Have you heard any Spanish lately? It's not hard to do with a Spanish language radio station in almost every city of the country. Roughly one-fourth of the U.S. population speaks Spanish as their native tongue, and each year more and more elementary school students study the language. But it takes more than just speaking the language to be really in touch with Hispanic culture. Lynn Joseph's The Color of My Words is a moving story for middle-graders that captures many elements of the culture in the Dominican Republic: dancing the merengue, sitting up in a gri gri tree, eating huge plates of arroz con dulce (rice pudding), shopping at the colmado. Joseph paints a life that is lush and brightly colored in spite of serious economic deprivation.
The engrossing story painted on this Hispanic canvas will convince young readers that the urge to write can erupt anywhere. When we first meet the narrator, 12-year-old Ana Rosa Hernandez, she is washing clothes in the river with her mami, and confesses that she wants to become a writer. Although her mother warns her that it's better to keep things inside ("writers have died here"), Ana Rosa believes there always has to be a first person to do something. She begins filching little bits of paper to write her poems on: the paper sacks her papi buys his rum in; napkins; and finally her older brother Guario's notebook from the restaurant where he works. When she reads her story about a sea monster (a whale) she had watched from her perch in the gri gri, all is forgiven and her brother becomes the principal champion for her writing.
Each episode of the story coils more tightly. First, Ana Rosa is disappointed when her brother's handsome friend becomes infatuated with her older sister. Next she learns that she is illegitimate, and then "some big-mouth politician" tells the villagers that the government plans to buy their land. Guario becomes the leader of the opposition, and a violent street fight ends with terrible results for the Hernandez family.
In the end it is Ana Rosa's writing and her family's gift of a typewriter that restore her sense of wholeness. She knows she must write Guario's story for all to read, and "All the way home, words sing in my head." Joseph thanks the real-life Guario and all his family for their help in her author's note. Readers will want to thank Joseph for a terrific story.
Etta Wilson is a children's book enthusiast in Brentwood, Tennessee.