Yo no soy normal: Letting Isabela be Isabela
"Much like Isabela, the book
is always getting into trouble,
not doing what it’s told and
refuses to sit down."
Class novel Teacher’s Guide now available, $49.99 Includes audiobook and non-downloadable PDF of the book.
When Las aventuras de Isabela (2009) was written, there were few other readers available to language students. I had written but not yet published my first novel, Carl no quiere ir a México (2010) but still lacked a reader that could be read within the first few hours by true beginners.
I wrote Las aventuras de Isabela in 24 straight hours in 2008, inspired to write about my daughter. I would spend the next year editing it with Contee Seely, but it initially came in a flash of insight.
At 3, my daughter chased pigeons, but I was told not to worry because you can’t catch a pigeon. She did. She wrapped it in a baby blanket and gave it a bath in the laundry basin. She played in wet cement like it was playdough. It was like chasing the eye of a hurricane traveling with her in the beginning. I wanted a book with a strong , independent female character. I wanted her to see strength and power in herself.
I wanted to model a family unit that was not traditional so that children of one parent households would see themselves reflected in it. In Carl no quiere ir a México, Carl’s parents are happily divorced. They model what divorce really looks like when both parents are involved and supportive.
FEMALE ROLE MODELS
I wanted a community of female leadership. A female veterinarian, a female bakery owner, a working mom traveling with her daughter. Every Mexican character was deliberately written to be authoritative, strong, resilient, professional.
(I have talked to many teachers who have read this book multiple times who realize for the first time in this conversation that almost all of the characters are female.)
Isabela’s mother does not understand her. She wants her to act like a normal girl. She isn’t the kind of normal girl her mother pictures, but what is normal when all of the women in the book are leaders?
Her mother has to fail to accept her as she is because she represents the previous generation. The conflict between them is what Isabela pushes against as she forges her own path.
When Isabela grows up she wants to be la Presidenta (a rarely used word in Spanish at the time, applied about the same time to the new President of Costa Rica at her request), and a ballerina (if you can be anything, ballerina is still on the list), a veterinarian and una pirata. This is not a word in Spanish. This was a tough compromise for my editor. A word that should exist in any language that does not exist yet needs to be used in order to become part of the language. Was I willing to be wrong in front of Spanish teachers in a reader to make that point? Who invented the rule that only men can be pirates? A decade later, changing the language to fit the person is a discussion among language teachers and students.
WHY ARE THERE SO MANY UNANSWERED QUESTIONS?
Isabela is not an omniscient narrator. She knows what an 8 year old knows. Her mom says she’s 29, so she is 29. She seems to have no idea what her mother does for a living, so we don’t either. She does not know what her mother thinks, only what she says. The mother could be single, have had a partner, or have been married. There is no indication of any of those options at any point, and it is open to all interpretations. The door is open to all possibilities, but intentionally confirms none of them. It is up to the teacher and the reader to ask why there are so few obvious answers. We do not know why Isabela is left alone in Mexico so often, or for how many minutes. We do not even know how long she is in Mexico because she doesn’t, either.
The presence of the church in Las aventuras de Isabela provides opportunities to either talk about how pretty the church is and how silly Isabela is, or the influence of the Church on Mexico and the significance of a church adorned in gold on Mexican history. As with so many things, where we look determines what we see.
This is what feminist literature looks like, and it gives us an opportunity to explore essential questions with limited Spanish.
In Carl no quiere ir a México, Carl assumes the dog he has found is a boy. When he learns she is female, he adds Princess and keeps the name Rufus. Perhaps no one is ready yet to talk about what it means to be one thing and seen as another, but it’s there and it has been there for a decade, in case anyone ever is.
POVERTY, HUMANITY AND THE WORLD THROUGH THE EYES OF A CHILD
"We get to see the world without any of our prejudices or biases or opinions on what the right thing to do was."
This brings us to why a poor woman walks up to Isabela and says her baby has no shoes and how she responds. The entire book so far, building her character, brings us to this moment. She is selfish and self-centered and self-absorbed and dramatic from the first chapter.
First, Isabela is a true story and this is what happened. The vet was a woman, as was the owner of the bakery, and “Carl’s” mother was also traveling alone with her son. While these roles were all true depictions of life in Mexico, also true was the family that approached us on the street.
Do we ignore poverty as tourists? Do we ignore it as Americans? Do we pretend it’s not there? Do we throw money at it and walk away? Do we see the people in front of us as human, regardless of what we decide to do? Are we self-centered and self-absorbed, too? Would we prefer not to see this family because it disturbs our vacation?
Isabela, at 8 ½ years old, interprets the woman’s request literally. She needs shoes.
In many countries, including Mexico, there are two things that can prevent children from going to school: shoes and a birth certificate. In León we had sat at an outdoor restaurant near a well-to-do man who was a shoe salesman. He was well dressed and bought us drinks. He exclusively sold school shoes. These children in Guanajuato were barefoot in the street. Regardless of the rest of their situation, on this day, they were not in school. These are not things Isabela would have known.
Isabela is sitting in front of a shoe store alone, without an adult to model how one treats the poor when traveling. All of the impulsivity and lack of consideration of consequences leads us to this moment.
She responds to the woman by inviting her and her children into the shoe store to buy shoes. Isabela’s mother looks at Isabela and the woman. She says it’s nice to meet her and they buy shoes.
