Separate is Never Equal by Duncan Tonatiuh

Separate is Never 61QJH+UcmDLSeparate is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez & Her Family’s Fight for Desegregation

Duncan Tonatiuh, Author and Illustrator

Abrams Books for Young Readers, Biography, May 6, 2014

Awards: 2015 Pura Belpré Illustrator Honor Book; 2015 Robert F. Sibert Honor Book

Suitable for Ages: 6-9

Themes: Mexican-Americans, Sylvia Mendez, Segregation in Education, Racial persecution, Mendez vs. Westminster School District, Multicultural

Opening: Sylvia had on her black shoes. They were shiny-new. Her hair was perfectly parted in two long trenzas. It was her first day at the Westminster school. The halls were crowded with students. She was looking for her locker when a young white boy pointed at her and yelled, “Go back to the Mexican school. You don’t belong here!”

Synopsis: Sylvia and her two brothers moved with their family to a farm near Westminster, California. Her father, a field-worker, finally got a lucky break to lease a farm and be his own boss. Sylvia was excited about starting a new beautiful school as a third grader. When they went to enroll at the school, her parents were told their children couldn’t attend the white school. They had to enroll in the Mexican school.  Sylvia was confused because she wasn’t Mexican. She was an American citizen and spoke perfect English. Was she banned because she was brown, had dark hair and her last name was Mendez? That fall Sylvia and her brothers attended the small run-down, inferior Mexican school where the teachers didn’t care about teaching.  The school was surrounded by a cow pasture. There was no beautiful playground, just dirt. And, there was no place for the children to eat their lunch.

After approaching the school board with no success, Sylvia’s father, Gonzalo Mendez, began to organize an association of Mexican parents. They filed a lawsuit against the school district to integrate the schools. Sylvia Mendez  and her family helped bring an end to segregation in California, which led to the 1947 Supreme Court ruling for equality for all children in America.

Why I like this book:

Duncan Tonatiuh’s compelling book brings Sylvia’s important story to life in a manner children will easily understand. He cleverly weaves Sylvia’s inspiring story with factual information. The text also includes Spanish words and phrases. I especially like how Sylvia’s story shows children that they can make a difference in their communities, country and world.

Tonatiuh’s bold and unique illustrations are done in muted tones with a Latino flare. They significantly contribute to Sylvia’s story and emphasize the theme of separatism and inequality. The cover is magnificent!

I was surprised to discover that the movement to desegregate schools for children of all ethnicities and races began with Latino children in the 1940s with Mendez vs. Westminster School District. There would be no “Brown vs. Board of Education” Supreme Court ruling without  Sylvia’s original lawsuit. This book belongs in every school library.  Children read a lot of books about the civil rights era, so it is important to introduce this important piece of Latino history into Black History month.

Resources: The author includes detailed information at the end of the book from court files, newspaper accounts and update information and photos of the real Sylvia Mendez, who received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama in 2011.

For tweens, parents may want to check out a middle grade novel, Sylvia and Aki, which is a more in-depth story about Sylvia and her relationship with Japanese-American girl, who has been sent to an internment camp.

Taking Flight

TTaking Flight9780385755115_p0_v3_s260x420aking Flight: From War Orphan to Star Ballerina

Michaela DePrince with Elaine DePrince, authors

Alfred A. Knopf,  Memoir, Oct. 14, 2014

Suitable for Ages: 12-17

Themes: Michaela DePrince, Ballet, War orphan, Sierra Leone, Adoption, Vitiligo, Courage, Hope

Synopsis: Michaela DePrince was born in 1995 in war-torn Sierra Leone and named Mabinty Bangura.  She was born with Vitiligo, a medical condition that causes blotchy spots on her skin. To the villagers she was a curse and called a spotted leopard. However, she had loving parent who taught her to read, write and speak four different languages. When the rebels killed her father and her mother died, her uncle sold her to an orphanage, where she became #27 .  She was starved, abused, and faced incredible dangers from the rebels. One day she found a picture of a ballerina in a magazine which affected her life forever. At four, she and her best friend Mia were adopted by an American family. The family encouraged her love of dancing and made it possible for her to study at the Rock School for Dance Education and the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School at the American Ballet Theatre.  She is now a member of the world-famous Dutch National Ballet in Amsterdam.

