|Image from DavidSmallBooks.com|
It’s 1957 and young Isabel and her family move from Mexico to a new home in the Midwest. Isabel isn’t as confident in her English skills as her wonderful older brother, Chavo, so she practices her new language by writing weekly letters to her Auntie Lupita. Isabel likes her new home, but she is shy and so her family creates a quiet place out of a refrigerator box. Unfortunately the box is blown away by a big storm, but when her mother begins cooking and baking for birthday cakes Isabel is able to ask for the big boxes once the presents have been opened. She uses these boxes to create a beautifully decorated quiet place with many rooms that reminds her of Mexico. When Isabel’s mother throws a birthday party for Isabel she shares her quiet place with her new friends, “My quiet place was not quiet, but it didn’t matter.”
All the text in this beautiful book is presented in the letters from Isabel to her auntie. Isabel is a thoughtful and observant protagonist and these elements shine through her simple letters. She also loves words, collecting them as she does boxes for her quiet place. The watercolor illustrations depict a loving and understanding Mexican-American family. Isabel’s light brown skin and springy black curls set her apart from the fair haired children in her new neighborhood, however the book focuses on Isabel's internal journey, rather than external forces, such as racism or bullying. The illustrations are impressionistic with detailed characters and foreground elements and blurrier watercolor washes in the background. Several wordless pages convey Isabel’s emotions and ideas and the foldout of the children enjoying the quiet place at the birthday party is wonderfully joyful. The time period is not only denoted by the dates on the letters, but also by the clothing, hairstyles, cars, and household objects.
This book is a great read aloud for elementary school aged kids. Pair it with other books that focus on text in letters, such as The Gardener, Dear Peter Rabbit or Dear Mr. Blueberry. Provide stationary for kids to write their own letters.
Isabel asks guests to bring her their favorite word for her birthday. What word would you give Isabel and why?
If you are going to be or have recently moved, this is a great story to read and discuss. Look at the ways Isabel adapted, but also kept her love for her family and the culture of Mexico. Other books about moving or adapting to a new environment include, Sunday Chutney, Marshall Armstrong is New to Our School, and The Quilt Story.
Bring in large cardboard boxes and let kids build their own quiet place as Isabel does in the book. This is a great rainy day activity. If you want to stretch it out over many hours save back art supplies to introduce gradually so kids don’t lose interest.