Diverse Kids Books–Reviews

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Promise Me Something by Sara Kocek

cover Promise Me SomethingDue to unfortunate zoning laws, Reyna Fey becomes the new girl at school and misses her old life dearly. While at her old school she was not part of the most popular crowd, she did have a core group of friends who’d been BFFs most their lives. Reyna makes for a relatable teen character in that she has a lot of drama going on at home and school. Her mother was killed in a car accident 7 years ago and since then her father has been raising her by himself. But, his most recent girlfriend, Lucy, is becoming a permanent fixture in their household and Reyna is not coping well with that scenario. Reyna finds Lucy particularly intolerable because a few months prior to the beginning of the story, Lucy’s reckless driving caused a wreck that severely injured, and almost killed, Reyna’s dad.

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This Day in June by Gayle E. Pitman

cover for This Day in JuneThis Day in June by Gayle E. Pitman is an easy way to introduce a child to the joy motivating people to celebrate in Pride Parades every year. Easy to follow, simple, two line rhymes in inconspicuous locations on the pages, which seem to overflow with vibrant illustrations, describe the many sights common in a Gay Pride Parade. Not a part of the sparse text, but present in the illustrations are many of the political messages that are commonly seen at a Gay Pride Parade. While the illustrations are fun, this isn’t like the books we normally review, which represent LGBT-parents leading a family. There are children in a few of the illustrations but most of the illustrations feature adults having parade fun, which means that in addition to images of people with rainbow colored hair, parade floats, flags and Carnivalesque costumes, there are illustrations of men without shirts and adults kissing. When I saw the images of bare chested men, bikini-top wearing marchers and adults kissing, I had a strong oppositional reaction to the idea of showing this to a child however reading the discussion guide in the back of the book helped me to see that a child looking at these illustrations would not read the same sexual context that I see, into these images. (more…)

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

Felicia’s Favorite Story by Leslea Newman

Felicia's Favorite Story by Leslea NewmanThis is a simple story that demonstrates a girl’s self-knowledge and love of her own familial history. It’s Felicia’s bedtime and before she goes to sleep she wants a story but not one from a book—in classic, creative recognition of a young child’s vanity, Newman has Felicia ask her mom to tell her a story instead of reading her a story—the story of her adoption. Felicia and her moms become a family through an at-birth adoption in which New York native Mama Nessa and Puerto Rican native Mama Linda travel to Guatemala to bring Felicia home .
As her Mama Linda tells her the story, Felicia interrupts, often inserting her humor and her own retelling of the story into her mother’s narrative. Felicia isn’t the only one with humor as her mothers join in with humor of their own which includes ponderings of why they didn’t adopt certain animals instead of a child and stories of how they chose Felicia’s name. If you have an expressive child, you and your child will see their quick wit and self-indulgence in the character of Felicia and you and your significant other in the bargaining, nurturing ways of Mama Linda and Mama Nessa. Adriana Romo’s illustrations look like paintings; Romo even frames them in borders that refer to Latin American cultural art, pulling the reader in as admiring observer as well as reader.

Recommendation: Highly Recommended; Ages 4+

Reviewer: Omilaju Miranda

In Our Mothers’ House by Patricia Polacco

In our mothers house coverThis is one of the best first person narrative children’s books I’ve ever read. The voice is so authentic I thought it was a children’s nonfiction story until I read the back bookflap. An African descendant woman tells the story of her life with her two mothers, Asian brother and carrot-top sister from their at-birth adoptions until their parents pass away, leaving the family home to the protagonist’s brother. Polacco’s narrative style is one of such candor and fluidity that as the protagonist shares with us the milestones of her life from becoming a big sister to seeing her mothers in dresses for the first time to finding emotional comfort in the home after her parents pass away , the reader is increasingly emotionally invested in their ever expanding world of friends, family and tradition. Polacco also includes the conflict of an anti-gay neighbor in the book, who turns the dial up on that confrontational anti-gay anger pretty high without actually saying “lesbian, gay, or homosexual.” The mothers handle the confrontation in a protective and reassuring manner that gives parents reading this book with children the freedom to explain as little or as much about sexual orientation as parents wish, including saying nothing about sexual orientation and just explaining that sometimes people don’t like others who are different. Illustrated with engaging animation and expressiveness, readers will see and feel a full spate of emotions as we do in real life. While the mothers demonstrate friendly touch affection towards each other and familial touch affection toward the children, for some, it will be important to see that the three children enter heterosexual marriages, framed in family portraits near the end of the book. The choice to show the oldest daughter and the son married to people within their “own” racial groups, demonstrates to me a silent acknowledgement of efforts made by the Italian and English-Irish mothers to encourage, support and preserve their children’s unique cultural identities. Complete with three children who grow up to become successful professionals with happy families of their own, In Our Mothers’ House is the multi-dimensional All American LGBT-parent family story.

Recommendation: Highly Recommended; ages 6+

Reviewer: Omilaju Miranda

Best, Best Colors/ Los Mejores Colores by Eric Hoffman

Best Best Colors by Eric HoffmanI like everything about this book. The watercolor illustrations are dreamy and perfect for a book focused on a boy’s struggle with loving all the colors of the rainbow. Written simultaneously in Spanish and English, this is the story of the protagonist Nate having trouble deciding which color is his best color so he keeps on changing his mind based on liking a new object. Whatever color the sneakers or cape or paints are is his favorite color. He wants to integrate whatever color is his favorite into his world and he chooses his “best mom” or best friend according to whether or not they say “yes”, he can have the color in his life the way that he wants. When they say “no”, as mothers must, he takes away best mother status—which is such a candid representation of the mercurial nature of children. Without making reference to it, we see Nate with his moms and his sister who are all different races/ ethnicities (Nate and one of his moms are African Diaspora people while his other mom is Caucasian and his sister is East Asian) enjoying life on Nate’s journey of figuring out what and who he likes best. In the end, his nightmare of colors fighting opens his mind to choosing an object in which all the colors get along: the Pride Flag. This is one of the few books representing LGBT parents with an African Diaspora mother or child so it is refreshing that is has a well-written story line independent of its representation of diversity.
Recommendation: Highly Recommended

Book Review by Omilaju Miranda