Review of A Land of Books: Dreams of a Young Mexihcah Word Painters

A Land of Books: Dreams of Young Mexihcah Word Painters
by Duncan Tonatiuh; illus. by the author
Primary    Abrams    48 pp.
11/22    9781419749421    $19.99
e-book ed.  9781647008550    $15.54

With his signature illustrations that draw from Mesoamerican codex pictographic aesthetics, Tonatiuh introduces a picture-book audience to the role that bookmaking played in ancient Mexihcah culture and cosmology. “Our parents are ­tlahcuilohqueh, painters of words,” explains the young narrator to her brother. She describes their bookmaking process, and a series of double-page spreads shows how organic materials—such as “the bark of the amacuahuitl tree” for the amatl (paper) and “plants, animals, and rocks” for dyes and ­drawings—are used to create the amoxtin, or ­wood-covered and decorated accordion-style books made of “long strips of paper with multiple page folds.” Mastery in painting and sculpture, as well as philosophical, scientific, humanistic, and spiritual understandings of the world and life upon it, were also required; and Tonatiuh makes clear connections to illustrate how Mesoamerica was an amoxtlalpan, meaning “land of books.” The girl also explains to her brother that “noblemen, priests, and wise elders” played important roles in interpreting the complex images, symbols, and designs of the amoxtin, which they would sing and perform for others to “hear the words and admire the images.” An author’s note provides historical context, centering the importance of preserving Indigenous art (“Sadly, of the thousands—perhaps hundreds of thousands—of books that were made in Mesoamerica before the Spanish arrived in the 1500s, only fifteen survive”), storytelling, and knowledge. A helpful pronunciation guide/glossary for the Nahuatl words used in the text and a robust bibliography are appended.

From the January/February 2023 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

Lettycia Terrones

Lettycia Terrones is a PhD student in the School of Information Sciences at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

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