Diverse Kids Books–Reviews

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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

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

Antonio’s Card/ La Tarjeta de Antonio by/por Rigoberto Gonzalez

Cover for Antonio's Card la Tarjeta de Antonio

With sophisticated literary conventions, Rigoberto Gonzalez tells this bilingual story of personal growth targeted to experienced young readers. Antonio is an elementary student of Mexican heritage, born in the United States, who loves to spell and read with his mom and his mom’s partner, Leslie. These facts are all revealed slowly as the narrative unfolds. The narrative’s primary concern is establishing the relationship of a son’s love for his stepmother and the emotional quandary a son experiences when he is embarrassed by the parent he loves because of the way his peers respond to her. The fact that he has two moms is not an issue in the book. The fact that his father is absent from his daily life is revealed as a part of a scene discussing him reading with Leslie about Guadalajara, Mexico, “where Antonio’s grandparents live. His father went to live there, too, many years ago, when Antonio was just a baby.” His world is presented as normative; in fact the illustrations are of a student population at his school, that is predominantly Latino including a Latina teacher, and all except one of the children who are not Latino, are children of color.

Parents and grandparents of the children in this book represent a full range of ages, ethnicities and religious backgrounds. The sentence, “Parents of all shapes and sizes come to greet their children” cues us in to notice the differences amongst these families. We see the racial and gender differences amongst the parents and the children they are greeting easily. On a double take we notice that Leslie, Antonio’s stepmother is taller than the other adults, which seems to be the biggest difference between her and the other adults that Antonio notices, while the other children jeer about her because she “looks like a guy,” and has paint all over her from her work in the art studio, which stimulates them to belittle her as looking “like a box of crayons exploded all over her.” In response, Antonio pulls Leslie away and, despite the fact that he enjoys his time with Leslie after school every day, he asks if he can walk home by himself in the future.

This book feels sad. This is because of the tone set by the illustrations, which convey a persistent sense of yearning and longing in the eyes of almost all the characters. No one ever smiles fully, except in the family drawing Antonio makes of him and his two moms for his mother’s day card. Even when a compromised smile appears on the face of a character, their eyes overshadow any reading of complete fulfillment or happiness with a sense of worry and reflection. Although this sentimentality within the illustrations is a powerful representation of the subtext of Antonio’s worry about ending up lonely if he separates from Leslie in response to his classmates’ teasing, that feeling of a void starts on the first page, despite the fact that the narrative is well paced and complex, without being overwhelming.

While the teasing of the children seems like a mere catalyst for Antonio’s rediscovering and affirming his bond with Leslie, the imagery of the story is as weighty as the emotional milieu created by E.B. Lewis’ illustrations in Jacqueline Woodson’s Each Kindness, a book which was only about the refusal of children to befriend a new student. In Antonio’s Card/La Tarjeta de Antonio, the illustrations allude to what is unspoken in the text—a sentiment of something missing in the lives of these characters who seem to be smiling through emotional pain. Perhaps this is meant to convey the way that Antonio sees his world as one in which no one ever fully smiles and this is the way the illustrator is allowing emotions regarding the absent father who went back to Mexico to influence the text, since the author doesn’t give voice to Antonio’s feelings about his father being gone. What is clear by the end of the story is that one of the things which shames Antonio—Leslie’s splattered paint overalls— becomes evidence of Leslie’s bond with Antonio and his mother—a portrait of his mother that Leslie has painted as a Mother’s Day present. When Antonio sees the painting, his viewing of it becomes the turning point in Antonio’s journey towards family acceptance in face of the adversity of verbal teasing.

There are some who would categorize this story in the anti-bullying category of their collection and while I wouldn’t, the text and illustrations’ depthful representations of a child’s emotional vulnerability to teasing in general and especially in regards to their loved ones, makes this a story that can easily demonstrate how much words hurt in a curriculum on bullying and compassion. But, without a guide, children will easily understand Antonio’s sensitivity toward his stepmom and his peers in this story whose natural complexity and convincing narrative make it well worth its status as a Lambda Literary Finalist.  (buy)

