Finding an Identity: You Are What Your Family Is

Pam Munoz Ryan. Becoming Naomi Leon. New York: Scholastic, 2004.

Becoming Naomi León is a classic story of a girl faced with adversity and overcoming the obstacles she is faced with. As a twist, however, the author includes a strong focus on Mexican culture. The novel is somewhat lengthy, and could best be used as a read for students outside of the classroom, suggested for students interested in the themes presented within the text, such as connecting to family, overcoming shyness, and dealing with Mexican-Americanism . Not a horrible book, but could be classified as “cliché”, Becoming Naomi León was predictable, although it may encourage students to speak up and come into themselves.

Naomi Soledad León Outlaw is a young girl, self proclaimed as “the weird kid’s sister with the funny last name, who wore clothes that matched her great-grandma’s polyester wardrobe” (Ryan 58). Living in a trailer named ‘Baby Beluga’ with her physically deformed (known as an FLK - “Funny Looking Kid”), yet extremely optimistic younger brother, Owen, and her great grandmother, Mary Outlaw, in Lemon Tree, California, Naomi’s life is consumed with the three things she is good at: “1) Soap carving , 2) Worrying, and 3) Making lists” (9), each of which play a key role in her journey to Becoming Naomi León.

In the novel, Naomi and Owen’s mother, Skyla, returns after a seven year absence, in which she shows immense favoritism toward the quiet and very reserved Naomi, later revealing her scheme to take Naomi to Las Vegas with her, completely interrupting the comfort and familiarity of the small family Naomi, Owen and their grandmother had developed. Mary meets with a legal counselor, deciding to take the children to Oaxaca City , Mexico, in search of the children’s father, running from Skyla’s plot.

While in Mexico, Naomi learns more of her Hispanic culture, trying new foods, like bunuelos , and attending traditional Mexican festivals like Las Posadas , a parade in which citizens reenact Mary and Joseph’s search for shelter, and ultimately feeling a closer connection to her father, Santiago León. Naomi learns that Skyla had kept him from having contact with her and Owen, but he had always loved them and always cared. During the time in which they were in Mexico, the group searches for Santiago, finding him in the latter part of their trip during the competition, La Noche de los Rábanos , in which teams carve radishes. Santiago is a fabulous carver, a skill that Naomi has inherited from him. Upon meeting her father, she feels an instantaneous connection to him. Although they only have a short time to spend together, Santiago advises Naomi to be brave and she takes it to heart. The scenes in which Santiago and Naomi interact are heartfelt and sincere, giving her a sense of security and the ultimate turning point in which she is transformed from accomplishing the goal of finding her father and knowing where she came from, embracing her Hispanic culture and receiving an identity. Before, Naomi’s middle name, Soledad (from Nuestra Senora de la Soledad ), in English, “solitude”, was a good way to describe Naomi, however, at the end of the novel, she was far from alone. She had her family and had embraced her connection to the Mexican culture that she identified herself with, as well as adopting Owen's positive attitude.

The group returns to the United States and attends court where Naomi takes Santiago’s advice and speaks up and gives reason to why she does not want to live with Skyla in Las Vegas. The judge rules in Naomi and Owen’s favor and the children are allowed to stay with their grandmother.

When Naomi returns to school, her friends and librarian sense a difference in her, saying, “’Before you were a mouse, but now you have the countenance of a lioness’” (243).

Naomi truly did experience a transformation through the series of events she endured, allowing herself to let go of her constant worries, develop her voice, and connect with those who were important to her, ultimately
Becoming Naomi León.

Recommendations for Teachers
If you are considering doing Becoming Naomi Leon for a Lit circle or a book club book, the extended edition is specially crafted for young adult readers. The extended edition contains an afterward from the author, culture information about The Night of Radishes as well as craft ideas for teachers and students. Literature circle questions are also available to further classroom discussion.

Specifically the idea of visualization is a great tool to get the cultural connections flowing in your classroom. Below please use the photos and videos provided to help with your instruction. Visualizing for your students is an important tool also. A compare and contrast with your students visualizing ideas from the book and then actual visual shots of the culture aspects of the book can be really fun ways to connect your students thinking to their learning.

