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Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel Passing tells the moving story of a young black woman who decides to pass for white, and the story ends with the woman falling or being pushed out of a window to her death. Heidi Durrow has said that Larsen, who, like Durrow, is half black and half Danish, is one of her literary heroes, and the mother of the main character in Durrow’s 2011 bestseller The Girl Who Fell from the Sky is named Nella. Durrow’s Nella has a daughter, Rachel, who is half Danish and half black, and it is this girl, Rachel, whose story is related in The Girl Who Fell from the Sky. Hers is a story that offers homage to Nella Larsen’s work, as well as bears witness to an actual story that Durrow read about, a recent true story of a mother who fell, or jumped, from the top of a building while holding her children; only a daughter survived. (more…)
Zapato Power: Freddie Ramos Takes Off #WeNeedDiverseBooks #WeHaveDiverseBooks #DiverseKidsBooks #Magic #Hispanic #Latino #SingleMom
Real Life: Imagined
Freddie Ramos’s story is pretty common: Mom worked to get through community college in order to get a better job, Dad passed away while in the service; neighbors, friends, and teachers all make up the atmosphere for his ordinary life. But one day Freddie gets a box with a pair of purple shoes (which is great because now mom doesn’t have to buy any!) and these shoes give him ZAPATO POWER! So Freddie has the power to zip by in a flash of dust and smoke. How does he use his super powers? Where did the shoes come from? How will this saga continue? Keep reading… (more…)
Varsha Bajaj’s novel, Abby Spencer Goes to Bollywood presents the story of a bi-racial Indian-America girl who’s never met her father. She’s spent her life living in Houston, Texas with her mother being a happy, well-loved American girl who only knows one thing about her father: he is from India.
The story opens with Abby having an allergic reaction to coconut. After having to admit she knows nothing about the medical history of the father of her child, Abby’s mother realizes she needs to attempt to contact him, something she has not tried since she found out she was pregnant. After a very small window of waiting, she is finally able to contact her ex-boyfriend and as it turns out, he never received the registered letter she sent all those years ago explaining Abby’s existence. Abby not only has to deal with the shock that her father never knew about her—up until this point she believed he simply didn’t want to be a part of her life—but she also finds out he is a huge Bollywood star. The rest of the novel revolves around Abby traveling to Mumbai to meet her father and the other half of her ethnicity.
Due to unfortunate zoning laws, Reyna Fey becomes the new girl at school and misses her old life dearly. While at her old school she was not part of the most popular crowd, she did have a core group of friends who’d been BFFs most their lives. Reyna makes for a relatable teen character in that she has a lot of drama going on at home and school. Her mother was killed in a car accident 7 years ago and since then her father has been raising her by himself. But, his most recent girlfriend, Lucy, is becoming a permanent fixture in their household and Reyna is not coping well with that scenario. Reyna finds Lucy particularly intolerable because a few months prior to the beginning of the story, Lucy’s reckless driving caused a wreck that severely injured, and almost killed, Reyna’s dad.
Perfect 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…)
With sophisticated literary conventions, Rigoberto Gonzalez tells this bilingual story of personal growth targeted to experienced young readers. Antonio is an elementary student of Mexican heritage, born in the United States, who loves to spell and read with his mom and his mom’s partner, Leslie. These facts are all revealed slowly as the narrative unfolds. The narrative’s primary concern is establishing the relationship of a son’s love for his stepmother and the emotional quandary a son experiences when he is embarrassed by the parent he loves because of the way his peers respond to her. The fact that he has two moms is not an issue in the book. The fact that his father is absent from his daily life is revealed as a part of a scene discussing him reading with Leslie about Guadalajara, Mexico, “where Antonio’s grandparents live. His father went to live there, too, many years ago, when Antonio was just a baby.” His world is presented as normative; in fact the illustrations are of a student population at his school, that is predominantly Latino including a Latina teacher, and all except one of the children who are not Latino, are children of color.
