Carmen Learns English

My next back-to-school-themed book review is of a picture book that my daughters and I absolutely adore: Carmen Learns English (Holiday House, 2010), written by Judy Cox and illustrated by Angela Dominguez.

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It’s the story of young Carmen, who’s just moved to America from Mexico and starts a brand-new school with “So many kids! And no one spoke Spanish.” Carmen says, “They talked muy fast and I did not understand.”

This lesser-known book is full of all kinds of Neufeld gems – modeling sibling hierarchy, soft hearts, and strong adult attachments.

Told in first person, Carmen explains her reason for telling the story – for her little sister, who will start school next year. “I want her to speak English good like I do. So I told her, listen to me.”

Carmen’s full of caring feelings for Lupita. Carmen thinks about her when they’re apart, and makes note of all the things she learns so she can pass down her knowledge. For instance, after her first day of school, Carmen teaches Lupita “restroom,” the first, very important English word she learns. After Carmen learns about a “Chellow bus,” Carmen went home and “drew an amarillo bus for Lupita. We hung it on the wall over her bed.” Carmen continues to take her role as big sister seriously – whether it’s drawing rainbows for Lupita to pass on the colors she’s learned in English, or if it’s teaching Lupita the alphabet.

Carmen’s softness doesn’t stop with her feelings for her little sister. Throughout her story, Carmen talks openly of her vulnerable feelings. On the first day of school, she says, “The first day of school was scary.” And, “I sat at my desk in the classroom with a sad heart.” Later, “I put my head down on my desk and my tears came out.”

Helping to protect Carmen’s soft heart are the strong adult attachments in her life. Carmen’s mom is a huge comforter and supporter, as we so clearly see in the book’s first illustration of a nervous-looking Carmen engulfed in her mama’s strong arms.

And Carmen is struck by her teacher, “a tall lady with yellow hair and a silver whistle around her neck,” with the first words she utters. “Hola,” and “Mi nombre es Señora Coski. Soy su maestra. Carmen says, “My teacher! Her Spanish sounded muy terrible! And I could see that she would not laugh at me if my English was terrible too.”

Indeed, Señora Coski does not laugh at Carmen, and in fact is a huge ally and advocate for her. She swoops in to help orient Carmen as soon as she notices Carmen struggling — whether it’s translating baño to restroom or singing songs about a yellow bus before directing her to the real one.

After Carmen’s friend complains because Carmen is counting in Spanish, Señora Coski match-makes Carmen to the rest of the class. She says, “‘Let’s all count in Spanish. Carmen can learn English, and we can learn Spanish.” Carmen is proud of this added responsibility, which helps to endear her to her peers. She says, “From then on I had to be the teacher two times every day. At home I taught Lupita English, and at school I taught La Señora Coski and the kids to speak Spanish.” Right away, her English-speaking savvy starts to flourish.

It’s not long before Carmen has her sights set on wearing a whistle just like her cherished teacher. As the story concludes, it’s obvious that the strong, accepting, supportive presence of Señora Coski has made a lasting impact. Carmen closes by saying, “I think I will be a teacher when I grow up and wear a silver whistle around my neck. Like Mrs. Coski.”

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