Cultural Connections
Becoming Naomi Leon allows readers to travel with Naomi and her family to the city of Oaxaca, Mexico. In the city of Oaxaca, the family is exposed to the beautiful cultural, language, and lifestyles of Mexico.
While in Mexico Naomi attends a festival called La Noche de los Rabanos, The Night of the Radishes. Throughout the book readers are learning information about this radish carving festival that is held in Oaxaca annually around Navidad, Christmas. This festival is widely celebrated throughout Southern Mexico. There is a great opportunity for students to learn about a cultural competition that is very different from competitions that take place in the United States. Readers are able to learn a lot about this festival through the entertaining story of Naomi Leon. Follow the link below to learn more about this exciting celebration. Pictures are a must when talking about this celebration! Below are some examples of actual radish carvings from previous festivals! Learning about Naomi's culture may help students in a classroom to better visualize Naomi's life and a life that may be very different from his or her own life. Students could use their knowledge of Naomi's culture to create role plays or in-class dramatizations.
external image night-radishes.jpgexternal image noche-de-rabanos-ht.jpg

Second Language Connection
This book is filled with new words for English speakers to learn in espanol. Below is a list of Spanish words that could be used for a word wall or a new word list. The following words are used throughout the text that helps readers escape right along with Naomi to Mexico. In his book You Gotta Be The Book, Jeff Wilhelm describes some strategies that students can use in the classroom to get a deeper understand of the text. Wilhelm describes one example of role playing. In this idea of role playing students become the characters of the story and "enter the story world" as characters instead of readers. Strategies like this one as well as many others will help students not just read the book, but become the book.

One thing to discuss in your class is how each of these words can be tied back to Naomi some how. Pam Munoz Ryan artistically crafted the second language vocabulary found in this book to help understand Naomi and her story better.

Hola – Hello
Qué pasó – What happened?
Leon – Lion
Bandido – Bandits/ outlaws
La Noche de los Rábanos – The Night of the Radishes
Oaxaca – the name of a city in Southern Mexico
Navidad – Christmas
Barrio – Neightborhood
El Calvario – The Calvary
El Refugio – The refuge
Ninos Heroes – Child heros
Jacaranda – a beautiful tree with blue flowers
Nuestra Senora de la Soledad – Our Lady of Solitude
La Basílica – Church
El Zócalo – the town square
El Mercado – the market
El Puerto Escondido – the hidden port
Quesillo – what you would call freshly made cheese
Mole – a candied sauce that is commonly used in Mexican cooking
Piña – Pineapple
Coco - Coconut
La catedral - The cathedral
Mañana - Tomorrow
Pan dulce – Candied bread that can be compared to coffee cake
¡Aquí! ¡Mira! – Here! Look!
Alebrijes- little wooden animals in the dialect Zapotec
Animalitos – Little animals
Las Posados – a nine day celebration in December, modeled after Mary and Joseph's quest for shelter
Gracias – Thank you

Source: Jeff D Wilhelm, You Gotta Be the Book. Teachers College Press, 2004

About Pam Munoz Ryan

Pam Munoz Ryan is an author with a very diverse ethnic background, including a Spanish, Mexican, Basque , Oklahoman and Italian heritage. She was born and raised in San Joaquin Valley, California and grew up with her large family nearby. It was tradition in Pam's family to have big family gatherings that were often accompanied by hours of story telling time. From storytelling times, hours spent at the library, and a lot of imaginative play with her twenty-three cousins, Pam naturally grew up a storyteller. However, quite surprisingly, it wasn't until Pam was in a Masters Degree program at San Diego State University that she was finally inspired to write tales of her own. Since then, Pam has written and published over twenty-five books for young people, including picture books. She has won numerous prestigious awards and is now a very prominent author of young adult and children literature. Pam still lives in California, with her husband and four teenagers.

Sources: and Becoming Naomi Leon (after words and bonus features)


Podcast Interview with Pam Munoz Ryan
Check out this Podcast Interview to get a closer look at the author of Becoming Naomi Leon

Click on this video to see and hear an up close interview featuring Pam Munoz Ryan by her publisher, Scholastic .

To gain a sense of what Naomi experienced during her time spent in Mexico, this video provides a great cultural experience to relate to Naomi: La Noche de las Rabanos.

Additional Resources:
  • Discussion guide and background to Becoming Naomi Leon and other books by Pam Muñoz Ryan.
  • Pam Muñoz Ryan's website .
  • Student activities and teacher guides at Scholastic . This would be a good website to give out to kids to explore on their own, or for teachers to use for supplementing lessons.
  • Review of Becoming Naomi Leon.
  • Review and Discussion posts for Becoming Naomi Leon.
  • Soap carving video highlighting how to make a knife from popsicle sticks and showing examples of various soap carvings.
  • Lesson for middle school english students on Becoming Naomi Leon including vocabulary, character descriptions and summaries.
  • Exploring Mexico .
  • Map of Mexico worksheet. Students could label the map and trace the family's route to Oaxaca.
  • Understanding Mexican Americans - a published article of a study in San Diego schools.

This page was written and produced by Yvonne Gorajec, Mellissa Zoerhof, Carolynn White and Kelsey Curlett.