Diverse Kids Books–Reviews

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The Case for Loving: The Fight for Interracial Marriage by Selina Alko and Sean Qualls

cover The Case for LovingI fell in love with this book the moment I saw it. The cover itself featuring the entire Loving family in a close embrace, seemingly on Dad’s lap as Mom and Dad exchange a gaze as warm as a hug, emanates warmth and makes me feel a sense of strength and belonging. Right now I let my four-year-old interpret the illustrations and make her own story but I have cleared a center space on one of our bookshelves to present this book and look forward to the day when I will read my daughter the words. Written and illustrated by an interracial wife and husband team—Selina Alko and Sean Qualls— who include their own short bio of being an interracial couple at the end of the book, the narrative weaves the sensitive story of the Loving family from the perspectives of Mildred, Richard, and their children with the harsh facts of U.S.America’s racial history. While the narrative portrays some aspects of the love story between Mildred and Richard, as children read the images and/or words of this picture book, they will connect with the Loving children through the cozy illustrations and narrative lines like “Donald, Peggy, and Sidney had two parents who loved them, and who loved each other.” The third person omniscient narrative voice switches from the children’s perspective to the parents’ to a compassionate voice detailing as delicately as possible, the disturbing realities of Reconstruction Era, Jim Crow, and other racist laws of United States’ history. (more…)

Lulu and the Rabbit Next Door by Hilary McKay

cover Lulu and the Rabbit Next DoorLulu and the Rabbit Next Door is part of a series of books by Hilary McKay that chronicle the adventures and misadventures of quirky, seven-year-old, brown-skinned Lulu and her equally eccentric and mischievous sidekick/cousin/best friend, Mellie. In this book, their adventure begins when Arthur moves in next door with his pet rabbit, George. Arthur begrudgingly accepted the rabbit as a gift from his grandpa and, to appease his mother and grandfather, he gives the rabbit minimal attention and care—often leaving him stuck in a cage for days with very little exercise. In lieu of “rabbit-napping”, Lulu and Mellie devise a playful scheme that eventually coaxes Arthur into spending more time caring for George. In the end, he also gains two new friends in Lulu and Mellie. (more…)

The Way We Do It In Japan by Geneva Cobb Iljima

cover The Way We Do it In Japan  In the United States, much is made of accepting minorities and “exotic” cultures, but The Way We Do It In Japan reverses this scenario by dropping a little American boy, Gregory, and his mixed family (Jane from Kansas and Hidiaki from Japan) in the middle of Tokyo.

Gregory learns to do things “the way we do it in Japan” when it comes to bathing, sleeping, and speaking Japanese. But at school he finds that his peanut butter sandwich is “the wrong kind of lunch” as everyone else has rice, fish and fermented soybeans. The next day, however, the cafeteria makes peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for everybody to make him feel included. In real life, however, while this may very well happen in Japan, school cafeterias in the U.S. are unlikely to all of a sudden serve fish and fermented soybeans to show their acceptance of Japanese students. So is the message here that foreign countries will always whole-heartedly embrace Americans?

The illustrations that accompany this thought-provoking story are feature exaggerated facial features, and the father’s shifty-looking facial expressions can be particularly distracting. Despite that and the debatable lesson, this book still presents a positive model of cultural acceptance, and also teaches some Japanese terms, pronunciation, and culture.

 

Recommended: 4-9 years

Best-Selling YA novelist Heidi Durrow Discusses Multiracial Identity with Omilaju Miranda of Mixed Diversity Reads

Heidi Durrow looking straight out Heidi Durrow is a super woman. The New York Times best selling author of the 2008 PEN/Bellwether award winning  The Girl Who Fell From The Sky, that gained unintended popularity amongst the YA audience is also an ivy-league and Stanford University educated lawyer, and journalist who hosts the national podcast ‘The Mixed Experience‘ and organizes the annual Mixed Remixed Festival, celebrating the arts produced by biracial and multiracial peoples.

 

On November 14th, Durrow, who is the daughter of a white, Danish mother and black, U.S.American father, interviewed Omilaju Miranda, founder of Mixed Diversity Reads Children’s Book Review, ostensibly to discuss Mixed Diversity Reads Children’s Book Review as a resource for those seeking picture and YA books with mixed heritage protagonists. heidiandomicollage.jpg

But the conversation veered into an unplanned discussion of multiracial U.S.American identity as well as literacy and representation in children’s literature. Listen to the interview here and become a new fan of ‘The Mixed Experience‘ Podcast. Follow Heidi at @heididurrow and the Mixed Remixed Festival at @mixedremixed or on facebook at Mixed Remixed.

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

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

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

The Wakame Gatherers by Holly Thompson

cover for Wakame GatherersHolly Thompson tackles the difficult subject of war with grace and beautiful writing in The Wakame Gatherers. The book begins with a little girl saying, “My name is Nanami—Seven Seas—and I have two grandmothers from two different seas: Gram from Maine, and Baachan, who lives with us here in Japan.”

 Gram visits Japan, and several pages are dedicated to descriptions and illustrations of the beaches of Maine and Japan, with particular focus on the local color of Nanami’s Japanese hometown. As a translator between her two grandmothers, Nanami helps them compare and contrast their two lands, learns about hooking and preparing seaweed as she takes care to “[use] the right language with the right grandmother.”

 Then comes conflict: not in the present, but seeping through from history. The illustrations become dark and ominous as Baachan reminisces about the war. Nanami continues to translate, and understands, “when my grandmothers were my age they were enemies, their countries bombing each other’s people.” The two old women, through their shared granddaughter’s translation, apologize for their countries’ past actions, and in the space of two pages, a feeling of peace and happiness is restored as they return to wakame gathering.

 With exquisite illustrations and vivid descriptions, The Wakame Gatherers brings together two cultures by not just acknowledging similarities and differences, but addressing the past. Of additional educational value at the end of the book are a fact sheet about wakame, a glossary of Japanese phrases, and three wakame recipes.

 Recommended: Highly recommended. Ages 4-8.

All the Colors of the Earth by Sheila Hamanaka

cover for All the Colors of the EarthPoetically, the children of this book become the natural bounty of the earth, their skin color and hair textures compared to the beautiful colors of nature and hair compared to the textures of other living creatures.
With typical sentences/stanzas like,
“Children come in all the colors of the earth—
The roaring browns of bears and soaring eagles,
The whispering golds of late summer grasses,
And crackling russets of fallen leaves,”
a child is able to glean a confidence-inspiring insight into their physical look. This is a beautifully illustrated book that lives up to the lyrical poetry of its narrative. The illustrations go far beyond the normal representation of the human rainbow and, with very detailed rendering of facial characteristics, skin complexions and hair textures, the reader sees real differences in many, many different ethnic types. On the pages of this book, children of every ethnic heritage will find reflections of themselves enjoying life and the world around them. While every physical type of child is represented in ‘All the Colors of the Earth,’ only interracial families are represented, which I think is an exceptional and novel choice however disappointingly inconsistent with the universal inclusiveness of the other illustrations.


Recommendation: Highly Recommended; Ages 3+
Book Review by Omilaju Miranda.