a land of books

I didn’t need to read further than the title to know that A Land of Books: Dreams of Young Mexicuh Word Painters was for me! But then of course there was also author-illustrator Duncan Tonatiuh’s art style (distinctive and an homage to his homeland’s cultural history) to add to the allure as well. I loved Tonatiuh’s picture book The Princess and the Warrior, and I keep his graphic novel Undocumented, on undocumented immigrants and labor organizing, in my classroom library. What more perfect title to feature on Indigenous Peoples’ Day than one that celebrates their contributions to culture, bookmaking, and storytelling!

a land of books by duncan tonatiuh book cover
Our world, little brother, is an amoxtlalpan, a land of books.
In the jungles where the jaguar dwells, the Mayas make books.
In the mountains the cloud people, the Mixtecs, make them as well. So do others in the coast and in the forests.
And we the Mexica of the mighty Aztec empire, who dwell in the valley of the volcanoes, make them too.

A young Aztec girl tells her little brother how their parents create beautiful painted manuscripts, or codices. She explains to him how paper is made from local plants and how the long paper is folded into a book. Her parents and others paint the codices to tell the story of their people’s way of life, documenting their history, science, tributes, and sacred rituals.

Duncan Tonatiuh’s lyrical prose and beloved illustration style, inspired by the pre-Columbian codices, tell the story of how—contrary to the historical narrative that European colonizers bestowed “civilization” and knowledge to the Americas—the Aztec and their neighbors in the Valley of Mexico painted books and records long before Columbus arrived, and continued doing so among their Nahua-speaking descendants for generations after the Spanish Conquest. From an award-winning author-illustrator, A Land of Books pays tribute to Mesoamerican ingenuity and celebrates the universal power of books.


A Land of Books begins with an unnamed storyteller sharing who makes amoxtin (books), how they are made, how tlahcuilohqueh (bookmakers) are trained, the types of materials and dyes they use, and who has access to and can read books. Then the book transitions into a dream sequence, telling a creation/origin story, and ends with an example of the type of celebration where books and bookmaking were featured in pre-Spanish Conquest Mesoamerican cultures.


The pictographs used in amoxtin (or codices, as they are referred to today) are a major focus of the story, and the illustrations throughout mimic them or use them directly. Small children familiar with the rhythm and ritual of reading aloud will likely find the circumstances of when and where certain books were read (or sung!) draw their attention, along with the 2D art. Readers of all ages will likely start trying to decode the pictographs!


As you can likely tell from the language in this review, Nahuatl (a living language today!) is included within the book, and most of it can be decoded while reading from context clues and the illustrations. Tonatiuh has included a glossary at the back with a pronunciation guide and definitions if you want to brush up before reading aloud. There’s also an excellent, extensive author’s note, bibliography, and website where you can view the few historical codices that survived Spanish colonization.


In a picture book about making books, the illustrations are of particular interest. Tonatiuh’s images are hand-drawn, and then collaged digitally. He specializes in flat, two-dimensional illustrations, with figures who are always in profile, and not always in proportion. Color also holds specific meaning. All of these elements are based on the artwork of the amoxtin/codices, which Tonatiuh touches on in the story as well.


In all, A Land of Books is a book to be treasured – it not only tells the story of how books were made in pre-conquest Central America, but it will also likely inspire a new generation of bookmakers, researchers, and questioners.


Recommended for: anyone interested in bookmaking, indigenous histories and culture, book lovers young and old, and storytimes with curious young ones.

A Land of Books: Dreams of Young Mexicuh Word Painters will be available from Abrams Books for Young Readers on November 15, 2022.

Fine print: I received a digital review copy from the publisher via Edelweiss for review consideration. I did not receive any compensation for this post.

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