Let’s just get the obvious out of the way first: Is that not the best picture book cover you’ve seen for all of 2013? I certainly think so.
The inside doesn’t disappoint either. In fact, the inside is quite exciting.
This is Niño Wrestles the World, Yuyi Morale’s story of a young boy first seen playing with his toys, who then imagines his way into a lucha libre championship. As the book’s closing note states, lucha libre is a type of professional wrestling, popular in Mexico and other Spanish-speaking countries. Wrestlers take on colorful characters (ancient heroes and villains, mythical figures, animals and more), as well as colorful masks, during the matches. They either perform on their own or in teams, and they work within outlandish, very theatrical storylines.
Niño would know. “So superb are his talents that out-of-this-world contenders line up to challenge him.” Here the boy has changed into his underwear and put on his lucha libre mask, and his imaginative adventure begins. First up? The Guanajuato Mummy! “Oh, no! What’s a niño to do?” Why, he fights, of course. And he vanquishes la Momia de Guanajuato with the Tickle Tackle, no less.
Spread by spread, Niño stares down Olmec Head, a giant, stone, helmeted creature; La Llorona, a famous Mexican ghost, who takes children away to make them her own; the alien El Extraterrestre; and El Chamuco, the devil. (Watch out for the Popsicle Slick, what may very well be Niño’s best move.)
But then the clock strikes three, and this is when Niño must face his toughest challengers: Las Hermanitas. His baby sisters have awakened from their naps, but in the end—as he plays lovingly with his sisters—he’s reminded: If you can’t defeat them, join them!
There’s a lot going on in this picture book, and it really works. First up, Morales makes good use of the endpages to feature each of Niño’s challengers in profiles (including Niño himself and his sisters at the back endpages). Each challenger’s name is heralded in banners, and under each she lists who they are and such traits as battle cry, temperament, secret desire, lucha style, etc. And it’s here that we learn that Cabeza Olmeca has his origins in the Olmec civilization of 1400 BCE, how old the legend of la Momia de Guanajuato is, and more. (Niño wins best profile, though: “Popsicle eater, toy lover, somersault expert. He can’t wait until his sisters are potty trained.”)
This is also a book that plays cleverly with typography. Niño’s opponents are announced (“NIÑO VS LA LLORONA”) in a dramatic, more formal type; the challengers speak in speech bubbles with a looser, wigglier type; and comic book-esque, colorful fonts are used to depict action (“ZZZWAP” in bold, blue, blocky letters as El Chamuco slides on a scooter right through the slippery Popsicle Slick, falling to his doom).
The book’s colors are bright and pulsing. These are illustrations that nearly pop off the page, fitting for the subject matter—these highly theatrical wrestling competitions.
Clearly, the book was paired with some smart designers.
Morales also smoothly weaves Spanish words into the text. There’s no closing glossary, but curious children will feel compelled to ask about or look up meanings. It all adds up to Fun with Context anyway: Most children are not going to wonder at all what “¡VIVA LA LUCHA LIBRE!” means, as the back cover so exuberantly declares.
Action-packed, funny and entertaining, this will surely go down as one of the year’s most memorable picture books.
NIÑO WRESTLES THE WORLD. Copyright © 2013 by Yuyi Morales. Published by Neal Porter/Roaring Brook, New York. Illustration used with permission of Yuyi Morales.
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.