JOELITO’S BIG DECISION / LA GRAN DECISIÓN DE JOELITO (NY: Hardball Press, 2015). Written by Ann Berlak; illustrations by Daniel Camacho - www.hardballpress.com
Book Review by John Pietaro
Like most children’s books built on a progressive core, ‘Joelito’s Big Decision / La Gran Decisión de Joelito ’ strives for impact. Though educational, it never loses the enjoyable, compelling quality necessary to hold youthful attention. More so, the book is enlightening on both cultural and socio-political levels, and visually enthralling.
The text—including the title—is offered in both English and Spanish, with no differentiation of the font size. The overt and underlying message of this converges in unity and equality. And the story of a boy’s recognition of the need to stand by his neighbors who are underpaid restaurant workers is nothing short of timely. The publisher, Hard Ball Press, was founded by Tim Sheard, an official of the National Writers Union with a long history in the fight for social change (as well as fine literature).
Nine year-old Joelito is part of a warm, caring family residing in an urban California locale. His parents work for a living but by all indications are making ends meet. Each Friday they eat dinner out. The weekly pilgrimage to the local burger place stands as a bonding point for Joelito, his sister Alma and their parents. The restaurant itself looms large in the kids’ sphere, literally and figuratively. But his close friend Brandon’s family is undergoing financial struggles and engage in a labor action at this same restaurant, their workplace. It is through this vehicle that Joelito comes to understand the disparity and imbalance that was always right in front of him.
Writer Berlak’s character studies are standard for a children’s book, where there is a need for expediency. However, the flow of the story is not only well-paced but lovingly told. It feels natural, as if based on conversations overheard among children. Berlak has a vivid understanding of the issue as seen through the fourth-grader’s eyes—her fifty-year career as an educator is evident.
Another character that is featured in this book is the restaurant itself: a large plastic statue of the owner’s head adorns the rooftop of each outlet and while it had previously beckoned Joelito as a positive, fun image, the enormous, bulbous fixture later appears ominous. To the low-wage employees, it represents the arrogance of the owner’s greed. The business God-complex should also be obvious to the adult reading over the children’s shoulder. But what of the plastic veneer of the burger mogul’s effigy?
The artwork by Daniel Camacho requires some note. The influence of classic Mexican folkloric art is proudly overt. The characters have large round faces, wide mouths and staring eyes, appearing all the more like papier mache masks. There is a level of surrealism to this, but never in a manner that may be off-putting to children. In fact, the creative visuals should only enhance the readers’ sense of wonder. Camacho is widely celebrated for his murals; the Mexican and Chicano tradition of political statement through murals is well-established on the Left. Many of the frames in ‘Joelito’s Big Decision / Joelito Decide’ could have climbed off the walls of Camacho’s radical visions.
The story of workers fighting for dignity and security for their families is ongoing. The heritage of struggle is well told here as Joelito, searching for a fuller understanding of this challenge, is reminded by his mother that her parents were desperately poor farm workers: “Demonstrating to be treated more fairly saved your abuelos’ lives”. The accompanying illustration of Cesar Chavez leading a march forges an indelible link between Si Se Puede! and the Fight for $15.
The striving for workers’ rights continues but the choices we make have an impact well beyond our immediate purview.