Diverse Kids Books–Reviews

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I Am a Ballerina by Valerie Coulman

 cover I am a Ballerina    The pastel drawings of I Am a Ballerina are soft and subtle, and the story straightforward and sweet. Not overly pink and frilly, and not going too deep below the surface of a little girl exploring a new passion, this book would be a great read for children considering a new sport or interest.

            After watching a ballet performance on her birthday, little Molly decides that she is a ballerina. At first her parents’ response to her leaping around the house in imitation of the gazelle-like picture of a ballerina on her wall is, “Jump down, dear.” When she smears her face with baby-blue eyeshadow and rouge, announcing herself as beautiful as a ballerina, her mother tells her to, “Go wash your face, dear.” Finally, after she nearly knocks some things over, her father concedes: “If you’re going to be a ballerina, maybe you should take some lessons.”

            At Madame Cherie’s ballet school, Molly falls and trips, but it’s all part of learning. She practices and practices, and finally dons a merry-go-round horse costume for the ballet performance. The moment at the end of the book that Molly truly feels like she is a ballerina, however, is when her father lifts airplane-style: “It felt like flying. And then I knew…I am a ballerina.”

            As seen in some “diverse” children’s books, the author plays it safe, saying nothing about ethnicity or appearance, even though the illustrator makes a point of creating a distinctly mixed family. Molly’s father is Caucasian or mixed, with curly brown hair and a bushy moustache, whereas her mother is Asian-featured. In this case, however, since it’s a nice ballet story that’s realistic and not overly pink and filled with tutus, I don’t mind that Asian-looking Molly isn’t identified ethnically or culturally (for all we know, her father is her stepfather, or she’s adopted).

 

Recommendation: Recommended: 4-6 years

Reviewer: Yu-Han Chao

I am Me by Karla Kushkin

I am Me cover by Karla Kushkin

Concisely written, Karla Kushkin’s I Am Me is a biracial little girl’s declaration of pride in both the physical characteristics that connect her to the people in her family as well as her self-pride in her individuality. She is a mixture of various characteristics of her father, her mother, and their respective families. Although the race or ethnicity of her father is not clear, he is a man of color, while her mother is Caucasian. With tawny skin and dark hair like her father and light green eyes like her mother, she is an apparent blend of two distinctly different ethnicities. Dyanna Wolcott’s illustrations emphasize the physical contrast between the two families (and the differences between the little girl and her parents) as they mingle together on an outing at the park filled with swimming, bike-riding, and a picnic. The text and illustrations are rendered in a manner that mimics a child’s innocent observations and the playfulness of the narrative and images makes this book visually and audibly attractive and relatable to a younger audience.

Recommendation: recommended ages 3+

Reviewer: LaTonya Jackson

Mommy, Why’s Your Skin So Brown by Maria Leonard Olsen

cover of Mommy why's your skin so brownThe brown skinned, multiracial mixed heritage mother of two children who are lighter than her discusses with her children why she is darker than both of them and much darker than the son who has fair skin, silky blond hair, and blue eyes. The book reads as if the author simply transcribed a conversation that she had with her children. Her anger or annoyance with people who were asking the author if she was the nanny (according to interviews she has given) comes through evocatively in the tone of the narrative as well as on the book’s back cover blurb, which both address the necessity to admonish people to not allow their “curiosity to overwhelm their manners”.

That is a salient point that many parents of interracial families would like to communicate to those who rudely ask questions like “Are you the nanny?” “Is she adopted?” “Is that child yours?”, which confuse and sometimes sadden our children. However, in a children’s book, the tone of the mother’s frustration doesn’t communicate as a part of the children’s characterization and reads as the words of an angry author. It just doesn’t feel like it is from the children, and there’s nothing in the narrative to balance it off.

Points of the narrative that could have been the basis for beautiful illustrations of the entire family are missed. This conversation between the mother and her children is boring as a book read to a child and there are points that actually get confusing where the mother narrator is discussing where everybody got their different features (i.e. the mother speaks of getting her own dark skin from her grandmother, herself being a color in between both her parents, and her son getting blue eyes from his father and the mother’s grandfather) yet there are no images of the relatives to accompany this monologue.

This lack of illustration accompanied by no mention of the mother’s actual ethnicity (research into the author reveals she is biracial Filipina and this story is from her personal life) seems like a strong commitment to being vague. I’m sure the author doesn’t mention the ethnic heritages of her family so that the book could be used universally by the many parents of color of all ethnicities and races who face this scenario but because this book’s only story line is this family, the absence of a discussion of the family’s ethnicity and actual heritage leaves a palpable void. With no characterization for any of the characters in the book and a narration primarily from the mother’s perspective, sadly there is no story here. This is such a loss in part because this is the only picture book I’ve read that focuses primarily on the biracial child with almost exclusively Caucasian features. The other books which even present these children, present them as part of a duo led by brown biracial children or as part of an ensemble cast.