What I like about this book:

  • The heart of this story is the strong mother/daughter relationship which translates into a remarkable collaboration and a gripping memoir about Michaela’s journey from Mabinty Bangura, a war orphan in Sierra Leone, to a 17-year-old professional ballerina.
  • The story’s real strength lies in Michaela’s lifelong passion to become a ballerina and her remarkable determination to break through racial barriers to dance classical and neo-classical ballet with a professional company.  She shows great discipline and sacrifice to be the best.
  • The narrative about Michaela’s journey is compelling and unforgettable. Taking Flight is written in such a manner that young readers would be able to handle the details of war and be interested in learning some history about West Africa.
  • The story is simply told in prose, but is filled with satisfying detail. The pacing is perfect and the book is a page-turner.  This book is ideal for any reader, but young black ballet dancers will especially find hope in Michaela’s story.
  • I found Taking Flight a joy to read because of its authenticity and honesty. Michaela thought America was wonderful until she began to notice the bigotry she experienced while living with her white family, especially when they went out in public. But it took true grit to face the racial discrimination and profiling she encountered in the ballet world. She heard comments that “black women are too athletic for classical ballet…to muscular…and aren’t delicate enough to become  world-class dancers.” She still struggles with “the racial bias in the world of ballet.”
  • There is a section of photos in the middle of the book documenting her life — from the African orphanage, her new home and family, to her ballet training and dancing. These photos will help young readers better grasp her life.

Resources:  Michaela DePrince starred in the ballet documentary First Position, which can be found in many libraries.  She hesitated to be featured but decided that it was something that she could do to help African-American children who dream of dancing.  She felt she had a responsibility to write a memoir and share the “hardy dose of hope” she had been blessed with.  Visit Michaela DePrince at her website.

Stella by Starlight

Stella by Starlight9781442494978_p0_v2_s260x420Stella by Starlight

Sharon M. Draper, Author

Atheneum Books for Young Readers,  Historical Fiction, Jan. 6, 2015, the official release date. Many bloggers will be reviewing Stella by Starlight today as part of its launch.

Suitable for Ages: 9-12

Pages: 336

Themes: Segregation, Racism, the Ku Klux Klan, Family, Community, Hope

Synopsis: When 11-year-old Stella and her brother, Jojo, witness nine robed figures dressed in white, burning a cross on the other side of the pond near their home late one night, she knows that life in Bumblebee, North Carolina, is about to change. It is 1932, and “Every Negro family knew the unwritten rules — they had to take care of their own problems and take care of one another.” Stella and her community come together to find strength, courage and support as they face the injustices surrounding them in the segregated Jim Crow South.  Will Stella find her own voice in this coming of age story?

Why I like this book:  Sharon Draper’s book is a promise to her father that she would one day tell the story of her grandmother, Estelle Twitty Mills Davis. Draper’s compelling and powerful novel is inspired by her grandmother’s fifth-grade journal. It is a fictional account drawn from that journal. It is also a gift to her readers to share true stories of hatred and prejudice that ran so deep during the segregated South.

Draper works magic in her multi-layered storytelling that highlights the depression, segregation, racism, and a girl filled with hopes, dreams and ambitions during a time when such qualities are risky for a girl of color. Stella is a gutsy, resilient and compassionate hero with a strong and candid voice. Readers will benefit from meeting Stella and following her journey. The language in the story is true to the time period. The setting shows a caring and supportive African-American community at the height of the depression and segregation when families depend upon each other. The plot is packed with action, twists and a lot of tension — it is scary, heartbreaking, sobering, celebratory, and humorous. The pacing is spot-on throughout the story, keeping readers fully engaged. Readers will find themselves richly rewarded by this deeply realistic and satisfying tale. Draper has once again succeeded in creating a story that will ignite the passion of reading among students.

Resources: Visit Sharon Draper at her website for more information about Stella by Starlight and her other books.  There will be a study guide on the site for Stella.  Teachers and students may be interested in having their entire class read her book. Draper looks forward to communicating with students in their schools via Skype and Twitter. Visit her site for information and to follow directions.

Sharon Draper, a five-times Coretta Scott King Literary Award winner for Copper Sun and Forged by Fire, delivers another contender in Stella by Starlight. Her novel Out of My Mind has won over twenty state awards and has been on the New York Times bestseller list for over a year.  She lives in Cincinnati, Ohio, where she taught high school English for 25 years and was named National Teacher of the Year.

