Title: Becoming Naomi León
Author: Pam Muñoz Ryan
Author: Pam Muñoz Ryan
Publisher: Scholastic, Inc, 2004
Genre: Multicultural, realistic fiction novel
Age Range: 3-5
Summary: Naomi lives with her brother Owen and great-grandmother Gram in California. Owen has many physical disabilities and Naomi is very shy, and loves soap carvings. One day, their mother, Skyla reappears wanting to get to know her children. She buys many gifts for them, but shows a greater interest in Naomi. She has struggled with drinking, and has been in and out of rehab and half-way houses for years. She and her boyfriend Clive want to take Naomi to Las Vegas with them, so she can be a babysitter for Clive's daughter Sapphire, and they can collect the government money for the girls. Gram, along with their neighbors Bernardo and Fabiola take their trailer and leave for Mexico. This is to avoid Skyla taking Naomi, and they hope to find the children's father, so that Gram can receive full custody of the kids. While in Mexico, Naomi learns a lot about the Mexican culture, and begins to love it. She helps the men with their carvings in for the Night of the Radishes, where they receive 2nd place. Their father is there, and they get to spend some time with him, as he tries all he can to help them in their fight to be with Gram. When they return home, they go to court against Skyla and Clive. Skyla wants only Naomi, and when Naomi finally speaks out against living with them, the judge grants Gram custody. Naomi is now able to be with Owen and Gram, as well as spend time in Mexico with her father.
Response: Naomi and Owen are not the typical characters in a novel. They do have to deal with certain things such as bullies at school, making friends, and trying to fit in, which all young children deal with. However, they have to deal with that in the extreme. They also face the issues of a broken family, with a mother who struggles with addiction. Gram is their saving grace, and continues to provide and fight for them no matter what obstacles may be in their way. Skyla is an appropriate name for her because she is often up in the clouds. She flies around, not thinking about anything, and is certainly never grounded. She is selfish and rude, hitting her children because she can not control her addictions.
Owen provides a great lesson for children. Not only does he struggle with physical disabilities, but it is obvious he struggles mentally and emotionally. His tape is like a security blanket, and without it he is not himself. It is so hard to see Skyla deal with Owen because she is so ignorant. She thinks that he can not hear what she says about him, including when she talks to the doctors about his condition. When the doctors refer to him as a "Funny Looking Kid," Skyla blows up and gets angry. She is so superficial; if she could see that Owen is the smartest student in his class, and his mood is always so cheerful and happy, their relationship could progress. All she sees is the physical appearance, what is on the outside. And if you look at her, then you think she is completely put together. Her hair color and lipstick always match, and she is always changing them. But if you look at her inside, her character, you see how terrible she is. This woman abandoned her children, and only wants one of them back so she can collect money on her. She is destroying her body and mind with alcohol, and she takes it out on her children, even slapping Naomi at one point in the story.
Naomi is a young girl who does not know what to do with herself. She speaks at a whisper, and is afraid to stand up for herself and Owen. She is a worrier and a list maker, two things I can identify with. But when you have lived your life not knowing what is going to happen to you, worrying only can come naturally. Throughout the course of the story, she learns about herself, and the culture of her background, and embraces her "inner lion" (her last name of León means lion). That is why I chose my title "a mouse with a lioness's voice" because that is truly what she becomes. She stands up for herself and it helps her to be able to stay with Gram and Owen. The father is just a compassionate wonderful man, who got entangled in the trap of their mother. He does all he can to help his children, and Naomi seems to be a lot like him.
This book is a great way to teach, and learn about the Mexican culture. The entire second half of the story talks about the rich and beautiful traditions and people involved. It is completely told from an insider's perspective because the author, Pam Muñoz Ryan, has a Mexican heritage. We are learning about the culture from her, someone who has lived and experience it first-hand. Each tradition, whether it is food, celebrations, clothing, Naomi embraces because it is a part of her. There is no stereotyping involved, and I think that by reading it from the perspective of someone who knows nothing about the culture either, helps the reader to embrace and accept the culture as well. I love the relationship that Owen has with Ruben. Neither of them speaks the other's language, so they must rely on other interaction. They are best friends, playing and spending all their time together. It shows the great barriers that can be broken with understanding and acceptance of one another.
There is great use of the Spanish language, but it is simple enough so that even young readers can pick up what they are saying to each other. Words such as el mercado and quesillo represent a basic vocabulary that provides an insight into a foreign language.
There are several other cultural markers: food (mole, tortillas, pan dulce), La Noche de Los Rábanos, Posada, and the great importance of the family. All these things were introduced and fit well into the flow of the story. A wide variety of characters are introduced during their time in Oaxaca, and not all of them necessarily believe or act the same, but all bring a different spirit of the culture with them. Posada is perhaps my favorite tradition that I learned about. It is a great way to celebrate Christmas, and it shows a little difference in the way that their culture looks at the birth of Christ. Everyone walks around, knocking on all the doors in the neighborhood, looking for someone to let them in. At the end, everyone gets great goodies and Naomi leaves with sense of understanding about how humble Christ's birth was. It is in Mexico that Naomi makes a connection with herself and her real family.
This book's title says "Becoming" because it is a story that shows the journey of a young girl who finally embraces her heritage, and defines who she is. I think it is an essential multicultural book because it deals with so many different issues that students can relate to, or need to understand.
Teaching Ideas: This book is a great way to introduce the Mexican culture. The great language, traditions, and food that are presented in this novel can be a great starting point for children to learn about Mexico. There is a great idea for doing soap carvings with them at the end of the novel, and I think students would enjoy that.