We know from the pause that the mom would not have made the same choice. We don’t know why, though. We feel the discomfort as she looks at both of them.
When faced with the choice, she does not look away and she does not say no. Why wouldn’t she have had the woman approach her instead of Isabela?
Isabela does not see these children as different from her. They eat tortillas together in the market and ice cream at the ice cream shop because at 8 years old, Isabela believes she has made new friends.
As a philosophy, as an approach to social justice, treating people with dignity and as equal humans is something children can do naturally, particularly stubborn and opinionated children. We do not know where Isabela’s mom is during this time or what she thinks of where Isabela has led them all day.
It is a legitimate perspective to be concerned that an adult could be seen as throwing money at a problem or as seeing herself as a savior or being seen as one. Isabela sees adults and kids. She generally sees adults as boring, talkative, bossy and as standing between her and her impulses. The kids she sees in the vet’s clinic with the puppies and these kids she spends the day with are her people. She talks with them, eats with them, walks with them and the adults disappear into the background. Isabela is eight, and she sees the world the way an eight-year-old would. We get to see the world without any of our prejudices or biases or opinions on what the right thing to do was. She has not done the “right thing” ever. She’s eight.
She may be guilty of failing to see the implications of how her actions at 8 years old would be seen a dozen years later if this book was placed on a shelf and not taught by a teacher anymore. When it was taught as a class novel, there was a lot to talk about.
"Perhaps no one is ready yet to talk about what it means to be one thing and seen as another,
but it’s there and it has been there for a decade, in case anyone ever is."
What the World Eats, is what I use to talk about this part of the book. Isabela is on an adventure, and on it, she is exposed to a lot of experiences. All of them are real and happen, although they were exaggerated for creative effect. (Isabela never tried to lick a statue with her tongue.). What realities does she see and does she observe them or interpret them? Would Isabela and her mom have described meeting the family in the same way?
COMPREHENSIBLE EASY NOVELS
Every word in Las aventuras de Isabela was carefully chosen, (with the exception of “Aventura”, which I learned later is also used to mean “affair” ). It is the first reader written in the first person because my high school students had mastered the “storytelling” forms of the verbs, but struggled to talk about themselves as smoothly. The feminine plural “nosotras”, rarely used in my class stories, was intentionally used in Isabela. This book plugged that hole in my TPRS curriculum.
The words are common, high frequency vocabulary. They are all repeated, so that they have a greater chance of being acquired. The stories are stand-alone stories and a full book. Every pronoun is used. Every sentence, every page, every paragraph was crafted to make it comprehensible to true beginners.
At end of the book, Isabela crosses paths with the boys in the clinic, and Isabela walks through the same scene in Carl no quiere ir a México, taking us into a new story and using the literary technique used by Gabriel García Márquez to cross-over characters, making each story seem familiar and, therefore, more likely to be true. This also creates an opportunity for “narrow reading”, a strategy that has been shown to increase pleasure reading and vocabulary in language acquirers. The chapters are meticulously, precisely identical in what the children say to each other.
In both books, comparing and contrasting the culture of our students with another culture was a primary objective. In Carl, he comments on the toilet paper being thrown in the trash instead of the toilet. Carl would not know that the US is one a very few countries that flushes toilet paper, and provides an opportunity to explain the science behind sceptic systems as well as cultural biases.
Here are some “essential questions” that could be explored given the content of Las aventuras de Isabela.
What constitutes a family in Spanish-speaking societies?
How have families changed over time?
What are some aspects of family values and family life in the Spanish-speaking world?
What challenges do families face in the Spanish-speaking world?
How does one’s identity evolve over time?
How do aspects of everyday life influence and relate to the quality of life?
How does where one lives impact the quality of life?
What influences one’s interpretation and perceptions of the quality of life?
How do environmental, political, and societal challenges positively and negatively
What role do individuals play in addressing complex societal issues?
How do challenging issues affect a society’s culture?
Over the years I have been told that I should have made Isabela a boy, because I would have sold more copies. I’ve been told that the horse shouldn’t have pooped. I’ve been told that Isabela models disobedient behavior and is a poor role model. I’ve been asked where the dad is. I’ve been told I shouldn’t have had the kids eat ice cream because it’s bad for their teeth or I should have had them all brush their teeth afterward. I’ve also been told I should eliminate all of the chapters about the poor family.
I’ve also had hundreds of people create their own materials for Isabela and even sell them. I know it has taken me a long time, and I’m sorry it took this long. I mostly teach Isabela to adults. The ideas I have gleaned on how to teach it to children I got from Jason Fritze, who I have watched teach it masterfully to 4th and 5th graders. I was never able to properly and completely explain how I teach Las aventuras de Isabela when it can be taught to all levels. Now, with it created as a course, it can be fluid. As times change and essential questions change, together we can continue to use the simplest of words to model the grandest of ideas. Isabela blazed a trail at a time when trailblazing was career-ending. Now there are many trailblazers and many trails.
“Yo no soy normal.
For me I have learned from Isabela what I learned from my daughter:
Don’t tell Isabela who to be.
Don’t tell Isabela what to teach us.
Don’t try to teach Isabela who to be.
Don’t tell Isabela what she can or cannot do.
Don’t tell Isabela what she can become.