How Tia Lola Learned to Teach: (Tia Lola Stories, Book 2.)
by Julia Alvarez
Alfred A. Knopf, 2010.
134 pages (hardcover)
Tía Lola has been invited to teach Spanish at her niece and nephew’s elementary school. But Miguel wants nothing to do with the arrangement. He hasn’t had an easy time adjusting to his new school in Vermont and doesn’t like living so far away from Papi, who has a new girlfriend and an announcement to make. On the other hand, Miguel’s little sister, Juanita, can’t wait to introduce her colorfully dressed aunt with her migrating beauty mark to all her friends at school—that is, if she can stop getting distracted long enough to remember to do so. Before long, Tía Lola is organizing a Spanish treasure hunt and a Carnaval fiesta at school. Will Miguel be willing to join the fun? Will Juanita get her head out of the clouds and lead her classmates to victory in the treasure hunt?
Told with abundant humor and heart, Julia Alvarez’s new Tía Lola story is the long-awaited sequel to the beloved How Tía Lola Came to Visit Stay. ~publisher’s comments
Julia Alvarez’s How Tía Lola Learned to Teach is absolutely charming. This is a second middle-grade novel by Alvarez featuring Tía Lola. You can bet I am Requesting the first now, How Tía Lola Came to Visit Stay (Knopf, 2002).
The Tía Lola character reminds me of Mary Poppins, though older and warmer. Tía Lola has a magical quality about her, bringing student’s imaginations to life, transforming a classroom into a jungle (16-7) and her nephew into “a big, dumb orangutan” (18).
You didn’t work some magic in there, did you?: Miguel asks his aunt bluntly.
Tía Lola laughs and shakes her head. “No hice nada.” She didn’t do a thing. The children just used their imaginations. (18)
There is something magical about Tía Lola, something marvelous. You learn very quickly that she has a positive pleasing affect on the people around her, firmly rooted into the community of which she is so new. Her foreignness (the brightly colored/patterned clothes, mannerisms, language) is not embarrassing or off-putting; she actually draws people closer to herself and each other. Tía Lola looks at the world with wonderment and experience, with a ready smile or tear. “Juanita gazes up lovingly at her aunt. The wonderful thing about Tía Lola is that she thinks like a kid, but being a grown-up, she can actually make wishes come true” (61). Tía Lola wouldn’t keep that quality to herself, but empowers not only the imaginations, but the capabilities of carrying out their dreams in the ones around her—and hopefully the Reader.
One of Tía Lola’s desires is to share her culture with the people around her. And in this novel she finds an eager audience; in the community of characters and in the readership of the novel. The author Julia Alvarez has the same desire, having also grown up in the Dominican Republic, she would share the culture. Bilingual, she would share the advantages, “Being bilingual is a wonderful way to connect ourselves with other people from other countries and understand what it means to live inside their words as well as their world” (133).
There is the learning of Spanish. Alvarez notes in “about tía lola’s spanish,” “whenever I use a Spanish word, I always give you its English translation or make sure you understand what the word means in that scene. I wouldn’t want you to feel left out just because you are not yet bilingual!” (133).
There is the subtle reminder that the Dominican Republic is not Mexico and vice versa. While there are things in common, like Carnaval, there are differences.
For all the differences between places of birth and physical appearances and language, title reminds that we are “all a part of the human family” (64). Title is constructed of Lessons that function singularly to illustrate the Lesson with a Wise Saying while maintaining an overarching time- and story-line. In “Lesson 6: En todas partes cuecen habas/Everywhere, people cook beans,” Alvarez illustrates (shows) the meaning of the phrase; and Tía Lola explains it (to Juanita): “There are certain things that people everywhere in the world do, like cook beans or have babies or dream dreams or fall in love” (64). Throughout the Lesson, Tía Lola and Juanita are comparing similar phrases between languages, and the action has Juanita comparing herself to the Mexican girl in her classroom Ofelia, drawing connections which leads toward compassionate action.
The decision to form the novel into “Lessons” is a wonderful idea; fitting on several levels. Tía Lola had never progressed past the 4th grade and is concerned about her ability to teach Spanish to the children at school as requested (5). While she does work to create a lesson plan, studying and researching, in the end it is Tía Lola as herself that is most influential. And there is also her own willingness to learn and participate that is rewarded (as opposed to Ofelia’s parents?).
Tía Lola isn’t the only character around which the Reader might gravitate. Miguel (almost 11) and Juanita (7) make this middle-grade available to boy or girl audiences. Each have their personality traits that are absolutely relatable. Lessons learned aren’t overly sappy and often involve humor. despite plenty of serious tones in the read, Alvarez maintains a light hand and gentle, compassionate response in which young readers can find both comfort and hope.
How Tía Lola Learned to Teach is humorous and endearing, creating characters that are well-described, creating a community with quirks. The community is somewhat idyllic, though not impossible. The optimism in the book results in more positive outcomes than negative. And there are a few negative outcomes, not ignored, but with a determination to celebrate hopefulness, the novel works to redirect the gaze (of Reader and character).
The Tía Lola stories are set in less than pleasant circumstances. Mami and Papi have divorced, and in following a job Mami has moved her and her children away from Papi and family and friends to a rural town Vermont. I am assuming the first book How Tía Lola Came to Visit Stay, deals with this transition. How Tía Lola Learned to Teach is a year later and the effects are still felt, if not compounded by Papi’s latest announcement. How do the children feel about this, how do they respond? How does Mami handle it? Tía Lola shines in her role to hold them all together. Circumstances may be ugly, but humans needn’t be. Life is not easy or ideal, but with a well-aimed phrase perspective is valuable; as is family and community.
How Tía Lola Learned to Teach creates a longing for multi-generational homes and stronger communities. If a Reader already has these pleasures, the read is life-affirming.
A great project after the read? (which would be great to have this read aloud with parents, grandparents, and/or in classrooms.) Create a piñata and fill it like the one at the picnic. Exchange Sayings to compare/contrast. To follow Alvarez’s urgings, “Maybe you can find a Tía Lola in your neighborhood who can come to your school and teach everyone how to speak Spanish in español” (133). And learn about Immigration Policies and about the lives and struggles of immigrants in your own community, and in your own past.
I have gone on about the educational aspects of How Tía Lola Learned to Teach. That the novel is one to learn from and would impart meaning is something a middle-grader would pick up on in the reading. For those (like me) who dislike books with overt Messages How Tía Lola Learned to Teach doesn’t come across in that way; there is no edge of criticism for the ignorant or forsaking of plot development. Julia Alvarez maintains a nice balance that keeps this Tía Lola Story a story. It is thoughtful and entertaining, dramatic and light. This is one for every middle-grader to share with the adults in their lives.
How Tía Lola Learned to Teach is recommended ages 8-12, agree with a young 12. The writing style, the 3rd person voice, is highly accessible and enjoyable. The bilingual aspect is beautifully done, not too difficult at all, respects the intelligence of its audience to pick it up.
I am looking forward to the first Tía Lola, and have made a list of other Julia Alvarez novels to check out. Speaking of lists, How Tía Lola Learned to Teach is a “concenter list” read, a list I hope to put a huge dent in in the coming year.
Julia Alvarez's website.