Tension and heart

By Jill Diamond, Pictures by Lesley Vamos.
Farrar Straus Giroux Books for Young Readers

Today, Jan. 27, is Multicultural Children’s Book Day in the US, and as part of the effort to encourage diverse kids books, I’ve agreed to review a multicultural kids book. The event – reviewing the books – is an organized effort, and more information can be found here: Multicultural Children’s Book Day . There are a bunch of publishers and authors who sponsor this, and I’ve put that information down at the bottom of the review, so please do check it out. I managed to totally luck out on this, and got an absolutely delightful book by Jill Diamond with some lovely illustrations by Lesley Vamos. The best thing about Lou Lou & Pea, for me, is that it’s not pushing any kind of multicultural agenda. It’s just telling a story about two young girls one of whom happens to be Hispanic, and both of whom live in a Hispanic neighbourhood. It’s the first book in a series, and I really hope that the book does well, because these two girls are terrific characters.

Lou Lou, whose full name is Louise Bombay and Pea, (her real name is Peacock Pearl) are best friends who live in the El Corazón neighbourhood of an unnamed American city. Their normal lives – gardening and attending the local public school for Lou Lou; fashion, good manners and taking courses in art and fashion design at a private school for Pea, are disrupted during their formal Friday afternoon tea party when Pea’s mother asks the girls to deliver a quinceañera dress (15th birthday party) that belongs to Pea’s prima (cousin) to the cleaners, as it’s been stained.

On bringing the dress to Sparkle and Clean, the local drycleaner, laundry and fashion boutique, Lou Lou and Pea discover that this was no accident. The stain is a combination of grape juice and purple dye. Worse is the fact that Lou Lou’s favourite plant is killed that same weekend. Lou Lou had planned to enter Pinky, her autumn queen camellia into the local horticulture show, where she was sure the plant would win first prize. The earth around the dead bush smells of bleach – a sure killer of camellias.

As they move through their neighbourhood in the following days, the girls notice additions to the local wall murals – a white bunny with amber eyes in one, a magenta camellia flower which is a perfect match for Pinky’s in another and the ruined quinceañera dress in a third.

As the girls go on with their lives, attending school, planning a memorial for Pinky, and getting ready for Hallowe’en and the Día de los Muerotos (Day of the Dead) celebrations, the crimes and the mural additions continue: Lou Lou’s nemesis, Danielle Desserts, loses her beloved gold necklace, the Candle Lady, Elmira’s, shop is broken into and her savings for the Candle Lady’s Caribbean Cruise are stolen. As well, the sprinkler system in Sugar Skull Sarah’s studio is tampered with, destroying most of the hard work she’s done for the Day of the Dead celebrations.

The question, of course, is who is responsible for both the crimes and the additions to the murals? Suspicion centres on Jeremy, Lou Lou’s new next door neighbour, who is altogether too friendly and who seems, through circumstantial evidence, to be the culprit. Although, it might be Rosa, Lou Lou’s shy, shadowy neighbour. Or Kyle, the Science Fiction geek and hall monitor. Or could it be someone else? The story climaxes at the Día de los Muerotos parade just after Hallowe’en, when the friends not only wow the crowds with their memorial altar to the departed camellia, Pinky but finally wrap up the case.

The fact that Pea is Hispanic, and so is most of the neighbourhood is woven seamlessly into the story. Most of the shop names are clearly Hispanic, and a lot of the dialogue and terms are Spanish, but the reader isn’t left grasping for meaning. It’s either clear in context, or the translations make internal story sense, since Lou Lou is not fluent in Spanish, although she’s learning, so she either gets it wrong, and is corrected, or the speaker translates quite naturally for her. As they’re going to the Candle Shop,

“Lou Lou read aloud the shop’s paper sign that she’d seen countless times: ‘SE VENDE LUZ Y SUERTE.’
‘We certainly need light and luck today to help Magdalena,’ Pea said.”

