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Arts & Culture

Sugar, spice, and gender coalesce in trio of bilingual kids' books

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Sofía and the Purple Dress/Sofía y el Vestido Morado

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A Day Without Sugar/Un Día Sin Azúcar

I have a surprise for you, I tell my four-year-old daughter when I pick her up from preschool. Three surprises, actually.

What is it? A treat? Xochitl shouts, and I can see visions of raspas twirling in her mind already, legacy of our occasional after-school excursion down the street to the Wizard Sno-Cone shack on South Presa.

Well, it starts with a "b," I prompt, but Xochitl is dancing ahead of me already. Fortunately, she's not too disappointed that the treat in question is three new children's books from Arte Público Press — all bilingual, all by Latina authors, and all samplings of what seems to be an educational series intended to promote healthy eating and exercise as a means to reduce diabetes rates among Latina/o youth.

Not that Xochitl should be disappointed: these are beautiful hardback books, filled with colorful, familiar images that should appeal to its intended elementary school audience. Look, it's me! Xochitl exclaims as we read, pointing to a picture of a brown-eyed little girl with haircut into a short bob on the cover of Diane Gonzales Bertrand's Sofía and the Purple Dress/Sofía y el Vestido Morado. And that's you, she says, pointing out the prominent place given in all three books to the role of strong female heads of household — crafty mamas who know how to blend fruit into smoothies and wise tías who grow their own sweet tomatoes — in protecting the health of daughters and prima/os and neighborhood kids alike. The emphasis in the series on the protective value of traditional ways of cooking and eating (i.e. aguas frescas as an alternative to soda, papaya and guava as alternatives to boring old apples and bananas) also raises an important point about cultural recovery as a solution to industrial foodways and the health disparities that result.

However, as anti-sugar tracts go, each book arguably has varying levels of rhetorical effectiveness. For instance, in Diane de Anda's A Day Without Sugar/Un Día Sin Azúcar, a label-savvy, DIY tía guides her nieces and nephew through the underworld of hidden sugars and their healthy alternatives (fresh tomato slices for ketchup), but in the process the book comes across as unappealingly abstentionist and didactic. More problematically for parents keen on keeping their daughters out of the jaws of the princess industry, Sofía tethers its defense of healthy eating and exercise to gendered messages about the importance of wearing pretty dresses and being thin. When Sofía tries on a beautiful hand-me-down purple dress for her cousin's quince, her sister informs her that she looks like "a purple sausage," an insult underscored by the look of dismay on Sofía's face as she gazes in the mirror. At this point in the story, I actually found myself unable to continue reading, making up the rest of the narrative so as to avoid imparting the book's implicit message — eat well or you'll be fat and ugly.

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