If you’ve been reading this blog during #WorldKidLit Month, you know that we’ve already discussed some of Puerto Rico’s rich natural world. Today I want to introduce you to more of the island’s distinct natural features, specifically its bioluminescent bays. While nonfiction kid lit titles about bioluminescence are relatively easy to come by, it is harder to find a book that presents a child’s lived experience of this natural wonder.
The Coquí and the Iguana by Alidis Vicente, however, happens to fit the bill. This Puerto Rican tale of extended family, learning to appreciate nature, and the power of traditional stories to help us see things in a new light is an engaging story to share in storytime or in the classroom.
There are only five bioluminescent bays in the world, and three of them are in Puerto Rico alone. The largest of the three is Mosquito Bay on the island of Vieques. It is also the brightest. The second of the bays is Laguna Grande in the town of Fajardo, on the eastern side of the island. The last of the bioluminescent bays is La Parguera, and it is here that The Coqui and the Iguana is set.
The protagonist of our story is a young girl visiting her extended family in Puerto Rico. She loves spending time with her primos (cousins) playing outside, even if she doesn’t like the mosquitoes. Since mosquitoes are particularly active at night, she is rather nervous to learn that the whole family will be taking a night boat trip on La Parguera. It’s a very dark night, and there are all sorts of unusual sounds afoot. Is it snakes, or even a bay monster?
The only sound that our protagonist recognizes is the “nightly chant of the coquí,” which is just as loud as all the other sounds. Her cousin, Sebastian, however, helps her slowly get used to the night sounds and sights. There are huge trees (mangroves) with twisting roots along the shoreline, housing all sorts of animals like bats, snakes, and iguanas.
Here Sebastian tells his cousin a story about two of the bay’s animals. On a moonless and hot summer night long ago, a sleepy iguana lay on a mangrove branch, listening to the song of a coquí. All of a sudden, the coquí went silent. The iguana called for the coquí, but the little frog had stopped singing because he was afraid of the dark!
The iguana couldn’t make the moon come back out, he told the coquí, but he could get a light another way. Wiggling his tail in the water, the water began to glow with all sorts of colors! “Even in the darkest places there is always light,” the iguana says to the coquí. The iguana then fell asleep, as the coquí sang in the dark without fear.
Filling a bucket with water from La Parguera, Sebastian showed his cousin that she could also make light come from the water! Now things seemed a lot less scary and a lot more wondrous for our protagonist.
This book would fit perfectly into a classroom unit about bioluminescence in particular, or into a larger look at Puerto Rico’s ecosystems. I could also see the story-within-a story of the Iguana and the Coquí compared and contrasted with other origin myths or folk tales.
At the library, the book could be used in a storytime about animal friendships, or to talk about trips to visit extended family. The text is expressive, with touches of light suspense. A spirited read aloud performance could really draw in a group of young children, even preschoolers. The illustrations are uncluttered, and the face of the iguana in particular is friendly and inviting.
One fault of the book, however, is that the protagonist is not given a name. It’s somewhat disappointing that a young girl protagonist would not be given a name, while her male cousin is given one. It is perhaps the choice of the author; not giving a definitive name to the protagonist could help some readers more readily see themselves in the first-person narrative of a girl discovering something new about herself and the world around her.
The Coquí and the Iguana
Written by Alidis Vicente; Illustrated by Nancy Cote
2011, Operation Outreach-USA Press
Klem-Marí Cajigas has been with Nashville Public Library since 2012, after more than a decade of academic training in Religious Studies and Ministry. As the Family Literacy Coordinator for Bringing Books to Life!, Nashville Public Library’s award-winning early literacy outreach program, she delivers family literacy workshops to a diverse range of local communities. Born in Puerto Rico, Klem-Marí is bilingual, bicultural, and proudly Boricua.