There are countless picture book adaptations of the classic nursery rhyme “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” It’s a staple verse for the wee children of the world. But coming to shelves in August from Henry Holt and Company will be a truly bilingual version of this nursery rhyme of American origin. This version, Angela Dominguez’s Maria Had a Little Llama / María Tenía Una Llamita, has a Peruvian twist. (It’s not often you hear “Peruvian twist” with regard to American picture books, is it?)
And I say “truly bilingual,” because Dominguez so seamlessly incorporates the Spanish into this book. Sometimes, in so-called bilingual books, the language attempting to be incorporated gets short shrift. In this book, the English and the Spanish both share the spotlight, and neither one is trying to outdo the other. Both languages are very happy to be there.
This is the straight-up tale we all know of a young girl’s pet following her to school, though the rules clearly state the creature is not allowed. In this case, it’s Maria, heading off to la escuela. Her pet is her llama. Why does the llama follow her around, the girl’s classmates ask their teacher? It’s simple: The girl loves her pet so much. It’s only natural he’d want to spend the day with her.
Dominguez incorporates elements of Peruvian culture into her artwork here. For one, Maria is depicted with a Peruvian flute, or a pan flute, as well as maracas. She also gives us a glimpse into village life here, though it’s drawn in broad strokes to be sure: In one spread, we get an a aerial view of Maria’s school, while seeing the mountains behind it and a couple pieces of traditional architecture as well.
In another spread and once again in broad strokes, we see elements of the Peruvian landscape. For the “everywhere that Maria went, the llama was sure to go” spread, Dominguez has sketched a map as the backdrop. “Cuzco,” it notes, indicating the southern Peruvian city of Cusco. Basic triangular shapes show the Andes Mountains with a signpost declaring the “Inca Trail.” “Machu Picchu” is noted on the right side, indicating a 15th-century Inca site, near Cusco.
Dominguez relies primarily on earth tones in her gouache and ink illustrations, but Maria gets a bold splash of red in the form of her chullo, her Andean hat with its large earflaps. It covers most of her head and makes her stand apart from all others; this she deserves, as she’s our guide throughout this tale. When we meet her loving teacher, depicted with comforting, curving lines, she’s also sporting red in a traditional poncho with geometric patterns, but she also has hints of warm purples. Maria’s classmates get cooler blues and greens. Always standing out in the crowd, even amongst the other llamas, is Maria’s bright white pet, slightly anthropomorphized for very young readers, always appearing to have a little smile on his face.
In many spreads, Maria and her llama are close to readers, their faces large and welcoming, as if we are right there with her in the schoolyard or walking down the village streets with her. Very young readers, or those listening to the story, will feel invited into this warm traditional tale of community. The final spread sums up this book well: Maria once again has her wooden flute and seems to be dancing down the street with her llama, while behind her, villagers play a variety of traditional instruments. Maria’s schoolmates wave goodbye.
A welcome addition to the canon of nursery rhyme picture books.
MARIA HAD A LITTLE LLAMA / MARÍA TENÍA UNA LLAMITA. Copyright © 2013 by Angela Dominguez. Published by Henry Holt, New York. Spread used with permission of Angela Dominguez.
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.