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If When the Black Girl Sings by Bil Wright was a dish served at a fancy restaurant it would be described as “adoption woes over a bed of teenage angst served with a side of parental problems and an empty glass of communication.” Doesn’t sound like a favorite dish you would order time after time, but it does fill a definite need on the menu.
The main character, Lahni, is a 13 year old black girl who was adopted by white, heterosexual parents when she was a baby. Living with white parents in Connecticut, Lahni attends a private school, with only a handful of non-white students. She feels completely out of place, alone and unable to connect with friends. Adding to her troubles, her parents are getting a divorce and her father has a new “friend”. Then her mother suggests they try going to church, where Lahni meets and befriends the choir director and the church’s soloist who are both black. She is coerced by her music teacher, who sees promise in her, into joining a singing competition at her school. Lahni joins her church choir to help her prepare for the competition and in the end finds her voice.
I found at many times in this book I was frustrated with Lahni and her parents mainly because they seemed to be hopeless at communicating honestly with one another and others around them. After a particularly upsetting incident at school where a classmate calls Lahni an “African baby on a television special” her mom says, “Maybe she meant it as a compliment.” Or when Lahni’s dad finds her waiting outside the door listening to her parents scream at one another, he simply takes his suitcase and gets into the taxi. Lahni, following the role models set out for her, never talks with her parents (or anyone) about how it feels to be a black child adopted by a white family or about the troubles she has as the only black girl in her grade. Lahni keeps her best friend at bay, only telling her about her parents impending divorce at the very end and then again shuts her friend down when she asks questions. Lahni’s struggle with communication does not end with her inability to share her thoughts, but it seems she is not able to garner messages others are telling her as well. Her music teacher and choir director clearly express on multiple occasions their admiration for her singing, yet even to the end Lahni refuses to have confidence in her ability. That said, the teenage years are not perfect. Transracial adoption is not always heart-to-heart chats and a warm cup of cocoa. And I am NOT a black, teenage girl being raised by struggling white parents, so perhaps I just don’t get it. And perhaps there is some reader in Lahni’s exact situation who will want to take Lahni into her heart because she is singing the reader’s song.
At one point in the story, Lahni is being stalked by a white boy in school who calls himself Onyx 1. This boy focuses his affection on Lahni purely based on his desire to date a black girl. Later he gets in a knife fight with two black boys and he calls them “two black apes”. When Lahni hears this, she is so confused about how a person can want to date someone who is black, nickname themselves “black” and then use racial slurs. In typical teenage style, although scared of Onyx 1, she chooses to handle it on her own. Lahni never mentions it to her parents or to another adult until the end of the book after she is forced in a deserted parking lot to confront him. I dislike the fact that the author had Lahni deal with this issue on her own. Obviously, in fiction the author managed the confrontation to work out in Lahni’s favor but in real life confronting a stalker is truly dangerous. I want the message to young adult readers to clearly state, “ask for help from an adult if this happens to you.” I did however like that the author kept Onyx 1’s character as undesirable and Lahni told him to get lost. Too many times, plots include the “good girl” falling for a “bad boy” when she discovers his soft side.
This book has a light Christian theme to it, but it is not overwhelming. In the beginning Lahni attends church for the first time and by the end she performs “His Eye is on the Sparrow” and realizes she is not singing but she is in fact praying.
Recommendation: This book is suitable for readers age 13+.
Reviewer: Amanda Setty
Heartbreaking, historically informative, and beautifully illustrated, Always An Olivia:A Remarkable Family History is the true family history of scholar and author, Olivia Herron (Nappy Hair) whose family has preserved their Jewish traditions even seven generations removed from the family’s Jewish matriarch. While the story is being told to a granddaughter in 2007 by her great-grandmother, the narrative actually tells the story of their ancestor Sarah who, hundreds of years ago, was the Italian Jewish granddaughter of victims of Jewish pogroms in Spain and Portugal. She is captured by pirates to be ransomed off but saved by another captive with whom she falls in love and sails to the USA to avoid recapture, death or the burning of the homes and businesses of the Jews to whom she was supposed to be ransomed. Still afraid of anti-Jewish violence, Sarah adopts the middle name Olivia instead of using her given middle name, Shulamit.
In the U.S., customs settles Sarah and her husband on the Georgia Islands in the free, black African Geechee community. Sarah and her husband have children and their children marry Geechees. Their descendants continue to practice the Jewish rituals that Sarah remembered (because, the text lets us know, she forgot many) including lighting the Shabbat candles on Friday nights. The women are the keepers of the tradition from being in charge of lighting the Shabbat candles to the legacy of naming a daughter of each generation Olivia or, as Sarah requested, a name that means “peace”. They choose to preserve the original name by naming a girl in each generation “Olivia” after Sarah.
