Diverse Kids Books–Reviews

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Diversity Children’s Books Website is Live

Mixed Diversity Children’s Book Reviews is officially a website:  http://mixeddiversityreads.com/.

Book Review Categories Pic for mixed diversity book review page (1024x701)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.

Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli

cover for Maniac McGeeManiac Magee was first published in 1990, and received the prestigious Newbery Medal in 1991. The National Education Association named Maniac one of its “Teachers’ Top 100 Books for Children” in 2007, the School Library Journal placed it among the “Top 100 Chapter Books” in 2012.

That’s pretty high praise, suggesting the book’s endurance and strength over 20 years. Reading it for the first time in 2014, I wished I had read it when my children were in elementary and middle school. We could have talked about the magic realism that works well in the novel: Maniac’s powers to run, to hit homeruns, and to untie huge tangled knots. Those powers seem to serve Maniac (real name Jeffrey Lionel Magee) well after his parents die in a tragic accident when he’s 3 years old. He runs away after 8 years with his angry aunt and uncle, and ends up in Two Mills, Pennsylvania. He doesn’t realize, at first, how racially divided the town is. Maniac is white, and one of his first and best friends is Amanda Beale, a black girl who treasures books, and whose family takes him in for a short time. His football interceptions and his fearlessness entering a scary backyard build him a reputation among both black and white children as a “maniac.”

Much of the book is about Maniac’s search for a sense of home, as racial and other incidents cause him to keep moving, and make him wonder if he is causing problems for people he cares about. He becomes friends with a washed up minor league baseball player. Maniac teaches Grayson to read and celebrates a sweet Christmas with him. He tries to help a couple of rowdy little brothers stay in school. He eventually ends up homeless again, living in the buffalo pen at the zoo. After one more challenging adventure, Maniac finds his way back to the Beale family.

The themes of racism, illiteracy, and homelessness, plus the blend of an orphan’s magical talents (including his ability to travel long distances and not attend school) provide lots to talk and think about. The 46 (short) chapters are appropriate for third to ninth graders. Social media and electronic devices may have changed a lot in the last two decades, but this story of a child figuring out his way in the world remains compelling.

Recommendation: Highly Recommended; ages 8-14
Reviewer: Maureen McCauley Evans

 

Kimchi and Calamari

cover for Kimchi and CalamariJoseph Calderaro turns fourteen at the beginning of this engaging, humorous story of a Korean born Italian American kid who is thrown into a quagmire of emotions when, on the heels of his social studies teacher giving him ancestry project that makes him feel that he has no history or ancestral connections because he is adopted, his father gives him a corno for his birthday, as is the Italian cultural tradition in their family
While the major plot of the novel is Joseph’s search for his Korean mother and family, he also has a crush on a girl and teenage awkwardness to overcome. In this story that offers no dreamy endings, Rose Kent writes such a convincing and vulnerable narrative through Joseph’s first person voice that readers will laugh and cry growing close to Joseph and the people in his close circle. Readers will feel agitated with Joseph’s whining, tattle-tale younger twin sisters—the biological daughters of his parents, laugh with Joseph’s best friend who pushes him to do the search for his birth mother and hold their breath in empathy with his father whose fear of rejection and discomfort with the issue of Joseph being of Korean ancestry keeps him from even talking about Joseph’s birth nationality. Kent seamlessly weaves into the story the many ways in which Joseph feels inadequate as a Korean and rootless as an Italian. In addition to the disappointment of finding the “wrong” birth family, he also meets a Korean immigrant family who stereotypically own the Dry Cleaners and have a daughter who is an academic prodigy whose Korean language and cultural traditions exacerbate Joseph’s sense of being “un-Korean”.
At the center of the novel is the drastic and desperate action Joseph takes to hide the fact that he doesn’t know his Korean ancestry and the drama that unfolds and upturns Joseph’s life in the wake of his tortured decision. Ultimately, Joseph’s father breaks his silence, Joseph works to repair the relationships he has broken and his family strategizes an approach to integrating Joseph’s Korean roots into his Italian-American/Korean life. Anyone who likes to read will read ‘Kimchi and Calamari’ twice and love it. Others will read this book and find a powerful story of defining identity, being lost and found as a transracially, internationally adopted child.