Recommendation: Highly recommended; ages 7+

Reviewer: Omilaju Miranda

Marisol McDonald and the Clash Bash/ Marisol McDonald y la fiesta sin igual by/por Monica Brown

cover for Marisol Mcdonald and the Clash BashMonica Brown once again delivers a captivating protagonist in the character of Marisol McDonald whose bilinguality, red-headed, brown-skinned physical traits, and mixed Peruvian-Scottish-U.S.American ethnic heritage are significant influences on her daily life. Marisol McDonald became one of my favorite children’s literature characters in the first book in this series, Marisol McDonald Doesn’t Match. This time around, Marisol is days away from her eighth birthday. While she doesn’t want to choose clothes or a party theme that match, she does want to see her abuelita (grandmother) for her birthday. However, Marisol must deal with the disappointing reality that, despite the fact that she has been doing chores and saving money for two years to pay for her abuelita to visit, a visa for her grandmother to visit the U.S. takes too much time for abuelita to arrive before Marisol’s birthday. With the strategic use of hand made, individualized party invitations to her diverse,  multicultural group of friends, Marisol is able to get her mismatched costume birthday party and her abuelita finds a special, and realistic way to make an appearance. The story is told in a rich, first person point of view, which includes a sprinkling of Spanish in the English version and a sprinkling of English in the Spanish version so the reader always feels as if they are living in Marisol’s authentic bilingual world. Palacios’ painted illustrations add to the overall cheer of enjoying this book. And the dual language, English/Spanish telling of the story allow the reader to read the story in both languages in one sitting or read it in English one day and Spanish the next day.

My four-year-old who is rather good at decoding and following a good story didn’t follow all the detailed nuances that go along with Marisol choosing not to match and wasn’t as excited about this story as I was so I put target audience at just slightly older and a better fit for the child who can already read. The quality of the story should make it a favorite for children beyond the age of ten even though they will have already moved on to higher reading levels. For the 5-8 year old reader, new vocabulary is emphasized that will make them excitedly run to the dictionary so they can understand every single word and emotion of this spunky, energetic protagonist. I want to see so much more of Marisol McDonald. Once again, think Madeleine, think Eloise, think Olivia the Pig, think Orphan Annie all updated and in a Peruvian-Scottish U.S.American girl.  l I love this character; you and your kids will as well.  (buy

Recommendations: Highly Recommended Ages 5-8+

Reviewer: Omilaju Miranda

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

Lulu’s Busy Day

Cover Lulu's busy dayLulu’s Busy Day is the sequel to Hello, Lulu and this time around we learn about the daily activities of our main character (while her heritage is again sidestepped). Drawing, visiting the park with a friend, and building castles is all in a day’s work for Lulu. While the first Lulu book visually suggests that she’s biracial by introducing us to her parents, this book also prefers to visually cue us in on her differences: her brown, puffy hair, dark eyes, and tan complexion. So while she looks a little different compared to many popular storybook characters, she still does all the same things as everyone else. Thus, this would be a good book to share with your child to introduce them to a diverse character—just make sure you point it out to your young reader.

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

Reviewer: Kaitlyn Wells

You Be Me and I’ll Be You by Pili Mandelbaum

cover you be me, I'll be youA well intentioned father tries to help his brown-skinned biracial daughter feel comfortable with her skin color by plaiting his straight hair, donning black face and having her don white face. I was almost too insulted to continue reading but out of duty, I finished the book. The narrative attempts to redeem itself by showing people laying out on the beach tanning, using rollers to make their hair curly, and pointing out that every one wants features they can’t have. I don’t know if this did well in Belgium where it was originally published but as a U.S.American, I would never read this to my child.

Recommendation: Not Recommended.

Reviewer: Omilaju Miranda

Book Review for Over the Moon—An Adoption Tale by Karen Katz (transracial adoption)

Book Review for Over the Moon—An Adoption Tale  by Karen Katz

A fairy tale story of the at-birth adoption of a Central American daughter by her parents from the United States. Through magical, mosaic illustrations and mythical language, we learn of a family connected in dreams before the child is even born. The flight the parents take to get their daughter when she is born is on an airplane but the illustrations show the parents flying freely through a multicolored night sky seemingly flying on the fulfillment of their wish to be parents instead of on an airplane. The baby’s first night is chronicled, including the fact that she grew in another mother’s stomach who couldn’t afford to take care of her so mommy and daddy came to take care of her as the fulfillment of their life’s wishes. Then, baby girl goes home where the people who were excited to meet her even before she was born are the family and friends cartwheeling through the streets in celebration of her arrival. Parents and children will be carried away by the magic of this story.

Recommended.

Reviewer: Omilaju Miranda