Diverse Kids Books–Reviews

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The Girl Who Fell from the Sky by Heidi W. Durrow #DiverseKidsBooks #MixedRace #biracial

cover for The Girl Who Fell from the skyNella Larsen’s 1929 novel Passing tells the moving story of a young black woman who decides to pass for white, and the story ends with the woman falling or being pushed out of a window to her death. Heidi Durrow has said that Larsen, who, like Durrow, is half black and half Danish, is one of her literary heroes, and the mother of the main character in Durrow’s 2011 bestseller The Girl Who Fell from the Sky is named Nella. Durrow’s Nella has a daughter, Rachel, who is half Danish and half black, and it is this girl, Rachel, whose story is related in The Girl Who Fell from the Sky. Hers is a story that offers homage to Nella Larsen’s work, as well as bears witness to an actual story that Durrow read about, a recent true story of a mother who fell, or jumped, from the top of a building while holding her children; only a daughter survived. (more…)

With Books and Bricks: How Booker T. Washington Built a School by Suzanne Slade & Nicole Tadgell #BookerTWashington #DiversekidsBooks

cover with books and bricksWith Books and Bricks by Suzanne Slade is a beautifully written biography of an important historical figure whose life story is not nearly as well-known as it should be. Delicately illustrated by Nicole Tadgell, the book chronicles Booker T. Washington’s evolution from enslaved biracial boy to dedicated educator and leader.

Washington was nine when the Civil War ended and all slaves were freed. But, as Slade writes, “Booker didn’t feel free. He had to work long hours in a salt mine so his family could survive.” Having been drawn to books as a child, he begs his mother to get him a book “And somehow, as often happens with mothers, a miracle appeared,” in the form of a spelling book. (more…)

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…)

Lulu and the Duck in the Park by Hilary McKay

cover Lulu and the Duck in the ParkIn Lulu and the Duck in the Park, Lulu and Mellie’s adventure begins when two dogs become unleashed at the park during their class trip. Admist the foray, ducks’ nests were disturbed and eggs were broken—except one egg in particular that Lulu whisks into her pocket to protect it. She carries the egg back to school with her and tries her best to keep it a secret—for a short while, even from her friend Mellie. Her secret becomes too difficult to withhold as the egg slowly begins to hatch under her sweater which sets off a series of peculiar and laughable antics from Lulu.

The main character, LuLu, has an audacious personality and knack for mischief that is reminiscent of protagonists like Amber Brown and Junie B. Jones; but, instead of having a penchant for bubblegum, she loves animals and, notably so, she is a little brown girl. Readers who were acquainted with Lulu in the Lulu board books will remember that Lulu’s parents are a white mom and brown-skinned father of African Descent. These books are a fun read, the plots are humorously suspenseful, and the narratives are written seamlessly in age-appropriate language that I think will captivate young readers’ attention.   I would highly recommend both of these books for boys and girls who are being introduced to longer texts and building their endurance for following a more complex narrative; surely, they will not have a problem with “seeing” themselves in gutsy, little Lulu.

 

Reviewer:  LaTonya R. Jackson

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

Firebird by Misty Copeland

Firebird by Misty Copeland coverFirebird is American Ballet Theater principal dancer Misty Copeland’s first children’s book. Now fast rising to the top of the American ballet scene, a feat that is virtually unheard of for a dancer of color, Copeland has been very vocal about the old-fashioned but very prominent and largely inescapable role of race in ballet, of her own struggles to be accepted and to advance as a so-called “non-traditional” ballerina. That she only just graced the cover of Pointe Magazine, a leading ballet monthly, at the very same time she debuted as Odile/Odette in Swan Lake makes the subject of this colorful picture book all the more a propos. Speaking to other young dancers of color, Firebird seeks to hearten those who face what seems to be insurmountable adversity. Through illustrations and a simple text that read as honest in their positivity and that, despite the meaning between the lines (i.e. it is ridiculously and yes, unjustly difficult for non-White dancers to make a serious career of dancing), communicate no bitterness and throw out no blame.

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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 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