Recommendation: Highest Recommendation; ages  9-14

Reviewer: Omilaju Miranda

Mira in the Present Tense (originally published in the U.K as Artichoke Hearts) by Sita Bhramachari

cover for Mira in the Present TenseMira in the Present Tense is definitely a three-hankie book. This storyline tows the reader on an emotional roller coaster, gently rocking us back and forth through sadness to acceptance, up to excitement and down to understanding, and over and under through past and present. I found myself tired, but at ease, with the characters slowly strolling through my mind.
We meet Mira, the Indian-Jewish protagonist, days before her 12th birthday and just before she joins a writing class and begins her May Day journal. Mira in the Present Tense is organized by dates instead of chapters, just as a journal would be. For the next month, we jump into Mira’s life as she reaches the highs and lows of the normal coming of age milestones- starting her period, her first crush and first heterosexual kiss, finding her own voice, and standing up to her bullies. At the same time, we join Mira as she and her family live with the impending death of her dad’s mum, Nana Josie. With Nana Josie gracefully leading the way, Mira learns that some heartbreaks are necessary if you truly love the person.
The strength of this book is in its characters, with Nana Josie stealing the spotlight. In her own words, “It is bloody hard work dying well,” but Nana Josie indeed does die well cover for Artichoke Hearts by Sita Bhramachariwith grace and kindness for all who will miss her. The author, Sita Brahmachari, places layer upon layer until each individual is shaped in our minds. Mira at school is almost painfully shy and introspective, relying only on her best girlfriend and later on a boy in her writing class. But with Nana Josie, Mira is uninhibited. Nana Josie lends Mira her creative strength and her unbound love. Pat Print is another character of note. She appears to Mira in the most honest ways at the most unexpected time, almost as if she is Mira’s guardian angel.
Mira is of Jewish and Indian descent, but beyond her name there is not much mention or focus on this fact in the story. I found this quite normalizing as our children of mixed heritage will no doubt identify with Mira for her racial make-up but everyone can identify with Mira for the struggle she is facing in the death of her grandmother. There are two other characters I would like to point out to potential readers. Mira’s crush, Jide, was a Rwandan refugee adopted by refugee camp workers. There are some small details about the atrocities in Rwanda and if children are unaware it might bring up questions. Jide talks about the physical differences between himself and his adopted parents. He also mentions how frustrating and mad it can make him when strangers make intrusive and uneducated comments. Mira’s Aunt Abi has a female partner, who we are introduced to early on. She does not play a main role and honestly, her brief introduction is quite off putting. When Mira writes, “Nana points to Abi, Aunty Mel—who is actually Abi’s girlfriend, but we call her aunty anyway,” I got the feeling that Abi having a female partner was accepted but not advertised or completely ok.

I recommended this book for ages 10-13.
Reviewer:  Amanda Setty

Becoming Naomi Leon by Pam Munoz Ryan

cover for Becoming Naomi LeonNaomi Soledad Leon Outlaw is a ten year old girl who lives with her great-grandmother and disabled brother in Avocado Acres Trailer Rancho in Lemon Tree, California. She hasn’t seen her mother in seven years, and her father is in Mexico. Naomi is an avid reader, list maker and soap carver who is devoted to her family and loves works. Her world transforms one afternoon when her glamorous looking mother, who has changed her name from Terri Lynn to Skyla, shows up unannounced with armfuls of gifts. Although Naomi is thrilled to meet her mother, she feels overwhelmed. When it emerges that Skyla is an alcoholic who has been in and out of rehab and that she not interested in Owen, Naomi’s brother, because has a disability, Naomi becomes quickly disillusioned.
The novel follows Naomi’s coming of age story and her development into a young woman. Her unconventional family is made up of her great-grandmother and brother, but also includes her neighbors from Mexico, and her estranged father. In an effort to reconnect with the children’s father – and to thwart Skyla’s attempts to take Naomi from her home – their great-grandmother takes them on an impromptu road trip to Mexico in their airstream trailer, named Baby Beluga. They arrive in the country right before La Noche de los Rabanos, The Night Of The Radishes, a Mexican festival where carvers create elaborate artwork out of radishes. The Leons, they find out, are renowned as carvers, and Naomi experiences a deep cultural immersion in discovering her Mexican roots, wearing a traditional Mexican Village woman’s blouse and huraches, and carving radishes with her friends.
‘Becoming Naomi Leon’ is a poetic, poignant novel with excellent character development and gentle treatment of difficult subject matter. It’s a classic coming of age story that incorporates the positive aspects of cultural mixing, and handles this complex family structure with grace and insight. The discovery of the long lost Mexican father is the highlight of the narrative.

Recommendation: Any advanced reader will enjoy this book, which could also be a good book to read to a child who is ready for chapter books to read aloud.


Book Reviewer: Jill Moffett

Bluish by Virginia Hamiliton

cover for Bluish by Virginia HamiltonMost of the time I pick books for my children based on their experiences so they know they are not the only ones. Many times, I pick books to introduce adventures we plan to do or places we plan to go. Often I pick books that reinforce our family’s values or our ways of being. But sometimes I come across a book with a new character—a character with a life story we have not encountered yet, but I know we will.

