Allison's Book Bag

My Skeleton Family by Cynthia Weill

Posted on: September 23, 2014

My Skeleton Family/Mi Familia Calaca, by Cynthia Weill, doesn’t contain much of a story. Its strength lies in the artwork, which is a creative homage to the Mexican tradition of paper maché. Are innovative illustrations enough of a reason to recommend it? For the answer, I turned to a group of picture book experts: my students. They all admired the art and appreciated the easy-to-read text, which boosted my opinion.

I work with elementary special education students of various ages, backgrounds, and reading levels. It can be difficult to find books of high interest but low vocabulary. Many of the words in Skeleton Family/Mi Familia Calaca were repeated from page to page, which meant as soon as my struggling readers figured out the words on the first couple of pages, the hardest part was over. Moreover, the more difficult words, like “grandparents”, my students quickly guessed from the detailed artwork. As for the material being high interest, two factors helped. First, the title: My Skeleton Family/Mi Familia Calaca. While skeletons are a humorous symbol in Mexico, to my students (no matter what their ethnic background) skeletons represent horror. And horror creates high interest! Second, the imaginative artwork kept them captivated. My students wanted to know how each family member would be portrayed, what each skeleton would wear, etc. Their favorite characters, bar none, were the pets.

For me, those latter two features also remain the selling point. Initially I picked up My Skeleton Family/Mi Familia Calaca, because the topic intrigued me. Who would write about skeletons? Who would write about a skeleton family? And what would such a story entail? As I flipped through the pages, what entranced me were…. the illustrations. Actually, they intrigued me enough that, once I learned of the author’s Mexican heritage, I researched the significance of skeletons in Mexico. The text has some humor, recognizing that we view our siblings as brats. Otherwise, the story merely serves to introduce readers to Anita and her family, which includes a younger brother, a baby, parents, etc. For the very youngest readers, It’s an excellent introduction the basic composition of a family. Older readers already know about families, and so the less appeal the text will have.

Thus, I return to my original dilemma of whether to recommend My Skeleton Family/Mi Familia Calaca. The book has received favorable reviews from established reviewers, because it honors a Mexican tradition and because it teaches about family. As much as I liked the art, however, I also feel uneasy about recommending My Skeleton Family/Mi Familia Calaca solely on the basis of it. The reality is that neither my students nor I gravitated towards the illustrations because of their cultural significance. In fact, my students still just think of the art as delightfully creepy. And I only know feel otherwise because of my research into Mexican tradition. As for the second reason, I can see how the bilingual text could help readers learn important words in a fun way. The question then is, as more bilingual books become available, will My Skeleton Family/Mi Familia Calaca continue to attract readers? And, if it does, will it instill any appreciation in young readers for the Mexican heritage?

My rating? Leave it: Don’t even take it off the shelves. Not recommended.

How would you rate this book?

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