Desmond and the Very Mean Word

Desmond9780763652296_p0_v1_s260x420Desmond and the Very Mean Word

Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Douglas Carlton Abrams, Authors

A.G. Ford, Illustrator

Candlewick Press, Biography, 2013

Suitable for Ages: 6-10

Themes:  Bullying, Racism, Compassion, South Africa, Archbishop Tutu

Opening“Desmond was very proud of his new bicycle. He was the only child in the whole township who had one, and he couldn’t wait to show it to Father Trevor.”

Jacket Synopsis: When Desmond takes his new bicycle out for a ride, his pride and joy turn to hurt and anger when some boys shout a very mean word at him. No matter what he tries, Desmond can’t stop thinking about what the boys said. With the wise advice of kindly Father Trevor, Desmond learns an important lesson about understanding his conflicted feelings and how to forgive.

Why I like this book:  This heartfelt story is based on a true-life story from Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s childhood in South Africa. Like many African children, Tutu is bullied and words of hatred shouted at him by other boys.  He is angry and after several incidents, he turns and shouts the meanest word he can think of. At first he is proud of himself, but later feels shame good over his actions. I really think it’s important for children to know how a Nobel Peace Prize winner comes to terms with issues that are still relevant today. Desmond finds that forgiveness is the only way to free himself from his anger. This is a very important step for the young Desmond — for all children. The author focuses on his feelings instead of sounding preachy. Ford’s stunning oil paintings powerfully depict Desmond’s early life in South Africa and capture the emotion of the characters.

Resources:  Archbishop Tutu has a forward about the story and a backpage of history about his relationship with Father Trevor. Tutu has spent his life bringing equality, justice, and peace to South Africa. He continues to be a leading spokesperson for peace and forgiveness. Candlewick Press has prepared a Teacher’s Guide for use with the book in the classroom.

Every Friday, authors and KidLit bloggers post a favorite picture book. To see a complete listing of all the Perfect Picture Books with resources, please visit author Susanna Leonard Hill’s Perfect Picture Books.

Sylvia and Aki by Winifred Conkling

Sylvia & Aki9781582463452_p0_v1_s260x420Sylvia & Aki: Friendship Knows No Barriers

Winifred Conkling, Author

Tricycle Press, Random House imprint, Fiction, 2011

Suitable for Ages: 9-12

Themes:  Race Relations, Segregation in Education, Japanese American Relocations, Mexican Americans, Friendship

Synopsis:  Two third-grade students are caught up in the fear that engulfed our country during WW II.  Aki Munemitsu and her family are Japanese American citizens who own an asparagus farm in Westminster, CA.  When war breaks out they are sent to an internment camp in Poston, AZ.  Sylvia Mendez and her family rent the home vacated by Aki’s family and run the farm.  Sylvia discovers a Japanese doll hidden in the back of  her closet and wonders about the girl who owns it and her life in the camp.  Sylvia is excited about attending Westminster School, until she is not allowed to enroll in the town school and told that she must attend the run-down Mexican School across town.  Like Aki, Sylvia faces a fear of a different kind —  the fear of racial integration in America.  Both girls face discrimination.  Sylvia and her father challenge the school district in California court system.  Their landmark case eventually ends school segregation nationally.

Why I like this book:  This is an important story to tell because of the fear that pervaded our country during WW II and the social injustices that occurred.  Winifred Conkling has written a touching and true story about the lives of two girls who question their identities as Americans, their own self-worth and come to grips with the prejudices of the country they love and call home.  The author writes their story in alternating chapters, which fit together very nicely and focus on race relations in America at that time.  Both girls were strong, determined, brave and stood up for what they believed.  This is a great discussion book for the classroom.

The story of Sylvia and Aki fits in nicely with the theme of International Day of the Girl Child on October 11 which is a day “to recognize girls’ rights and the unique  challenges girls face around the world.”  Sylvia challenged the California court system laws on segregation. I will review a picture book related to this special day on Friday.

Resources:  The author opens  with a note about word choice and the terms used in the 1940s.  There is a lengthy afterword about the Mendez and Munemitsu families, and a discussion about segregation in America.  The girls are close friends today.  Please visit Winifred Conkling at her website.  There is a teacher’s guide for the book.  Another important discussion would be about girl power.  Encourage students to talk about what girls can do to help each other locally and globally.  Talk about the differences in education for girls in first and third worlds.

