’s pre-Hispanic past. It is celebrated every year on November 1 (All Saints’ Day) and November 2 (All Souls’ Day). Many customs associated with this festival reflect a mix of ancient culture and Spanish Catholicism.
The heart of the holiday is the honoring of deceased relatives. Gravesites are cleaned, repaired, and decorated with candles, flowers and incense. Inside the home, ofrendas, or home altars, are constructed to welcome back the souls of lost loved ones for a brief visit. Photos and mementos are set out along with special food offerings like pan de muerto (“bread of the dead”), sugar skulls and drinks. (Traditionally pan de muerto is a sweet, yeast-risen egg bread topped by crossed links of dough representing crossbones. There are many variations, however.) The intent is to encourage visits by the souls, and to remind celebrants that death is a natural part of the cycle of life.
This bilingual story is about Rosita, a little girl who was extremely close to her grandmother, “Abuelita.” (As explained in the Glossary at the back of the book, abuelita (ah-bwey-LEE-tah) means little grandmother, used as a term of endearment.) They spent every day together, with Abuelita teaching Rosita crafts, cooking. gardening, and songs. But then Abuelita dies, and Rosita is heartbroken:
“Rosita missed her very much. She missed the soap scent of Auelita’s everyday dress, and the pla-pla-pla of her hands shaping dough for tortillas. She missed the strong warmth of her grandmother’s arms. She wanted to hear Abuelita’s voice whisper ‘good night.’”
Rosita’s grandfather told Rosita that she could show her grandmother how much she missed her by making her a gift for the Day of the Dead. But Rosita couldn’t decide what to make; everyone in her family was already making something Abuelita had loved. Finally she decided to braid a long cord, like how Abuelita taught her to do with yarn. As she worked, she remembered all she had loved about her Abuelita. As twilight came on the Day of the Dead she finished her braid and sat by her grandmother’s grave:
“Closing her eyes, Rosita began to feel warm, as if she were safe in her grandmother’s arms. Soft wings brushed her face like a kiss. Then, in her heart, a husky voice whispered, ‘Buenas noches, Rosita.‘”
Rosita is ecstatic that Abuelita came:
“And she knew that, like the braid, the cord of their love was too strong to be broken.”
Wonderful mixed media collages by Robert Chapman evoke Mexican folk art. He explains in an afterword that he cut and carved shapes out of wood, heavy papers, and cardboards, and then added objects like twine and beads to enhance the effect of dimension. The colorful result is mesmerizing.
A glossary in the back as a great pronunciation guide as well.
Evaluation: This story suggests a very nice way for children to come to terms with death, and to learn how to honor the memories of those they have lost. In addition, the vibrant folk art pictures will have them lingering over the pages. Finally, there is the added benefit that each page features the text in both English and Spanish.
Published by Rising Moon, Books for Young Readers from Northland Publishing, 1998