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In the Land of Storybooks : New Chapter in Latino Stories--Modernism

TIMES STAFF WRITER

He wanted to write something simple and sweet, a picture book about a young girl at Christmas that 4- to 8-year-olds could enjoy.

When Gary Soto finished “Too Many Tamales,” he’d done all that and more. Reviewers have praised his 1993 story as one of the few realistic portrayals of modern Latino life in America to hit the children’s book market.

“It’s nothing I set out to do,” says Soto, an award-winning author and filmmaker who is a senior lecturer in English at UC Berkeley. “But my agent suggested I write a book for Mexican American children . . . and there definitely is a thirst for new images of these children.”

Until now, Soto explains, Latino-oriented children’s books have generally focused on cultural myths and old tales. But that’s not what readers are looking for these days, he says, and “Too Many Tamales” might be a harbinger.

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In the book, Maria tries on her mother’s diamond ring while the family cooks 24 tamales for guests. When the ring disappears, she fears it’s lost in one of the tamales. Hoping her mother won’t notice, Maria enlists her cousins to help find the ring--even if it means eating all the tamales:

The four of them started eating. They ripped off the husks and bit into them. The first one was good, the second one pretty good, but by the third tamale they were tired of the taste.

“Keep eating,” Maria scolded.

Corn husks littered the floor. Their stomachs were stretched till they hurt, but the cousins kept eating until only one tamale remained on the plate.

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“This must be it,” she said. “The ring must be in that one! We’ll each take a bite. You first, Danny.”

Danny was the youngest, so he didn’t argue. He took a bite. Nothing.

Dolores took a bite. Nothing. Teresa took a big bite. Still nothing. It was Maria’s turn. She took a deep breath and slowly, gently, bit into the last mouthful of tamale.

Nothing!

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She wanted to throw herself onto the floor and cry. . . . How in the world could she tell her mother?

But I have to, she thought.

She could feel tears pressing to get out as she walked into the living room where the grown-ups sat talking.

They chattered so loudly that Maria didn’t know how to interrupt. Finally she tugged on her mother’s sleeve.

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“What’s the matter?” her mother asked. She took Maria’s hand.

“I did something wrong,” Maria sobbed. *

Although the story ends happily, Soto says he was trying to show the difficult choices children face and how they resolve problems.

“Kids confront fears and they also develop confidence,” he adds. “If you can put this in a book that ends on an upbeat note, you’ve done all right.”

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