Diverse Kids Books–Reviews

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Going Home, Coming Home by Truong Tran and Ann Phong #WeNeedDiverseBooks #Vietnamese #DiverseKidsBooks

cover Going Home Coming HomeGoing Home, Coming Home is a bilingual (English-Vietnamese) story book for all readers who feel “home is two different places,” on the left and right sides of their heart. The author, Truong Tran, sets this book in Vietnam and based it on his own upbringing. But I think the story will ring true with any family who has left their first home to make a second home in a different country. (more…)

Lakas and the Manilatown Fish/Si Lakas at ang Isdang Manilatown by Anthony D. Robles #WeNeedDiverseBooks #DiverseKidsBooks #BilingualKidsBooks

cover Lakas and Manilatown FishA colorful, English-Tagalog bilingual romp from Manilatown through San Francisco Bay, Lakas and the Manilatown Fish presents a modern, colorful tale of the legendary kissing fish.

The story begins in a realistic manner: Lakas’s father takes him to the Happy Fish Man to buy a fish to make sinigang. But the fish turns out to be a talking fish and escapes from its tank, kissing people along the way and making them fall “dizzy in love.” It kisses a bus driver and takes her bus, kisses a manong and takes his clothes and teeth, all the while chased by Lakas, his father, the Happy Fish Man, and the manong. When everyone falls into the ocean, the fish jumps in and rescues them. That night, the fish returns home with Lakas and his family and they all eat rice, chile and tomatoes (no fish).

An action-filled story showcasing Manilatown and San Francisco buildings and scenery, Lakas and the Manilatown Fish has the familiar repetition and climactic buildup that will certainly make kids say, “Again!” after each reading. The lovely illustrations by Carl Angel add additional character and color to this striking children’s book.

Recommendation: Recommended; ages 6 and up

Reveiwer: Yu-Han Chao

Buy Lakas and the Manilatown Fish/Si Lakas at ang Isdang Manilatown Now

Lakas and the Makibaka Hotel/si Lakas at Ang Makibaka Hotel by Anthony D. Robles #WeNeedDiverseBooks #Diversekidsbooks #BilingualKidsBooks

covers Lakas Makilaba HotelA hopeful, bilingual English-Tagalog tale about activism and a little boy motivating adults to fight for their rights, Lakas and the Makibaka Hotel is so much more than a mere vehicle for morals, providing musical writing and expressive artwork from cover to cover.

The lines here are filled with vivid metaphors and musicality, such as a sky the color of mangoes, a woman whose face “looked like a tomato,” and one of the first characters Lakas meets sings, “The roof was leaking in my hotel room / and the rain hit my buckets, TICK-A-BOOM! TICK-A-BOOM!”

The illustrations by Carl Angel make each page an explosion of color, with endearing depictions of working class characters and the little boy, while the rich landlord wears a hideous outfit of green thousand dollar bills.

Lakas gives all his change to the men singing or dancing in the street, and even surrenders his lucky dime to the rich landlord in hopes of changing his mind about evicting Lakas’s new friends, the tenants about to be displaced. Lakas organizes the tenants in a protest, and like the tenants of the Trinity Plaza Apartments in San Francisco in 2002, they win their battle.

Recommendation: Recommended; ages 6 and up

Reviewer: Yu-Han Chao

Buy Lakas and the Makibaka Hotel Now

First Rain by Charlotte Herman

cover for First RainFirst Rain by Charlotte Herman and illustrated by Kathryn Mitter is a wonderful tale of personal growth through family love. When Abby and her parents move to Israel they are sad to have to leave Abby’s Grandma behind. As Abby finds out that Israel is an exciting new place, she tells her Grandma all about her new experiences through letters and telephone calls. Abby’s relationship with her Grandma is poignant without being emotionally heavy. Their love carries the reader through the text and Mitter’s bright illustrations.   (more…)

Flowers from Mariko by Rick Noguchi and Deneen Jenks

cover for Flowers for MarikoThis book, written by husband and wife team Rick Noguchi & Deneen Jenks, is a real gem. It tells the story of a young Japanese American girl, Mariko, and her family as they return to California after being imprisoned in American concentration camps (also known as internment camps or relocation centers; simply referred to as ‘Camp’ by Japanese Americans of that time) during World War II. An authors’ note provides additional context at the end of the book.

I found this book to be excellent in several ways. To begin with, the artwork of Michelle Reiko Kumata is a revelation. It is apparent that the illustrations were based on actual black-and-white photos from the 1940s, but Kumata’s pictures bring the story to life in beautiful full color. Drawn with bold outlines, her pictures are full of patterns and textures from period fabrics, shadowing that adds depth to every scene, and subtle, authentic details such as the furoshiki-wrapped bundle that one woman carries on her way to Camp. Though the story’s subject matter is far from uplifting, it was still a joy to gaze at every page of this book. (more…)

When Christmas Feels Like Home by Gretchen Griffith

cover when christmas feels like homeThis is a story about finding peace. Many of the Children’s books which feature Latin or South American children leaving home often cling to the concept of acceptance. The characters yearn to be part of the new culture’s home, or they have a desire to accept their current state of life or accept that nothing will ever be the same.

