Sunday, September 25, 2011

What Are You Doing?

I picked What Are You Doing?Up off the display shelf at storytime one morning.  The cover attracted me – who wouldn’t want to pick up a book where a father and son are cheerfully reading?  Mark my words, this is an award winner (probably a Pura Belpre)so I wanted to make sure you are familiar with it when its name is called!
When Chepito leaves his house first thing in the morning, his mother reminds him that school starts after lunch today.  Chepito doesn’t want to go to school, and he runs out the door (in a move reminiscent of the gingerbread man!).  As Chepito travels around town, he sees people all around, and they are all reading.  As each person tells Chepito what they are reading, he sings “Why, why, why?”  They all explain why they are reading and what they are learning.  Finally, Chepito is worn out and returns home for lunch and school.  His teacher, too, has a book in his hand, and she tells Chepito that they will learn to read it together. 
One of the things that I like best about this book is the diversity of people reading.  There is the man reading the paper to find out who won the game, the teenager who is looking through a magazine for a new hairstyle, a tween girl who reads a comic book, and perhaps most interestingly, an archaeologist reading hieroglyphics on a Mayan ruin.  All of this reading is introduced naturally – it isn’t forced, and it isn’t forced on Chepito.  None of these readers look at Chepito and tell him “You have to go to school (a place Chepito isn’t enthusiastic about) to read this.”  They are all out in the world, living their lives.  It shows how organic literacy is in our lives.  We cannot exist in our information-rich world without literacy.  And eventually being introduced to all these reasons to read makes Chepito eager to learn. 
Monroy’s illustrations help make this book a star.  As each person is introduced to Chepito, he looks up at them with wonder and enthusiasm.  Chepito’s broad face is welcoming and thoughtful.  The jacket flap calls Monroy’s illustrations “delightfully retro”, and I would agree.  The muted browns and blues evoke the Latin American village where Chepito lives.  You can almost hear the seagull squawking when he lands next to Chepito on the ocean-side dock.  The pictures are simple, without extra flourish, but there are details to pore over.  On the wall of Chepito’s home, the Virgin Mary watches over them from a niche.  The young woman checking hairstyles has multiple magazines scattered below her, with pages left open for viewers.  The pictures are soft and relaxed, allowing Chepito to take center stage while his story is told.
I do love this story about the importance of literacy, but there are a couple of missteps for me.  Chepito says to himself on the first page that he doesn’t want to go to school, but we are never sure why he is reluctant.  Is it because he doesn’t want to be cooped up inside (he spends the majority of the book outside in the village)?  Or is it because he doesn’t want to learn to read (since everyone shows him how exciting reading is)?  We are never sure.  Then when he offers to “read” the pictures of his book to his sister, Rosita mimics him, asking “Why, why, why?”  On the last page, Chepito is about to answer Rosita “Because it’s fun.”, when Rosita demands “Read it to me.”, so he does.  So if he’s learned the importance of reading from the people around him, he didn’t pass that love on to his sister.  Even with these inconsistencies, I still really like this book for its natural portrayals of literacy.  I think this is a real winner.
What Are You Doing?Elisa Amado; pictures by Manuel Monroy.  Toronto/Berkeley: Groundwood Books, 2011.
Borrowed from Lewis & Clark Library.

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