Quote of the Month

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

Tuesday, June 9, 2020

A Titan-Type Of Tale

Tales told from generation to generation take on a life of their own.  They are embedded in familial traditions.  They are the threads binding all the members into a single woven tapestry.  Most, upon examination, are based on truth or the possibility of truth.  They are universal with respect to taking what seems to be ordinary and having it transform into something wondrous.

This shift is the power of storytelling, enveloping all who listen.  Octopus Stew (Holiday House, August 17, 2019) written and illustrated by Eric Velasquez is a story brimming with anticipation as soon as you look at the jacket and case.  Each page turn heightens the readers' awareness of something fantastical about to happen.

When Grandma saw my painting of Super Octo, she got the idea to make pulpo guisado, octopus stew---not exactly my favorite dish.

A small question asked by the boy, Ramsey, was quickly rebuffed by his determined grandmother.  Later he had to relinquish his superhero cape to accompany her to the store to purchase an octopus for the stew.  He took lots of pictures of the fish on display.  His grandmother bought the largest octopus.

As they proceeded to the cashier, Ramsey tried to tell his grandmother an important fact he located online about octopuses, using his phone.  She was not interested.  At home Grandma prepared the octopus, putting it in a pot to boil.  Ramsey avoided the entire process.

Later when Grandma came to join Ramsey in the living room, the duo heard weird sounds from the direction of the kitchen.  The noises grew louder and louder.  When Ramsey and his grandmother stood in the doorway to the kitchen, they were shocked by the sight which greeted them.  The octopus was enormous.  It was outside the pot.  It was alive!

Hiding and thinking with speed reserved for heroes, Ramsey put on his cape (and one on his perro), raced to the kitchen, held forth an object and made a loud demand to the octopus holding his grandmother.  At this point the tale takes one of two surprising twists.  Each conclusion relies on the reader's capacity for stepping into the unexpected with their eyes wide open.

As soon as the story starts, the personalities of Ramsey and Grandma are revealed through the narrative and their dialogue.  This technique, of blending text and conversation, used by author Eric Velasquez enhances the intimacy of the story for readers.  Using a mix of Spanish and English plus sound effect selections takes readers farther into the experiences of the boy and his grandparent.  Careful choice of words builds the suspense readers feel until they are faced with not one, but two, startling revelations.  Here is a passage.

Then Grandma came to sit with me while I did my
homework.  All of a sudden, strange noises started to
come from the kitchen.
Blimp, Blump, Brr, Blimp, Blump, Brr.
"Que sera eso? What could that be?" Grandma 
asked.  "Ramsey, quedate aqui.  Voy a ver. Stay here."

One look at the front of the matching dust jacket and book case and readers know they are in for an amazing adventure.  Chana, Ramsey's dog, Ramsey, and Grandma are astounded by the sight before them.  Hints of what they are seeing are behind them like steam on the blue canvas.  Grandma's arm and open hand held in front of Ramsey for protection are a sign of her affection for him.

To the left, on the back, on a lighter shade of blue, rows of fish, as seen at the market, are arranged along the bottom. On the opening and closing endpapers Eric Velasquez has placed a bright yellow background.  Vertical rows of white circular shapes like those found on an octopus are shown.

These illustrations rendered

in oil on Fabriano 300 lb. hot press watercolor paper

are rich and realistic.  Bold full-color images, highly animated, are spread across double pages or on single pages framed in a white border.  At times to enhance the pacing two smaller pictures are included on a single page.  For a highly dramatic effect a large, nearly full-page picture is laid on a double-page visual.  At a turning point in the narrative a wonderful, four-page gatefold will leave readers gasping.  The facial expressions on the characters heighten every moment and mood.  You'll find yourself completely captured by their story.

One of my many, many favorite illustrations spans two pages.  On the right-hand side Ramsey is leaning out from behind his grandma.  His dog is leaning to the left of and behind him.  Grandma is standing, legs spread apart with one hand to her heart and mouth wide open in the doorway to the kitchen.  On either side of the doorway are the bright yellow walls of the kitchen.  The refrigerator is on the far left.  The floor is a rusty red tile.  Stretching from the top on the right to the far left are two gigantic octopus legs with the huge suckers visible.  A large


is above one leg as it strikes the refrigerator.  The lid to the pot is on the floor.

From the minute you look at this book, you know you're about to enter into something marvelous.  Octopus Stew written and illustrated by Eric Velasquez is the best kind of storytelling, leading you into the extraordinary with two stunning twists.  Oh, this book is a superb title for sharing repeatedly, one-on-one or with a group.  I highly recommend it.  At the close of the book is a splendid author's note and a glossary of non-standard Spanish Eric Velasquez says was spoken in his home. 

To learn more about Eric Velasquez and his other work, please follow the link attached to his name to access his website.  Eric Velasquez has accounts on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.  You can learn more about Eric Velasquez in an interview at the Center for the Collaborative Classroom. A poster is available to download at the publisher's website.   At another publisher's website you can view interior images.  School Library Journal interviews Eric Velasquez during a Facebook live event about this book.

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