Diverse Kids Books–Reviews

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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…)

The Favorite Daughter by Allen Say

cover The Favorite DaughterMany of us with foreign or (to Americans) impossible-to-pronounce names will relate to Yuriko’s conflicts in The Favorite Daughter—people make fun of and butcher her name so she wants an Americanized one without cultural or linguistic baggage. There’s also an additional layer of complexity to Yuriko’s identity—she’s mixed (there are two photographs of the real Yuriko in the book: she has blonde hair and Asian facial features). In addition, since the book begins with “Yuriko came to stay with her father on Thursday that week,” this may be a divorced family as well. Allen Say navigates all of these complexities with grace, subtlety, humor, and most of all, love.
Yuriko is upset that her classmates tease her after she shares a baby picture at school, and the new art teacher mispronounces her name. At home, she tells her Japanese father she wants an American name, “Michelle”. He goes along with it, saying “Michelle” is his new daughter, even introducing her as such to the owner of a Japanese restaurant. When she acquiesces to letting the owner call her Yuriko, he gives her a bundle of disposable chopsticks as a gift.
That weekend Yuriko and her father go to San Francisco because she has to draw the Golden Gate Bridge for the new art teacher. But first, her father takes her on a “real quick trip” to “Japan.” They visit a Japanese garden and a Japanese ink painting master gifts her with a painting of a lily, as Yuriko means “child of the lily” (a nod to a Caucasian mother?). He writes her name in Japanese, and Yuriko says, “I’m going to learn to write it.” Unfortunately, by the time Yuriko sees the Golden Gate Bridge, it’s covered with thick fog. She sulks, thinking her art project is doomed.
But things work out: Monday morning Yuriko returns to school owning her name/identity as well as a creative piece called “the Golden Gate in the fog” (disposable chopsticks and cotton). She signs the project Yuriko, not Michelle, to which her father responds, “That’s my favorite daughter!”
Recommendation: Highly Recommended. 4-8 years.
Reviewer: Yu-Han Chao.

The Wakame Gatherers by Holly Thompson

cover for Wakame GatherersHolly Thompson tackles the difficult subject of war with grace and beautiful writing in The Wakame Gatherers. The book begins with a little girl saying, “My name is Nanami—Seven Seas—and I have two grandmothers from two different seas: Gram from Maine, and Baachan, who lives with us here in Japan.”

 Gram visits Japan, and several pages are dedicated to descriptions and illustrations of the beaches of Maine and Japan, with particular focus on the local color of Nanami’s Japanese hometown. As a translator between her two grandmothers, Nanami helps them compare and contrast their two lands, learns about hooking and preparing seaweed as she takes care to “[use] the right language with the right grandmother.”

 Then comes conflict: not in the present, but seeping through from history. The illustrations become dark and ominous as Baachan reminisces about the war. Nanami continues to translate, and understands, “when my grandmothers were my age they were enemies, their countries bombing each other’s people.” The two old women, through their shared granddaughter’s translation, apologize for their countries’ past actions, and in the space of two pages, a feeling of peace and happiness is restored as they return to wakame gathering.

 With exquisite illustrations and vivid descriptions, The Wakame Gatherers brings together two cultures by not just acknowledging similarities and differences, but addressing the past. Of additional educational value at the end of the book are a fact sheet about wakame, a glossary of Japanese phrases, and three wakame recipes.

 Recommended: Highly recommended. Ages 4-8.

Maxwell’s Mountain by Shari Becker

cover for Maxwell's Mountain by Shari Becker Maxwell’s Mountain features a little boy with an Asian-featured father and Caucasian-looking, redheaded mother. Maxwell sees a mountain near a new park, and goes on a mountain-climbing adventure. The illustrations are beautiful watercolor-and-ink, though the story, while it teaches some good lessons, could have been so much more.

The story could have addressed the diversity so lovingly depicted by the illustrations. If you have a mixed family, you and your child might enjoy seeing the representation of diversity here. It’s interesting that the author says nothing about Maxwell’s family and background, however—not only is this a missed opportunity, it feels like a multi-racial elephant in the room.

The actual morals tackled here also seem ambiguous. One lesson a child might learn from this story is to be prepared before undertaking a large task. Maxwell is determined to the point of obsession (“At dinner Maxwell saw mountains everywhere”) and does his research by (unrealistically) checking out all the books on mountain-climbing from the library and looking through them all in one night. He trains for his hike by repeatedly climbing up and down the stairs at home (depending on the age of your child, maybe not the safest activity to encourage). And the overt moral of the book is, “When he’s in trouble, a true outdoorsman uses his head.” The gendered “outdoorsman” and “he/his” throughout the book can be limiting gender-wise, and in the end, Maxwell doesn’t really use his head that much besides backtracking a little when he gets lost.

In conclusion, Maxwell’s Mountain features lovely and intriguing illustrations, though the story does not live up to its full potential. We might wish the world were post-racial and post-feminist, that race and gender are no longer issues we should give voice to for children when an obvious opportunity presents itself, but we’re not quite there yet.

Recommendation: 4-8 years. (buy)

Review by Yu-Han (Eugenia) Chao