My Neighborhood – written by María José Ferrada, illustrated by Ana Penyas, translated from the Spanish by Kit Maude
Tapioca Stories, 2022
My Neighborhood (originally published as Mi Barrio, Alboroto Ediciones, Mexico, 2018) is a picture book about old women, perfect for both young and older readers. The old women who live in Ms. Marta’s neighborhood are friendly, but not defined by their relationships to family members and not necessarily warm and affectionate, at least not all the time.
Marta’s approach to life is to begin each day ready to “check that the world is just as she left it.” That goal may seem modest, but it involves a sequence of steps not necessarily shared by children, including visits to the hairdresser, doctor’s office, and card game. But children do understand routines and the importance of continuity. Maybe they will conclude that old people are not so unlike themselves.
One hint of that connection happens when Marta passes a school, where a seven-year-old girl greets her and calls her “beautiful.” Another is an old people yoga class held in the local park, where a child playing is visible in the corner of the page, just to the left of Marta’s bench. Ms. Marta crosses the street holding the hand of a smiling girl. The two main categories of people who may need help crossing a street are, after all, children and old people. It’s reassuring for both of these groups to recognize that “The good thing about living in the neighborhood is that Ms. Marta Knows everyone and we all know her.”
Some environments, however, reveal some confusion about who they are serving. The doctor’s office, full of somber patients, is a place where one must not laugh at the word “funeral.” Meanwhile, posters on the wall warn those waiting to “Say no to drugs,” and to avoid pregnancy.
Marta is standing on the crowded bus home, although there are younger people sitting. Perhaps no one offered her a seat, or it could be that she prefers to stand. If you wonder what children would guess about this picture, ask them. María José Ferrada’s offers clues but not conclusions. The bus is the same one Marta has ridden for fifty years, but a picture of her in a full parking lot raises a question: “The same bus?” Even fifty years is not forever; people age and even daily check-ins cannot forestall changes. Luckily, Ms. Marta’s neighborhood is full of predictably helpful residents, young and old.
Ana Penyas’s portrayal of Ms. Marta’s world is both imaginative and brutally honest. Combining colored drawings with digital images, she places Marta in a specific community, but draws on universal aspects of being old. From the diverse set of clients in the hair salon, to the funny content of graphic t-shirts in the yoga class, and the menu viewed from inside the moving bus, Marta’s neighborhood is everyone’s and hers alone. When she relaxes by putting up her probably swollen feet and watching a glamorous star on TV, adults may feel a touch of sadness along with relief. Children will wholeheartedly agree with Ms. Marta that “lives, like socks, are elastic,” as they also know that changes are beyond their control.