Naomi Shihab Nye extracted the title of this volume
of bilingual poetry from the first poem. The poem (by Jennifer Clement) and the anthology title set the
tone for the anthology. "Remember," the poem admonishes, "the tree is older than you are and you might
find stories in its branches (11)."
The reader indeed finds stories in this anthology of
poems - and much more. Divided into two sections (People; Earth and Animals), the poems skirt a range from
quirky to emotion-, and nostalgia-evoking to the joys of daily living. Alberto Forcada's short poem, Sweater (36),
is in the "quirky" category:
can you knit me
So, too, is Raúl Aceves' Homage to the Cookie Islands
(59), where the poet will go to great lengths to visit - and eat - the Islands, even if they aren't on the map.
Monchito's Little Car by Margarita Robleda
Moguel (43) celebrates everyday living. The poem describes the virtues of Monchito's car in a rhyming game,
comparing the car in size to an elephant and an ant, in hardness to a pillow and a hammer but finding that the car was none
of these. Instead, "Monchito's car is the most / beautiful in all the universe / because it belongs to
In addition to the poems, the anthology contains two
folktales from Zinacantec Indians (The Three Suns  and The Toad and a Buzzard );[i] Fire and the Opossum (75), that is a "verbatim transcript of a tale as told by a Mazanteco
elder to an interviewer (106);" The Pilgrim Dogs (90-1) that incorporates "the ancient Náhuatl language of Mexico and
Central America (106);" a Mayan poem (Prayer to the Corn in the Field ); and a Mayan story (The Rabbit's Ears
Many of the poets in the anthology are well-known,
such as Octavio Paz (Last Dawn ; Objects ; Water Night  and more). Even
the poets, however, come from a variety of backgrounds - environmentalist, feminist, politician, physicians - and an eight-year-old,
Jesús Carlos Soto Morfín (The Poet Pencil  and The Moon, a Banana ). Regardless of
their poets' background, the poems are remarkable, with each page a new adventure. As one reviewer noted,
"Each page holds the promise of a small jewel, poems that transform ordinary experience into extraordinary insight."[ii]
This same reviewer noted the presence of illustrations
that "appear every few pages as illuminations." While at first the illustrations appear to be randomly
placed, this is not the case. The works of art included in the anthology are juxtaposed with poems to which
they are tied - not as illustrations - but as further illuminations of the thoughts contained in the poems. For
example, Objects (by Octavio Paz ) reads:
They live alongside us,
we do not know them, they do not know us.
But sometimes they speak with us.
Beneath this poem is Ilian Fuentes R.'s painting, Homage
to Frida and Diego (46). The painting is of a shelf unit with a surreal collection of objects
placed on it: an equal number of heads and fruit; a frog, etc. Do the objects "speak
with us" as Paz suggests? For those familiar with the life and work of artists Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera,
the answer is probably, yes!
Another example of poem/painting pairing is Adriana
Díaz Enciso's Morelos Park (55), paired with a painting by Julia López called Coyote Song. While
the titles do not seem to be connected, lines of the poem and the painting's action are connected. The
poem contains the lines "Joy is felt in skin that kisses air / and in breeze-waving hair." López' vibrant
painting contains, in addition to several coyotes, two long-haired girls who appear to be swaying in dance in a beautiful,
flower-filled forest clearing. The viewer can sense the girls' feeling of joy in their environment.
Translating poetry is certainly a difficult art, and
Nye gives great credit to the translators, calling them the "quiet heroes of this volume (106)." There
is one caveat with which I agree: "…the translations do not always succeed in breaking through the language barrier
to convey the music of the original words."[iii] With side-by-side Spanish and English versions, it is easy to compare -
and wonder - why the translator made certain decisions. In the poem called La libertad / Liberty (by
A. L. Jáuregui ), for example, the word libertad is used in both the title and a line of the poem.
One wonders why the translator chose to change the word's occurrence in the poem to freedom:
Lo que yo más amo,
What I love the most
es la Libertad;. . .
is freedom; . . .
Note, too, the capital letter "L" in Libertad in
the line of the poem. Was this for emphasis? Did the translator undermine the emphasis
by changing the word?
Other than the languages in which they are written, the poems have few
cultural markers: food (almendra [almond], almeja [clam]); piñata; places (Washerwomen
at the Grijalva [32, "a river in the state of Chiapas, Mexico"]; and poets' and artists' names. Although
the poems are from Mexican poets, this book is more about examining our common human roots. It is about
respecting the past and cherishing the pre
[i] Both Romin Teratol (The Three Suns) and Reymunto Komes Ernantes (The Toad and a Buzzard)
wrote their poems in their native Tzotzil, from which the poems were translated. Ernantes wrote his poem
when he was only twelve years old (103).
[ii] Italiano, Graciela. 1995. Review of The tree is older than you are: A bilingual gathering of poems
and stories from Mexico. School Library Journal 41 (October): 150.
[iii] Vasilakis, Nancy. 1996. Review of The tree is older than you are: A bilingual gathering of poems
and stories from Mexico. Horn Book 72 (2): 218.
The tree is older
than you are: A bilingual gathering of poems and stories from Mexico with paintings by Mexican artists. 1995. Selected
by Naomi Shihab Nye. New York: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers. ISBN
This review was written as part of a graduate
course in Library and Information Studies at Texas Woman's University, International Literature for Children and Young Adults.