While I do not see this as an enjoyable read for children of any age as a standalone book, this book could easily serve as an interesting guide for adults on how to discuss this matter with their children and the points that can be covered regarding family features. If used in that matter, I would definitely suggest incorporating photos of the referenced family members into the conversation. (buy)

Recommendation: If your family is similar to the one in this book then, couple this book with your own family photos and exploration of your family tree or, for people with all types of family constructs and teachers, couple this book with either That’s My Mum by Henriette Barkow or My Mom is a Foreigner but Not to Me by Julianne Moore and this book can lead off the discussion of the serious aspects of a family dealing with people’s reactions to a mother (or father) looking racially different from her children.

 

Recommendations: For Adults to lead discussions on interracial families and phenotype differences.

Reviewer: Omilaju Miranda

Hello, Lulu by Caroline Uff

Cover Hello Lulu by Caroline UffHello, Lulu is a great book for beginner readers, but not necessarily the ideal book if you’re teaching your little one about diversity. The book introduces the reader to a little girl named Lulu and the important people and things in her life. The reader learns about Lulu and all of the members of her family. The board book itself features brightly colored backgrounds to help Lulu’s family members stand out. So while the illustrations visually cue us in on the family’s interracial composition, it’s never verbally explained. Thus, to bypass this subliminal message, you may want to point out the fact that Lulu’s parents are different races from the beginning. One other note: From learning about what Lulu’s favorite snacks are to how many pets Lulu has, your child is sure to notice a correlation or two in their own life (racial composition aside). 

 Recommendation: Recommended to introduce young readers to diverse-looking characters; Ages 2-5  (buy)

Book Reviewers: Kaitlyn Wells

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.

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.

I Love Saturdays y domingos by Alma Flor Ada

cover for I Love Saturdays y DomingosThis is a valuable book to show the bilingual and bicultural immersion of a girl who is  multiracial Mexican and Caucasian USAmerican. On every alternate page the protagonist speaks Spanish with her Mexican grandparents. On the surface, the grandparents are different—in addition to their race/ethnicity, the USAmerican grandparents live in the city or suburbs, the Mexican grandparents live on a farm near a fishing pier. The illustrations are lively and evocative. It is a formulaic story of comparisons: My grandpa buys me balloons: my abuelo buys me a kite; my grandma makes pancakes; my abuela makes me huevos rancheros…fourteen pages in, I drifted from boredom. Despite the fact that the comparisons went on for too long in my opinion, the parallel lifestyles and interests of the grandparents makes a powerful impression on the reader of the similarities of people who seem very different. Although the details of their lives are very different, both sets of grandparents love their pets, enjoy the circus, like making things by hand, create exceptional ways to make the protagonist happy and, of course, love their granddaughter.
The plot turn which is actually fun should have come earlier in the book—the protagonist has a party at her house that both sets of grandparents attend during which the grandparents help out with the children. The Pinata and the traditional Mexican birthday song are fun. You and your child may actually want to learn the song as I did.

Recommendation: Mildly recommended

Reviewer: Omilaju Miranda

My Mom is a Foreigner but Not to Me by Julianne Moore

My mom is not a foreigner cover imageI love this book so very much
I can read it ten good times
She represents a child’s experience
With such cool, catchy rhymes

