I think we could all use some joy right now, so here’s a look at a brand-new, bilingual, #OwnVoices picture book about a boy learning about his cultural traditions in Panama while he gets support from his abuela to follow his fairy boy dreams.
Carlos, the Fairy Boy/Carlos, El Niño Hada, written and illustrated by Juan A. Ríos Vega (Reflection Press), at first glance has a similar story arc to many other picture books about gender creative boys: a boy wants to wear something gender creative, is told he can’t, but ultimately finds support to do so. Where Carlos rises above many others, though, is in the cultural specificity and the #OwnVoices perspective of Ríos, “a queer Latino educator and researcher from Panama,” as his bio tells us. The story begins as Carlos is flying to Panama with his parents to spend time with cousins during carnival. His parents tell him about the traditional parades and the two carnival queens who are the stars.
When Carlos learns that his two female cousins will be on a queen’s float dressed as fairies, he wants to join them, but they and his Papá say only girls can do that. His abuelita (grandmother), however, takes his side, saying, “During carnival, we need to celebrate who we really are.” She takes him to visit Luis, a famous carnival costume maker, and tells Luis, “He is very special like you.” I love that Carlos’ abuelita, while an ally, knows enough to take him to a member of the LGBTQ community for further support. The message that there are other gender creative people in the world, grown up and successful, is an important one that many other picture books overlook.
Luis makes Carlos a dazzling costume and admits that he himself wanted to be a fairy boy when he was younger, but was bullied about it. Carlos assures him he could still be a fairy. I like that Ríos has a self-confident child offering support to someone from an older generation, rather than the child being bullied and needing to learn lessons from an adult. (Obviously, both things happen in real life; I just think children may respond more positively to books where the child is the knowing one.)
At the end of the book (spoiler alert), Carlos proudly joins the parade—where he sees Luis in the crowd also wearing a fairy costume.
Ríos’ bright collage illustrations capture the festive spirit of the carnival. Carlos and his family have medium-brown skin and dark hair; Luis is a fair-skinned redhead; and the other people of Panama have a variety of skin tones, from dark to light.
In an afterward, Ríos notes that like Luis, he was bullied as a child, but his abuelita “recognized that I was different and did small things to show me that I was important and special.” And the character of Luis “is based on stories I gathered from the talented friends and men who work on the queens’ gowns all year.”
This is the second book from Reflection Press mentored by co-founder (and queer parent) Maya Gonzalez. The first, When We Love Someone We Sing to Them/Cuando Amamos Cantamos, written by Ernesto Javier Martínez and illustrated by Gonzalez (my review here), is similarly steeped in family support and cultural tradition (in this case, that of the Mexican serenata) as it shows a boy getting his father’s help in crafting a song for the boy he loves. Both books are wonderful examples of how to thoughtfully portray LGBTQ people in our intersectional identities.
Also check out the award-winning Gonzalez’s own
Call Me Tree/Llamame arbol, about a child of unspecified gender who finds resonance with the natural world; her books with partner Matthew SG about pronouns, They She He Me: Free to Be! and They, She, He easy as ABC; and their Playing with Pronouns Card Deck.
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