Diverse Kids Books–Reviews

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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

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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

Hello, Lulu by Caroline Uff

Cover Hello Lulu by Caroline UffHello, Lulu is a great book for beginner readers, but not necessarily the ideal book if you’re teaching your little one about diversity. The book introduces the reader to a little girl named Lulu and the important people and things in her life. The reader learns about Lulu and all of the members of her family. The board book itself features brightly colored backgrounds to help Lulu’s family members stand out. So while the illustrations visually cue us in on the family’s interracial composition, it’s never verbally explained. Thus, to bypass this subliminal message, you may want to point out the fact that Lulu’s parents are different races from the beginning. One other note: From learning about what Lulu’s favorite snacks are to how many pets Lulu has, your child is sure to notice a correlation or two in their own life (racial composition aside). 

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

Book Reviewers: 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

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.

Shades of Black by Sandra L. Pinkney

cover of Shades of BlackThis seems to be one of the most celebrated books of the early 21st century for speaking to children about color, race and having pride in one’s Black identity. When I asked people for help in the face of my daughter having trouble from other kids regarding the difference in my and her skin complexions, everywhere I asked, several people suggested this book. It is a photo essay, that on an elementary school level, displays and discusses, in lyrical, free verse poetry nearly the full range of phenotypes of African Diaspora children from white as Vanilla Ice Cream to Blue Midnight. Unlike the children we see on t.v. and featured on many Natural Hair, Black Beauty, and Mixed Heritage websites who are breathtakingly beautiful, the children in Shades of Black are average-looking kids with whom many kids can relate. Although it is not a story book, Shades of Black also stands out amongst children’s books featuring children of the African Diaspora because, unlike most story books that choose medium brown skinned characters as protagonists whether the family is monoracial or interracial, Shades of Black also gives attention to the lightest and darkest of the African Diaspora Spectrum of complexion. While many children of monoracial Black Heritage, Mixed Heritage black and white, or Mestizo Latino and black, will find someone in this book who reflects them or comes close to it, there is only one child who may represent those whose heritage is also South Asian, and none who look like they are also of East Asian Heritage. There are plenty of braided hair styles and one child with dreadlocks featured in this book but no girls wearing afros. What is not here sharpens the focus on what is present: this book is effectively dedicated specifically to the different colors of skin and eyes found amongst children of African Descent.
Because of that contradiction between skin colors of white, brown, gold, orange, etc. and their categorization as “Black,” which can seem illogical to the young child (like my own 3-year-old) who has learned their colors but doesn’t understand the intricacies and inconsistences of racial labels, this book is appropriate as is for the child who has already been introduced to the concept of “Black” as an ethnic/racial group or as a way to introduce your child to “Black” as an ethnic/racial group. For the pre-literate child who doesn’t understand “black” as a race/ethnicity, you can change the words to “I have African Ancestors” and still share the book with them.
I find it challenging that this book presents children who I suspect are either biracial or Multigenerational Mixed Kids as “black”  without acknowledging their mixed heritage. Although I don’t agree with this choice from the editor it is an opportunity for parents to discuss with their child how being of African Descent gives one a place in the Black community even when of Mixed Heritage. On the two pages whose statements are “I am Black. I am Unique,” the author chose to feature,” light-skinned children with light eyes as if being black is only unique when “black” manifests in an obviously mixed phenotype. I feel that on one of these pages, a brown or dark-skinned child with brown eyes should have been featured. Pinkney (the author) also features children with hazel green eyes on two different pages, giving two different descriptions for the same color eyes. I cannot find any logical reason behind this choice because the two children featured are also nearly the same complexion; this focus on the same color eyes would have been more effective if the children were different complexions.


However, and whenever you read this book to your child, it is a valuable celebration of the full spectrum of skin colors and many physical traits found amongst children of African Descent.


Recommendation: Highly Recommended

Age Group: As is–after the child knows that “Black” is a racial category; If changing the words to “I have African Ancestors” –age 3+

Reviewer: Omilaju Miranda

I Love Saturdays y domingos by Alma Flor Ada

cover for I Love Saturdays y DomingosThis is a valuable book to show the bilingual and bicultural immersion of a girl who is  multiracial Mexican and Caucasian USAmerican. On every alternate page the protagonist speaks Spanish with her Mexican grandparents. On the surface, the grandparents are different—in addition to their race/ethnicity, the USAmerican grandparents live in the city or suburbs, the Mexican grandparents live on a farm near a fishing pier. The illustrations are lively and evocative. It is a formulaic story of comparisons: My grandpa buys me balloons: my abuelo buys me a kite; my grandma makes pancakes; my abuela makes me huevos rancheros…fourteen pages in, I drifted from boredom. Despite the fact that the comparisons went on for too long in my opinion, the parallel lifestyles and interests of the grandparents makes a powerful impression on the reader of the similarities of people who seem very different. Although the details of their lives are very different, both sets of grandparents love their pets, enjoy the circus, like making things by hand, create exceptional ways to make the protagonist happy and, of course, love their granddaughter.
The plot turn which is actually fun should have come earlier in the book—the protagonist has a party at her house that both sets of grandparents attend during which the grandparents help out with the children. The Pinata and the traditional Mexican birthday song are fun. You and your child may actually want to learn the song as I did.

Recommendation: Mildly recommended

Reviewer: Omilaju Miranda