This book by Julianne Moore, primarily written in ABCB rhyming quatrain stanzas, is a first person narrative from the perspective of a dozen different children, which talks about the varied experiences of a child living in the U.S. with a mother from another country. The illustrator, Meilo So has chosen a “framed” illustration style which, other than the fact that it leaves a lot of white space on the page is successful at providing images for many different aspects of the “story” simultaneously.
Not only do I like the fact that Moore’s rhyme is perfect ninety per cent of the time, the text shows the dynamic conflicts faced by children who love their mothers but experience, with a little shame, all of the ways in which their mother is different from other mothers and people they encounter daily, including their different food and culturally different greeting and doting customs. The children also communicate their discomfort with their mothers’ use of a different language in communicating with them and their mothers’ slow mastery of English as their second language.
Most of the children from whose voice the book is written appear to be between the ages of 7-11. While there are several pages in the book illustrating the mothers caring for a second child in the infant/toddler age range, there is only one page in the book that shows a mother and father together (in a photo on a dresser) so children living in single-mother led households can easily find a reflection of their family construct in this book.
Most of the mother-child relationships in the book are clearly representative of an interracial family (even though we don’t see fathers) with children who look racially different from their mothers. Moore and Meilo So cover the full gamut of children who look racially different from their mothers whether the mothers are East Asian, Subsaharan African, or Dutch with children whose features present as the entire world spectrum of all racial/ethnic features. Meilo So does not just throw kids on the page who are holding hands with mothers—no, her vivid, emotionally realistic, water color illustrations are done with such attention to detail that on one page there is a brown-skinned, gele scarf wearing mother with her pale-skinned, red-haired daughter who the reader can see look exactly alike–like twins except their skin color, height, and weight are different. The “twin” mother and daughter are walking up the stairs as a boy behind them keeps staring at them and a mother holding a child that is like her in every obvious way walks towards them staring at them with a surprised, questioning look on her face. The text that goes along with this illustration speaks of the emotional weight a child faces when her features are just like her mom’s but because of different racial markers people don’t always see their likeness:

“Some people say we look alike
Others wonder: What’s HER name?
I get so upset when they say,
“Why don’t you look the same?””

Finally, this book ends with a celebration of all the universal ways in which a mother and child bond,

“She gives me lots of kisses,
she tucks me in at night,
she laughs at ALL my jokes,
SHE HOLDS ME VERY TIGHT”
With this well-written, fancifully illustrated picture book, Julianne Moore and Meilo So have hit a home run for all readers and definitely for intercultural and multi-lingual and interracial families that also keeps children belonging to single parent households from feeling like outsiders.

Recommendation: Highly Recommended; Ages–3-10

Reviewer: Omilaju Miranda

Mixed Me by Tiffany Catledge

cover for Mixed MeMy immediate reaction to this book is “this is so cute”. I like the voice of the young girl in the book and the choice to put her in a very diverse world—although “a tale of a girl who is both black and white,” her world is filled with the full spectrum of human diversity. I find it to be very didactic. This isn’t so much a story as it is an illustrated speech to the reader. The protagonist discusses all the major issues mixed-race children encounter from people outside of their family and the watercolor illustrations are incredibly appealing. The straightforwardness of this book makes it very valuable as a teaching tool so I think teachers and school librarians should include it in their collection or, parents should buy it and donate it to the school so it can be a part of the classroom and, hopefully diversity lesson plans.

Recommendation: Recommended for Educational Purposes; Ages 5-7

More More More Said the Baby—Three Love Stories by Vera B. Williams

Cover for More More More said the BabyI didn’t really enjoy this book but I seem to be the only one. It was a Caldecott Honor Book in 1990 and my 3-year-old daughter got in to touching her own belly button during the part where “Little Guy’s” father is kissing his belly button. I may have found this book more engaging if I’d discovered it for my child when she was an infant or early toddler. This is one of Vera B. Williams’ books that exists for the illustrations and not the written narrative. There are three short stories in this book—stories that illustrate three different children receiving affection from their caretakers. The copyright page explains that the book is based on the gouache paintings and as I read it, the narrative was so thin, in my opinion, that I felt the words were just put on the page to justify putting a multicultural children’s book on the shelf but that was 23 years ago and one of the first, if not only Caldecott honor books with interracial families.

So what exists that is multiculturally relevant? There is a lone father caretaker of a child, there is a Caucasian grandmother caretaker of a child of multiracial African descent, and there is a brown-skinned mother of a light-skinned Asian child. The challenge with the Gouache paintings is a lack of defined detail. My daughter thought that “Little Guy” was a girl who didn’t like her father and, while we suspected that the grandmother was Caucasian, my grandmother upon reading it wasn’t sure—the way the features are drawn, she could just as easily have been a light-skinned woman of color. Similarly, I do not know whether the mother with daughter is supposed to be a brown-skinned Asian sharing her daughter’s ethnicity or a woman of a different ethnicity or race. In an interview I can’t find right now, Williams says that she wrote the book to fill the void of in the children’s books market with interracial families so having read that interview, I’m certain the grandmother is Caucasian. You may find the last painting uncomfortable as a child is splayed in a way that is a little exposing—my daughter asked if the girl had on shorts under her dress. What is clear is that readers can definitely see that families are composed of a rainbow of people. Since this is a book about relationships between familial adults and children, without couples or references to two parents, this is a book that can definitely reflect and validate single parent and alternative guardian families.

Recommendation: Valuable to have in your book collection; Ages 0-4

Reviewer: Omilaju Miranda