La Última Prueba, by Jennifer Degenhardt
In a small town in the highlands of Guatemala live two men; brothers. Each has a son, both named Pedro. According to the árbol genealógico or family tree, the boys are cousins, but they are also best friends - unlike their fathers who had a falling out over a financial issue some years back. Still, life ambles about slowly as it does in the department of Huehuetenango until an issue cuts through the fabric of the boys’ friendship, a rejection that causes many hard feelings. This new, fraught relationship is tested even more in class, when a new teacher arrives in town to teach their fifth grade class, enlightening all of the 10- and 11-year-olds to the rich history of their people, the Maya. But, this usually boring history class gets real as the boys learn about the Mayan Myth of the Hero Twins. Little do they know, however, that they will unexpectedly play a role in the myth, the underworld, and the rich history that saturates the lands of Guatemala. LEVEL 1-2
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I am in love with this book and here are a few reasons why:
1. IT'S ENGAGING AND COMPELLING I found myself letting out "aw!"s and "oh no!"s, to the amusement of my nearby family. I won't say more - no spoilers!
2. IT'S COMPREHENSIBLE With footnotes and a glossary, Degenhardt manages to tell a unique and complex story with relatively simple language. This is so important for my Spanish students because just because they are still learning the language doesn't mean they should be forced to read boring books about mundane "easy" topics!
3. IT VALIDATES DIFFERENT LANGUAGES AND DIALECTS As I read the dialogue throughout in Chuj (translated into Spanish afterwards), as well as the use of "vos" (which I have yet to see any other writers do, despite its WIDE use throughout Central and South America), I thought: how must it feel for Guatemalan children who speak Chuj to see their culture and language represented? I know there are many here in little old Omaha, Nebraska because of my mom who works in a clinic where they try and fail with Spanish translators. And how interesting and enriching is this for the rest of us! I learned a few new words based on context, and when his mom was called “malin” (María), it made me immediately think of Malinche, called Marina by the Spanish!
4. IT VALIDATES DIFFERENT FAITHS Degenhardt seems to naturally work in the legend in a way that is adventure-filled, exciting and natural. The legend is clearly the meat and potatoes of the book, but we are drawn in and it feels real. We also see them going to church/mass. Many of my kids think -oh, those indigenous people worship some ancient god, like Zeus or something, and they write off their beliefs as antiquated or “cute.” They don’t realize they are just like them in many ways - they have a variety of beliefs, a blend of modern and traditional. Their past and legends form part of their cultural identity and embody their values. I think our students are more likely to respect and value them too because of Degenhardt's approach.
5. IT IS AUTHENTIC She has consulted experts and native speakers in the languages and cultures of her book (Chuj and Castellano/Spanish), giving our students something more than just a fun adventure, but a true experience with a different culture. I don't know about you, but I'm ALWAYS looking for that for my students!