Monday, September 30, 2013


Morales, Yuyi. 2003. Just a Minute: A Trickster Tale and Counting Book. San Francisco: Chronicle Books.
ISBN 0-8118-3758-0


In this trickster tale, when Señor Calavera (Death) comes for Grandma Beetle, she finds nine different things she must do before she goes with him.  She must sweep one house, boil two pots of tea, make three stacks of tortillas, etc…and 10 is the number of guests at her table—including Señor Calavera.  He has such a good time at the party that he leaves without her, promising to come back for next year’s party.  Using both Spanish and English to count, Yuyi Morales creates a clever, fun book that honors the traditions of Mexican culture.


In this clever tale, a grandmother tricks Death by delaying her departure with preparations for her party.  The counting words, both in English and Spanish, are in bold, larger font.  Morales uses the repeated phrase, ‘“Just a minute, Señor Calavera,” Grandma Beetle said.  “I will go with you right away…”’ before she fills in yet another task the grandmother must accomplish.  The repetition makes for a very fun read aloud, as even young children will be able to anticipate what will come next when the page turns.  At the end of each task, the number and the chore are summarized clearly as Señor Calavera counts up the results.  The children therefore are exposed to each number at least three times in each scene, making for a very educational book.

It is a great celebration of Mexican culture.  There are the well-known tortillas and piñatas, but the book is saved from overloading, because the story is so much more than just a description of a Mexican holiday or a Mexican approach to a birthday.  The trickster tale keeps a true narrative running throughout the concept part of the book, which is quite an achievement.  The fruits are authentic to Mexico, as well—Grandma Beetle cuts up papaya, cantaloupe and pineapple and watermelon.  The grandmother and her grandchildren are represented authentically despite the cartoon features, with the skin tone and dark hair of Hispanic individuals.  The children are adorable.  One child grins hugely, showing a missing front tooth.

The art is fantastically vivid and smooth.  The stylized cartoon pastel art is charming, with glowing color that leaps off the page and will entice readers of all age.  Se
ñor Calavera is a skeleton, but not scary at all for the younger audience who could very easily miss the fact that he is personifying Death.  He is, in fact, often portrayed hilariously rolling his eyes in impatience or stomping in the background as he waits for Grandma Beetle.  His pupils are flowers and he evokes the Latino tradition of El Dia de la Muerta (Day of the Dead), as he has little pretty decorations here and there on his skull and along his bones. 

Grandma is the clever trickster in this tale.  It’s exciting to see an elderly woman shown blowing out her candles, “with a gust like a hurricane,” and who is represented as being so smart she could outwit Death itself.  Her intent was just to make it through her birthday celebration with her grandchildren (she tells him she is ready after she gives them all a big hug that made my throat a little tight), but he had gone and left her a note that he would see her next year.  This is a very strong Latina character and one all kids will benefit from getting to know.


“This story is a delight. Morales’s personification of death is never forbidding or scary, but rather a simple matter of fact.  This deceptively simple read-aloud treat has as many layers as an onion, and is every bit as savory.”  -- School Library Journal, Dec. 1, 2003.

“What’s an old woman to do when a skeleton pays her a birthday visit and beckons her to come along?  Grandma Beetle, the heroine of this joyful book by the illustrator of Harvesting Hope, stalls for time.  Just a minute, she says; there’s something she needs to do.  One chore leads to another, but the skeleton can’t mask his enthusiasm as Grandma cooks, fills piñatas, and performs other tasks, each one linked to a number from 1 to 10, uno to diez.  Eventually, nueve grandchildren arrive for Grandma’s birthday party, and guess who else is invited?  Even if children don’t grasp the implications of the skeleton’s visit, they’ll enjoy seeing him join in the fun, and when he extends Grandma’s lease on life, the relieved, loving embrace she gives her grandchildren will satisfy young ones at a gut level.  Like the text, the rich, lively artwork draws strongly upon Mexican culture, with hints of Diego Rivera in Grandma’s robust form, and the skeleton resembling the whimsical figurines often seen in Day of the Dead folk art.  The splendid paintings and spirited storytelling—along with useful math and multicultural elements—augur a long, full life for this original folktale.”  --Booklist, Dec 1, 2003.

"Like the best folktales, the darker motivation for the skeleton's visit remains elusive for youngest readers, and the sly interplay between hostess and visitor makes light of his role.  Morales (Harvesting Hope) whips up a visually striking book and funny to boot."  -- Publishers Weekly, Dec. 1, 2003.  

  • Read Niño Wrestles the World and do an author study, focusing on the humor in these books. Alternatively, read both books together and study all the cultural references in the books and what they mean. 
  • Read other trickster tales and compare/contrast.
  • Read the story on Dia de la Muerta and discuss the cultural holiday.
  • Compare this counting book to other concept books focused on numbers.
  • Have pairs of students act out each scene in the book, perhaps even going through it twice so everyone can play the impatient and funny Señor Calavera.  Give students skull masks to decorate first for their part as Señor Calavera.


This was such a fun book!  My girls are a little old for any sort of counting book, but they both had a great time laughing at the silly depictions of Señor Calavera.  The only bit of advice I’d give is that the font chosen for the main text made it hard to tell if this was, “Señor Calavera” Or “Señor Galavera.”  If you are not familiar with Spanish, this is not an obvious answer and an unnecessary distraction. 

Works Referenced:

Morales, Yuyi.  2013. Niño Wrestles the World.  New York:  Roaring Brook Press.

Smolen, Lynn Atkinson and Ruth A. Oswald, ed.  2011.  Multicultural Literature and Response:  Affirming Diverse Voices.  Santa Barbara, CA:  Libraries Unlimited.

Vardell, Sylvia.  2010.  “Overview” Culture 3 Hispanic Lit.  Texas Woman’s University.  Blackboard class LS 5653, Multicultural Literature for Children and Young Adults.  Web.  Accessed September 27, 2013.  

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