Parents and grandparents of the children in this book represent a full range of ages, ethnicities and religious backgrounds. The sentence, “Parents of all shapes and sizes come to greet their children” cues us in to notice the differences amongst these families. We see the racial and gender differences amongst the parents and the children they are greeting easily. On a double take we notice that Leslie, Antonio’s stepmother is taller than the other adults, which seems to be the biggest difference between her and the other adults that Antonio notices, while the other children jeer about her because she “looks like a guy,” and has paint all over her from her work in the art studio, which stimulates them to belittle her as looking “like a box of crayons exploded all over her.” In response, Antonio pulls Leslie away and, despite the fact that he enjoys his time with Leslie after school every day, he asks if he can walk home by himself in the future.
This book feels sad. This is because of the tone set by the illustrations, which convey a persistent sense of yearning and longing in the eyes of almost all the characters. No one ever smiles fully, except in the family drawing Antonio makes of him and his two moms for his mother’s day card. Even when a compromised smile appears on the face of a character, their eyes overshadow any reading of complete fulfillment or happiness with a sense of worry and reflection. Although this sentimentality within the illustrations is a powerful representation of the subtext of Antonio’s worry about ending up lonely if he separates from Leslie in response to his classmates’ teasing, that feeling of a void starts on the first page, despite the fact that the narrative is well paced and complex, without being overwhelming.
While the teasing of the children seems like a mere catalyst for Antonio’s rediscovering and affirming his bond with Leslie, the imagery of the story is as weighty as the emotional milieu created by E.B. Lewis’ illustrations in Jacqueline Woodson’s Each Kindness, a book which was only about the refusal of children to befriend a new student. In Antonio’s Card/La Tarjeta de Antonio, the illustrations allude to what is unspoken in the text—a sentiment of something missing in the lives of these characters who seem to be smiling through emotional pain. Perhaps this is meant to convey the way that Antonio sees his world as one in which no one ever fully smiles and this is the way the illustrator is allowing emotions regarding the absent father who went back to Mexico to influence the text, since the author doesn’t give voice to Antonio’s feelings about his father being gone. What is clear by the end of the story is that one of the things which shames Antonio—Leslie’s splattered paint overalls— becomes evidence of Leslie’s bond with Antonio and his mother—a portrait of his mother that Leslie has painted as a Mother’s Day present. When Antonio sees the painting, his viewing of it becomes the turning point in Antonio’s journey towards family acceptance in face of the adversity of verbal teasing.
There are some who would categorize this story in the anti-bullying category of their collection and while I wouldn’t, the text and illustrations’ depthful representations of a child’s emotional vulnerability to teasing in general and especially in regards to their loved ones, makes this a story that can easily demonstrate how much words hurt in a curriculum on bullying and compassion. But, without a guide, children will easily understand Antonio’s sensitivity toward his stepmom and his peers in this story whose natural complexity and convincing narrative make it well worth its status as a Lambda Literary Finalist. (buy)
Recommendation: Highly recommended; ages 7+
Reviewer: Omilaju Miranda
This book drew me in to review it. I could not have delayed it if I wanted to. Morris Micklewhite likes his home, pancakes, and lots of things at school, including a tangerine colored dress from the dress up box. He loves the way the tangerine dress makes him think of “the sun, tigers and his mother’s hair.” He puts the tangerine dress on over his pants and black and white striped shirt, and tries different, dressy, heeled shoes from the dress up box on. Morris likes the sound the dress makes when he walks, has a favorite pair of dress shoes that make the sound “click,click, click,” enjoys his nails painted by his mom, but does not like the way boys and girls bully him at school because of the dress.
The text deals accurately with the realistic, antagonistic responses that both girls and boys have to non-conforming gender performance amongst their peers, with girls trying to pull the dress off of Morris’ body, boys excluding him from their games, and both genders verbally taunting him. Isabelle Malenfant’s pen and ink illustrations depthfully present each character’s many layered emotions and Morris’ purposeful, powerful, and vulnerable actions throughout the narrative.
Morris retreats to his home for a few days, taking refuge in his mom’s nurturing, books, puzzles, his cat and his dream. When he returns to school, he carries a painting of his dream with him, and when the boys refuse to allow him entry to their cardboard space ship, he builds one of his own. When the girls try to take the dress from him again, Morris stands up for his right to wear the tangerine dress until he is finished with it. Then, the boys who like the space ship Morris has built better than the one they built, allow Morris to lead him with his imagination and get to know him as an inventive, exploring fellow kid whose fun quotient is more important than the idea that he could change them into girls.
