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The Day of the Dead: A "Lively" Tale of Mexican Culture

A perfect book for this time of year -- and a perfect book for introducing Mexican culture to students from 6 to 60!

Book Cover

Above a small town in Mexico,
the sun rises
like a great marigold.

A soft sound comes from a warm kitchen. Slap, slap. Slap, slap. The children hear it and wake up.

Mamá is making empandadas, Little pastries fat with meat.

And so begin preparations for El día de los muertos, The Day of the Dead, in Tony Johnston's "lively" and engaging tale of this morbid-sounding celebration.

But The Day of the Dead isn't a morbid time at all. It's a festive occasion, a time for happiness and music and feasting. Eager Mexican children wait impatiently for the annual festival, held each year over three days, from October 31 to November 2.

And what time of year could be better -- for this is Hispanic Heritage Month -- to introduce students to Tony Johnston's new book? The Day of the Dead (Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1997) celebrates one of the most important holidays of the year for many Mexicans in Mexico and the United States.


The story follows children as they observe adult relatives gathering and making the special treats -- the empanadas, pan de muertos (bread of the dead), and tomales -- that will soon be carried to the cemetery for a special celebration. You can feel the children's excitement build as the special day nears.

The Day of the Dead is a time to celebrate the continuity of life. Families visit the graves of dead relatives. They clean up around the gravesites and decorate the graves with flowers -- especially with marigolds, called "the flower of the dead" because it dies quickly once it is picked; to many, the marigold represents the shortness of life. Mexicans bring to the cemetery sumptuous picnics and sugary treats -- many decorated with bones and skulls -- to share with relatives and neighbors past and present.

Johnston weaves all those activities into The Day of the Dead. And she adds to the flavor and the fun of the book by using of a sprinkling of Spanish terms that are integral to the occasion.

Jeanette Winter's simple illustrations in colorful pastels and warm earth tones convey the children's excitement and beautifully reflect the Mexican culture. Border illustrations teach about the important elements of the celebration and are great fun to talk about as the story unfolds.

Tony Johnston's closing notes share with readers some simple facts about The Day of the Dead, and of the importance this special day holds for many Mexicans.


I'm a firm believer in using children's picture books with "children" of all ages. This book is innately teachable and is the perfect jumping off point for a cultural lesson for students of any age. For middle and high school students, read the book aloud and then send students on a quest for information about this special Mexican holiday. A number of Web sites offer a wealth of information about El día de los muertos.

  • Maya Rediscovery
    Scan down the page and learn about The Day of the Dead, a Mexican festival whose roots go back to pre-Hispanic times.
  • What Do Mexicans Celebrate on The Day of the Dead?
    A brief description of the holiday with links to recipes and other sites.
  • Halloween on the Net
    Mariposa! Mariposa! The monarch butterfly has returned! The Day of the Dead comes at the time of year when the monarch butterfly returns to Mexico from its summer home in the United States and Canada. Many Mexicans welcome back the returning butterflies, which they believe bear the spirits of their deceased relatives. (This simple and fun description of The Day of the Dead comes from the spooky "Halloween on the Net" Web site.)
  • La Raza Gives Life to Day of the Dead
    A news story from The Golden Gater, about a student organization's (La Raza) celebration of The Day of the Dead.
  • Day of the Dead Is a Living Experience A 1996 AP news story that appeared in The Salt Lake Tribune.


Be sure to check out another title from Harcourt, Brace and Company. Cuckoo/Cucu tells the tale of a beautiful parrot. Problem is, the parrot knows she is beautiful. In the words of another parrot and author/illustrator Lois Ehlert, "She's stuck on herself."

But parrot comes to the rescue in this adaptation of a Mayan Indian tale from Mexico.

The story is rich with possible follow-up activities! Teachers might invite students to read the tale on which the story is based. That tale, "The Cuckoo's Reward," was published in Latin American Tales from the Pampas to the Pyramids of Mexico by Genevieve Barlow (Rand McNally and Company, 1966).

Then students might be encouraged to read and adapt for themselves another Mexican folk tale from the book.

Cuckoo/Cucu is told in English and in Spanish. The story includes a glossary of animal names. Teachers could use that glossary in conjunction with a unique Web site, Sounds of the World's Animals. The site includes a glossary of words used to describe animal sounds -- a bark or a cuckoo, for example -- in the many languages. Just click on the language of your choice for a truly special lesson!


Did you miss the LESSON PLANNING story that appeared on this site several weeks ago? Be sure to check out Celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month for a long list of activities you might use to celebrate across the grades!

Book CoverThe Day of the Dead, written by Tony Johnston and illustrated by Jeanette Winter (1997) and Cuckoo/Cucu, written and illustrated by Lois Ehlert (1996) are both published by Harcourt, Brace and Company. They are available at bookstores nationwide. If you can't find copies in your local bookstore, ask your bookseller to order them for you.

Article by Gary Hopkins
Education World® Editor-in-Chief
Copyright © 2004 Education World

Links last updated 09/02/2004