Nelson Mandela – Black History Month

Nelson Mandela9780061783746_p0_v1_s260x420Nelson Mandela

Kadir Nelson, Author and Illustrator

Katherine Tegen Books, Biography, Jan. 2, 2013

Suitable for Ages: 4-8

Themes:  Courage, Determination, Equality, Civil Rights,  Racism, Apartheid

Opening: Rolihlahla played barefooted on the grassy hills of Qunu.  He fought boys with sticks and shot birds with slingshots.  The smartest Madiba child of thirteen, he was the only one chosen for school.  His new teacher would not say his Xhosa name.  She called him Nelson instead.” 

Synopsis:  Nelson was nine years old when his father passed.  His mother sent him to live with a powerful tribal chief, where he could continue his studies.  He learned stories from the elders about old Africa, where people lived peacefully, the land was rich and fertile and people raised crops.  The European settlers arrived and everything changed.  Nelson attended school in Johannesburg where he became a lawyer who defended the poor.  The government began to divide the people into three groups — African, Indian and European.  The divisions were deep with Europeans in power, and apartheid was born.   Nelson wanted to win back South Africa for everyone and organized rallies to speak out and fight apartheid.  He became a leader among his people, but an enemy to the South African government.   He was arrested  and put in prison for over 27 years.  South Africa erupted into violence and the world put pressure on the government.  When Nelson was released from prison in 1990, he said “We must forget our terrible past and build a better future for South Africa.  Let us continue to fight for justice and walk the last mile to freedom.”  All South Africans had won their right to vote.  And, they elected Nelson Mandela their president.

What I like about this book:  The first thing you notice is that there is no title on the book.  Kadir Nelson’s larger than life oil  painting shows power, integrity, determination and strength.  It is mesmerizing.   The illustrations throughout the book are exquisite and capture the emotion of this very important time in South Africa’s history.  Because Nelson Mandela was a man of few words, the author tells the story very simply and powerfully in verse.  Kadir Nelson says: “My work is all about healing and giving people a sense of hope and nobility.  I want to show the strength and integrity of the human being and the human spirit.”  And, that he does. You can visit Kadir at his website.

Resources:  There are pages of historical information at the end of the book, with suggested readings.  For teaching resources and activities go to Mandela at 90.

Every Friday, authors and KidLit bloggers post a favorite picture book.  To see a complete listing of all the Perfect Picture Books with resources, please visit author Susanna Leonard Hill’s Perfect Picture Books.

Morning Star

MorningStarCover.inddMorning Star

Judith Paxton, Author

Second Story Press, Fiction, September 2011

Suitable for Ages:  Grades 4-6

Themes: Slavery, Underground Railroad, Racism, African-American

Opening/Synopsis“Flower Felt fingers press down on her mouth, gentle but firm.  She struggled awake to see her mother lift them away, touch one against her own lips, eyes wide with silent warning.”   Twelve-year-old Flower, her baby brother and her parents live on a southern slave plantation.  In the middle of the night they flee for their lives following the Underground Railroad north to Canada.  Their only guide is the North Star and very kind people who help them along their journey.  Bounty hunters are in hot pursuit of her family.  Their journey is threatened by danger, illness, injuries, and hunger.

In a parallel story over 150 years later, we meet eighth-grader Felicia, who has moved from Toronto with her mother and grandmother to a small town in Michigan.  Felicia soon discovers she is among the few African-American students in the school.  She makes friends with a group of girls who introduce her to horseback riding and a drama class.   But, she also has to deal with some racism for the first time in her life.  When the teacher assigns the class to research their ancestry, Felicia discovers that her distant family members were slaves who followed the Underground Railroad to Canada.   She also learns about a community of free slaves living in her new town of Plainsville, MI.  Does she have the courage to share her family history with her class?

What I like about this book:  Judith Paxton has written a compelling and memorable story for young people where she interweaves the lives of two very different girls living 150 years apart.  Their stories are told in alternating chapters.  You will feel the strength and courage of both Flower and Felicia dealing with racism in different ways.  Their past and present paths will cross in an unlikely way.  Readers will easily identify with both engaging characters.  Each chapter is a page turner and the story is full of suspense.  This is a satisfying story for younger readers and a great read for Black History Month.

This book has been provided to me free of charge by the publisher in exchange for an honest review of the work.