Saturday, September 25, 2010

Cactus Soup

Cactus Soup
Written by Eric A. Kimmel, Illustrated by Phil Huling
Children’s Picture Book: 1-4
Stars: 4.5 (out of 5)

Summary: This story is similar to that of Stone Soup. A group of soldiers are passing through the town of San Miguel, and the mayor suggests that the townspeople hide all of their food and put dirt on their faces to look like poor people. This way, the townspeople won’t be eaten out of their food. The plan backfires though, when the soldiers begin to make cactus soup, and need all sorts of ingredients to make it tasty. The townspeople end up uncovering all of their hidden food and use it to make the cactus soup.

I originally picked up this book because of its brightly colored illustrations and the interesting title. At that time, I made no connection to the story of Stone Soup. I was intrigued as well because I am always in search of picture books that don’t just portray Caucasian children in middle class homes or towns. I try to find books that are different and have a wide variety of characters, including those of different races, languages, countries, social classes, etc.. Thus, I thought this book might be an interesting one, and one that I could include in my classroom library. Overall, the story is a powerful one, that stresses the importance of telling the truth and not trying to deceive others, for such actions will only backfire. As hard as the townspeople try to fool the soldiers, the soldiers don’t believe that they are poor and have no food to spare. Ultimately, the soldiers end up tricking the townspeople into providing them a good meal, and in the end, the townspeople still don’t even realize that they have been tricked. The illustrations add a whole other dimension to the story, with their bold watercolors and intricate details.

What I particularly liked about this book is that it contains characters that are not white, and that it is set in a Mexican town. At the same time, I can find something slightly problematic with this story, when I look at it from a critical perspective. While there are intelligent Mexican soldiers that come into town and trick the townspeople, the townspeople are ultimately seen as foolish, at least by the reader, particularly because they don’t even realize what has just happened to them. In addition, the townspeople are dishonest and that it the premise of the entire story. Thus. I would be hesitant to use this with a group of older children for that reason, for I would fear that they might take one of those two messages away from the story. I would definitely not want to promote and exacerbate stereotypes. I would probably use such a story with a younger group of children (1st-2nd graders), for they might glaze over that potential underlying stereotypes and simply enjoy the story and the message, including the inclusion of non-traditional characters. 

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