Acceptance is a very complicated and almost jarring concept. In this book, Eduardo is moving, and he must come to terms with this movement. He feels confused when children are playing football with a brown, egg-shaped ball, while he understands futbol to be different. He has to constantly accept that this new world is different, confusing, unreal.

Soon the unreal becomes real: the hillsides turn color “…the color of the sun” (12), the trees began to lose their leaves and stand like skeletons (13), and the winter comes with all of the anticipation of Christmas. The book reels forward, moved by the rich, dark illustrations and the comforting, and repetitive call of Eduardo, whose acceptance of this world is suspended in disbelief, and he repeats “No se puede” (that can’t happen).

Despite the title’s suggestion, the story is not driven by the concept of Christmas, but by the treasure within a secret box which can only be opened at Christmas. As time moves on, Eduardo’s hard reality begins to smooth. He learns and grows. Eventually he accepts the changes around him. Acceptance is no longer an indicator of difference, abruptness, or shock; acceptance begins to smooth into peace. And on the last page, the reader is given a very strong, and comforting message of peace.

Reviewer: Rachelle Escamilla

Recommendation: Recommended

Age group 2 – 9

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Just Like Home / Como En Mi Tierra by Elizabeth I. Miller

cover for Como en me Tierra Just Like HomeOne thing that is important to do when considering books for your children, is to consider the wholeness of a book. Not only should we encourage books which highlight diverse stories, we should also encourage innovation and cultural understanding. “Just Like Home / Como En Mi Tierra” satisfies the first, but is lacking in the latter.

The story follows a girl who emigrates to the United States from Mexico (assumed). The girl is anywhere from 4 – 9 years old, but her age and the age of the intended audience is not specific. The unnamed girl observes the world around her and makes comparisons: this is like home, this is not like home. The English is translated into Spanish and there is a glossary in the back.

However, there are a lot of mistakes. Namely, the title of the book in English is correctly capitalized, but the Spanish is incorrectly capitalized, which sets a very awkward tone for the book: as if the Spanish portion of this story is just tossed in for good measure. There is an air of laziness in the construction of the story and the illustrations. The book feels and looks like those 50 cent books your mom bought you from the pharmacy rack in 1985 and although some of my favorite children’s books came from that same rack, this book has unremarkable characters, sloppy illustrations, and was even offensive in one moment.

On page 20 the unspecified female character is not included in the school yard games. On the next page she says “Not like home,” comparing the exclusion to her life back “home” (again, unspecified OTHER place), but the illustration is what bothers me: Children playing with a pinata. On pg. 20 they are in a school yard, on pg 21 she is playing at a party with a pinata. If this unspecified girl was at a party in America with her family, she WOULD play with a pinata, but the pinata in this specific comparison seems to be working as some kind of cultural indicator which is pinpointed through an overused and lazy stereotype. The pinata, although a staple in Mexican-American and Mexican parties alike, is not some kind of cultural marker as exclusively “Mexican.” It isn’t necessary to toss tacos, sombreros, or pinatas into a book just to pinpoint the “other” culture. If it is contextually relevant, sure, but in this case it is not. “Not like home” should have been a caption for an image which depicted the girl playing in her school yard back home.

In the end, I like to encourage books which use English and Spanish; books which present children of color and their struggles; books which encourage new representations of cultures with a deep awareness of that culture; I want you to buy books that are not just doing these things on a shallow, let’s-just-get-a-brown-kid-on-a-page, kind of book, but books whose goals are deeper and more rooted than that.

Recommendation: Not Recommended; Ages: 3-7

Reviewer: Rachelle Escamilla

Calling the Doves By Juan Felipe Herrera

cover Calling the DovesCalifornia poet laureate Juan Felipe Herrera shares the story of his migrant farmworker childhood through powerful language and colorful illustrations (by Elly Simmons) in Calling the Doves.

Not once is Juan negative about his humble beginnings; he fills these pages with love and poetry. Born on the road to migrant worker parents in central California, Juan grew up in a one-room house his father built on top of an abandoned car he describes as “a short loaf of bread on wheels.” His father makes bird calls that attract doves and his mother recites poetry at dinner, all of this inspiring him: “I would let my voice fly the way my mother recited poems, the way my father called the doves.”

While the language is always evocative, one particular metaphor may confuse readers. All other metaphors work beautifully, for instance, he describes a green canvas as “a giant tortilla dipped in green tomato sauce,” and ”the wolves were the mountain singers.” However, when describing his family eating outdoors, “the sky was my blue spoon, the wavy clay of the land was my plate” may be taken literally by children (and some adults) who might have trouble making sense of these lines.

Besides that instance, this lyrical story accompanied by striking illustrations tell a story rarely seen in children’s literature, from immigration to migration according to the seasons of melon, lettuce, and grapes, to traditional healing arts. A wonderful celebration of migrant and Mexican-American culture, this book is a great way to teach your child poetry as well as diversity.

Recommendation : Highly Recommended. 6+
Reviewer: Yu-Han Chao

Perfect Lil Blends by Luke Whitehead

cover for Perfect Lil BlendsPerfect 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…)

Always an Olivia: A Remarkable Family History by Caroliva Herron

cover Always an Olivia

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