Children's Books

PEOPLE OF CORN: A MAYAN STORY, written by Mary-Joan Gerson, illustrated by Carla Golembe. Little, Brown and Company, 34 Beacon St., Boston, MA 02154, (800) 759-0190, (617) 890-0875 FAX. Illustrated, author's note. 32 pp., $15.95 cloth. 0-316-30854-4. Ages 4 - 8

A Mayan creation myth, this tale from Guatemala relates the Maya affinity for corn, which is the spirit of life. In the beginning, Plumed Serpent and Heart of Sky create humans from sacred corn, and to this day they celebrate the event with each harvest, as related in the Popol Vuh. Though "People of Corn" contains rather simplistic and flat gouache paintings, the spiritual message shines right through. Grade: B. Reviewed by Steve Brock

A Second Look:

This is a reasonably good children's rewritten version of one legend that was collected in the post-conquest Mayan book which is usually called Popul Vuh (some Mayan scholars say Pop Wuj is more accurate). This is the main collection of religious and historical material -- not all of this was oral tradition, but most of the Mayan written codices were burnt by the Spaniards -- that was transcribed into western alphabetic writing (of the Mayan language) and circulated as an underground book among the Mayan people for 3 centuries. Several others were also prepared this way, but this collection is the best known.

It might be better if the authors had mentioned -- in their sourcenote -- that some (not all) myths were written down, and there is quite an elaborate interpretation of them, i.e. not as children's stories. I've also been told by a Mayan scholar who translated Pop Wuj into Spanish that there are no good English translations, none that are not thoroughly misleading, including no doubt the one that I compared with this rewriting.

This retold version of one small part of a large and complex creation myth is as reasonably accurate as a comparison with the full (Pantheon) English translation can determine. It is smoothly written and, except for the use of the word "magical" (which tends to give it the air of a fairy story, of unreality -- "sacred power" would have been better), the story has a reverent - - not heavy -- tone as is appropriate for an excerpt from a sacred book, comparable to the Christian Bible.

Golembe's illustrations are bright, charming, in the assumed primitive-naive style. She studied Mayan huipili (tapestry-woven designs on traditional womens' mantles) and stone carvings; this is evident in cartouches and marginal designs. The actual story illustrations are in naive-Mexican, rather than Mayan style. Doesn't quite come off in a couple of pictures of deities, but it may be that my own recent familiarity with Mayan art has imposed some expectations that needn't be met -- she's not trying to imitate it, but to use its flavor. I'm not sure why I really don't much like her paintings -- something about the composition and the color combos, but that's definitely only a personal taste; objectively they are quite good in their type of style.

There's a big boom in Mayan educational products -- not only books, but computer software (MayaMath), videotapes, video disks, and one very elaborate complete curriculum that requires videodisc. Over 200 Internet sites carry Mayan info that varies from abstruse but well-explained and illustrated astronomy to archaeology, art, English-Spanish versions of popular teaching tales from Yax'te Press, a novel about traditional village life by a Mayan refugee author (in English and Spanish and Q'uanjobal Mayan versions). For the internet materials, those with access can find links all collected (and originals of the folktales) on my websection at:

My site also provides some limited access to what's going on now in Maya country in Chiapas and Guatemala (this is being routed though Canada; those providing this information are at some risk).

There are big exhibits at several museums, the most elaborate being the one mounted by the Canadian Museum of Civilization (well represented at its website) celebrating the release and showing at CMCC of a feature-length film made jointly by the Mexican government and the Canadian National Film Board. With all these available materials, the lack of an adequate historical background -- which might actually have made this a more generally useful book -- doesn't matter so much.

A great many curriculum materials were prepared in connection with the Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium-sponsored MayaQuest of 1994 - 95. Others have been stimulated by large communities of Guatemalan Mayan refugees from the government terrorism in their country, who hope their children will not forget their ancient culture. In that collection of resources, this little book need not be ashamed. It is too bad that the determinedly "young children" presentation will tend to make older kids -- who might learn more from theological comparisons and consideration of the story in more in-depth cultural and historical perspective - - shy away from it; older kids tend to resist books that look "babyish" to them. Teachers can get around this resistance, and ought to try. MECC's inadequate treatment of Pop(ol) Wuj(Vuh) in its curriculum materials is a hole no one else has filled either.

--Paula Giese

File: ch15

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Native American BOOKS, text and graphics copyright Paula Giese, 1996

Last Updated: Monday, March 11, 1996 - 11:37:17 AM