Diverse Kids Books–Reviews

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A Kiss Means I Love You by Kathryn Madeline Allen

cover for A Kiss Means I Love YouIt’s as important for babies and toddlers to feel like their emotions are understood and validated as it is for them to learn how to express how they feel, whether it’s through body language or words. A Kiss Means I Love You, a picture book with photographs of diverse children and families in various emotional and physical states, does just this.

Ranging from a smile to coughs and sneezes, the formula of “a ___ means I’m ___” will help babies and toddlers expand their vocabulary for expressing themselves, and hopefully develop sympathy and empathy through seeing the different children in various moods and states in the book. Like Dr. Seuss’s My Many Colored Days, the simple words on each page may help a child feel their emotions validated and shared by others.

This book would be great for daycares, especially diverse ones—my daughter took it to school and the toddlers matched one another’s names to the children on the pages, seeing themselves in them. A Kiss Means I Love You makes a good bedtime story as well, ending with the familiar line (in a new order), “I love you…goodnight.”

Reviewer: Yu-Han Chao

Recommended: 2-5 years


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 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

Kimchi and Calamari

cover for Kimchi and CalamariJoseph Calderaro turns fourteen at the beginning of this engaging, humorous story of a Korean born Italian American kid who is thrown into a quagmire of emotions when, on the heels of his social studies teacher giving him ancestry project that makes him feel that he has no history or ancestral connections because he is adopted, his father gives him a corno for his birthday, as is the Italian cultural tradition in their family
While the major plot of the novel is Joseph’s search for his Korean mother and family, he also has a crush on a girl and teenage awkwardness to overcome. In this story that offers no dreamy endings, Rose Kent writes such a convincing and vulnerable narrative through Joseph’s first person voice that readers will laugh and cry growing close to Joseph and the people in his close circle. Readers will feel agitated with Joseph’s whining, tattle-tale younger twin sisters—the biological daughters of his parents, laugh with Joseph’s best friend who pushes him to do the search for his birth mother and hold their breath in empathy with his father whose fear of rejection and discomfort with the issue of Joseph being of Korean ancestry keeps him from even talking about Joseph’s birth nationality. Kent seamlessly weaves into the story the many ways in which Joseph feels inadequate as a Korean and rootless as an Italian. In addition to the disappointment of finding the “wrong” birth family, he also meets a Korean immigrant family who stereotypically own the Dry Cleaners and have a daughter who is an academic prodigy whose Korean language and cultural traditions exacerbate Joseph’s sense of being “un-Korean”.
At the center of the novel is the drastic and desperate action Joseph takes to hide the fact that he doesn’t know his Korean ancestry and the drama that unfolds and upturns Joseph’s life in the wake of his tortured decision. Ultimately, Joseph’s father breaks his silence, Joseph works to repair the relationships he has broken and his family strategizes an approach to integrating Joseph’s Korean roots into his Italian-American/Korean life. Anyone who likes to read will read ‘Kimchi and Calamari’ twice and love it. Others will read this book and find a powerful story of defining identity, being lost and found as a transracially, internationally adopted child.

Recommendation: Highest Recommendation; ages  9-14

Reviewer: Omilaju Miranda

A Tale of Two Mommies by Vanita Oelschlager

cover  A Tale of Two MommiesAll dialogue, this rhyming book is a conversation between the adopted son of two others and his friends while the protagonist and his friends play on the beach. As they run, play ball, swim, and have other beach fun, the questions and answers volley in sets of two. “Which mom is there when you want to go fishing? Which mom helps out when Kitty goes missing?” “Mommy helps when I want to go fishing, Both mommies help when Kitty goes missing.” The narrative continues in such a trajectory until it includes answers in which the protagonist says he is the one doing certain things. This is a full portrait of the emotional and activity life of a family from the perspective of a child who is increasingly taking on responsibilities. The child happens to be the African-Descendant child of two white moms but that is not discussed. This is a story with which every child who has taken note of how their parents nurture and mentor them, can identify.

Recommendation: Recommended; ages  Ages 2-8

Reviewer: Omilaju Miranda

Mixed Me by Tiffany Catledge

cover for Mixed MeMy immediate reaction to this book is “this is so cute”. I like the voice of the young girl in the book and the choice to put her in a very diverse world—although “a tale of a girl who is both black and white,” her world is filled with the full spectrum of human diversity. I find it to be very didactic. This isn’t so much a story as it is an illustrated speech to the reader. The protagonist discusses all the major issues mixed-race children encounter from people outside of their family and the watercolor illustrations are incredibly appealing. The straightforwardness of this book makes it very valuable as a teaching tool so I think teachers and school librarians should include it in their collection or, parents should buy it and donate it to the school so it can be a part of the classroom and, hopefully diversity lesson plans.