The winning moment of this book after we go through Morris’ journey of social challenges and self acceptance is his self-confidence, expressed in the affirmative exchange he has with a little girl in his class named Becky.
When Becky snips, “Boys don’t wear dresses.”
Morris responds, “This boy does.”
And there he goes. Morris you have the right to be you.
Whether the child you read to, or who reads this, is gender conforming or non-conforming in their play, every child will be able to understand the emotional and psycho-physio pain they have in response to being bullied and not accepted, feeling the need to step away from all peers for a little while to take a rest from bullying, and the importance of their imagination to serve as a self-soothing coping mechanism; the power of their imagination to bring them joy and instill in them a sense of pride in themselves where they may have suffered from the jabs of other children. While the standard formula often works well, one of the unique things about this book as compared to others about bullying or intolerance from children is that there are no proactive adults involved in this children’s dispute. The protagonist and his peers work out their relationships on their own– a plot choice that models independence and self-reliance for the young reader. Without Morris or the narrator saying it, the story conveys the universal message of “I can do.” to readers. (buy)
Recommendation: Highly recommended 3+
Reviewer: Omilaju Miranda
Vera. B Williams’, Something Special for Me, follows Rosa, once again as she narrates a series of situations in her life. Even as a child, I grinned when stories contained nods to a protagonist’s earlier titles and several details including the reappearance of the chair and coin jar from A Chair for My Mother lent that special touch here. The accordion also brings the idea of family tradition to in this book.
After the coin jar from A Chair for My Mother, is filled once again, Rosa’s mother and Grandmother decide to use it for Rosa’s birthday present. Rosa comes close to buying herself roller skates, clothes, and even a red tent, but backs out of each buy (to be honest, I was hoping for the skates).
After she hears a man playing an accordion and finds out that her Grandmother also played the same instrument, Rosa chooses to buy an accordion. I really enjoyed this ending because Rosa found a way to make herself happy, and bring a small joy to her mother and Grandmother. It was enjoyable to see Rosa doing something for herself this time. This is different from the approach to family loyalty in A Chair for My Mother and Music, Music, for Everyone in which Rosa is solely focused on her mother and grandmother.
I found Williams’ artwork, although somewhat simple, engaging. I was so intrigued that with each page, I tried to see every item in the artwork. Young girls may enjoy Something Special for Me moreso than other readers but Williams writes a story in which gender is not significant to the plot.
Recommendation: Recommended. Ages 5+
Reviewer: Warren Stokes
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+
In what may be considered the third of Vera B. Williams’ “Rosa” series, Music, Music for Everyone, Rosa’s new found accordion hobby and relationship with her Grandmother continue. When Rosa’s Grandmother grows ill, Rosa and her friends try to make her feel better. They finally decide the best way to help her recover is to fill the coin jar again, by raising money as a musical band. After practicing and finding a party to play at, their performance not only brings Rosa’s Grandmother a sense of joy, but it also brings their families and the neighborhood even closer.
The illustrations in this book are as fun as those in Williams’ A Chair for My Mother and Something Special for Me. While the characters do not seem as physically active in the artwork as they were in the previous books, the art is still appealing. In this book, Williams used color as a strong medium to convey the emotional tone of the story, with scenes that seem gloomier than others painted darker colors. The illustration I liked the most was the two pages of family and friends dancing at the anniversary party. I even found myself spending a couple of minutes trying to see how each character was dancing. The artwork also included a wide range of ethnicities, which I thought I added to this story’s theme.
Family bonds is the primary theme of this story with music being used to bring each family closer, especially Rosa and her Grandmother. The story’s subtext conveys the importance of being able to use your own talents to help others and maybe bring people closer. Just as the other two Rosa stories are more female oriented when it comes to the characters, Music, Music, for Everyone, is focused more on female familial relationships than other relationships. However, the characters’ gender only adds to the overall strength of the story that all people would enjoy.
Recommendation: Recommended; ages 5+
Reviewer: Warren Stokes