Picturing Books: Martina the Beautiful Cockroach

Martina the Beautiful Cockroach by Carmen Agra Deedy.
Illustrated by Michael Austin.

The kids and I saw this book lying on top of a pile of picture books stacked on the floor of the Children’s reading area at our local library. We had sat down on the carpeted steps to kill some time.

It’s not the kind of book I would normally pick up. The giant green bug swooning on the cover threatened me with the disappointment of another lazily written children’s books about princesses and their perils; whose covers were more creative than the stories they enveloped. But then again, it was a giant green cockroach. Not many books with cockroaches as their heroes or heroines.

Though Twilight of the Cockroaches comes to mind, it’s anime so while the roaches are drawn cutely enough to watch and sympathize with, it’s questionable whether it’s “age appropriate.”

Right under the title, the book is identified as a “Cuban Folktale.” I am a sucker for “the traditional art, literature, knowledge, and practice that is disseminated largely through oral communication and behavioral example.”

In the post-Telecom Age, in the Data Age, it is easy to forget the cultural and intellectual impact of the simple act of reading a story to your children or being told a story. I agree with the anonymous author of “The Power of Story and Effective Storytelling” that

a distinguished fragment of examining one’s life is examining what stories one is telling, believing, living, and, embracing. The stories we tell and retell, the stories we believe or disbelieve, the stories we tell about ourselves and about others are all prime indicators of who we are, what we are about, and how and why we make the decisions we make. And, in examining our stories, we might learn a thing or two about the roles they are playing in our lives. Are they healthy stories or unhealthy ones?

Whether it is regarded as a folktale or not, Martina stands out because it makes an interesting observation on human nature. Martina’s grandmother tells her to spill coffee on her suitors’ shoes. She tells Martina, “It will make them angry! Then you’ll know how he will speak to you when he loses his temper.”

Perhaps I find it interesting because it is something I’ve said to my children and something I’ve heard my own parents say. It’s that cliché of “everyone loves you when things are well.” The true test of devotion occurs when times are at their worst. The book also makes a humorous observation about the roles grandmothers play. However, it is difficult to discuss without giving away to very neat and cutely comic ending to the tale.

There is also a website for the book: http://www.beautifulmartina.com. While it does not yet have the  original version of the folktale, it does provide an FAQ on the Cuban cockroach and printable activity pages that allow readers to create their own cockroach story.

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