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Thank you to Star Bright Books for sharing a copy of Arletis, Abuel, and the Message in a Bottle for review consideration. All opinions on the book are my own.
Arletis, Abuelo, and the Message in a Bottle
Written by Lea Aschkenas | Illustrated by Cornelius Van Wright and Ying-Hwa Hu
Growing up in Cuba, Arletis loved studying maps and wondering about the people and places beyond her island. “Her whole life took place on the long, unnamed street that ran in front of the unnumbered house, where she lived.” Some afternoons, she took the horse-drawn carriage that transported people around town to visit her abuela. While she was there, Abuela told her funny stories about her abuelo, who had died before she was born. Sometimes tears would form in Abuela’s eyes as she talked about her husband. Then “Arletis would suggest they pick the grapefruits that grew like miniature suns in the trees Abuela had planted when she was young” to make her favorite treat cascos de toronja.
Arletis’s life was rich with delicious fruit that grew in trees along her street, swimming in the river when the heat became “so heavy and thick it rolled down the street in dizzying waves,” and playing her favorite game: choreographer, in which she, her cousin, and neighborhood kids danced to the music on the radio. Arletis loved her street, but sometimes she wondered if there was more. In another part of the world—off the coast of Sausalito, California—a man named Steve lived alone on the tugboat with which he had once made his living. While Steve was content on his tugboat, he too wondered if there was more.
For Arletis’s eighth birthday, her parents rented a beach house for a weekend vacation to Playa Bailén, about 30 miles from home. On the bus ride there, Arletis, for the first time, saw the ocean that surrounded her island. On her birthday, Arletis took a walk along the beach and found a green bottle. The top was sealed with tape, and inside she could see a rolled up piece of paper. The paper turned out to be a letter written in a foreign language. Arletis was excited to realize that the bottle had come from another country.
Even though Arletis couldn’t read the words, she wrote a letter about “her life, about her family and her beautiful street. She asked every question she could think of about life in this other country” and she mailed it to the address provided at the bottom of the message from the bottle. When Steve received the letter, he immediately knew it was a response to his message in the bottle that he had given to a friend who was sailing down the coast and through the Panama Canal. The friend had dropped the bottle into the sea after he’d sailed into the Caribbean Sea.
Steve was thrilled to receive Arletis’s letter. He had begun studying Spanish and “had been wishing for someone to practice with.” Two months had gone by since Arletis had sent her letter when she heard the mail carrier call out her name and hand her an envelope. It was the first letter Arletis had ever received, and she handled it with great care. Steve had answered all her questions and even sent a picture of himself and his tugboat. Arletis thought Steve looked “old enough to be a grandfather. Arletis had always wished for a grandfather, so she decided to address her next letter, ‘Querido Abuelo Esteban.’ ‘Dear Grandfather Steve'” and invited him to visit her and her family one day.
Arletis and Abuelo Esteban began writing to each other monthly then in one letter, Abuelo Esteban said he would be coming for a visit. “Arletis couldn’t stop smiling.” When Abuelo Esteban arrived, he brought a gift. It was a map he had drawn “showing the path his bottle had taken, first on his friend’s boat and then on the wide open sea to Arletis’s island. It was the most beautiful map Arletis had ever seen.” During the five days that Abuelo Esteban spent with Arletis’s family, he played baseball with her friends, swam in the river, and enjoyed some of Arletis’s favorite foods.
On Abuelo Esteban’s last night visiting, Arletis’s mother and Abuela made a special dinner, complete with Arletis’s favorite dessert, cascos de toronja. Abuelo Esteban loved it too. He showed everyone pictures of his tugboat and the dock where it was moored. Arletis thought the dock looked just like a little island surrounded by water. When she asked Abuelo Esteban if he thought an island was a good place to live, he replied, “‘Yes, I think so. Especially if there is another island where you have family you can visit.'”
