ReadMe: The Best Mariachi in the World

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Congratulations to the winner #16 – Sand!

Since we launched ReadMe–our monthly literary series–last summer, I have been exposed to bilingual books and publishing houses that I didn’t even know existed. The good news is that there is a lot of really great stuff out there, which you probably already knew if you’ve been reading these entries since we began. One of the things I like the most is that many of these books not only showcase our Latino culture and values, but usually they also have other messages like friendship, perseverance and self-esteem – important issues to discuss with our children.

The Best Mariachi in the World,” is a perfect example of this. It tells the story of Gustavo, a little boy that comes from a family of mariachis, but still hasn’t discovered his place in the band. I absolutely love the first sentence, “Gustavo was the worst mariachi in the world.” Strong, but completely captivating.

“I think the book is more than anything a fable or parable about discovering your strengths and finding out who you are,” said the author, J.D. Smith via an email interview. “For most of us, like Gustavo, the process involves a lot of trial and error, and it is important not to become too discouraged along the way.”

I thought it was curious that the author, who’s not a native speaker of Spanish–he started learning Spanish in high school–would chose the topic of mariachis for his first children’s book. But it turns out that it has to do with the fact that he was born in a city outside Chicago which has a large population of people from Jalisco, considered the birthplace of mariachi.

“The whole thing started as a bit of a capricho. After a couple of failed attempts to write for children, I decided to try again. I also wanted to try a premise that would take me out of my comfort zone and not directly involve my own experience,” Smith explained. “I am not a singer or musician, and I am not of Hispanic ancestry, but as my mind drifted I came up with the fairly wacky sentence that in edited form became the beginning of the book: “Gustavo was the worst mariachi in the world.” I then had to follow the idea and see where it led.”

It lead to a great story about how Gustavo eventually does find his place in the band using his ability to sing which he discovers one morning when he wakes up before dawn and, inspired by the beauty of the desert in front of him, he just has to cantar.

“The story can also be read as a valentine to Hispanic culture in general and Mexican culture in particular, especially in regard to the importance of family and community and in regard to nourishing and being nourished by the arts,” Smith said.

The book, published by Raven Tree Press, is bilingual in the sense that Spanish words are embedded throughout the story. Although this option doesn’t really work in our home–Vanessa prefers that I read to her only in Spanish–I can see how it can work wonders for those using the OPOL method. It is also a great way to star introducing Spanish to kids because even though they might not understand every word, they can usually figure out meanings just by following the story. Plus, there is a vocabulary page at the end of the book which includes a bit of history about mariachis. The book is also available in Spanish-only format.

“I think the book can be used in a variety of ways.  The most obvious are vocabulary, particularly in music, and in the grammar of Spanish and English. To move on from those basics, parents can ask their children in either language to describe what they see in the illustrations and how they feel about the story,” according to Smith. “Parents and children can also use the book as a point of departure for having children discuss, again in either language, what they like to do and what they are good at—what is for them in the way that singing is for Gustavo.”

Although Smith didn’t grow up bilingual–he started learning Spanish in high school–he understands the importance of speaking more than one language.

“Having more than one cultural frame of reference seems to offer the additional benefits of encouraging empathy and limiting rigid thinking,” he said. “While I will never be mistaken for a native speaker of Spanish, I have greatly enjoyed traveling in Spain and Latin America without needing an interpreter, and sometimes I have served as an interpreter for others.”

Here’s the rest of the interview with J.D. Smith:

As a writer, can you talk about the importance of books/reading when raising bilingual children?

“I am not an expert in this area, but I can offer a few thoughts. Since we learn language largely by imitating models, I think it’s important for children to see models of the languages they are learning in books as well as in speech. That way they are less likely to think each language belongs to only one area of life, such as the home or school, and they will be able to develop a wide range of skills and a large vocabulary in each language.”

How and why did you become a writer?

“I have been writing since I was in grade school, and writing has always felt like something I had to do. I’ve sometimes tried to push that to the background, thinking I should be more “practical,” but that has never really worked. At this point in my life I’ve made peace with knowing that I am unhappy if I don’t write and that I have to keep trying new projects, some of which will turn out well and others not well at all.”

Describe your experience working with Raven Tree Press?

“It has been fun. Working with a smaller press means having regular contact with the people editing and promoting my work, and in my case I even got to see Dani Jones’ initial black-and-white sketches before she moved on to the color illustrations.”

J.D. Smith has published two collections of poetry for adults, and in 2007 he was awarded a Fellowship in Poetry from the National Endowment for the Arts. The Best Mariachi in the World is his first children’s book, and he is working on both poetry and other picture book manuscripts for children. Additional information is available on his blog at Giveaway rules.

This giveaway ends at midnight EST on Sunday, Jan. 17, 2010. Entries/Comments that do not follow the submission guidelines will be invalid and automatically deleted.  Sorry, just need to keep  it fair. Good luck to all!

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