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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
What I like about this book more than anything is the idea. A single mother who lives in the United States with her son Justice, takes him on a trip to her Jamaican homeland where he is immersed in a new culture and learns a new language. While they are walking along the roads (pon di road), they meet a variety of adult characters running businesses from small shops or road side stands. Justice gets to try new types of food and meet people who instantly adore him as he learns new phrases. The tone of the narrative voice is fun and I find it appealing that there are positive representations of entrepreneurial black Jamaicans, as well as positive representations of African Diaspora people with uncombed, natural kinky, coily hair and dread locks. Also, there’s a great historical timeline and glossary in the back of the book, which are valuable teaching tools.
What is not appealing is that the narrative is just too long for this story; the illustrations which look like prematurely exposed film photos are often eerie, the detail is difficult to see, and are often not well paired with the narrative. The discontinuity of the illustrations often occurs because one page of the narrative will go on and on and the only thing illustrated is the experience Justice had in the first paragraph or first sentence. I think if a teacher is looking for a way to make a history lesson on Jamaica or the Caribbean fun, sharing the first few pages of this book and the rich glossary and history section in the back with a classroom would be valuable. The simple tone of the narrative and the stroller riding toddler protagonist indicate that the story is targeted to ages 1-5 but the length and history section are more appropriate for ages 7-9. I don’t know if the narrative will hold the attention of either age group for its entirety but an adult who reads the book in advance and edits the story for their child’s attention span will share a unique story with their child and learn more about Jamaica than just the music with which we are familiar.
Recommendation: Recommended for educational purposes to adults who will work around the narrative. Ages 2-9.
Reviewer: Omilaju Miranda
With an awe-inspiring light touch that manages to impart the oppressive colonial history of indentured servants and African slaves without sugar coating or overwhelming the young reader with the harsh realities of this period of history, Alice McGill writes the love and family story of former indentured servant, Molly Walsh and her formerly enslaved husband Bannaky—the grandparents of Benjamin Banneker. Chris Soentpiet’s water color paintings provide an evocative illustration for a story whose complexity holds the reader’s emotional commitment from the first to last page. You feel the griot that is author Alice McGill as you read Molly Bannaky. Every classroom should have a copy of this mini-biography of one of history’s women of strength and every household with or without children should have a copy of this book on its shelves. Not a bedtime story but a story to be read and discussed.
Recommendation: Highly Recommended; Ages 6-10
Reviewer: Omilaju Miranda