Dreenie, a fifth grader, just starting a new school is looking for a friend she can “talk things over with and do special things with.” Instead, she cares for her precocious little sister and a somewhat mixed-up and needy best friend. Then, she meets Natalie whom everyone calls “Bluish” for the color of her skin. Bluish arrives in her classroom in a wheelchair with a puppy on her lap and a knitted hat on her head. She comes and goes from school according to her own schedule and is hard for Dreenie to figure out, so Dreenie begins to write a journal all about Bluish. Through a class project, the two girls slowly become comfortable with each other and eventually become friends. Prompted by her visit to the doctor, the classroom teacher and the students have a heart-to-heart discussion about Natalie and we learn she has Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia. The rest of the class slowly adjusts to having Natalie in class and begins to accept her ups and downs depending on how she is feeling that day. Natalie, also, finds her own way to join the class giving out hand-made knitted hats and teaching her classmates how to play dreidel.
The image on the cover of the book shows three girls in knit hats with varying skin tones and facial features. Natalie is identified as Jewish and Black and her mom bristles at the idea of kids calling her “Blewish”, not realizing her nickname “Bluish” has more to do with blue tint of her skin tone because of her illness. Dreenie and the third girl on the cover are never labeled with a particular heritage although Dreenie calls herself a “sorta sweet chocolate color” and calls Tuli “more honey color.” At one point, Dreenie’s little sister taunts her by saying, “I know who your mama ain’t, Drain. Because you sure ain’t one of us Anneva and Gerald Browns!” causing me to wonder if Dreenie was adopted but there is no more mention of this leaving me confused. But I am not the only one confused– honey-colored Tuli is right there with me. Tulifoolie pretends to speak Spanish singing out phrases, “chica-chica, do the mambo” and calling folks “muchcha” but is told by a Spanish speaking girl that she “gives Spanish kids a bad name.” Tuli lives with her grandmom in a not-so-good part of town. Tuli’s aunt is mentioned but never a mention of a mother or father–and no mention to confirm if she is indeed Latina. Your young reader might not have the need to know the exact heritage of Dreenie and Tuli and therefore might escape the confusion I experienced. All three girls play a major role in the story and present very different individuals who come together as friends. And that is a theme with which many readers can relate.

Recommendation: This book is appropriate for readers ages 9-14.
Reviewer:  Amanda Setty

The Other Half of My Heart by Sundee T. Frazier

cover The Other Half of My HeartHave 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

My Basmati Bat Mitzvah by Paula J. Freedman

cover for My Basmati Bat MitzvahI sucked this book down like a mango lassi. It was smooth, sweet and went down quickly. So quickly, in fact I read it in 24 hours. And then like my girls, I sat back, took a breath and dove back in for a second reading, running my finger along the side of the cup looking for some goodness that I left behind.
Paula J. Freedman created a strong female character, for which I thank her. Tara Feinstein is the girl we all want our daughters to be. She has her own fashion style—
vintage. She plays hoops with her best boyfriend. She still plays dress up at the age of 12 with her best girlfriend. She is pumped to join the robotics team. She is not afraid to stand up for herself, although she is learning to manage it with words and not fists. She also stands up for others, especially when they need a friend. She gives second chances, preferring to see the good in people. She questions her beliefs and seeks for answers.
But life is not all easy peazy lemon squeezy for Tara. She and her friends are going through a season of preteen changes—bat mitzvahs, changing bodies, shifting relationships and first crushes. As Tara prepares for her own bat mitzvah she struggles to understand how she can be Indian, like her mother, Jewish, like her father and remain herself. How can she be Jewish if she is not even sure she believes in God? If she goes through with this Bat Mitzvah, does that mean she is picking her “Jewish side” over her “Indian side”? Will she only date and marry Jewish boys, like her other Jewish friends? My Basmati Bat Mitzvah raises topics many of our bi-racial, bi-cultural children will face or are facing. Tara’s voice is honest and sturdy, allowing readers from all backgrounds to easily put themselves in her place.
On my second read of the book, I unfortunately did not find many leftover bits of goodness stuck to the side of my cup. I found myself bothered by the underdeveloped characters, orbiting around Tara. I wanted more connection with her parents. Tara’s Jewish Gran and her Indian Auntie seem a bit too stereotypical for my liking. And many of Freedman’s characters seemed like superficial offerings- the immigrant child gone wild, the Korean adopted child, the always in trouble child with ADHD, the Muslim child whose father jokes about getting her married at the age of 12, and the perfect child who turns out to have trichotillomania and problems with shoplifting. Perhaps this book would be a good fit for a book group or classroom, so readers could find ways to make these distinctive characters more vibrant and “finish” them. I was also bothered that the robotics club storyline just disappeared. It held such promise of a preteen girl not only psyched about science but also talented, and then offered us nothing except for scenes of teenage romance and angst. The one bright point in my re-read was to explore Tara’s special relationship with her open-minded and very patient rabbi. Every teenager needs to connect with a trustworthy adult outside of their family.

Recommendation: I recommend this book for ages 12-14. The writing itself is suited for ages 9+ but some of the topics, such as, first heterosexual kiss and a friend suffering from trichotillomania might be better received by an older reader.

Book Reviewer: Amanda Setty