ReadMe: The Dog Who Loved Tortillas

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This giveaway is now closed! Thanks for participating and CONGRATULATIONS TO OUR WINNER #6 Chrysa!!

My three-year-old daughter, Vanessa, loves our black Lab, Max, even when he slobbers all over her just to say hello. But, she hasn’t been alive long enough to know/understand certain things about him – like the fact that, left to his own devices, he pretty much can chew away anything in sight. I’m talking from shoes to his plastic water bowl. Unfortunately, this has meant we’ve had to deal with a few nerve racking emergencies – the kind where a positive outcome is completely uncertain  – since he became a part of our family eight years ago.

So, although she could definitely relate to a few of the themes (including sharing, having a younger brother, loving your dog) going on in this month’s ReadMe bilingual book, The Dog Who Loved Tortillas, a beloved pet getting sick was a new subject matter for her.

The tale; however, is about the fundamental healing power that can come from a relationship between a child and his dog. If you’ve been lucky enough to have a dog, you probably know what I’m talking about.

“The story is essentially about how a dog brings together a brother and sister who are always fighting,” said the book’s author, Benjamin Alire Sáenz, via email. “Through a puppy named Sofie, the two siblings, Diego and Gabriela learn to share. It takes a little dog to repair their relationship. Dogs do that sometimes.”

It is seamless and so well told that the first time I read it, I have to admit I was kind of at the edge of my seat wondering how it would all turn out. Not to mention the super cool claymation figures which make it impossible not to want to turn the pages as quickly as possible to discover the next one.

The Dog Who Loved Tortillas – published this past August – is the second book in a series entitled Little Diego. The first book, A Gift from Papa Diego – about the relationship between a boy, Little Diego, and his grandfather – was published 11 years ago.

“In that book, I set up a whole family dynamics and characters that I could develop in different situations for future books,” explained Sáenz. “I really loved the claymation figures that Geronimo Garcia created for that book. He really hit on something very special with the figures he created. We had always wanted to continue the series because the clay characters were so charming. And then I hit upon this idea of a dog who loves tortillas based on my own experience with my own dog (who was, by the way, named Sofie).”

Both books in the series were published by Cinco Puntos Press, yet another excellent publishing house you need to know if you’re raising bilingual children. Started back in 1985 by writers Bobby and Lee Byrd, Cinco Puntos Press is a “small, very independent publishing company rooted in El Paso, Texas, not three miles north of the U.S. Mexican Border,” according to their website.

Each of the pages of this wonderful tale includes the text in both English and Spanish, so you get both options side by side. But translations are not done arbitrarily by this publishing house.

“Our rule of thumb is simple: Is the cultural relevance of this book magnified in a Spanish/English format? Ben is a border person, a fronterizo who grew up in a bilingual community. Bilingual is a large part of who he is and and, likewise, for a large part, his audience, so it’s a natural fit,” said Bobby Byrd, Cinco Puntos Press’ co-publisher and vice president. “We don’t do bilingual books for the sake of doing bilingual books. For instance, we wouldn’t have done Where The Wild Things Are (should we have been so lucky to have published it) as a bilingual book. It doesn’t make sense.”

Reaching a Latino/bilingual audience was exactly what Sáenz was looking for when he decided to get into the business of writing for children.

The whole issue of visually seeing the two languages side by side is something that really moves me. And I hope it really moves children, parents and teachers, too,” said Sáenz. “I’m a big believer in bilingualism. You don’t have to sacrifice one language for the other. There’s room on the tongue for both languages.”

How true is that? Maybe that should be our new mantra. The rest of what Sáenz has to say about bilingualism and literacy is thought-provoking and insightful. Check it out:

SB – How would you say parents raising their kids bilingual can “use” your book to do so?

“Children can literally see two languages on equal footing. That’s so crucial because a lot of Mexican-American children grow up believing that Spanish is an inferior language. Spanish is not an inferior language. And neither is Spanglish! Children (and adults) can go back and forth and see how one can say a particular thought in English or in Spanish. It makes using the two languages much easier.

SB – As a writer, can you talk about the importance of literacy among the Latino community…

“This is serious business. We’re not doing well with regard to literacy and education in the Latino community. We have to recommit ourselves to the work of creating a literate, educated populace that can think critically about the issues of the day. We need to produce thinkers, readers, entrepreneurs, filmmakers and on and on. But we’re not going to do that if we don’t get our children to master both English and Spanish. Readers know how to think! I’m especially concerned that we’re losing boys. Reading has become a girl thing. That’s a silly concept. We need to do a better job. We need a new motto: Real men read books.”

SB – Were you raised bilingual? How was that experience?

“Yes, I was raised with two languages. Growing up, almost all Spanish. But some English. Then school. I liked English. I liked Spanish. I liked words! Being bilingual was normal. I thought everybody spoke Spanish when I was a boy. I remember talking to an adult in a store once and my mother telling me to speak to that person in English. “She doesn’t speak Spanish,” she said.  I thought that was really very strange. How could she not know Spanish. Didn’t everybody? There was a time in junior high school that speaking Spanish didn’t really interest me. Oddly enough, that’s when I began taking Spanish in school. It was strange, studying Spanish in school. Just like I studied English. But it was also great.”

SB – What do you think about the concept of raising kids bilingual?

“Everybody should do it. While we’re at, we should add a third language. Why not?  Why are we so provincial when it comes to speaking languages? Shame on us.”

SB – How and why did you become a writer?

“I always wanted to be a writer. And I was good at it. I was lousy at math. And the sciences, forget about it. But I loved to read and think about things and think about people and how they acted and wondered what made people do what they did. I finally started my career as a writer when I was thirty. You could say writing was my first love, but it was my second career.”


Benjamín Alire Sáenz

Benjamín Alire Sáenz

Benjamin Alire Sáenz, poet, novelist, and writer of children’s books was born in Las Cruces, New Mexico in 1954, the fourth of seven children. His most recent novel is Names On a Map and his most recent YA novel is Last Night I Sang to the Monster. His forthcoming book of poems is entitled, The Book of What Remains. He has won numerous awards including, the Tomas Rivera Award, American Book Award, a Lannan Foundation Fellowship, a Wallace Stegner Fellowship, the Americas Book Award, a Texas Institute of Letters award, a Southwest Book Award, the Patterson Prize and he has been a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. He is a professor of Creative Writing at the University of Texas at El Paso and lives, writes, and breathes on the U.S. / Mexico border.

The Giveaway:

As you probably know by now, part of ReadMe includes the opportunity to win a copy of the book being reviewed. Once again, I assure you this is one awesome book you’ll want to add to your kids’ library – especially, at least for me, after getting to know the author better thanks to his insightful answers.  To win, share with us what you do to promote literacy in your house/school.

Giveaway rules.

This giveaway ends at midnight EST on Sunday, Nov. 15, 2009. 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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