Diverse Kids Books–Reviews

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Firebird by Misty Copeland

Firebird by Misty Copeland coverFirebird is American Ballet Theater principal dancer Misty Copeland’s first children’s book. Now fast rising to the top of the American ballet scene, a feat that is virtually unheard of for a dancer of color, Copeland has been very vocal about the old-fashioned but very prominent and largely inescapable role of race in ballet, of her own struggles to be accepted and to advance as a so-called “non-traditional” ballerina. That she only just graced the cover of Pointe Magazine, a leading ballet monthly, at the very same time she debuted as Odile/Odette in Swan Lake makes the subject of this colorful picture book all the more a propos. Speaking to other young dancers of color, Firebird seeks to hearten those who face what seems to be insurmountable adversity. Through illustrations and a simple text that read as honest in their positivity and that, despite the meaning between the lines (i.e. it is ridiculously and yes, unjustly difficult for non-White dancers to make a serious career of dancing), communicate no bitterness and throw out no blame.

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A Dance Like Starlight: One Ballerina’s Dream by Kristy Dempsey

cover A Dance Like StarlightA Dance Like Starlight: One Ballerina’s Dream follows the aspirations of one little girl in Harlem in the 1950s. Told in lyrical prose, the reader learns that the unnamed African-American girl spends her afternoons dancing backstage at the dance school her mother works at. She spends her evenings wishing upon unseen New York stars for a dream most consider unthinkable during this era. Still, every single day she practices her pliés and chassés with fervor.

One day, her backstage routine catches the eye of the Ballet Master himself. He invites her to join in on a daily lesson with the white girls in the class (in the back row), although she’ll never be able to perform onstage with them. Since joining the class, she pushes herself harder to be the best ballerina she can be. And whenever she’s asked to demonstrate a movement for the whole class, the little girl thinks for a fleeting moment that even a “colored girl like me” could become a prima ballerina someday. (more…)

Perfect Lil Blends by Luke Whitehead

cover for Perfect Lil BlendsPerfect Lil Blends: A Reality Book that Celebrates the Diversity  of Multicultural Children  is like a series of love letters from parents to their children accompanied by their children’s portraits. Compiled by Luke Whitehead, the founder of Mixed Nation, this is a photo essay of children of mixed heritage from almost every racial, cultural, and ethnic background. Yes, most of these children are exceptionally beautiful however, similar to, but more personal than, Kip Fulbeck’s photo essay book Mixed, each photo of a child is accompanied by a description of the child’s life interests and a note of dedication from the parents to the child, making this more than a vanity book of portraits. (more…)

When the Black Girl Sings by Bil Wright

cover for When a Black Girl SingsIf 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

Always an Olivia: A Remarkable Family History by Caroliva Herron

cover Always an Olivia

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

Visiting my Father’s Homeland: Book Review for I Lost My Tooth in Africa by Penda Diakité

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Losing teeth is a rite of passage for every child and, based on twelve-year-old Penda Diakité’s I Lost My Tooth in Africa, a visit from the elusive tooth-fairy is a welcome surprise for children all over the world as well—even in Mali, West Africa!

In the story, Amina, a girl born and raised in the U.S., and her family travel from Portland, Oregon to Bamako, Mali, her father’s birthplace and childhood home. Amina’s loose tooth—which she discovers while en route to Mali— tags along. After her father shares with her that the African tooth fairy trades a chicken in exchange for a little boy or girl’s tooth, Amina is determined to lose her wiggly tooth  before this family trip to Africa is over.

Infused with a strong representation of words from Bamabara (a glossary is in the back of the book), the most widely used indigenous language of Mali, and Malian cultural traditions, I Lost My Tooth in Africa is a mildly suspenseful narrative that children between the ages of 5 and 8 who are also going through the “snaggle-tooth” phase could especially appreciate while learning informative tidbits about a new culture and geographical location. The children in your life will be further inspired by the fact that this book, published by one of the five major publisher’s of children’s books, is the creation of a pre-teen author and her illustrator father.

Recommendation: Highly Recommended ages 5-8

Reviewer: LaTonya Jackson

Josephine by Patricia Hruby Powell and Christian Robinson

cover for Josephine by Patricia Hruby PowellA 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+