The Young Teacher and the Great Serpent – Irene Vasco and Juan Palomino

The Young Teacher and the Great Serpent by Irene Vasco, Juan Palomino
Published by Eerdmans Books for Young Readers on October 10, 2023
Genres: Children's, Children's Educational
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A stunningly illustrated fable about cultural humility and the transcendent power of stories.

A young teacher sets out for the Amazon rain forest, eager to share geography, science, and math with the remote community of Las Delicias. The town’s children love the books the young teacher brings, and yet they keep repeating legends about a great and dangerous serpent. The young teacher can’t believe her students still care about that nonsense. But as the river rises, those stories don’t seem so strange anymore. Maybe books aren’t the only way to discover the wisdom of past generations…

The Young Teacher and the Great Serpent is a poetic, thought-provoking exploration of how stories can protect and guide a community. Bold, dynamic art and lyrical writing will open unforgettable conversations about cross-cultural relationships, the importance of indigenous knowledge, and what it means to be a lifelong learner.

This is a story about good intentions. It is also a story about broadening horizons. And also, there’s a great and dangerous serpent. The Young Teacher and the Great Serpent is written by Irene Vasco, a Colombian author and educator whose emphasis has been promoting literacy in Indigenous and agricultural communities in Colombia. And so, in a way, this is her story.

We follow a young teacher as she moves from the city into her first teaching assignment—Comunidad Las Delicias, a simple four-day journey by bus, boat, and foot deep into the jungles of the Amazon. Like the young teacher in the story, I looked up Las Delicias online and it’s a real community along the Rio Caqueta in southern Colombia. When the teacher arrives, she finds fifty Indigenous families, none of whom speak her native Spanish. Deep in the jungles, there are places that have resisted colonization. And here comes this teacher with her books, ready to teach.

The children are eager to learn and the teacher shares with them the joy of reading. Things are going well. And the great serpent came. The great serpent, being, of course, the Caqueta heavy with rainfall ready to pour down wrath on the colonizers who have built along its banks. The children run for higher ground. The teacher at first refuses. Great serpents don’t exist!

But they do. She takes refuge with the rest of the community but finds that her books have been lost. How shall she teach now? I won’t spoil the rest of the story, but it’s one of building community, overcoming colonialist thinking, and learning to appreciate the wisdom and resilience of Indigenous peoples.

The Young Teacher and the Great Serpent is a valuable book for teaching young kids to preteens how to navigate cross-cultural relationships. You have a young and educated teacher who isn’t intentionally being a colonizer but who brings with her an implicit belief that her way of life is better. You have an Indigenous people who use oral storytelling and mythology to tell stories that interpret the events surrounding them. It’s a story about becoming open to other perspectives and seeing value in other cultures. It’s a story about decolonizing our thinking. It’s a story about finding belonging and community. It’s a thoughtful and provoking read.