Circles are all around us.
In this warm, gentle story that celebrates family, culture, community and the connectedness of all things, a young girl and her grandfather work side by side in their vegetable garden, hang out in their backyard, walk around their neighborhood—and find circles to see and contemplate. A rainbow, whose other half is down below the earth, “where water and light feed new life.” And stems, leaves, and seeds—veggie leftovers—“to bury back in the ground.” And round body parts, such as bellies and eyes, to laugh about. And bicycle wheels, and the sun and the moon, and gentle lessons about the cycles of birth and death. González’s and Garcia’s picture-book debut was informed by the author’s own experiences as a Mestiza child at school, and the characters were modeled after her daughter and father in their garden, backyard, and San Antonio neighborhood. In her author’s note, González explains the story behind this story. “When I was six,” she writes, I was given a class assignment to draw a timeline of my life. Birth was the beginning. First steps and first fallen tooth were milestones. I wondered aloud how my timeline would continue, and more importantly, how it would end. My father shook his head when he heard me. “People will tell you it’s a line, but we believe it’s a circle,” he said, gathering two imaginary points of a timeline and joining them midair to form a circle. While “timelines” are typical first-grade assignments, they undermine Indigenous knowledges and nonlinear ways of visualizing time. All Around Us should have begun here, with an example of what Indian kids—such as the young Xelena—often encounter in school, and with the kind of loving affirmations that Indigenous family members—such as her grandfather—often give to their kids. Since all of her art depicts the outside, Garcia used a rich, textured earthy palette of mostly greens and browns, with brightly colored vegetables and some pinks and yellows as accents. She told me that she began this project with photos, which she digitized and collaged and used as a guide, and then added the background details. But rather than creating a photorealistic piece, her “imagination took over” as she redrew the images with digital paint, inserting mostly circular lines that both complement and transcend the story. I’m especially impressed by the differing skin tones between Grandpa and granddaughter, something that few picture-book illustrators get right. And, in many of the illustrations, lines almost blur as the two literally blend in with their environments. Where they’re digging in the garden, for instance, they appear to be dark brown on one spread and green on another; and where they’re sitting in sunlight, smiling at each other, they are yellow. Just before sunset, Grandpa and granddaughter walk to the back of their yard, away from the house. There’s a fenced-in area with an arbor, a small bench, and a tall pecan tree, indicating that this area might be set aside as a family burial ground. Here, Grandpa and child sit on the bench, quietly, their eyes closed. Young Xelena says, “Grandpa seems sad when he sits here, because this is where we bury the ashes of our ancestors. I don’t remember them, but he does.” While González makes clear in her author’s note that it’s not her own family practice to bury their relatives’ ashes in this way, educators may want to use this passage in a class discussion—at another time, so as not to interrupt the story—of different practices associated with death and dying. Finally, we walk to the front yard to water our smallest tree. Grandpa planted it for me on the day I was born, and everything that fed me while I grew in my mother’s belly is buried at the roots. I love bringing water to the apple tree that is already taller than I am. Here, young children who are literal thinkers might imagine their mothers’ bellies as filled with cereal and bananas to feed them as they grew inside; so there’s an opportunity to introduce the terms, “placenta” and “umbilical cord,” which are often buried at the roots of newly planted trees to connect newborns to the land. As young Xelena waters her tree, she notices new growth, and Grandpa pats her head and says,“Do you see, my grandchild? We have new life with you.” “I am part of the circle too,” Xelena answers, “the part we can see…just like a rainbow!” All Around Us is a quiet, beautiful story, and is highly recommended. —Beverly Slapin (published 9/12/17)
A girl and her grandfather contemplate circles, both physical and metaphorical, in this thought-provoking tale of family, community, and interconnection, a debut for both author and artist. As they walk through a suburban neighborhood of shingled houses and chain-link fences, the grandfather suggests that a rainbow overhead is actually a full circle: “The rest of it is down below, in the earth, where water and light feed new life.” Soon, the girl is noticing circles everywhere, including the roundness of their eyes and the way her grandfather “saves the stems, leaves, and seeds” of the vegetables they grow to rebury. “What we take from the earth, we return,” he tells her. On several pages, González’s text follows soaring arcs itself, and circular shapes dominate Garcia’s multilayered illustrations. Her tender portraits highlight the intimate bond between the narrator and her grandfather, while bright, zigzagging lines create a setting that hums with energy, underscoring a connection between people and planet. The family’s mestizo heritage is central to the story, including a tradition of burying a mother’s placenta when a child is born, which the author’s note discusses in more detail. Ages 3–7. (Sept.)
In González and Garcia’s picture-book debut, a girl and her grandfather reflect on the cycles that characterize life, death, and renewal. “Grandpa says circles are all around us.” Above the girl’s head, a rainbow stretches across the sky, a vibrant half circle. The other half? It’s beneath the Earth, unseen, nourishing. With this modest declaration, González asks readers to rethink the world as one full of unceasing rebirth. A clearer example of this viewpoint soon follows. In the garden, Grandpa and the girl tend to their lettuce, carrots, and chiles, with the resulting stems, leaves, and seeds going back into the ground. “What we take from the earth we return,” says Grandpa. Measured and subdued, the bare-bones story demands patience, which may irk readers with a preference for livelier stories, but the author’s direct approach and light touch soften the otherwise weighty subject matter. Faded, sketched lines and arcs of dense light enclose the girl and Grandpa (both depicted with golden-brown skin) in half-formed and fully formed circles from picture to picture, while shadows and colors intertwine with people and the scenes around them. On a smaller scale, the duo notes how circles shape their bellies as well as their eyes. Yet it’s the final scene—a girl and her grandfather sitting near the buried ashes of their ancestors—that brings everything full circle. In her author’s note, González, a member of the Auteca Paguame family of the Tap Pilam Coahuitecan nation, references her, and by extension her characters’, mestizo heritage. Life-affirming in its quiet splendor. (author’s note) (Picture book. 3-7)
Xelena González has roots in San Antonio, Texas but has stretched her wings to fly all the way to Guangzhou, China, where she works as a librarian in an international school. She studied journalism at Northwestern University and library science at Texas Woman’s University, but her true training as a storyteller has come from getting to know other living beings—including plants, animals, and people who happen to speak different languages or see the world in unusual ways. She tells these stories through picture books, essays, song, and dance.
Adriana M Garcia
Adriana M Garcia creates as a way to document lives and to honor the human existence, aiming to extract the inherent liminality of a moment before action as a way to articulate our stories. She is proficient both in traditional painting as well as web-based new-media applications. For this particular project, Adriana and her collaborator have challenged each other to answer complex questions about culture, humanity, and unique worldviews in a way that is simple, universal, and appealing enough to reach the youngest members of our society. In that effort, she hopes to offer a visual voice to a profound story.