Friday, July 6, 2007

Dona Flor by Pat Mora

Mora, Pat. Ill. by Raul Colón (2005). Doña Flor: A Tall Tale About a Giant Woman With a Great Big Heart. New York: Random House. ISBN 0375923373.

Doña Flor is a folktale about a little baby girl who becomes a giant woman because her mother sings to her. As a young (but still GIANT) girl, the village children make fun of her because she can speak every language—“even rattler”—but as she ages, the villagers see the benefits of having a friend of formidable size. Doña Flor can get the children to the escuela in just one step; the patting of her hands as she makes her fresh tortillas every morning is better than an alarm clock; those extra tortillas can be used as roofs—leaving the houses smelling “corn-good”—and rafts for the children. So, Dona Flor becomes popular with both the villages and the animals—especially the birds who nest in her hair.

But one day, when Dona Flor puts her fresh giant tortillas out to share with the villagers, no one comes. After a little investigating, Doña Flor learns that the village is being terrorized by a puma, a huge mountain lion they have been hearing roar as it stalks the village. Still, try as she might, Flor could not find “that darn cat.”

In the meantime, she busies herself by calming down the harsh wind that is blowing the village houses around by hugging him. But by the time she got that done, the villagers were again troubled by the sounds of the roaring mountain lion. Flor did what she could to calm and cheer up her neighbors—she sat outside the library and read stories in the shade, but the children who normally liked to climb all over her were too scared to come out and listen. She made a new river, hoping its babbling sounds would sooth the villagers, but they were still too scared. After a long hot bath in rose pedals, Flor got the idea to ask her animal friends about the mountain lion. They told her to, “Go quietly to the tallest mesa, which she did. There she found a young mountain lion who was roaring through a hollowed-out tree, making his voice sound more terrifying than it actually was.

When the puma saw that he had been discovered, he tried to pretend to be fierce but Doña Flor told him, “Why, you’re just a kitten to me, Pumito” and tamed him with a few scratches behind the ear. She introduced the mountain lion to the villagers—finally soothing their fears—before fluffing up some clouds to sleep on and letting the animals snooze on her… Including one little mountain lion “stretched out over her big toes.”

The story of Dona Flor itself is a captivating one—if somewhat rambling and lengthy, but that’s common among folkloric tales. Other than the corn tortillas (implying a Mexican origin—since tortillas in other Hispanic cultures are different), the mention of adobe and the use of interlanguage, I didn’t recognize many specific cultural markers in the text. The words of this story could arguably be used for nearly any Hispanic culture (again, with the exclusion of the specifically Mexican/Southwestern references) to tell a tale of a giant woman.

The Spanish in the text is sometimes not as naturally incorporated as many other books—perhaps because it is an English-language picture book geared at younger ages who may not have much experience with Spanish. For example, several times when there is Spanish, the English translation immediately appears:
Mira! Look! Big Foot!” they called when she walked by.

Another instance:
Que pasa? What’s the matter?” she asked, bending down to peer into their small doors to see where they were hiding.

Then again, there are other instances were the words pueblo, escuela, estrellas, amigos, un rio, etc. are peppered throughout the text as natural evidence of code-switching. So, while there are a few instances of less-than-natural insertion of Spanish, the overall impression is not awkward.

The illustrations, with their soft lines and grainy pastels, do tell a story that seems to be more Mexican or Southwestern than other Hispanic cultures. First of all, there is the appearance of Dona Flor herself. The way she wears her hair—either in long twin braids down her back or wound in a crown on the back of her head, or long and flowing covered by a shawl—her somewhat Native American features and her simple, modest dress, are in keeping with the images many modern-day-Americans have of traditional Mexican/Southwestern appearance.

The lack of any distinctly island influences would justify the assumption that the story is not set in Puerto Rico or other tropical, Hispanic cultures and the use of typically North American animals such as the deer, the snake, the rabbits—and especially the mountain lion (as opposed to typical Spanish animals like the bull or the stork)—would lead readers to rule out the story being set in continental Spain.

But perhaps the most visually revealing part of the illustrations is in the background. The wide flat plains, the high mountains, the simply dressed campesino-esque villagers (one of whom wears a sombrero), the Southwestern adobe structures, the earthy colors typical of Southwestern art—these are all indicative of what Americans typically see as Mexican/Southwestern.

Whether the text and/or especially the illustrations can be seen to be accurate/authentic or not is debatable. Both the author and the illustrator are Hispanic. According to the note at the back of the book, the author is a native of El Paso, Texas and at the time of publication lived in Santa Fe, so her perceptions of Tex-Mex/Southwestern themes would seem to be accurate. However, there is no mention of Mr. Colón’s background other than the allusion to their first collaboration having won the Tomas Rivera Mexican-American Children’s Book Award—implying that his illustrations have been in the past credible images of Mexican-American life.

As I have mentioned in past analyses, the cultural-historical accuracy, in both text and illustration, are important for the future of not only the culture represented but also the perception of said culture in the minds of its readers. However, the most immediately important thing about a book—especially a picture book—is that its story be captivating and engaging. While this story’s plotline tends to meander and “stop to smell the roses” the ultimate outcome—the taming of the mountain lion and the reconciling of the villagers—does happen and is satisfactory. Also, the illustrations are lively and compelling, imaginative and engaging.


PreS-Gr.2 The creators of Tomas and the Library Lady (1997) offer another glowing picture book set in the American Southwest, but this time, the story is a magical tall tale… Mora strengthens her economical, poetic text with vivid, fanciful touches: the villagers use Flor’s colossal homemade tortillas as roofs, for example. Colon’s signature scratchboard art extends the whimsy and gentle humor in lovely scenes of the serene heroine sweet-talking the animals or plucking a star from the sky. A winning read-aloud, particularly for children who can recognize the intermittent Spanish phrases.

School Library Journal:
PreS-Gr 3-- Although large enough to wrestle the wind, kindhearted Doña Flor dwells in harmony with all living things, so when a puma's roar terrifies her neighbors, she seeks out the "monster gato" and happily discovers that its bark is bigger than its bite. Set in the American Southwest, this lyrical story features lithesome artwork with swirling textures and serene colors. Winner of the 2006 Pura Belpré Illustrator Medal.


PreS-Gr 3-- A charming tall tale set in the American Southwest. Doña Flor, a giant, is a benevolent presence in her pueblo. While at first kids teased the young and large Flor, she quickly became an asset to them, whisking them off to school when they were running late or making tortillas big enough to be used as rafts on the river. The action starts when a puma is heard howling in the vicinity; the villagers are terrified and even Doña Flor can't find it. The animals know where the gato is so she follows their advice and the situation is delightfully resolved. Colón uses his signature mix of watercolor washes, etching, and litho pencils for the art. There is great texture and movement on each page in the sun-baked tones of the landscape. With Spanish words peppered throughout, this is a welcome entry to the canon that includes other heroines like Sally Ann Thunder and Thunder Rose

...Colón's gorgeous illustrations (with his round, swirling scratchboard style in warm, buttery colors) steal the show here, as the pleasantly rhythmic but overly meandering tall tale isn't arresting enough plot-wise to avoid bogging down in its heaps of hyperbole. (Picture book. 6-8)

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