Although Mitali Perkins has won many awards for her middle grade and YA novels, Between Us and Abuela is her first picture book. And what a debut! She enters the illustrated world with a heart-stopping story about a family separated by more than distance. Abuela lives in Mexico, and her daughter and grandchildren, María and Juan, live in the U.S. And so we have a wall.
When the story opens, the children and their mother haven’t seen Abuela for five years. But memories of her have been kept alive through their mother’s stories. Today is special because the family is going to visit with Abuela at the border during La Posada Sin Fronteras (Inn Without Borders). The day-long border event between San Diego and Tijuana coincides with the larger nine-day Las Posadas Christmas festival celebrated in Mexico and other countries.
When they arrive at the border, they must stand in line and wait, as each group of 25 festival celebrants is only allowed 30 minutes in the enforcement zone, a section between the primary and secondary border wall with Mexico.
María and Juan have prepared special presents for Abuela, but they don’t know if they’ll be able to give them to her, because they will remain separated by a partition and wire wall.
When they greet Abuela, everyone talks at once, but no one can talk fast enough to share all that has happened over the past five years. Just imagine. IMAGINE THIS! And they cannot even get close enough to hug. Yes, I cried.
The group sings carols and María closes her eyes, and for just that moment,
“the fences are invisible.”
But then their 30 minutes is up, and they rush to give Abuela their presents. A border guard stops María from threading her hand-knitted scarf through holes in the fence. Nothing, he says, can be passed through the fence, not even Juan’s carefully drawn picture.
As you can imagine, the boy starts to cry. He MUST give Abuela his gift. Good thing big sister is a problem-solver. She gets an idea, a perfectly wonderful, magical idea.
She turns Juan’s drawing into a kite, tethered with her mother’s knitting yarn. And when a border patrol agent inspects it, we witness a sweet moment of grace. He smiles and says:
“It won’t be passing through the fence, right, kid?”
And then an even bigger moment of grace: the agent suggests that the beach area would be the best place to catch some wind. I’m sure you can guess how the story ends, because, yes, it is a picture book. We can’t send small readers to bed knowing that these kids’ hopes have been crushed by a superpower. We get enough of that in the daily news.
The crowd cheers María on until they watch the picture kite sail over the fence. Everyone on both sides of the fence celebrates her success.
But María can’t see Abuela through the double fence, so she must imagine her picking up the picture and carrying it carefully all the way back to her village—her home.
Mitali has written a moving story of hope and kindness, in a world that sorely needs these moments of grace.
Sara Palacios’ lively and lovely illustrations, based on friendly yellows and blues, keep the subject matter from completely overwhelming the reader. However, I still cried. The long horizontal trim size is used to great effect, allowing the reader to visualize that seemingly infinite stretch of wall and the surrounding sand.
Mitali includes an author’s note about the two posada festivals and a paragraph about how rules, fences, and walls along the border are in flux. She also has more information about the book on her website, including this very personal message:
When I was a child and a newcomer to California, the border between San Diego and Tijuana didn’t look like it does today. In 1971, First Lady Pat Nixon established Friendship Park. One of her security officers cut the barbed wire, and she crossed the border to hug Mexican children, saying, “I hope there won’t be a fence here too long.” Unfortunately, our relationship with Mexico has gone in the other direction, fences, walls, and barriers have proliferated, and Friendship Park is now rarely opened. One of the times when people still meet there is during La Posada Sin Fronteras, and in the face of the deteriorating relationship between the U.S. and Mexico, the event seemed like a beacon of hope to me.
Kidquake, the elementary school program of San Francisco’s annual Litquake literary festival, is fortunate to have Mitali Perkins among its featured authors this year. As co-producer of the program, I’m so glad she said “yes!” I’m looking forward to seeing her engage and enlighten 500 K-2 kids, their teachers, and parents. I wish we could also have her for day two and our 3rd-5th graders!
Pair with The Wall in the Middle of the Book by Jon Agee
Mitali offers discussion questions and additional resource links on her website
Title: Between Us and Abuela
Author: Mitali Perkins
Illustrator: Sara Palacios
Publisher: FSG, 2019
Themes: families, love/separation, immigration, Christmas
For more perfect picture book recommendations, please visit Susanna Hill’s website.