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…)

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…)

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

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

Visiting my Father’s Homeland: Book Review for I Lost My Tooth in Africa by Penda Diakité

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Losing teeth is a rite of passage for every child and, based on twelve-year-old Penda Diakité’s I Lost My Tooth in Africa, a visit from the elusive tooth-fairy is a welcome surprise for children all over the world as well—even in Mali, West Africa!

In the story, Amina, a girl born and raised in the U.S., and her family travel from Portland, Oregon to Bamako, Mali, her father’s birthplace and childhood home. Amina’s loose tooth—which she discovers while en route to Mali— tags along. After her father shares with her that the African tooth fairy trades a chicken in exchange for a little boy or girl’s tooth, Amina is determined to lose her wiggly tooth  before this family trip to Africa is over.

Infused with a strong representation of words from Bamabara (a glossary is in the back of the book), the most widely used indigenous language of Mali, and Malian cultural traditions, I Lost My Tooth in Africa is a mildly suspenseful narrative that children between the ages of 5 and 8 who are also going through the “snaggle-tooth” phase could especially appreciate while learning informative tidbits about a new culture and geographical location. The children in your life will be further inspired by the fact that this book, published by one of the five major publisher’s of children’s books, is the creation of a pre-teen author and her illustrator father.

Recommendation: Highly Recommended ages 5-8

Reviewer: LaTonya Jackson

Molly Bannaky by Alice McGill

Cover of Molly BannakyWith 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

 

Grandfather Counts by Andrea Cheng

cover for Grandfather CountsAs simple as the language needs to be for a child to easily connect with the narrative, this story is dynamic in its attention to a child facing major changes in her home life when her grandfather arrives from China. Not only does Helen, our protagonist, have to give her up her bedroom and her view of the cargo train that runs outside of her room but, her mother becomes a perfectionist, and her grandfather’s is nearly mute in the household because he doesn’t speak English. But Helen, a little lost in her relationship with her grandfather, is persistent in observing him and trying to connect with him. Ultimately, she makes the connection by mistake in a sentimental manner that I felt was “sweet”. Like her, her grandfather likes watching the trains; together they count the cars and teach each other English and Chinese. Towards the end of the story, the family commits to privately learning Chinese through a computer program her Euro-American father has purchased; one gets the feeling that Helen and her grandfather are going to feel “at home” again. I was gratified to see this book give attention to the American Chinese children who don’t know Chinese and didn’t “fit in” at Chinese language school because the dominant narrative of Asian life still seems to be the immigrant story and first generation story of children who are fluent in the Chinese language. Helen and her siblings are first generation American children of mixed Euro and Chinese heritage who, despite her parents attempts to integrate Chinese culture into their lives, are not immersed in Chinese culture. Any child of immigrant parents whose lives make them consider themselves American descendents of their parents’ culture instead of members of the non-United States culture, will identify with Helen and see something of themselves in Helen’s story. All others will enjoy observing Helen’s lived identity and the multigenerational bonding experience in this simply told, complex story.

Recommendation: Highly Recommended; ages 4-8

Reviewer: Omilaju Miranda