Backmatter includes an Author’s Note that outlines how Lea Aschkenas first met Abuelo Esteban at the Sausalito library where she worked and learned about his story. She adds an update to the story about both Arletis, now an adult, and Steve, who has continued to visit his “familia de corazón”— his family of the heart. A recipe for cascos de toronja, glossary of the Spanish words found in the story, and a list of references for further reading, viewing, and listening in both English and Spanish are also included.
Lea Aschkenas’s gentle and uplifting story immerses readers in the sights, sounds, flavors, and warm hearts of Cuba. Her comprehensive storytelling is filled with the types of details about Arletis’s life that will captivate readers and resonate with their own love for spontaneous fun, favorite foods, and family relationships. Aschkenas’s lovely descriptive language—Cuba is an “alligator-shaped island,” boiled grapefruit pith for cascos de toronja is as transparent as “a see-through fish,” Arletis and Abuelo Esteban exchange letters “as regularly as the monthly full moon”—and Spanish words and phrases sprinkled throughout the text paint pictures in children’s minds of the special beauty of Cuba.
Through Cornelius Van Wright and Ying-Hwa Hu’s stunning watercolor illustrations, readers travel to Cuba to revel in the brilliant colors of the buildings and homes, the luscious hues of tropical fruit, the jewel-like water of the rivers and ocean, and, especially, the sunny smiles of the country’s people. When the story turns to the Sausalito dock where Steve lives, children see that the landscape is similar, with homes and businesses painted in pinks, yellow, red, and blue. Palm trees dot the skyline, and the ocean is as blue as the sky. Van Wright and Hu enchantingly capture Arletis’s wanderlust and her excitement to connect with Steve, with whom she immediately forms a grandfatherly bond. Images of Arletis cooking with her Abuela, dancing and playing baseball with friends, and sitting around the family dinner table with Abuela Esteban will charm children as they take this true story into their heart.
Wonderfully evocative and multilayered, Arletis, Abuelo, and the Message in a Bottle is a remarkable story of family, friendship, pride in one’s country, and the joys to be found in reaching out to others across the world. The book is a heartfelt choice for story times at home and school and would make an impactful addition to any classroom or homeschool geography or social studies curriculum. Arletis, Abuelo, and the Message in a Bottle is highly recommended for all home, school, and public library collections. The book is also available in a Spanish edition: Arletis, abuelo y el mensaje en la botella.
Ages 4 – 8
Star Bright Books, 2023 | ISBN 978-1595729699 (English Hardcover) | ISBN 978-1595729705 (English Paperback) | ISBN 978-1595729729 (Spanish Hardcover) | ISBN 978-1595729712 (Spanish Paperback)
About the Author
LEA ASCHKENAS has written book reviews and articles for Washington Post Book World, Los Angeles Review of Books, and Salon. She is also the author of a travel memoir, Es Cuba: Life and Love on an Illegal Island. She fell in love with Cuba and its people on her first trip to the island in the year 2000 and has been returning nearly every year since. Arletis, Abuelo, and the Message in a Bottle is her first book for children. Lea lives in Northern California where she works as a public librarian and teaches with the California Poets in the Schools program. Visit Lea at: leaaschkenas.com.
CORNELIUS VAN WRIGHT and YING-HWA HU are a husband and wife children’s book illustration team. They have worked on many assignments together, but have also illustrated numerous projects and books individually. They have won a number of awards for their books. Their work has been exhibited at the Bologna Book Fair and the Society of Illustrators’ “The Original Art” show. Cornelius and Ying-Hwa live in New York City. You can learn more about Cornelius and Ying-Hwa Hu and their work at pencilmoonstudio.com. Visit Ying-Hwa Hu at yinghwahu.com.
You can find Arletis, Abuelo, and the Message in a Bottle or the Spanish Edition, Arletis, abuelo y el mensaje en la botella, at these booksellers
Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Books-a-Million
Arletis, abuelo y el mensaje en la botella
Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Books-a-Million
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Bookshop: English Edition | Spanish Edition
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