By Nawal Qarooni Casiano
The story begins, “Every other Saturday, my dad wakes me up early. ‘Come on, m’ijo,’ he says. “Vamos al Otro Lado.’”
The Other Side refers to Mexico, where the young protagonist joins his father on a habitual weekend excursion back and forth between countries. It is full of vibrant colors and joyful encounters. They buy medicine. They grab chanclas, Mexican cokes, sweet Gansitos, and a jar of honey. It is rife with heart-warming moments as the two cross errands off the list while enjoying mango and melon paletas, visiting Tio Mateo, and experiencing the beautiful energy of el Otro Lado.
Written by David Bowles, the award-winning author of They Call Me Güero, the gorgeous picture book My Two Border Towns tells the story of a young boy living on the border, in a space that fluidly draws upon both the United States and Mexico, and its special borderland nuances. There is joy but there is also sadness as the boy interacts with refugees seeking asylum, stuck in camps on one side. Erika Meza illustrated the story, paying careful attention to the layers of detail that folks from the border would recognize—what Bowles called “rewarding for people in this community in a rewarding way.”
“In a transnational community, the qualities of our culture are still there,” Bowles said. “But they’re macerated by other cultural elements. There are similarities, but the balance is different.”
It was important to both Bowles and Meza to get those balances right.
“I wanted for children to see themselves or for people who are afraid of the community because of the rhetoric to see that we have developed all kinds of systems for taking care of each other,” Bowles said. “Border folk are often viewed negatively instead of the culturally rich people we are.”
The book is inspired by Bowles’s own life. He and his family live right on the border, on a road that leads to the bridge that takes you directly to Mexico. Many of his friends and family live in the Mexican border town of Nuevo Progreso.
“Because of Trump’s increasingly Draconian ways of dealing with refugees, the families camped in the pedestrian walkways grew, and we began to get to know them.”
So it was the idea of crossing regularly, combined with kids seeing others living in confined spaces, that was the genesis of this book’s idea, Bowles said.
“I thought about my son’s experience seeing this, blending with the current crisis,” Bowles said. “And thought about how to grapple with that in a way that a child could understand.”
In the picture book, police checkpoints are depicted. Passports must be shown. Refugee families with children stuck at the border are also shown, camped along the edge of town, “stuck between two countries.”
Bowles’s language here is precise: “The US says there’s no room, and Mexico says it can hardly look after its own gente.”
That theme of community care runs deep. The young boy brings toys and gifts to the children camped at the border, sprinkling joy and love in an otherwise devastating scene.
“One of the most important lessons we wanted to teach our kids since I’m the first generation to go to college, is the responsibility that comes with privilege. We continually remind them of their roots,” Bowles said. “When you have the privilege to move back and forth, you have a responsibility to do some providing.”
Bowles highlights the interconnectedness between the countries. Folks who need cheaper medicine often get it in Mexico. Bowles’s family doctor is in Mexico. There is a rich economic and cultural web that Meza replicates in the illustrations. Having grown up on the San Diego Tijuana border, she understands from firsthand experience.
“You fall asleep, you wake up, and you know what side you’re on,” Meza said. “Just from a glimpse, you can tell.” She referenced the 50s and 60s nostalgia, the pastels in the shops and the lamp posts; the soft blues, pinks, and peaches.
As such, Erika worked on the color palettes extensively, first in collage style, to strike the right balance of richness and soft pastels as differences between the towns. Some of her process images are included here.
As with all cultures and peoples, the Mexican story is not a monolith. “This is not a generic Latin story. It is not like: Mexican? Tick, checked off with the movie Coco. People from the border, you don’t see them except for Narco shows,” Meza said.
Negative depictions of the border cannot be the only narrative our young people know. It is crucial we have discussions with youth about the compassion, care, and connectedness that also exists. And this book provides that platform. While the political message in the text is dealt with subtly, there is a clear undercurrent, too, grappling with the tragedy.
“You have to be able to talk about these things with kids or it hampers their ability to be humane,” Bowles said. “This 60-mile strip…it colors the way you think of yourself as a border person. It is not fair. We love them. We want them.”
David Bowles is a Mexican American author and translator from south Texas. Among his two dozen books are the multiple-award-winning They Call Me Güero, as well as the speculative series Garza Twins, 13th Street, Clockwork Curandera, Tales of the Feathered Serpent and The Path. His work been published in multiple anthologies such as Reclaim the Stars, Rural Voices, and Living Beyond Borders, plus venues like The New York Times, School Library Journal, and The Journal of Children’s Literature. My Two Border Towns is David’s debut picture book.
Erika Meza was born in Mexico, fell in love with animation on the border with California, and developed a taste for éclairs in Paris before moving to the U.K. As an adoptive Tijuanense, she took her first steps to find her visual voice at the border—forever fueled by tacos de birria. When Erika isn’t drawing, you’ll find her drinking coffee, tweeting, or plotting ways to bring her cat traveling with her.
Nawal Qarooni Casiano is an educator, literacy coach and writer who supports dozens of schools in a holistic approach to literacy instruction. The proud daughter of immigrants, mothering four young multiethnic kids very much shapes the way she understands education. She is a former newspaper reporter and is a contributing writer for We Need Diverse Books in addition to the teaching blogs Choice Literacy and Two Writing Teachers. You can find her reading aloud to her kids, biking around Chicago’s Logan Square, or on Twitter @NQCLiteracy. Learn more about her work at NQCLiteracy.com.