by Sam Juliano
Adorned in colorful marquee style on the star-bordered end papers of Yuri Morales’ spectacularly-popular Nino Wrestles the World are placards of some truly fearsome and nightmarish foes, who derive from Mexican folklore:
“La Momia De Guanajuato” was dug up from his tomb at Santa Paula cemetery; he has been chasing people since 1865. He hides out at the Guanajuato City Museum. His birth name is Dr. Remigio Leroy. His Lucha style: He likes to bite.
“La Llorona” is a famous Mexican ghost. Her terrifying cry echoes through the night sending shivering children under the covers. Her battle cry is !Ayyyyyy, mis hijos! Her Lucha style is taking children away to make them her own.
“Cabeza Olmeca” is sculpted from basult rock, hardheaded since the rise of the Olmec civilization in 1400 BCE. His temperament is one of mystery and his Lucha style is ‘head first.’
El Extraterrestre is a space explorer, first reported hovering over the earth in his flying saucer in 1947. His secret desire is to see the world and his Lucha style is abduction.
El Chamuco (the Devil) is powerful and rebellious, and he likes to tempt people into doing bad deeds. He has a ‘fiery’ temperament and his Lucha style is placing obstacles and causing downfalls.
Las Hermanitas are twice as terrible, and double the diapers. Their battle cry is constant and loud and their Lucha style is biting, pulling hair, poking eyes, and anything imaginably rude.
Their mutual opponent is the pint-sized precocious Nino, an unwilling big brother who lives on popsicles, is a bonafide toy lover, and a somersault expert extraordinaire. His own battle cry is !Ay, ay, ay, ajua! and his Lucha style is playful. For those uninitiated into the world of Lucha wrestling, it is known to have developmental roots in Mexico, but has become wildly popular in other Spanish-speaking countries. The Mexican style, which the distinguished author, artist and puppet maker Yuyi Morales showcases in Nino Wrestles the World is characterized by colorful masks, rapid sequences of holds and maneuvers and “high-flying” tactics. Morales explains in an afterward that “Like Nino, many luchadores wear masks to hide their identities, some even outside the ring. El Santo, the most famous luchador in history, was buried in his mask, and his true identity was never revealed to his fans. During matches, luchadores often attempt to unmask their opponents as a way of asserting dominance.” In stunning, vibrant block print collage, managed in part by digital photography Morales packs each and every double page spread with the death defying sounds and braggadocio one associates with the carnival atmosphere of a wrestling match, and Nino’s fearless acrobatics and ability to solve each opponent’s weakness provides a special treat for the youngest kids looking to rally around a hero. The fact that he’s one of their own makes it even more celebratory. The reds and yellows that dominate the book are beautifully integrated into a festive array of stars and theatrical posturings, adored with the crashing sounds first made popular in the public consciousness in the original Batman series, and there’s a clear enough homage to comics by way of the graphics and speech bubbles.
The text Morales employs to tell the story and connect the irresistible illustrations is in the form of a wrestling commentator calling the action in a ring, and there’s even a cheerleading chorus at the start: Nino! Nino! Nino! to properly set the atmosphere of a match. In the end kids will be delighted by the emotional hook of the two young sisters as the only real competition for this seemingly brace and dauntless troubadour and the idea that Nino’s “best move ever” is the embrace of the old adage “If you can’t beat em, join em.” Nino Wrestles the World is a bold, colorful and fabulously designed book, that has won a special place in the hearts of the students in my largely Hispanic elementary school in northern New Jersey outside of Manhattan. In addition to its originality, craftsmanship and cultural appeal it’s about as sensational a read-aloud book out there right now. Viva La Lucha Libre!
Note: This is the tenth review in an ongoing series focusing on Caldecott Medal and Honor book hopefuls in advance of the late-month announcement by the American Library Association.
Yuyi Morales reads her book to students on you tube–I have provided the box link at the first submission in the comment section!