Quote of the Month

When love and skill work together, expect a miracle. John Ruskin

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Bone-A Fide Facts

 Studying traditional annual celebrations is a good way to build a bridge of understanding of cultures outside your own. These holidays are steeped in history, many times dating back hundreds of years.  One of the more fascinating festivities for this student of the Spanish language and, subsequently, my students is observed by persons in the United States, Central America and Mexico.

El Dia de Muertos, the Day of the Dead, begins on November first and ends on November second.  These days are for remembering those who have died, honoring their lives and spirits in a variety of ways.  One of the most prominent symbols seen during this time is the calaveras, human skulls and skeletons.  A respected artist, a creator of the calaveras, Jose Guadalupe (Lupe) Posada, is the subject of the distinguished Funny Bones: Posada and His Day of the Dead Calaveras (Abrams Books for Young Readers, August 25, 2015) written and illustrated by Duncan Tonatiuh.  This title was selected as one of The New York Times Best Illustrated Children's Books of 2015 in October, 2015.  On Monday January 11, 2016 at the American Library Association Youth Media Awards a Pura Belpre Illustrator Honor award and the Robert F. Siebert Medal were given to this book.  It is also listed by the NCTE Orbis Pictus Award for Outstanding Nonfiction for Children as one of their honor book selections.

Skeletons riding bicycles...skeletons wearing fancy hats...skeletons dancing and strumming on guitars.  We call these festive bony figures calaveras.  

More than one hundred sixty years ago Jose Guadalupe Posada was born in a city in Mexico.  His artistic talents were noticed by an older brother, a teacher, who assisted in further art education.  At the age of eighteen Lupe learned the art of lithography and engraving by working in a shop owned by Don Trinidad Pedroza.  While working for Pedroza, Posada began producing political cartoons.  Eventually Posada opened a print shop of his own and began raising his family in the city of Leon.  They resided there for many years until a flood washed away his livelihood.

The three, Posada, his wife and son, relocated in Mexico City.  Don Posada was able to make a name for himself here, eventually opening a shop of his own again.  He also began illustrating "broadsides" with Antonio Vanegas.  Each year they were the busiest during El Dia de Muertos.  The duo created short poems, rhyming poems, with illustrations of calaveras.  Of all the literary calaveras designed during this holiday, those of Posada were the most valued.

He refined his art by learning the process of etching.  The literary calaveras elevated the holiday in obvious representations but some also seemed open to clarification.  What kind of statement was Jose Guadalupe Posada trying to make?

When Posada died in 1913 most people did not know the man responsible for the skull and skeleton drawings.  Other notable artists such as Caldecott Honor award winning Jean Charlot and Mexican painter Diego Rivera worked to bring attention to this man's work.  Thankfully another author and illustrator used his extensive talents to showcase the life and work of Posada for a whole new audience.

The written portion of this book by Duncan Tonatiuh is divided to be as engaging as possible for the reader.  Parts are strictly dedicated to his personal and professional growth.  Sections are shown explaining the steps involved in lithography, engraving and etching.  Tonatiuh also speculates on the meaning behind the images and poems, inviting readers to think and discuss.  He includes the political climate and historical changes in Mexico during Posada's lifetime providing context.  Here is a sample passage.

One of the men Don Lupe worked with was Antonio Vanegas.  He published intriguing stories on large sheets of bright paper called "broadsides."  The tales were about a wide range of topics, including scary creatures, fires, miracles, violent crimes, heroes, bandits, cockfights, and bullfighters.  Donn Lupe illustrated many of these tales.  Paperboys sold the inexpensive broadsides on the streets for a few cents, and people---even people who couldn't read---bought them.  They were fascinated by Don Lupe's drawings!

All of the illustrations were hand drawn by Duncan Tonatiuh then assembled digitally.  On the front of the dust jacket we see a blend of his original art (in the center) and that of Posada.  The framing supplied by the combination of bones and the small red flower is continued to the left on the back surrounding descriptions of the other notable titles by Tonatiuh.  Two interior images toward the back of the book have been placed on the book case; asking us to imagine how Posada would portray calaveras in today's world.  The opening and closing endpapers are done in the rustic orange-red shown on the dust jacket.

A muted color palette in browns, greens, grays, blues, white and black with a little red, purple, pink and orange bring an authenticity to the pictures.  The mix of Posada originals and Tonatiuh's pictures is superb in layout and design.  About midway into the book Tonatiuh gives full pages on the left to the drawings of Posada challenging our perceptions.

One of my favorite illustrations spans two pages.  In this image Tonatiuh depicts vendors selling

pan de muerto (bread), cempasuchil (marigold flowers), alfeniques (sugar skulls), and papel picado (paper cutouts).

Two booths are placed on the left and right with saleswomen in each.  Across the top between the two booths a string of the cutouts is displayed.  A girl selling the marigolds sits in the center but off to the right.  A woman and her son seek to make purchases.  You can almost hear the conversations.

You will want to have Funny Bones: Posada and His Day of the Dead Calaveras written and illustrated by Duncan Tonatiuh to use for the history, the art, the explanation of an honored celebration and the beauty of the text and images.  This is an exquisite example of the best kind of nonfiction picture book.  This is also one of those books where each reading will reveal a new detail.  At the close of the book is a two page author's note, a glossary, bibliography, art credits, where you can see Posada's work in the U. S. A., an index, dedication and publication information.

To discover more about Duncan Tonatiuh and his other work please visit his website by following the link attached to his name.  At the publisher's website you can view other pictures within this title.  A lengthy educator's guide compiled by Lisa Finelli for Vanderbilt University Center for Latin American Studies can be found here.  Five questions for Duncan Tonatiuh can be found at The Horn Book site.  Duncan Tonatiuh was interviewed at EE ME BOOKSHELF.

For additional insights into the Dead of the Dead you can visit the Smithsonian Latino Center interactive site.  More can be found at the National Geographic Education page.

Please stop by Kid Lit Frenzy hosted by Alyson Beecher to see the other books selected by bloggers this week during the 2016 Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge.



  1. I just borrowed this from the library and really looking forward to sinking my teeth into it. Thank you for a very detailed review, as always. :)

    1. You can read it for the narrative, for the illustrations and for the two working together. It's more than worthy of all the awards. Enjoy, Myra.