In sum, the fact that it’s a multi-ethnic book isn’t underlined – it’s just a story in which one major character is Hispanic and the girls live in a Spanish speaking part of the city. No big deal. Neither are the girls stereotyped, as either girly-girls or modern, “strong” girls who are deep into traditionally masculine attributes and interests. Both Lou Lou and Pea are well rounded, three dimensional characters – Lou Lou loves to garden, isn’t too concerned with fashion or her appearance and tends to be casual and relaxed. She’s not as thoughtful as she might be, but she cares about her friends and is quick to adapt her behaviour to make other people feel comfortable, including being as formal as possible at the Friday teaparties and as polite as she can be when necessary. Pea is very concerned with cleanliness and appearance, other people’s comfort and she adores fashion, but she’s also analytical, observant and decisive. The girls are girls, a mix of traditionally feminine attributes and modern, more traditionally “masculine” characteristics.

Jill Diamond has created a world that I think we’d all like to live in, and the name she’s given the neighbourhood reflects the atmosphere of the book. El Corazón means “the heart” and this community has heart. Yes, there is danger; the crimes aren’t just harmless pranks. Cash is stolen, merchandise is ruined and property is destroyed, and there is tension through the book, but it’s clear that this is an anomaly in the community.

And it is a community with corazón. People know their neighbours, care about them and look after each other. It’s not overt, or particularly underlined, it’s just there. This, along with the names and personalities of the characters is a major strength of the book. The people who live in El Corazón are quirky and full of individuality and they pop out of the page without overshadowing Lou Lou or Pea. The street names (Lucky Alley) and the store and organization names (Sparkle and Clean, Cupcake Cabana, Hello Horticulture! Society) also contribute to a lovely, gentle, fantastical “ago” feeling even though there are modern touches, like cellphones and blue spiked hair. The illustrations are done in a style that reminds one of illustrations from books from the 1940s and 50s, and the entire package welcomes and enfolds a reader in that gentle and welcoming world.

Definitely a book I’d recommend for kids who like mysteries, enjoy whimsy and are between 10 and 13.

Here’s the scoop about MCBD and the sponsors:

Multicultural Children’s Book Day 2017 (1/27/17) is its fourth year and was founded by Valarie Budayr from Jump Into A Book and Mia Wenjen from PragmaticMom. Our mission is to raise awareness on the ongoing need to include kid’s books that celebrate diversity in home and school bookshelves while also working diligently to get more of these types of books into the hands of young readers, parents and educators.

Despite census data that shows 37% of the US population consists of people of color, only 10% of children’s books published have diversity content. Using the Multicultural Children’s Book Day holiday, the MCBD Team are on a mission to change all of that.

Current Sponsors:  MCBD 2017 is honored to have some amazing Sponsors on board. Platinum Sponsors include Scholastic, Barefoot Books and Broccoli. Other Medallion Level Sponsors include heavy-hitters like Author Carole P. Roman, Audrey Press, Candlewick Press,  Fathers Incorporated, KidLitTV, Capstone Young Readers, ChildsPlayUsa, Author Gayle Swift, Wisdom Tales Press, Lee& Low Books, The Pack-n-Go Girls, Live Oak Media, Author Charlotte Riggle, Chronicle Books and Pomelo Books

 Author Sponsor include: Karen Leggett Abouraya, Veronica AppletonSusan Bernardo, Kathleen Burkinshaw, Maria DismondyD.G. DriverGeoff Griffin Savannah HendricksStephen HodgesCarmen Bernier-Grand,Vahid Imani, Gwen Jackson,  Hena, Kahn, David Kelly, Mariana LlanosNatasha Moulton-LevyTeddy O’Malley, Stacy McAnulty,  Cerece MurphyMiranda Paul, Annette Pimentel, Greg RansomSandra Richards, Elsa TakaokaGraciela Tiscareño-Sato,  Sarah Stevenson, Monica Mathis-Stowe SmartChoiceNation, Andrea Y. Wang

We’d like to also give a shout-out to MCBD’s impressive CoHost Team who not only hosts the book review link-up on celebration day, but who also work tirelessly to spread the word of this event. View our CoHosts HERE.

MCBD Links to remember:

MCBD site: http://multiculturalchildrensbookday.com/

Free Multicultural Books for Teachers: http://bit.ly/1kGZrta

Free Kindness Classroom Kit for Homeschoolers, Organizations, Librarians and Educators: http://multiculturalchildrensbookday.com/teachers-classroom-kindness-kit/

Free Diversity Book Lists and Activities for Teachers and Parents: http://bit.ly/1sZ5s8i