I’ve seen a lot of foreign language television lately. (Confession: I love good TV.) It seems like all of a sudden there is a multitude of non-American shows on, and it’s wonderful. One night I can see a Danish show, another night a show from Sweden or Mexico. The style is so different from what you normally find on American television that I can’t get enough. And luckily, the world of children’s books follows me.
I had never heard of Gustavo Roldán before the book of Juan Hormiga arrived at my door. I didn’t know anything about him The Hedgehog, the story of a hedgehog who needed the help of an elephant to fetch an apple from a tree, or How to recognize a monsterthat teaches children to recognize monsters (they may have a nose that looks like an eggplant). No, Argentina-born Roldán from Barcelona is a writer I didn’t know, not even a bit.
Then came Juan Hormiga.
While Roldán’s books have been translated into many languages, English, at least American English, has not yet been one of them. Juan Hormiga was published in its original Spanish language in 2012 and is now finally available in English. Thank God!
Juan Hormiga, translated by Robert Croll, is funny in one word. Juan Hormiga is the only red ant among thousands of black ants, but it’s not his red being that sets him apart from the rest of the colony. While every other ant is as busy as one might expect, it is busily collecting food or digging tunnels, but that’s just not Juan Hormigas Forté. No, Juan has some very special talents:
“If there was one way that Juan Hormiga was unmatched, it was his way of taking a nap.
Well, I should take a nap because he took six or seven every day. And that’s only if it was a normal day. “
Juan Hormiga, the champion napper. Elsewhere editions hide lettering
To quote Peter Falk in The Princess Bride, isn’t that a wonderful start?
But it’s getting better.
All those hard-working black ants could have pissed off the lazy Juan Hormiga. They could have denied him tunnel privileges or picnic litter, but no, the other ants “didn’t seem to care too much”. Napping isn’t Juan’s only talent: he’s also a storyteller, a born storyteller. Juan is such a good storyteller that when he starts telling a story that seems to be there whenever he is awake, all the other ants forget about their work and come close to listen to Juan spreading the adventures of his grandfather told beyond the world of the anthill.
Roldán’s illustrations – bizarre, charming, funny, enchanting, the whole nine meters of the illustration and description – show ants with big eyes that are excited while Juan Hormiga hops and dances, his grandfather in bubbles over his head against snakes, beetles and spiders fights (always winning, of course). How can the ants possibly work when Juan is telling such wonderful stories?
Nobody tells stories like Juan! Elsewhere editions hide lettering
But unfortunately the ants will soon have to tell stories themselves.
Juan Hormiga decides that he is not satisfied with his grandfather’s adventures – he wants to tell his own stories, and sets off with a determined announcement of his departure and a small bundle of food from the anthill.
Oh, Juan has been gone a long time! He’s gone for hours and hours. The other ants speculate about where he is and what he is doing. Is he crossing the river? Is he dangling from a spider’s thread? Oh, Juan Hormiga, you are terribly brave, strong and determined.
At this point my children are jumping up and down on their beds. Go, juan, go!
But Juan! (This is where my kids start to worry no matter how many times we’ve read the story). A huge rain storm is coming!
Back in the colony, the ants looking for highlands to escape the rising water fear the worst for Juan. He’s out there on his adventures somewhere in the world, and only the worst must have happened to him.
Where could Juan be? Elsewhere editions hide lettering
“The ants have taken a moment of silence to pay homage to the brave Juan Hormiga.”
There are still many pages in the book after that, so don’t worry about Juan Hormiga. his naps are practical.
It is difficult to put into words what makes children’s stories from other countries different from American children’s stories. Certainly, historically European fairy tales had a much darker tone than American fairy tales, as did fairy tales from other regions. There is certainly a lot more fantastic in the English tradition of writing for children. Language, cultural and historical context have a lot to do with what gives stories their flavor, and this is no different with Spanish Juan Hormiga.
Does Juan Hormiga seem rooted in a fabulous tradition? Yes. Does it seem born out of a culture where napping is not frowned upon? Absolutely. (This is definitely not American.)
“Juan Hormiga” is a jewel of a story. It has everything my kids and I want from a book: silliness, adventure (kind of), daring (kind of), a cliffhanger (kind of), a satisfying ending (really!).
But is Juan Hormiga still familiar? Yes. Roldán calls it his answer to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, which his mother read to him as a child, and he follows the tradition of his own father, who told him and his sister stories about his own childhood adventures.
It’s been years and years since I’ve read Tom Sawyer, but I know Juan Hormiga is a gem of a story. It has everything my kids and I want from a book: silliness, adventure (kind of), daring (kind of), a cliffhanger (kind of), a satisfying ending (really!). Best of all, I can finally read it!
Juanita Giles is the founder and executive director of the Virginia Children’s Book Festival. She lives with her family on a farm in Southern Virginia.