In this bilingual picture book (Spanish/English) a young girl finds a card marked “ALIEN” in her mamá’s purse. She thinks her mother really is an extra-terrestrial and decides to research the wider implications of her discovery.
In this picture book, we launch straight into the action with Sofía’s discovery of a card marked “ALIEN” in her mamá’s purse. She is in utter disbelief: her mother is an alien from outer space! Papá confirms he doesn’t have a similar card, but Sofía wonders what all this means for her. Perhaps she is an alien, too. She heads to the library to conduct some research and discovers that aliens come in all shapes and sizes.
I enjoyed the way that author René Colato Laínez plays on the double meaning of the word “alien” in this picture book. As he explains in his author’s note, a Green Card, which enables its holder to live and work in the United States, was known as a “Resident Alien” card from 1977-1997. But as well as being a term used to mean an immigrant, an alien is, of course, a being from another planet.
By using a first-person narrative – a child’s voice – and plenty of humour, Colato Laínez ensures that even the youngest of readers would realise that Sofía’s mamá cannot be an alien from outer space. None of the aliens Sofía in books at the library look like her mamá, and nor has she ever seen evidence of strange alien gatherings in her yard. Although, in one perfectly hilarious moment (the beauty treatment scene) it seems that Mamá might have been hiding a secret alien identity after all. Read the book and you’ll see what I mean! I also love the page where Sofía decides she must be half alien and wonders which part of her is not human. Laura Lacámara’s illustrations are wonderfully witty, showing the young girl in various human-alien combinations, complete with tentacles and antennae.
Reading this picture book raised my awareness of the use of the term “alien”, but more than that, it made me question its use. And this, I think, is definitely part of the book’s intention. I would immediately assume alien to mean extra-terrestrial, not a flattering description for a US resident who was born in another country. René Colato Laínez is no fan of the term either as you can read in this excerpt from a 2016 blog article he wrote about his childhood experiences as an immigrant in the US:
“Yes, I spoke another language but I had a face, arms and body just like the other children at school. I did not look like a strange creature from out of space. But being an alien implied that I could not be like other ‘normal’ persons, because I was so different from them.”
Hence why, perhaps, there is a real emphasis on the human aspect of this picture book. It shines through in the warm domestic scenes, in the tenderness displayed between Mamá, Papá and Sofía, and in the joyful togetherness of the family at the citizenship ceremony.
Mamá the Alien/Mamá la extraterrestre is an engaging, entertaining and informative picture book about immigration, family togetherness – and aliens from outer space. Although it makes specific reference to residency and citizenship in the United States, this story has much to offer a broad readership.
Mamá the Alien/Mamá la extraterrestre by René Colato Laínez, illustrated by Laura Lacámara, translated by René Colato Laínez (Lee & Low Books, 2016) bilingual edition (Spanish/English)
The Author and Translator
René Colato Laínez is author with a raft of bilingual titles – and awards – to his name, including the recently released Telegramas al cielo/Telegrams to Heaven, which tells the story of the childhood of Archbishop Óscar Arnulfo Romero, a national hero in El Salvador. He has been writing stories since he was a child and credits his uncle, famous Salvadoran author Jorge Buenaventura Laínez, as a major inspiration.
Laura Lacámara is an award-winning Cuban-born author and illustrator. She has written and illustrated two bilingual picture books: Dalia’s Wondrous Hair/El cabello maravilloso de Dalia and Floating on Mama’s Song/ Flotando en la canción de mamá, and illustrated several more. She lives in Southern California.
Publisher Lee & Low Books has produced an extensive teaching guide to accompany this picture book. You can find it here.