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Zipitio

by Jorge Argueta, Gloria Calderón, illus., Elisa Amado, trans.

The title character of the newest in Groundwood’s series highlighting Latin American children’s writers is an awkward little man whose feet face in the wrong direction and whose big belly and long sharp nails make him both frightful and, in retrospect, amusing. In Jorge Argueta’s retelling of this tale from El Salvador’s Pipil tradition, Zipitio appears to girls as they reach puberty, declaring his love for them.

The book is not unlike the character – disturbing, a little bit charming, and often ungainly. Both language and narrative progression are uneven. Lovely lyric moments are followed by heavy, prosaic turns of phrase: perhaps the cadence and beauty of Argueta’s language has been lost in its passage to English. And the unfolding of the story is somewhat befuddling. Rufina’s mother warns her of Zipitio’s visit, and explains what to do when he appears. Rufina initially ignores her mother’s advice, but eventually learns to listen to Zipitio and how best to repel his advances.

Yet much remains a mystery – exactly what Rufina learns from Zipitio is unclear, as is why she knows how to respond to him. Narrative leaps are not uncommon in folktales, of course, but these seem rather large. Perhaps the explanation lies in cultural differences of narrative, or in the mystery of puberty itself, whose secrets must be intuited individually. Still the balance between explanation and action is skewed, leaving the story top-heavy with context.

Gloria Calderon’s vibrantly coloured illustrations draw heavily upon traditional Latin American folk painting. They have a lovely charm and at times a playfulness, but for the most part they accompany rather than extend the text.