friday feast: are your tomatoes laughing?

Seriously, who could resist a poetry book called Laughing Tomatoes?

Well, I certainly couldn’t, but I shamefully admit I didn’t actually know about this fabuloso feast of pure delight until just a few months ago.

This Pura Belpré Honor Award-winning bilingual 20-poem collection by Chicano poet Francisco X. Alarcón and Maya Christina Gonzalez was first published by Children’s Book Press back in 1997. Where was I?!

Likely staring at grumpy, aloof tomatoes and not appreciating strawberries for the “sweet tender hearts” they are, living a bland life full of ho-hum edibles, certainly not hearing the warm morning sun calling to me through my window, and — *shakes head* — totally oblivious to dew, “the fresh taste of the night.”

But now, having read this glorious, jubilant celebration of Spring and its earthly delights, family, culture and community, my life is complete!

I’m happy to say Laughing Tomatoes and Other Spring Poems/Jitomates Risueños y otros poemas de primavera is one of my favorite children’s poetry books ever. 🙂

Oh, I know what you’re thinking. But it’s not just because of the food (though it’s easy to love tortillas who applaud the sun, exploding chiles, and the gift of corn, whose “tender ears are born pointing to the sky”). It is the exquisite marriage of text and art, that rare commingling of creative visions that takes your breath away, when you know you are witnessing something extraordinary (Red Sings from Treetops and Water Sings Blue come to mind).

Here, poetry is art, and art is pure poetry.

In a Writer’s Sanctuary audio interview, Gonzalez compares their collaboration to jazz improvisation. Alarcón playfully riffs on the wonders of nature and life (first rain, smiling green hills, his grandmother’s songs, his dream of “a garden in every home”), enabling us to see everything for the first time. Gonzalez responds with vivid, exuberant, magical, bursting-from-the-page riffs of her own, complete with an expanded narrative featuring dogs, cats, and joyous children swinging from trees, picnicking, picking strawberries, adorned with colorful flowers.

Perhaps you are wondering why the tomatoes are laughing? How much do I LOVE these tomato smiles!

Sí, this festive feeling is downright contaigious, and it’s beautifully balanced with tender feelings of sadness and reverence — we play, but we also honor these marvelous people and things in our lives. Have you ever laughed and cried at the same time?

In his Afterword, Alarcón says he started writing poems by jotting down the songs his grandma sang to him in the kitchen. He believes a poem is incomplete until someone reads it and makes it their own.

A collection of poetry is like a tomato plant. From a small seed it sprouts, then grows and grows. Poems need good soil, sunlight, air, and lots of care and tending. Some of these poems were written first in Spanish, others in English, and some came out in both languages almost at the same time. Poems, like tomatoes, grow in many forms and shapes. And somehow they change every time you read them. This is the magic of poetry.

Laughing Tomatoes was Alarcón’s first published book of poetry for children, and is actually part of his Magical Cycle of the Seasons Series, which earned three Pura Belpré Honor Awards as well as many other well-deserved accolades. I’m anxious to see the other books in the series, especially From the Bellybutton of the Moon and Other Summer Poems/Del ombligo de la luna y otros poemas de verano. I imagine it has the same timeless feel, perfectly capturing child mind and spirit.

A beautiful closing thought:

Did you know “words are birds that arrive with books and spring . . . the letters they leave on this page are the prints they leave by the sea.”


What child could resist this invitation to wonder?

* * *


written by Francisco X. Alarcón
illustrated by Maya Christina Gonzalez
published by Children’s Book Press/Lee & Low Books, Inc., 2012
Poetry Picture Book for ages 6+, 32 pp.
Cool themes: Seasons, Family, Community, Cultural Diversity, Bilingual, Poetry, Mexican Americans, Spring, Nature, Food

*Visit the publisher’s website for a Teacher’s Guide and audio interview with author and artist

* * *

poetryfriday180Margaret is hosting today’s Roundup at Reflections on the Teche. Flash your biggest tomato smile and check out the full menu of poetic goodness being served up in the blogosphere this week.


*Spreads posted by permission of the publisher, text copyright © 1997 Francisco X. Alarcón, illustrations © 1997 Maya Christina Gonzalez, published by Children’s Book Press/Lee & Low. All rights reserved.

Copyright © 2013 Jama Rattigan of Jama’s Alphabet Soup. All rights reserved.


35 thoughts on “friday feast: are your tomatoes laughing?

  1. Jama, I have all four books (one per season) and I’m with you–they’re a real treat! I also find that there aren’t enough poetry books about or for Latino children, so I really appreciate these.


    1. I think I must be the only one on the planet who hadn’t seen this series before. Better late than never, though — and now I have much to look forward to with the other books. I agree — definitely not enough children’s poetry books by or about Latinos.


  2. How could ANYone resist? Thank you for sharing all this beauty and warmth and wonder.
    I’ll be looking at our tomatoes with a fresh eye, and I love books and poems that make me laugh and cry at the same time. (“My Grandma’s Songs” says SO much in just a few stanzas….)


  3. This is just wonderful, Jama, another addition to our library for our “gardeners” and for those who wish! I have found the books at the library, so they’ll be in my fingers soon!


  4. Exploding chiles? I’m there! Love the simplicity and truth of the statement, “A poem makes us see everything for the first time.” Thanks for sharing another wonderful find, Jama! =)


    1. It’s so refreshing and fun to read poems like these. Though written for kids, they give us old fogeys a chance to stand on our heads and change our same-old, same-old perceptions.


  5. It’s true – a poem DOES make us see everything for the first time! This book looks absolutely wonderful. I will look for it.


    1. You’re right — books like these really help kids learn other languages (two servings for the price of one)!

      I also thought it was very cool that Francisco wrote down his grandmother’s songs. The kitchen is a magical place! Budding poets can get lots of inspiration there — food for the body as well as the spirit :).


  6. How gorgeous! I love bilingual books anyway, but those tomato smiles seal the deal on these. I’m so glad you found them and brought others like you (e.g., me) out of the dark and into the sun. 🙂 <–that's a tomato smile


    1. Oh, thanks for that dazzling tomato smile, Renee! There’s another spread I really love where the boy is wearing tomato pajama bottoms and a black cat is cuddling a tomato. You just can’t help but feel happy with pictures like that.


  7. You’re not the only one on the planet who missed these books back in 1997! I agree with Kate that there’s not enough poetry about or for Latino children — I’m adding this whole series to my poetry shelf! Now, where are the joyous poetry books featuring Middle Eastern/Arabic children?!?!


    1. Phew! So glad I’m not the only one who missed these books. We definitely need more poetry books about all cultures. I don’t know of any featuring Middle Eastern/Arabic children.


  8. I love the illustrations! I’ve never heard of this book or author. Now I have to do some digging around my local library. Lee & Low publish so many great books.


  9. this makes me so happy to see!!!! you’ve included the first secret i ever hid in a book. can you find it? it’s very small. i’ll give you a clue. it’s on the page with the same poem as the title of the book.


    1. Hi Maya! So honored you dropped by. Your paintings are too amazing.

      Secret? Do you mean the one-eyed cat? Is he winking? 🙂


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