If you’ve been reading this blog during #WorldKidLit Month, you may have already learned a bit about the coquí. A small species of tree frog onomatopoeically named for its vociferous song, the coquí has long been a symbol of Puerto Rico. The Taíno, for example, carved what are believed representations of the coquí on rock faces and cave walls. Today the coquí continues to be symbol of Boricuas’ joy, resilience, and spiritual connection to the island.
The coquí gets top billing in the charming two-part Kiki Kokí picture book series. Written and illustrated by Ed Rodríguez (and published by his own company), the Kiki Kokí books are fun stories, but they also introduce aspects of Puerto Rican history to young readers. Today I will introduce you to the first book in series, Kiki Kokí: The Enchanted Legend of the Coquí Frog.
In Kiki Kokí: The Enchanted Legend of the Coquí Frog, Kiki Kokí-who everyone in the village calls Kokí-is a young Taíno boy. While the other children help their mothers and fathers pick fruit or catch fish, Kokí would rather have fun (which definitely does not involve helping). On the night of the Full Moon Feast, Kokí is not allowed to attend, because he did not help in the preparations. Kokí stomps off into the jungle, and is caught by a thunderstorm. He runs into a cave for shelter, but soon the water in the cave begins to rise, and sweeps him out into the river.
Overcome by the waves, Kokí prays to the Moon Goddess for help. Just as he begins to feel some strange tingling in his arms and legs, two frogs pull him to the surface, where he finds that he is now a tree frog! Seeking answers to as to the possible reversal of his condition, his rescuers, Tonio and Juan, take him to Mona the Lizard Witch. She tells Kokí that in thirty days, he must return to the river and ask the Moon Goddess for help. In the meantime, he must stay in the frog village and help them with their tasks. If he fails to be a “good helper,” he will remain a frog forever.
For thirty days, Kokí helps everyone who needs help in the village. At the end of his time there, the whole frog village throws him a going-away party. As he arrives back at the river where he will hopefully transform back into a boy, he sees a pirate ship approach. He then overhears the pirates’ plot: they’re going to attack the village and eat the frogs!
Kokí hurries back to the frog village, where the attack is already underway. Drawing the pirates’ attention to his golden coloring, he tells them that he can lead them to a golden treasure. He convinces them to navigate their ship into the water, where it’s sucked down a whirlpool. The frogs are safe! But where is Kokí?
Once again, Kokí is washed out by the river, this time onto the riverbank. The Moon Goddess, seeing that he “had proven that he wasn’t selfish,” turns him back into a boy. While the Taíno celebrate Kokí’s return, the frogs search for their missing friend, promising to call his name, “Kokí! Kokí!” forever.
Kiki Kokí: The Enchanted Legend of the Coquí Frog would make a fun read aloud for children in preschool and above. It has just the right amount of tension in the climax to grab a young child’s attention. Of course, this book would be ideal for a library storytime about Puerto Rico. In the classroom, it would be a wonderful fiction narrative component of an early childhood or early elementary grades unit on the Taíno or the coquí. The illustrations are very kid friendly, their energy and color akin to an animated children’s show.
In the story, Kokí changes his self-centered ways by learning to help others, the residents of the frog village specifically. His previous behavior contrasts with that of the other children in the tribe. While it is indeed very important to pitch in when it is needed-especially when one lives in a community where it behooves every member to contribute to the wellbeing of said community- I must say that I am somewhat uncomfortable with the book’s seeming emphasis on helping for helping’s sake.
Traditionally, children have often been praised when they are obedient, when they submit to hierarchical notions of household organization-“because I said so.” Children’s autonomy should be respected. Encouraging and leading children to participate in household or community tasks should be with the intent to develop independence in children, forming them in an ethos of mutual respect, help, and care. It is not to teach them to be subservient, or that one must earn their place in the community or family, lest something bad happen (like nearly drowning and turning into a frog, no matter how fun a journey into another world might seem). That is a transactional way of thinking. Parents, teachers, and librarians would perhaps want to nuance “helping” as working together, as pitching in to help everyone in the community have the resources they need to flourish.
Written and Illustrated by Ed Rodríguez
Page Count: 44
Reviews: Kirkus (review of Spanish edition)
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.