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Book Review: P is for Pinata: A Mexico Alphabet by Tony Johnston, Illustrated by John Parra

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With National Hispanic Heritage month drawing to a close on October 15th, it’s still not too late to round up the kids, and head down to the local public library in search of some books that explore the strong influence the United State’s southern neighbour Mexico has contributed to American culture. Studying Mexico itself provides a wealth of understanding, and P is for Pinata: A Mexico Alphabet is a respectful and authentic picture book for beginning the journey of exploration with elementary age children.

As part of Sleeping Bear Press’ Discover the World series of alphabet books, each letter of the alphabet is given either a two-page spread, or single page, and dedicated to an aspect of Mexican culture, geography, history, art, food, etc. A simple two to four line poem draws young readers into the subject matter and builds interest for the fact-filled sidebar text. Truly picture books to grow by, preschoolers will enjoy browsing through the pictures and having the poetry read to them, while six-year-olds will sometimes want the sidebar text read aloud if the topic captures their interest, while 10-year-olds (and on up to adults) will pore through the work in it’s entirety, gleaning a diverse yet cohesive view of Mexico.

Author Tony Johnston pulls from her 15 years of living in Mexico to draw readers into a fascinating array of topics that bring Mexico to life. Johnston’s poetry is not as strong as some of the other authors I’ve read in the Discover the World series. Some of the rhymes are awkward, others lyrical free-style; the real heart of her work is found in the sidebar text. She regales us with the escuincle – an ancient Mexican “hot-dog”, used in the past as a personal body cleaner, foot-warmer, and as food, an ancient game resembling hacky-sack, and a 15th century "Renaissance Man” named Netzahualcoyotl, or Fasting Coyote (get your tongue warmed-up, there are some doozies here for pronunciation!). Taken together, this sampling of Mexico creates a vibrant, and diverse tapestry that matches the subdued brilliance of John Parra’s illustrations.

Raised in Southern California in an environment rich in Hispanic roots, Parra’s work evokes images of Mexican folk-art, architecture, and murals. A vast palette of muted, rich terra cotta, brick red, ochre, avocado green, cerulean blues, pinks, and greys bring life to the world Johnston describes in her text. Without his strongly regional artwork, Parra ‘makes’ P is for Pinata; without him it would surely be a lesser work.

Appealing to a wide range of age groups, and introducing a solid selection of cultural tidbits, historical figures, culture-shapers, I’d be hard-pressed to name a picture book better suited as a general Mexican primer.

As always, Sleeping Bear Press provides rich support resources for parents and educators. A free downloadable 25-page teaching guide extends the picture book into activities and assignments throughout the curriculum. Parents looking for some last minute Hispanic Heritage celebration ideas will find the suggestions at the Discover the World website a ready resource. Combining some of the suggested recipes, crafts, and hands-on-activities with P is for Pinata will result in an easy to plan family theme night – fun, educational, and enriching.

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About Jennifer Bogart