Have you ever read one of those books which prompts such a good discussion you begin planning how to give it as birthday present to your child’s friends? Or you find yourself suggesting it to random bi-racial families at parties? Well, that is how The Other Half of My Heart by Sundee T. Frazier hit me.
Minni and Keira King, 11-year old fraternal twins shake up people’s ideas of genetics and how bi-racial siblings should look. Born to a Caucasian dad and an African-American mom, Minni has red hair and light skin while Keira has tight afro puffs and dark skin. The girls live in a mostly Caucasian town in Washington State, but for the summer they are traveling to their maternal grandmother’s hometown in North Carolina to enter Miss Black Pearl Preteen of America Pageant, just as their mom did as a girl. The change in location offers a big change in demographics and stirs up issues between the girls. Minni wonders if she will be “black” enough. Keira is excited to finally be in a place where she can shine.
Part of their father’s reason for wanting to send them to the South was so they can get in touch with their black roots and their mother’s family, and the girls do. Both girls hear family stories and spend time looking at old photos of family members with varying degrees of skin tone. Minni has a particularly moving experience in church listening to the choir sing and being part of the community. Later, the girls’ grandmother, Minerva Johnson-Payne, surprises them with a photo of her sitting behind Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Grandmother Johnson talks of her experience as one out of five African American teachers at an all-white school and how hard she worked to prove “quality is colorless”. Although not her intent, it is the girls’ grandmother who educates the reader on the subtle ways African-Americans are made to feel inferior to Caucasians. She is always reminding Keira to put on sunscreen to avoid letting her skin get any darker. She also takes Keira to a salon to get her hair relaxed, even though their mother is completely against it. Not until the end does Minni build enough confidence to confront her grandmother about her hurtful comments toward Keira.
Even though I do love the concept of this book, I have a couple of criticisms. Grandmother Johnson never has enough story time to redeem herself. The girls rebel against her old-fashioned, strict ideas and domineering ways by pranking their grandmother and making fun of her behind her back. I wish the author had spent less time setting up the pageant and more time allowing for the girls and their grandmother to truly connect and understand one another. The story is told from Minni’s point of view, yet I think with more from Keira the story would be much richer with many avenues for young readers to identify with both sisters. And the mom just plain bothers me. It seems her method of protecting her children from possible hurt is to hide them away. There are no photos of the girls in the media, even though they are world famous for their opposite features. She seems to want to avoid the topic of race instead telling them they are not a color but strong humans. While this may be told with good intentions, this approach does not serve them well as they face the world outside their little foursome. In fact the girls seem completely unprepared for how to deal with questions regarding their looks and the feelings stirred up when they are affected by racism.
Even though this book focuses on black-white dynamic, I believe it brings up many great topics all families of mixed heritage will face.
Recommendation: I highly recommend this book for readers ages 9-13.
Book Review by Amanda Setty