From the opening line in which the girl child Carol Olivia asks her great-grandmother about black U.S.American slavery and is told that her family experienced enslavement in Egypt, witnessed U.S.American chattel slavery, but was not descended from enslaved black U.S.Americans, this biography is an eye opening account of the different histories of blacks and mixed racial heritage people in the U.S. since the 16th century.
Despite the book’s engagement of the heavy subject matter of slavery, racial and religious persecution, kidnapping, family separation, and near identity loss, there is a hopeful tone in the reading, achieved through James Tugeau’s use of light in his dramatic pastel illustrations, the tone of the narrative, and narrative breaks in the relaying of violence to fully describe life in peaceful times. Thus, this story of a resilient family communicates the necessity of remembering family history. Always an Olivia makes it clear that despite their family history of terror, renewal, survival and reinvention, the family of Olivias is proud of, and takes comfort in, their family traditions and heritage.
Recommendation: Highly Recommended; Ages 8-Adult (buy)
Reviewer: Omilaju Miranda
A free verse prose poem tells the life story of the first black American international musical superstar Josephine Baker, born out of wedlock and raised in part by a single mother. Collage drawings give the book a rich tactile feel that almost transcends the flat page. The language, which tells the story of Baker’s creativity and success amidst the U.S.’s violent racism is continuously evocative. While the images are fun to look at for all ages, only children ready to learn about racism, race riots, and shadism should read the book, as those harsh realities made a huge impact on Josephine Baker’s life and career, and are represented in heartrending language and images in the book. This is a beautifully told story that will tempt both the child who loves, and the child who hates reading and poetry, to become a poet. Verse after verse, the reader will learn of Josephine’s courage, and her fierce determination to be center stage as the dancing star she believed she could become. Those afraid to move on to middle school, go off to boarding school, or attend a training camp for their sport or art will see in Josephine, a girl so committed to the fulfillment of dancing that she left home at thirteen-years-old to tour the country, and left her husband for Broadway when she was only fifteen-years-old. Those who never consider the power of humor will learn how Baker attracted the spotlight with her comedic facial expressions as she danced. Her dynamism will inspire the reader learning of her many landmark performances, as well as her choice to become a pilot and fight as a spy against the Nazis during WWII. With dramatic punctuations in the poetic language, the author tells of Baker’s economic fall, and how bankruptcy proved to be a painful lesson in excess for the generous humanitarian. But Powell makes sure the reader knows that Baker was a socially conscious performer. At one point the richest Negro woman in the world, Baker was a civil rights fighter who convinced the army and many venues to allow integrated audiences to attend her performances, and even convinced owners of segregated corporations to hire blacks. The language and illustrations will make you feel Josephine’s life— her ups and downs, her ultimate triumph in achieving every dream she had, including dying “breathless, spent, after a dance.” (buy)
Recommendation: Highly Recommended; Ages 10+
Look closely at the illustrations as you read this book and each time you will discover something new. The words are the lyrics of Bob Marley’s song “One Love”, the illustrations tell the story of community togetherness. A little girl waves goodbye to her loving mom and dad and walks into the friendly world outside her door, which is filled with nature, happy neighbors and close friends who play, plant, and recycle together. The illustrations are vivid, exciting and contagiously spread a smile across your face. Although the only obvious racial phenotypes are Caucasian, African Diaspora and black/white mixed, the full range of phenotypes within those ethnicities is represented. Children of all ages will enjoy this book and those who remember the song will love sharing the song with a new generation as they follow the illustrations telling the story of community responsibility and cooperation to repair, rebuild, and landscape a neighborhood park in disrepair. Simple, loving, lyrical of course, and with such strong illustration dependent story telling that this is a great book for the pre-literate child to practice decoding and multiple levels of “reading” comprehension, which is what I did with my pre-reading daughter. This is a book everyone should have and all who have children should read and discuss with their kids. (buy)
Recommendation: Highly recommended Ages 2+
Carolivia Herron’s Nappy Hair tells the story of Brenda, a dark-skinned girl with a massive bush of kinky, untamed hair towering above her slender frame. The true protagonist in this story is Brenda’s hair, which takes on a vivacious life of its own as Brenda’s elder, Uncle Mordecai, shares with the rest of the family at a picnic the colorful and rhythmic story of how Brenda ended up with all that nappy hair. Setting this book apart from other stories that I have read that are designed to affirm positive self-image in Black children, Nappy Hair does not present the main character as having a problem with either who she is or her hair’s texture. Sure, there were other characters who express disapproval of her tightly coiled hair—namely, members of the Heavenly choir who are present during her creation. They pitied her hair to such an extent that they have the audacity to reproach God by asking:
“Why you gotta be so mean, why you gotta be so willful, why you gotta be so ornery, thinking about giving that nappy, nappy hair to that innocent little child?”
