Cora and the Crocodile is sweet because the illustrations are sweet. Victorian barley curls trap Cora’s downcast young face, and the illustrations are in a pleasant early summer palette. It’s also a first chapter book that is a pleasure. Cora comes by the crocodile because her parents, the king and queen, fill every moment of her day with tasks to prepare her to be queen. Wanting a pet, she writes a letter to her fairy godmother, but rips it up and throws it away. But following this world’s logic, “because it was a letter to her fairy godmother, every scrap turned into a white butterfly and flew away.”
The resulting crocodile wreaks havoc on the nanny who gives Cora torturously many baths, her mother’s boring lessons, and her father’s manic exercise regimes. The critiques bring to mind well-intentioned but out of touch parents who overschedule their kid’s time and under-schedule their time to be a kid.
The crocodile is ornery and its personality is conveyed with each illustration. I think this would be a nice one-on-one read-aloud, and a lovely book about compromise.
Esperanza Rising left such an impression on me when I read it around fourth grade. Speaking to how visual I was, the blue sky and yellow dress as well as the lines in Esperanza’s pose rooted the memory of the book in me, and I appreciate it anew now. Reading it again, I was surprised and a little happy to see how privileged and unknowledeble of other’s feelings and circumstances Esperanza is at the get-go– it makes her believable transformation interesting, and feel well-earned. Her spirit is a good one; she’s caring, hard-working, intelligent, astute. She comes to see class difference between lighter skinned Mexicans of the wealthy, landowning class (her birth family) versus that of her peer/son of a field worker and housekeeper, Miguel. Though they grow up playing together, she articulates the gulf between their positions by telling him that in Mexico, “between them runs a deep river.” The racism and classism that exist in Mexico, unseen to Esperanza due to her position as a rancher’s daughter, come into play for her in the United States. Mexican workers are seen as interchangeable to American farmers, who would sooner have La Migra, immigration, do a raid than allow workers to strike for better wages or unionize. Isabel, a close friend of Esperanza’s at the camp where she lives, will never be crowned Queen of May at her elementary school, despite her exemplary grades,
The insults chip away at her and her family and friends– Mexicans can only swim in a community pool the day before it is cleaned, Miguel comes back from a job covered in dust because despite his expertise in motors, he was told to dig ditches while unskilled Oklahomans worked on engines, her camp gets unheated water and the threat of deportation– regardless of legal status.
The ending is sweet, emotional, meaningful. Esperanza has a real journey, and Ryan ends the novel by telling us how her grandmother’s life inspired the story, and how in Spanish, Esperanza means hope.
It’s also a novel where both the people and the landscape are vivid. I read this when I was younger and historical fiction was my jam– this is still my jam, and I’ll be reading more of this author.
*These reviews were written last August.