Campbell Geeslin, illustrated by Ana Juan
Atheneum Books for Young Readers. 2004.
Elena's Serenade is one of the more unusual stories I've come across in the picture book genre. First, it's set in Mexico, and second, the protagonist Elena is a young would-be glassblower. I don't think I have read about glassblowing in a children's book before, and I love what Campbell Geeslin has done with the idea here. The fact that he was inspired by blowers in Monterrey, Mexico, just makes the setting ring all the more true. This is a Mexican story, and it is knee deep in all the literary and artistic richness that country has to offer. This makes it not only a pleasure to read, but a book that belongs front and center on the bookshelves of children's departments everywhere. Don't disappoint yourself and let this one pass you by.
So the story. Elena's father is a glassblower, and she dreams of following in his footsteps. He tells her that she is much too small and further asks, "Who ever heard of a girl glassblower?" Properly affronted by the comment, Elena complains to her brother, who suggests she go to Monterrey home of all the great glassblowers. This sets up a journey across the Mexican desert where the story takes a turn from traditional family tale to an adventure in magical realism. Animals talk, the moon smiles, and Elena makes wonderful music by blowing in her long pipe. She cures the ills of the lost and lonely donkey, slow roadrunner, and tone deaf coyote. Her music creates magical change upon all those who hear it, and the more often she blows the pipe, the better her music becomes. By the time she arrives at Monterrey, she is able to produce amazing works of glass through the pipe and achieves her dream as a glassblower. But, of course, she misses her family, and so with one great dose of magic she creates a way to return home to her father, where he accepts her impressive talent and she joins him in his workshop. Finally Elena is acknowledged for her ability and not dismissed as simply a little girl. The magic continues to flow through her pipe on the final page, providing the happiest and most satisfying of endings.
On one level then, Elena's Serenade is clearly a book about equality, about having a chance to prove oneself. But that message is subtle, even with the firm declaration from Elena's father at the book's beginning. Mostly Elena seems to be about the magical power of dreams and the amazing things that can happen when those dreams are followed. Her romp through the desert is fantastic on every level, and her unwavering faith in her ability to help the many animals she stumbles across only endears her even more to the reader. Geeslin has created the classic, spunky little girl character whom we have all known and loved since the first time we came across Heidi or Pippi or Anne. But Elena's story goes in such a nontraditional direction that she easily stands separate from the many young ladies who have challenged authority before her.
Finally there are Ana Juan's very impressive illustrations accompanying the text. I have been a fan of Juan's since I first saw her work in the picture book biography Frida. She has a wonderful ability to frame her character's expressions with the richest and most intense of colorful backgrounds. She is the perfect choice for a story that careens in and out of the magical world as her art clearly walks this boundary with ease. Campbell Geeslin's strong story needs an illustrator willing to embrace his words, and Ana Juan's illustrations give him the sheer exuberance required. Together they have created the kind of magic that Elena would surely love.
No doubt, this book is one of my new favorites. It makes me happy every time I read it and is a delight to share with my little boy. You will fall in love with Elena, I guarantee it.
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