Nevertheless, even at the very beginning of the story, Brenda exudes confidence —her head is always held high, she wears a wide smile, and she refuses to allow family members to tame her maverick coils with brushes, hair spray, and broken-toothed combs.
For centuries, hair has been a sensitive issue in Black communities in the United States, and with the recent revitalization of a natural hair movement committed to the ethos of expressing black pride by embracing afros, locs, and braids in lieu of hair relaxers and other chemicals, Herron’s Nappy Hair (which was published in 1997) remains a relevant teaching tool for parents, mentors, and educators. This book presents a clever call and response narrative that may be shared with boys and girls of all races and hair types to encourage them to love how their hair naturally grows from their scalp and to encourage an appreciation for how they may be different from others but equally as beautiful. When I first read this book to my third grade class five years ago, the students laughed in derision at the title and at how Uncle Mordecai was describing Brenda’s hair. In the community where my students were growing up, “nappy” was a cruel word that connotes the polar opposite of good and beautiful; and, they would often use the term to make fun of each other. However, through a read-aloud with them, they realized Uncle Mordecai’s comments about Brenda’s hair being nappy were not derogatory at all. In fact, at the very end of his story, he proclaims:
“I got me at long last this cute little brown baby girl…And she’s got the nappiest hair in the world.”
Notably, Herron’s Nappy Hair also alludes to the profound obligation that adults have in shaping children’s self-esteem. In fact, the book conveys the message that children look to us for affirmation, reassurance, and to learn standards of beauty. Brenda was blessed with an Uncle Mordecai who spoke a life of rich heritage, strength, and beauty into her and her naturally kinky coils—a life that says you are perfect just the way you are. This book could serve as a springboard for parents and educators to engage in that same edifying dialogue with the children in their lives.
Recommendation: Highly Recommended; ages 6+ (with parental guidance to avoid misinterpretation) (buy)
Book Review by: La Tonya Jackson
Bintou’s Braids tells the story of a little girl who dreams of being pretty. To Bintou, this means having long, flowing braids with beads and seashells attached like those of the women in her West African village. However, in her culture, she is not allowed to wear such braids because little girls were expected to focus on play and learning instead of vanity. Throughout the story, Bintou seems to wander about on the outskirts of all the celebratory happenings in her village—primarily observing the events surrounding her brother’s baptism; but she spends a good deal of the story observing and longing to experience the fine details of the elegantly braided hairstyles that the women in her village wear. Soon, Bintou becomes central to the happenings in the village when she springs into action to save the lives of two boaters.
More than a story about hair, Bintou’s Braids shares a story about loving every step of your journey—in life and in hair. I appreciated the fact that her wise Grandma Soukeye was steadfast in ensuring that Bintou held onto her youth. Bintou did not get the hairstyle of her dreams that was promised by her aunt for being a hero, but in the end, the blue and yellow ribbons wrapped around her four hair knots with birds flowing from them made her feel like a pretty little girl—a smart and brave, pretty little girl.
Geographically, Bintou is worlds apart from little girls in the United States, but her story highlights cultural diversity as well as the fact that inasmuch as we are different we share similar concerns. Credit must also be given to Shane Evans whose artful illustrations with their golden tones and rich blues complement and enliven Bintou’s dreams and life.
Highly Recommended; Ages 6+ (The text may be a bit too wordy for younger children with shorter attention spans.) (buy)
Book Review by; La Tonya Jackson
When I first saw the cover of The Toothless Tooth Fairy, I thought, ‘Oh, the mixed girls’ version of Tinkerbell. This is the first original picture book I’ve read with a non-white magical being as protagonist. Many will see this as a simple and sweet story of a fairy’s generous heart enabling her to love her enemy and be seen as beautiful because of her kindness.
However, the tooth fairy characters are focused primarily on physical beauty. The protagonist’s name is Bella, which means “beauty.” The setting for this story is the fairies competing in a beauty contest. At the outset, the narrative states “Every tooth fairy was certain Bella was going to win. She was beautiful. She had long, curly brown hair, and her teeth were perfect,” This language coupled with all the other fairies’ hair styled in buns, pigtails, afro-puffs, ponytails, or pulled back, reinforces the concept that there is only one way to be beautiful—with long flowing hair—and only Bella inhabits that beautiful space.
