"review" · Children's · fiction · juvenile lit · Picture book · recommend · Tales

the secret footprints

The Secret  Footprints by Julia Alvarez

Illustrated by Fabian Negrin

Alfred A. Knopf, 2000.

That it was Alvarez caught my eye when the daughter and I were browsing the 398s. I had never heard of ciguapas, and now I am just flat out captivated by the idea of their existence.


As a little girl growing up in the Dominican Republic, I remember hearing stories of the ciguapas. (See-goo-ah-pas.) This tribe of beautiful women live underwater but come out at night to hunt for food. No one has ever been able to track them down because they have a special secret. I’d lie in bed, struggling to stay awake, hoping to spot one. I never did, until I wrote this story about one little-girl ciguapa, Guapita, who almost gives away the special secret by befriending a human boy. The illustrations by the Italian artist, Fabian Negrin, are fabulous. ~Julia Alvarez, here.

In Julia Alvarez’s tale, The Secret Footprints, a fearless young ciguapa, Guapa, has a curious nature that nearly costs her tribe their freedom. “If people find out where we live, they will capture us because we are so beautiful. Doctors will want to put us in cages and study us. We will be forced to live on land” (8). But are all humans so terrible? Her boldness gets her into trouble, but the human boy she’s found interest in proves kind.

I am just going to go ahead and share their secret, because I thought this to be a interesting invention (and it won’t ruin the story). “Their feet were on backward! When they walked on land, they left footprints going in the opposite direction” (3).  No prints are seen rising up out of the sea. An added enchantment is how Julia Alvarez imagines some of the difficulties of having backward feet on land. This is a story that truly captures the imagination.

Those familiar with Ondine, The Little Mermaid, and/or Selkies will be intrigued by the ciguapas, fairytale figures originating in the Dominican Republic.Alvarez adds a letter at the end of the book, “About the Story,” where she talks about growing up with the tale and shares some of the different versions she’s encountered. I love that she includes people’s ideas about where the ciguapas stories come from, but I am even more charmed by the influences ciguapas have had on the author’s life, how they’ve still managed to make it to Vermont, backward feet and all.

“Sometimes I leave my wash out on the line overnight and stick a piece of candy or an apple in the pocket of my pants or jacket, just in case. I know it’s a long way from the Dominican Republic to Vermont, especially if your feet are on backward. But I have to tell you, sometimes that piece of candy or apple is gone from that pocket in the morning. My husband says it could be squirrels or maybe even a raccoon.

I know better.”


to view more of Fabian Negrin’s work. Julia Alvarez’s site.

my review of Tia Lola Learns to Teach.

read for the Once Upon a Time Challenge (V) as well.

4 thoughts on “the secret footprints

  1. I love the artwork for this. Beautiful. Thanks for the website links!

    Oh, the story sounds interesting, too, especially for those of us interested in such tales.

thoughts? would love to hear them...

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