Recommendation: Recommended for Educational Purposes; Ages 5-7

The Hello, Goodbye Window by Norton Juster

Cover The Hello, Goodbye WindowThis is my new favorite book. Centered around the magical front window of her grandparents’ home, this is the story of a pre-school child’s normal visit to her grandparent’s house. Norton Juster uses this first person narrative to give us such a dynamic representation of the protagonist’s emotional and practical experience visiting her grandparents. The interaction between the grandparents—Nanna and Poppy—is fun and disciplined, subtly touching on some of the safety and restriction issues that pre-schoolers are learning at this age. Her impressive imagination is on display when she speaks of ANYBODY being able to go by the Hello, Goodbye window including Tyrannosaurus Rex (he’s extinct so doesn’t come often, you know.) The grandparents are an interracial couple as are the protagonist’s parents who come pick her up at the end of the story. These are happy, culturally diverse people—Nanna (who is of African-Descent) is from England so the Queen comes by for tea; Poppy plays the Harmonica and the protagonist hopes the Poppy she marries can play the harmonica, too—who love the protagonist in a comprehensive expression of that love. I literally had a warm feeling in my chest as I was reading this book and constantly smiled at the protagonist’s happy movement through her day. With three generations of family represented through a child’s eyes, you and your kid are going to love this book.

Recommendation: Highly Recommended; Ages 3+

Reviewer: Omilaju Miranda

Hope by Isabell Monk

Hope by Isabell MonkHope is on her summer visit to spend time with her aunt Poogee. They are having a great time until they run in to an old friend of her aunt’s who has been away for awhile. The woman asks “Is the child mixed?” as if Hope is a weird object instead of a person, which makes Hope feel sad. Aunt Poogee uplifts Hopes spirits by telling her about her ancestry on both sides of her family and that her parents came together in love. This is a straightforward narrative that addresses implied prejudice and recognizes a child’s emotional response to disapproval is felt even when not verbally expressed. Rich illustrations accentuate the emotional impact of the story.

Recommendation: Highly Recommended; Ages 6+
Book Review by Omilaju Miranda

Molly Bannaky by Alice McGill

Cover of Molly BannakyWith an awe-inspiring light touch that manages to impart the oppressive colonial history of indentured servants and African slaves without sugar coating or overwhelming the young reader with the harsh realities of this period of history, Alice McGill writes the love and family story of former indentured servant, Molly Walsh and her formerly enslaved husband Bannaky—the grandparents of Benjamin Banneker. Chris Soentpiet’s water color paintings provide an evocative illustration for a story whose complexity holds the reader’s emotional commitment from the first to last page. You feel the griot that is author Alice McGill as you read Molly Bannaky. Every classroom should have a copy of this mini-biography of one of history’s women of strength and every household with or without children should have a copy of this book on its shelves. Not a bedtime story but a story to be read and discussed.

Recommendation: Highly Recommended; Ages 6-10

Reviewer: Omilaju Miranda


Becoming Naomi Leon by Pam Munoz Ryan

cover for Becoming Naomi LeonNaomi Soledad Leon Outlaw is a ten year old girl who lives with her great-grandmother and disabled brother in Avocado Acres Trailer Rancho in Lemon Tree, California. She hasn’t seen her mother in seven years, and her father is in Mexico. Naomi is an avid reader, list maker and soap carver who is devoted to her family and loves works. Her world transforms one afternoon when her glamorous looking mother, who has changed her name from Terri Lynn to Skyla, shows up unannounced with armfuls of gifts. Although Naomi is thrilled to meet her mother, she feels overwhelmed. When it emerges that Skyla is an alcoholic who has been in and out of rehab and that she not interested in Owen, Naomi’s brother, because has a disability, Naomi becomes quickly disillusioned.
The novel follows Naomi’s coming of age story and her development into a young woman. Her unconventional family is made up of her great-grandmother and brother, but also includes her neighbors from Mexico, and her estranged father. In an effort to reconnect with the children’s father – and to thwart Skyla’s attempts to take Naomi from her home – their great-grandmother takes them on an impromptu road trip to Mexico in their airstream trailer, named Baby Beluga. They arrive in the country right before La Noche de los Rabanos, The Night Of The Radishes, a Mexican festival where carvers create elaborate artwork out of radishes. The Leons, they find out, are renowned as carvers, and Naomi experiences a deep cultural immersion in discovering her Mexican roots, wearing a traditional Mexican Village woman’s blouse and huraches, and carving radishes with her friends.
‘Becoming Naomi Leon’ is a poetic, poignant novel with excellent character development and gentle treatment of difficult subject matter. It’s a classic coming of age story that incorporates the positive aspects of cultural mixing, and handles this complex family structure with grace and insight. The discovery of the long lost Mexican father is the highlight of the narrative.

Recommendation: Any advanced reader will enjoy this book, which could also be a good book to read to a child who is ready for chapter books to read aloud.

Book Reviewer: Jill Moffett