Modern First Library: Duncan Tonatiuh on Fairy Tales for a Modern Library

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The BookPeople Modern First Library Initiative: Pairing beloved picture books that will never go out of style along with other favorites that reflect the diverse, global society of the 21st century, we’ve set out to make building a thoughtful library for any child in your life easy.

Joining us this afternoon is author and illustrator Duncan Tonatiuh, whose works include Funny Bones and Pancho Rabbit and the Coyote

Fairy Tales for a Modern Library

A good library usually has a collection of the Brothers Grimm Fairy Tales and of Aesop’s Fables. They are great stories that have stood the test of time. They teach readers valuable lessons and often transport us to magical places in olden times. A modern library needs to have books that reflect the experiences and the diversity of young readers today. Fairy tales are not obsolete to a modern library. There are ways in which fairy tales can be reinvented to better reflect our world.

Image result for pancho rabbit and the coyoteWhen I first wrote Pancho Rabbit and the Coyote, the book was supposed to be a re-telling of “Little Red Riding Hood.” But instead of wearing a red hood, the girl was going to wear a rebozo (a Mexican shawl); instead of being set in the forest, it was going to be set in the desert; and instead of a wolf, there was going to be a coyote. While writing it, though, I remembered that coyote is slang for a person that smuggles people between the US-Mexico border. I decided to move away from “Little Red Riding Hood” and rather made the book an allegory of the dangerous journey that undocumented migrants go through to reach the US.

I kept the fable structure but, instead of a girl with a rebozo, the main character became a rabbit who decides to travel north to find his father. Along the way he meets a coyote who helps him overcome different obstacles migrants often encounter, like riding on top of trains or walking through the desert. Each time the coyote helps him, the rabbit has to give him some of the food he is bringing to his father—  until there is no food left and the coyote decides to eat Pancho!

I am very proud of Pancho Rabbit and the Coyote, because what began as a re-imagining of a classic fairy tale became a book that addresses an important humanitarian issue in a child-friendly way. There are an estimated 1.5 million undocumented minors in the US and an estimated 5.5 million children of undocumented parents in US schools. I think Pancho Rabbit’s journey reflects the reality and challenges many of them have faced.

Image result for princess and the warrior duncan tonatiuhMy newest book The Princess and the Warrior is based on a legend that explains the origin of two volcanoes that are located in central Mexico: Popocatépetl, the smoky mountain, and Iztaccíhuatl, the sleeping woman. The story takes place in Pre-Columbian times. It involves a devoted warrior and his beloved princess. When the warrior goes off to war, his enemy tricks the princess into drinking a special octli. She falls into a sleep that she cannot be awoken from. When the warrior returns, he finds her and carries her to the top of a hill, hoping the cool air will wake her up. He lays her down and stays next to her no matter what. In time the two lovers become volcanoes.

The Princess and The Warrior is set in olden times, but hopefully it is appropriate for a modern library. The book celebrates the heritage and history of Mexican-American children. Unfortunately there is such a small number of books that are published every year that do that, even though Mexican-American and Latino children are such a large part of our current population. A modern library needs to be diverse and inclusive. It needs to include books that are relevant to young readers nowadays and also books that honor all our different and rich traditions. 


Duncan photo.jpgDuncan Tonatiuh (toh-nah-tee-YOU) is the author-illustrator of The Princess and the Warrior, Funny Bones, Separate Is Never Equal, Pancho Rabbit and the Coyote, Diego Rivera: His World and Ours and Dear Primo. He is the illustrator of Esquivel! and Salsa. His books have received multiple accolades, among them the Pura Belpré Medal, the Sibert Medal, The Tomás Rivera Mexican-American Children’s Book Award, The Américas Award, the Jane Addams Children’s Book Award and the New York Times Best Illustrated Children’s Book Award.

Duncan Tonatiuh is both Mexican and American. He grew up in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico and graduated from Parsons School of Design in New York City. His artwork is inspired by Pre-Columbian art, particularly that of the Mixtec codex. His aim is to create images and stories that honor the past, but that are relevant to people, specially children, nowadays.


Looking for more thoughts on the Modern First Library? Check out the rest of the posts in the blog series:

Our Modern First Library Turns Two by Meghan Goel
Modern First Library by Chris Barton
The Word Library by Ellen Oh
I Need a Diverse Book by Phoebe Yeh
Everett Anderson Was My First by Angie Manfredi
Starting the Conversation by AISD educators Claire Hagen-Alverado, Nancy Valdez-Gainer, and Brennan Cruiser.
Mama (Amma) by Divya Srinivasan

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