Each year, the Pura Belpré award is given to the Latin@ author and illustrator “whose work best portrays, affirms, and celebrates the Latino cultural experience in an outstanding work of literature for children and youth.” In 2009, Yuyi Morales’ Just In Case not only won for its illustrations, but was also an honor book for narrative—an impressive achievement for an alphabet book.
The success of Just in Case is due to the fact that it goes beyond simply listing items that start with each letter. It tells the story of Señor Calavera, a skeleton whose name means “Mr. Skull” in Spanish, as he prepares for his friend Grandma Beetle’s birthday. He is on his way to the party when he comes across Zelmiro the Ghost, who reminds him to bring Grandma Beetle a present. Worried about finding the perfect gift, Señor Calavera collects something for each letter of the Spanish alphabet. After gathering more and more gifts “just in case” he hasn’t yet found what Grandma Beetle will love the most, a heartwarming twist teaches him that the best gift of all is being with those you love.
Each gift is named in Spanish first, and followed by the word in English. There is also a short description of what Grandma Beetle might use the item for and why Señor Calavera wants to give it to her. These range from sweet (un moño, a bow to tie her hair) to silly (bigotes, a mustache because she had none.)
Although the two main characters are a skeleton and a ghost, this is not a creepy Halloween story. Señor Calavera has a colorfully painted face in the style of Day of the Dead sugar skulls, and Zelmiro the Ghost is a kind (though transparent)
old man drawn in a rounded and friendly style. The richly colored backgrounds make the story bright and happy, and the pictures show Señor Calavera and Zelmiro playing with the gifts as they collect them.
Just in Case is a funny, whimsical and beautifully illustrated tale that serves as a great introduction to Spanish words for English-speaking children or as a fun read for those who are already bilingual. Señor Calavera’s sugar-skull face could also be used as a starting point to teach kids about Day of the Dead and Mexican traditions.