Toddler Takes: De Dónde Eres?
I've decided to bring my picture book reading team (toddler + me) to the blog to do some reviews of our favorite read-alouds. Here's our latest!
This book is also available in English (as Where Are You From?). Méndez is a self-declared fútbol-obsessed Argentine-American whose husband is Puerto Rican, so I would imagine that Mendez and her family members have had to respond to this question a number of times. (For her thoughts on women footballers, read Fúria, a YA novel.)
In De Dónde Eres? a young girl faces the question where are you from? while playing with her friends. She approaches her grandfather for the answer because he knows everything.
The majority of the book is Grandfather's explanation through story of their family's connectedness to the natural features of Argentina, cradling the little girl among mountains and serenading her with tree frogs. But when the granddaughter is not satisfied and asks again where she is from, Grandfather gives her the most touching answer of all.
This book is heart-breaking and important. The first pages, which happen to be my toddler's favorite (see his take for the reason), also happen to be the most innocently offensive. Playmates, and adult caregivers ask this child where are you from? and refuse to accept her response of "I'm from right here like everyone else." Instead, they press harder: "Your mom is from here, and your dad is from somewhere else. Where are you really from?"
Every time I read that section and look at all of the children's expressions on those pages, I get upset at the adults. In some of the illustrations, they are the ones asking the questions, insisting on a response. How did they allow that little one to have to take this very difficult question on and carry it home for her grandfather to answer? Couldn't someone have said something to affirm that child belonged within the group of friends? That the question or its answer had no bearing on her personhood?
But I need to cut those grown-ups some slack because I've asked questions like this before, out of what I thought were good intentions. Most times, I was hoping the answer would be a place I had a connection with, so I could show I understood. But what I've come to realize lately is that there are other ways to show curiosity, understanding, and acceptance without pointing out that someone sticks out.
Where are you from? has the subtext of You seem different; how did you get your differentness? And this is not a question that a person of any age needs to be asked.
The illustrations in this book show sweeping natural portraits of the vastness of Argentina's beauty. The one urban reference is to a plaza where grandmothers wait for the desaparecidos to return, showing how little I know because I had to research these grandmothers and their mission: They are holding vigil and working to find the missing children whose parents were "disappeared" by the military during The Dirty War of 1976-1983, missing children who were later illegally adopted instead of being returned to their biological families. Another layer of just how painful that where are you from? question can be.
This book ends with a beautiful purply-blue landscape scene of a multigenerational family walking home in the dark, and with the mountains all around, it tugs at my memories of visiting my brother in a village in the Andean foothills of Bolivia, where there was a basketball court outside a school where children played, up at such an elevation that I could barely breathe while standing still, and yet the mountains all around us were so much taller. The emotions of togetherness fly off that page, pulling my memories with it, and I am always too ready to read it otra vez as soon as my son asks.
My toddler calls this "el libro de abuelo-nieta" (the grandfather-granddaughter book). His favorite pages are the ones like the cover where Grandfather is carrying his granddaughter on his shoulders.
He's too young to understand the main story and instead picks out the actions that he is familiar with: In the opening pages, the girl is at the playground with friends, then putting on clothes for a dance lesson, and later having a snack with friends (fruit! cookies!). There are a couple pages with close-ups on abuelo, and we point out his glasses and hat. In that beautiful ending scene of the whole family walking home in the evening, we count the stars and the family members and make guesses as to who is who.
But the biggest thing my toddler is focused on is found in his name for the book: He is fascinated by and spends most of his time watching the abuelo and nieta together, identifying how they are connected through touch or through words. For my child, these two belong to each other, and that is enough.
This story has a lot to unpack across different developmental stages. I appreciate that while abuelo does have an answer for the child, the book offers a chance for other families to talk about what elements connect them to their ancestors and propel them forward. Families may or may not tie their roots to a physical location, but connection can be found in many forms. And maybe in putting that connection into words for themselves, readers will be a little more careful to protect other people's connections and will rephrase their where are you from? questions in a way of belonging instead of separation.