Itzel and the Ocelot
Itzel and the Ocelot
Rachel Katstaller is a Salvadoran artist now living in Europe. Her early life in Central America and the folktales she heard there have inspired this story.
Little Itzel and her grandmother are living in a land suffering from terrible drought. Food is scarce, and all the people are longing for rain. Nana tries to explain what is happening by recounting a local myth.
“When the earth was newly born,” her nana began,
“the lords of the hills would awaken the giant snake
from its deep sleep. First with a whisper and then with a
deep thunderous cry, the giant snake would bring the arrival
of the rainy season.”
“Nana, why have I never seen the giant snake?” Itzel asked.
“Many do not believe in it anymore. So it has returned to the
place where the water is born,” answered her nana.
Itzel is intrigued by the story of the giant snake. She plays her wooden flute at bedtime and is led by its music into a dream sequence. In the nighttime jungle, she meets a talking ocelot who offers to help lead her to the snake.
Readers then follow a well-trodden folkloric path as Itzel and the ocelot encounter a number of different jungle animals – an opossum, an agouti, a monkey – all of whom join in the search. They are disappointed to end up at a dry riverbed rather than the refreshing outflow of water they have been looking for. Itzel sits down and plays a sorrowful tune on her flute, and, as she cries, the animals cry with her.
BOOM! CRASH! ROAR!
From underneath them a long shadow sprang into
the sky. The riverbed surrounding them starting [sic]
to fill up with water.
The river becomes a torrent that takes Itzel and all the animals back to their homes. Prominently shown are Itzel and the ocelot, bobbing down the stream in a small gourd-shaped boat. The girl and the big-eyed cat are soon back with nana, the ocelot seeming to have come out of the dream and into Itzel’s real life.
Many, many years ago, although it might have been yesterday,
the world was set right again by a little girl who had the courage
to believe in the tales of old.
And so ends the story.
Although the text is not highly original, a familiar cumulative cadence (‘And then she met…’) swings readers along to the inevitable satisfying conclusion.
Katstaller has illustrated the book with page-filling primitivist pictures in bright primary colours. Although Itzel is not drawn in a naturalistic style, her facial expressions add a great deal to the tone of the book. She is, by turns, worried, surprised, sad and joyful. The images of her meetings with the various native animals speak volumes. Details, like the array of nana’s empty pots at the beginning and a trail of ants laboriously carrying their food up a broad tree trunk as Itzel speaks to the kinkajou, are worth stopping to examine.
The last pages of Itzel and the Ocelot include a glossary of the Spanish words used in the story as well as an author’s note. Here, Katstaller gives some background on the origin of the story, including her fascination with the concept of the existence of tonales, Salvadoran protective spirits in the shape of animals. Recommended as an addition to a library’s shelves of tales from around the world.
Ellen Heaney is a retired children’s librarian living in Coquitlam, British Columbia.