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Martina the Beautiful Cockroach

by on October 6th, 2012
Martina the Beautiful Cockroach Cover Image

“You want me to do WHAT?” is Martina’s reaction to her grandmother’s “consejo increíble” (shocking advice). Martina, the title character in Carmen Agra Deedy’s picture book “Martina the Beautiful Cockroach,” is 21 days old and ready to offer her leg in marriage. Every señora in the family has something to offer, from a seashell comb to a lovely lace shawl. But her abuela Cubana (her Cuban grandmother), offers her only an important piece of advice: to throw coffee on the shoes of all of her suitors in order to see how they will speak to her when they are angry. One by one the suitors fail the Coffee Test, from the cocky rooster to the cold-blooded lizard. Then Martina meets a suitor she actually likes, a sweet little mouse named Perez. She reluctantly reaches for the pot, only to find the coffee on the other foot, for Perez too has an abuela Cubana.
This traditional Cuban folk tale is retold here with wit and humor. Spanish phrases and cultural references are neatly paired with English equivalents, giving the story a unique flavor and making it a pleasure to read aloud. The creative use of repetition, both in the language and the pattern of proposal and rejection in the plot itself, give the book a captivating rhythm and a certain amount of suspense. The illustrations are expressive and detailed, with a palate of rich, deep colors that make each page a visual feast. The illustrator, Michael Austin, uses the details of the old fashioned street lamp where Martina and her family live and the antique discards with which they have furnished it to invoke the mythos of Old Havana. Working together, the words and the illustrations present the old tale with charm and flair, creating a book that can be enjoyed again and again.
The question of cultural diversity and sensitivity is an important one for today’s teachers, parents, and librarians. Unfortunately, books addressing this theme for children can be heavy handed and prosey, and there are too few books by or about minorities. “Martina the Beautiful Cockroach,” however, comes at the issue of cultural diversity head on, though the story itself has nothing to do with the issue. It is a story from another culture — a window into a different tradition and way of life. Carmen Agra Deedy, born in Cuba with a pair of abuelas Cubanas of her own, has presented us with the most effective ambassador of them all. Martina, with her abuela and her coffee, shows us her world and her culture from the best perspective of all: from the inside.

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