Even though the next sentence says, “the most beautiful thing about Bella was her kindness,” the first action we see from Bella, instead of this kindness that is supposed to be her greatest feature of beauty, is Bella smiling and showing off her flight skills to the contest judges. Although the book’s message is that kindness is more valuable than physical beauty, the prominent importance of physical beauty that conforms to a European ideal will obscure the message of kindness for the reader under 6. Furthermore, this will impress upon readers of all ages that kindness does not make a person beautiful; it only makes those who are already conforming to European standards of beauty even prettier.
In the narrative, Bella is a tooth fairy whose enemy causes her to fly into a wall and lose a tooth during a prettiest smile contest. So she can look perfect, Bella, in turn tries to steal a tooth from three of the kids on her list who will be losing a tooth soon. The text says she is going to borrow the tooth and leave an I.O.U. behind but her ‘borrowing’ entails pulling these children’s teeth from their mouths with thread and pliers. While her actions to get these teeth are funny, there are no direct repercussions for Bella’s thievery and no consideration of the way the two brown girls from whom she steals teeth will feel when they wake up without their teeth.
Ultimately, Bella fails to steal a healthy tooth. When Bella fails to steal a usable tooth, she still comforts Zelda, her enemy who seems to be crying but Zelda is not really crying—she just pretends to cry to get Bella’s attention then she taunts Bella in response to Bella’s kindness. Bella’s tears of defeat turn Zelda into a monstrous witch but Bella hugs Zelda the witch until Zelda becomes normal, and then a “most beautiful, nice fairy”. After this, the contest judges decide there are two beautiful winners of the contest—Bella who is balanced because of her powerfully kind heart and Zelda, her nemesis who is redeemed by Bella’s kindness.
While the nemesis, Zelda, is pink and red in complexion, costume, and hair, she has a Caucasian dominant phenotype and she is the only fairy other than Bella who actually speaks or takes any individual action in the story. Although the other fairies represent every continent’s nationalities and ethnicities, all the other fairies are a silent ensemble nearly melting into the background of the story.
Recommendation: If this story fits within your value system, it is unique and valuable for children of color to see themselves in books as leaders of magical beings.
What I like about this book more than anything is the idea. A single mother who lives in the United States with her son Justice, takes him on a trip to her Jamaican homeland where he is immersed in a new culture and learns a new language. While they are walking along the roads (pon di road), they meet a variety of adult characters running businesses from small shops or road side stands. Justice gets to try new types of food and meet people who instantly adore him as he learns new phrases. The tone of the narrative voice is fun and I find it appealing that there are positive representations of entrepreneurial black Jamaicans, as well as positive representations of African Diaspora people with uncombed, natural kinky, coily hair and dread locks. Also, there’s a great historical timeline and glossary in the back of the book, which are valuable teaching tools.
What is not appealing is that the narrative is just too long for this story; the illustrations which look like prematurely exposed film photos are often eerie, the detail is difficult to see, and are often not well paired with the narrative. The discontinuity of the illustrations often occurs because one page of the narrative will go on and on and the only thing illustrated is the experience Justice had in the first paragraph or first sentence. I think if a teacher is looking for a way to make a history lesson on Jamaica or the Caribbean fun, sharing the first few pages of this book and the rich glossary and history section in the back with a classroom would be valuable. The simple tone of the narrative and the stroller riding toddler protagonist indicate that the story is targeted to ages 1-5 but the length and history section are more appropriate for ages 7-9. I don’t know if the narrative will hold the attention of either age group for its entirety but an adult who reads the book in advance and edits the story for their child’s attention span will share a unique story with their child and learn more about Jamaica than just the music with which we are familiar.
Recommendation: Recommended for educational purposes to adults who will work around the narrative. Ages 2-9.
Reviewer: Omilaju Miranda
The Website, which founder Omilaju Miranda began as a page on facebook is now a full website with blog where you can find books with diverse protagonists by specific category. Books are easily locatable on a drop down menu. The site is dedicated to listing and reviewing children’s and YA books with protagonists who are either: biracial/mixed, transracial adoptee, bilingual, lgbt-parented, single-parented, or gender non-conforming. There is also a magazine where the site will feature writing for, and by children, and an opportunity for parents to send in photos and videos of their children reading or reciting stories and poems. Check out the book site and find the book for your little one today. If you are a writer or interested in communications and publicity, the site is actively seeking children’s book reviewers and interns to publicize and network with schools and libraries.