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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
A book review page that gives pointed attention to lesbian and gay parent led families can only be complete with a review of this classic book which was the first book ever published in the United States featuring a daughter of two mothers. Out of print now, you will either find this book at your library or buy it through a used bookseller (used copies start at $13; new copies start at $29 plus shipping). The story is a straightforward narrative introducing the reader to Heather and her family, which includes her, her two mommies, a cat and a dog. When she goes to daycare, Heather learns that not having a dad is weird, which saddens her to the point of tears. The teacher and other children are sympathetic and discuss how their families have different relationships with father figures as well, from not having a father, to having two daddies, or grandparents as primary caregivers. The black and white pencil drawings add poignancy and depth to the story. Children and adults will also be drawn into the attention given to children’s participation and representation of their world as the children’s drawings of their families are shown to the reader. The text and illustrations evocatively portray the universal vulnerability of children in the face of feeling like an outsider, their dependency on parental love and the neighborly generosity they express when coming from loving homes.
Recommendation: Recommended; ages 3-8
Reviewer: Omilaju Miranda
Like others, I am thankful for this book because it was the first book in the United States that put an interracial family on the page. The illustrations are engaging but the text itself is difficult to follow unless you sing it. Doesn’t matter the tune you apply, just enter the story as a song and it will be easier to read although even with that approach, you will still, occasionally trip over the writing. Making maximum use of the canvass, the book shows the interracial family—a black mother, white father and their two children; one a boy, the other a girl—in a wide variety of scenes of life including ones with family members other than the parents. The text also addresses those differences between the mother and father being classified as “black and white” but not actually being those colors which is really good for the young child who is trying to sort how people are both brown and “black” or pink and “white” at the same time. Not that this text will clarify the issue for your little one but it at least acknowledges it. Other than that, the history behind this book, which has had many reprints since 1973 when it was first published, is laudable. The author is Arnold Adoff, the poet husband of celebrated author Virginia Hamilton. Adoff and Hamilton married in 1960, at a time when interracial marriage was still illegal in 28 U.S. states. Thirteen years later Adoff wrote this book for children like his own. It has been a mainstay of mixed heritage children’s literature for forty years.
Recommendation: Highly recommended as a part of literary history and an okay picture book with beautiful illustrations as well.
Reviewer: Omilaju Miranda