Viva Frida
by Yuyi Morales


Three images from Yuyi Morales's Viva Frida

Yuyi Morales's Viva Frida

Book review by Steve Barancik

Ages 9+

Frida Kahlo puppet picture book

As a writer, I'll admit that sometimes I feel words are getting short shrift in modern picture books, that story is playing second fiddle to art.

In fact, sometimes I feel the vaunted Caldecotts (of which this book won a 2015 Honor) aren't doing children justice. Though widely thought of as the award for best picture book, they are actually an award for best picture book art.

This year, no fewer than two of the Caldecott Honor books feature great picture book illustrators paying tribute to other artists. Such a book is Yuyi Morales's tribute to the great Mexican painter Frida Kahlo, Viva Frida.

Featuring "stop motion puppets," as well as painting, photography and "digital manipulation," the book has precious little to say, but decidedly more to show. The text consists of precisely 30 English words, their Spanish counterparts, and no punctuation other than the odd ellipsis.

The two-page spreads are indeed gorgeous, evoking Ms. Kahlo and her work. Children will have plenty to look at (if not to read) as the Frida puppet navigates a magical world of animals and wonder - with a cameo or two by her husband, artist Diego Rivera. 

(Look carefully at the collage atop this page and you'll find him.)

Still, what is a reader left to take away from this book whose text is also penned by Mr. Morales?

At book's end, as is often the case with these non-fiction picture books, the author introduces us to "My Frida Kahlo." The six text paragraphs, in both English and Spanish, are heartfelt and informative, though not written as if aimed at children. We learn that Frida liked to "joke and sing and curse," that her right leg was "withered" by polio, and that her body was "mangled" in a "terrible bus accident."

Nor is it particularly well-written.

Now, Mr. Morales is a great illustrator. (Check out his work in this picture book biography of Cesar Chavez.)


But perhaps it is time for the American Library Association's Caldecott committee to take a closer look at their award--or perhaps at their own composition. This year's six Honor books (the most ever) bespeak to me a rush by publishers to garner one of the precious medals using the most stunning and original imagery possible.

At the expense of meaningful text.

I'm skeptical that the intended audience--children--give a gosh darn about the originality of the imagery.

When you're four, you haven't seen much. Everything is pretty much original.

Could we please get back to books that tell a story? If you're a big fan of Frida Kahlo, Viva Frida will be a lovely keepsake and a way to introduce your children to this iconic artist and iconoclast. But chances are you'll want to use your own words in order to do so. The book doesn't give you much to work with.

More Caldecott books.

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