Soto, Gary. 1995. Canto Familiar. Illustrated by Annika Nelson. New
York: Harcourt Brace & Company. ISBN: 0-15-200057-4.
In Canto Familiar, or familiar songs, Soto shares 25 free-verse poems
about everyday occurrences that are familiar to many: losing glasses, eating favorite foods, playing with a baby, and seeing
a teacher outside the classroom. Soto uses imagery liberally, such as the ballet folklorico dancer who says, “I
love my dress/ Flushed with the colors/ Of Mexico/ Twirling
like an umbrella" (54). The poems are told in the voices of Hispanic children, sometimes a male voice and sometimes a
female. The lines are short, usually containing only three or four words. Spanish words and phrases are frequently mixed in
with English, but one can usually interpret the Spanish from context or from the use of English words below. The poems vary
in length – many are three or more pages, some are just one page. Frequently, the poem endings contain a surprise or
a poignant message. For example, in Sarape, a poem about a picnic, a baby, and
a colorful sarape, Soto’s final words are, “I would like to throw/ This sarape/ Into the air/And drench the sky/
With ancient color” ( 9).
Nelson’s "block print" illustrations are appealing and colorful.
Her one-dimensional illustrations are filled with decorative details. Kalajian writes that they "...bounce off white
pages with vibrant magentas and bold blues outlined with thick black lines" (SLJ, 1995). As pleasing as the illustrations
are, this reviewer is not sure they work well with the text. The characters are depicted with tan skin, but most of the characters'
facial features, hairstyles, and clothes look blandly American. The illustrations
do not expand the audience’s understanding of the text. Generally, the illustrations do match the text, but a few are
positioned too early and give away the ending. One example of this is Eyeglasses
Soto supplies numerous cultural markers including names, food, close extended
families, folk dance, costumes, language, religion, and music. He does not address physical descriptions or celebrations.
Names include Enrique, Angel, and Maria. Several poems mention Mexican foods or dishes, such as tripas,
tortillas, and chicken mole. In one of the poems, the children visit their grandfather, and they obviously feel
close to him. From a future ballerina, we learn about her ballet folklorico costume and her dance of “The Little Old
Men” (55). Spanish words and phrases are integrated into almost all the poems in a natural way. A child
talks about confessing in church in two languages, and another child "clapped out 'Las Mananitas' on pie tins" (18).
Most of the poems in this collection are endearing. Regardless of their cultural
background, many readers will relate to the characters, the topics, and the sentiments. However, the way Soto varies who speaks
in the poem can be confusing. Sometimes, I pictured a boy saying the poem and later learned it was a girl. The illustrations
do help with this, but not all the poems are illustrated. The work would have been enhanced if Soto had introduced the narrators
at the beginning of the book or had written a note for each poem. Adults and children ages 9-12 will enjoy these “familiar
songs” and the cultural journey that accompanies them.