Tiny Curbstone Press of Willimantic, Conn., has a well-deserved reputation as a serious publishing house, issuing difficult but important works by such writers as Salvadoran poet Roque Dalton, Mexican novelist Elena Garro and Nicaraguan intellectuals Ernesto Cardenal, Gioconda Belli and Sergio Ramirez. It's a remarkable track record for a nonprofit publisher in a time of decreasing government support for the arts, and one that leaves little room for frivolous projects.
So when co-founder Sandy Taylor actively began developing ideas for a children's book recently, there was some concern that Curbstone, after 23 years, finally had gone soft. But nothing could be further from the truth, Taylor says.
"I don't think of children's literature being any less serious or important that other literature. I think it's important that young people have literature that reflects the life and goals and aspirations of young people. We're trying to accomplish the same mission that we try to accomplish with our adult books."
Curbstone's first children's book, "America Is Her Name" (28 pages, $15.95), combines the prose of award-winning author Luis J. Rodriguez ("Always Running: Gang Days in L.A.") and the drawings of newcomer Carlos Vazquez in the tale of a 9-year-old Mexican immigrant dealing with prejudice and homesickness in a poor, crime-plagued Chicago neighborhood.
Encouraged by a teacher, America discovers the power of poetry, which gives voice to her fears and new hope for her future. Vazquez's simple yet vibrant four-color illustrations drive this story of self-worth and determination, almost making up for Rodriguez's unnecessary use of cliches and stereotypes.
The book is also available in a Spanish edition, "La llaman America," translated by prize-winning poet Tino Villanueva.
In "Pepita Thinks Pink/Pepita y el color rosado" by Ofelia Dumas Lachtman, illustrated by Alex Pardo Delange (Arte Publico Press, 32 pages, $14.95), English runs side by side with Yanitzia Canetti's Spanish translation, making the book useful to Spanish-dominant parents who long to read to their English-dominant children.
The first book in the "Pepita" series, 1995's award-winning "Pepita Talks Twice/Pepita habla dos veces," celebrated the advantages of being multilingual and is by far the best bilingual children's book this reviewer has encountered. In this sequel, Pepita has trouble accepting her new Anglo neighbor because "she's pink all over. It's not nice at all. I'd like her better if she was green."
From there, the story moves predictably to its politically correct ending, but the journey is strained, making this book a somewhat disappointing follow-up to the original.
Lachtman recaptures some of the original freshness in "Big Enough/Bastante grande," another bilingual edition from Arte Publico (illustrated by Enrique O. Sanchez, 32 pages, $14.95).
In this story, we're introduced to Lupita, a young girl who's always being told she's too small. We soon find out that she's plenty big enough to be a hero.
Another cultural memoir is Muriel Miller Branch's "Juneteenth: Freedom Day" (Cobblehill Books, 64 pages, $15.99), a salute to one of the most important dates in African American history. The holiday, celebrated each June 19, got its start in 1865 when slaves in Galveston, Texas, came together to rejoice at the delayed news of the Emancipation Proclamation.
More than 130 years later, Branch sought out Juneteenth events in Texas, Arizona, Virginia, Maryland, the District of Columbia, South Carolina and California to see how the landmark date is being remembered. Her book, which is aimed at young adults, does much more than recount anecdotes. Branch focuses needed attention on one of the most important and least commemorated events in this nation's history, and the three-page bibliography points readers to accounts that bring the history to life.
If you simply want to enjoy some remarkable writing, it would be hard to find a book more satisfying than Dallas Woodburn's "There's a Pimple on My Nose."
The 42-page collection of poems and short stories is witty and entertaining, but what really makes it stand out is that Dallas is a 10-year-old fifth-grader at Poinsettia Elementary School in Ventura. The book began as a school project. Dallas proposed making some extra copies to sell, and so far has sold nearly 100 at $3 each (bringing in just enough money to cover expenses).
There are plenty more copies available. Write to Dallas at 7842 Hayward St., Ventura, CA 93004, and include an extra $1 to coverage postage.
Kevin Baxter reviews children's books every four weeks. Next week: Readers' reviews.