Written By: Carmen Agra Deedy
Illustrated By: Michael Austin
Won’t you be my wife?”
The answer to this life-changing question depends solely on the outcome of an extremely important and telling test—the Coffee Test of course. Just as Martina wondered, “B-b-but…how will spilling COFFEE on a suitor’s shoes help me find a good husband?,” you may also be wondering about how this test will work. The answer relies in the suitor’s reaction. Grandmother stated, “It will make him angry! Then you’ll know how he will speak to you when he loses his temper…” Martina awaits her suitors on the balcony of her cozy lamppost home wearing una peineta, a seashell comb, and una mantilla, a lace shawl. She is armed with her Abuela’s un consejo increíble, or shocking advice.
Martina the Beautiful Cockroach is a traditional Cuban Folktale published in 2007 that has been retold by Carmen Agra Deedy. Deedy was born in Havana Cuba, and came to the United States as a refugee. The narrative received the Pura Belpré Honor award in 2008, which is presented to a Latino or Latina writer and illustrator whose work best represents the Latino culture.
The setting of the story is Old Havana, Cuba. Although the author outright tells us where the story takes place, there are so many subtleties throughout the story both in the text and through the illustrations that cue the observant reader into the beautiful tropic setting of Havana. For example, Martina does not look like a cockroach one might imagine. Bright green is certainly a prettier color than rusty brown and does not immediately set one off screaming, “EEEWH, COCKROACH!” Did the illustrator choose to make Martina green because it is a prettier color? The answer is no. Martina is a species of cockroach named Panchlora Nivea, or the Cuban Cockroach. This species of cockroach is native to Cuba and is attracted to light. This helps to explain why the setting of the Cucaracha family household was cozy lamplight.
Through the combination of text and illustrations, Deedy and Austin were able to effectively develop the characters of the story. In the beginning of the story, Deedy describes Martina as being a beautiful cockroach. Austin supports this description through his illustration as he drew Martina with long eyelashes, a fitted dress, dainty legs, and high-heeled shoes. He also drew a vanity with make-up, nail polish, and a spoon for a mirror—signifying that Martina’s appearance is important to her. As the story continues, we learn more about Martina—we learn that there is more to her than just beautiful looks. It is apparent that even before Martina completes the coffee test, she already knows when a suitor is not for her. For example, when the Don Lagarto, the lizard, tries to propose to Martina, she, “...wasn’t taking any chances. Martina returned with TWO cups for the lizard.” We can also sense Martina’s frustrations with finding a suitor as the story progresses. We are first hand witnesses to her excitement when she meets Pérez especially through phrases like “TI-KI-TIN, TI-KI-TAN.” By the end of the story, we know that Martina is strong and good—characteristics that are important to Pérez.
The quality of the language in this text is superb. Deedy successfully incorporated Spanish throughout the text at just the right moments. Although a dictionary of the Spanish words can be found through the book’s website, not knowing the Spanish definitions of the words does not impede understanding of the story. For unfamiliar Spanish words or phrases, like un consejo incríeble, the meaning followed the phrase. Other words, like una mantilla, were illustrated in the picture as well as defined within text. Finally some words and phrases could be figured out by using context clues.
It is evident through Deedy’s choice of language that this text should be read aloud in order to truly appreciate the humor, dialogue, and character emotions. In fact, the audiobook version of Martina the Beautiful Cockroach won the Odyssey award.
By using a combination of warm and cool hues that completely saturate each page, Michael Austin is successful in creating vivid acrylic illustrations that pop. Throughout the story, most images in the story are full-bled; however, Austin shows variation in style by including some that are framed. Although the images are framed, there is still a background using lighter tones of color—as if a layer of paint had been taken off the surface and a small detail from within the frame has been magnified. For example, in the beginning of the story, Martina’s Abuela reveals the coffee test to Martina while in her room. A spoon is used as a mirror above her vanity and a paper fan is used as a barrier from another area in the house. Surrounding this frame that distances us from the scene, we are almost brought back in through the magnification of the spoon and fan. The lines on the objects aren’t as clear. It is like we are seeing the smaller particles of the objects. He even lightens the overall tone of orange from the framed scene, but keeps a speckled texture that pulls in the dark tones from the inward frame. Again, I imagine zooming in under a microscope or camera lens and seeing the color orange broken down into small particles—each lighter and larger than the last and decreasing the level of saturation.
Combinations of vertical, horizontal, and diagonal lines are used throughout the story to most often bring our attention to a certain focal point on the page. For example, when Martina first sits outside on her balcony, the text tells us that she is waiting for her suitors. The text causes us to focus on Martina. However, in this particular illustration our perspective has changed and we are viewing her from afar. It is at this time that we can see Pèrez looking up at Martina as his flowerpot takes center stage on the double-paged spread. At the same time, however, Austin uses the diagonal lines of the pole holding the plant and the chains that it is hanging from to deter our attention back up towards Martina. It is almost like a tease. He wants us to notice the flowerpot and Pèrez, but doesn’t want us to look long enough to be suspicious of his importance.
Not only do the lines tell us where to look, but also at times the use of diagonal lines truly creates a sense of tension. This is most often felt when the illustrator combines the diagonal lines with our close distance to the action. Illustrations that cause this feeling are unframed and close-up—allowing us to witness every minute as if we are there. For example, when Don Gallo explodes in fury, his body is positioned diagonally. This creates tension because we fear his reaction. It also makes us want to turn the page in order to hope for a better suitor the next time around.
By using various levels of saturation of color, warm and cool tones, and changing from full-bleed illustrations to framed, Austin is able to create a balance throughout the story. He captivates the mood of the scene and changes his colors and style as needed. Through this balance, we are truly able to understand the illustrations and gather more meaning to use towards understanding the text.
Young and old alike will enjoy this delightful and humorous tale of the trials and tribulations of finding a suitable soul mate. Martina the Beautiful Cockroach is fully supported on Peachtree Publisher’s website with detailed information about the book.