Sulwe by Lupita Nyong’o, illustrated by Vashti Harrison (9781534425361)
Sulwe is a little girl with skin as dark as midnight. She doesn’t look like anyone else in her family and no one in her school has skin as dark as hers either. At school when the children are given nicknames, the only ones Sulwe is given refer to her dark skin and aren’t nice, like Blackie. Sulwe tries to make her skin lighter by using an eraser and eating light-colored foods only. But nothing changes it. Her mother explains that she is beautiful just as she is and needs to know that beauty is about how Sulwe sees herself not how others see her. That night, Sulwe has a dream where a star comes into her room and tells her a story about Day and Night. Day was celebrated by everyone but Night was not. So Night decided to leave and it was daytime all the time. No one was able to rest and the plants couldn’t grow. Day convinced Night that she was needed and just as beautiful at her darkest as Day was at her brightest. Night returned to much celebration and the two sisters never left each other’s sides again. With that inspiration, Sulwe was able to see the beauty of her own dark skin and her confidence grew.
The writing of this picture book is straightforward when it needs to be. It doesn’t hide the racism that Sulwe faces every day, the judgement she receives based solely on her skin color and the way that she in turn judges her own beauty and worth. The folktale part of the book works well, taking the story on a new path and demonstrating using Night, the importance of diversity and the impact we all have on one another.
The art by Harrison is so beautiful. Sulwe glows on the page, her dark skin always lit dramatically showing the slide of a silver tear on her cheek or the glow of city lights on her face. When the story moves to Day and Night, the beauty of both characters is clear. The depiction of Night plays with black and dark, never allowing her to disappear into that deepness.
Dramatic and important, this picture book deals directly in self-esteem and racism.
Reviewed from copy provided by Simon & Schuster.
The Downstairs Girl by Stacey Lee (9781524740955)
As a Chinese-American living in Atlanta in 1890, Jo veers between being invisible to being openly shunned. She even lives invisibly in an underground secret room with Old Gin, the man who has raised her. Fired from her millinery job due to her race, Jo returns to her previous job as a maid for the entitled daughter of one of the wealthiest men in town. From her underground chamber, Jo discovers that the newspaper publisher who lives in the house above is having difficulty. A competing paper has a new advice column that is getting a lot of attention. So Jo sets out to anonymously fill that role as Miss Sweetie. As her column gains attention and controversy due to her distinct take on race and women’s rights, Jo finds herself caught up in a mystery that may force her to reveal all of her secrets.
Lee writes about an interesting moment in American history. After Chinese people were brought over to replace African-Americans as slaves on plantations, they also fled the hard work and disappeared into urban areas. These Chinese-Americans then had to figure out how to get by in a world that saw only black and white, not other races. Jo finds herself at the heart of these struggles as she navigates the world of the South in the late 1800’s. Laws were changing, and certainly not for the better around her. It’s a captivating look at an almost invisible group of people who should not be forgotten in the history of our nation.
Jo is a marvelous protagonist. Lee does an admirable job of making Jo’s more progressive views make sense and not be too modern. Bound by the society around her, Jo is regularly reminded of her status and that helps the reader also understand the restrictions that Jo finds herself living in. Still, Jo fights for what she needs and figures out ways to move ahead and help those she loves. She is undaunted, brave and fierce.
A superb historical novel that looks at race, gender and America. Appropriate for ages 13-16.
Reviewed from ARC provided by G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers.
For Black Girls Like Me by Mariama J. Lockington (9780374308049)
Keda sometimes feels like an outsider in her own family. She is adopted and the only member of her family who is African American. Moving to a new city across the country and to a new school, Keda has to leave behind her best friend who completely understands her. Keda’s parents are both classical musicians, though her mother hasn’t been even practicing her violin lately. She tends to have spells where she can’t get out of bed mixed with other times filled with lots of energy and projects. Keda feels a lot of pressure to take care of her mother, often not sharing the microaggressions she suffers at school or the racist names that others are calling her. When Keda’s mother finds out about the name calling, she pulls Keda and her older sister out of school entirely to be homeschooled. But her mother doesn’t consistently teach them, placing Keda into a girl scout troop for the summer where more racial incidents happen. As her mother’s condition worsens, Keda finds herself often alone with her mother at home trying to figure out how to help and not make things worse.
Lockington vividly tells the story of a tween who struggles to make her personal needs known to a family who doesn’t experience the world in the same way due primarily to race. The book is told from Keda’s perspective which gives it a strong voice and makes the aggression she receives feel very personal to the reader. Just telling the story of an adoptive child who is pre-teen, African-American, and in a loving but struggling home is important. The subjects of microaggressions and racism are told in a straight-forward and unflinching way that will allow readers of all races to understand the impact and pain they cause.
Keda’s character is resilient and smart. She is often struggling with huge issues from racism to mental illness. Yet she doesn’t ever give up. She stands up to bullies and racists, tries to protect her fragile mother from knowing about the hardships happening to her, and then works to care for her mother and protect her father. She is immensely alone in the book and yet always looking for a way forward.
An important and very personal story of adoption, race and strength. Appropriate for ages 10-13.
Reviewed from e-galley provided by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
We Rise, We Resist, We Raise Our Voices edited by Wade Hudson (9780525580423)
An incredible collection of diverse authors and illustrations come together in this collection to offer poems, short essays, and encouragement to young readers struggling to find their place in today’s troubled and divisive world. The pieces encourage children to be activists in this dark world, to shine their light where they can, and also to be careful and aware of dangers along the way. Each piece of writing is accompanied by a work of art that also inspires young readers to step forward and make the world better.
Authors like Jacqueline Woodson, Kwame Alexander, Sharon Draper, Rita Williams-Garcia, and Ellen Oh are part of this collection. They speak personally about challenges and what it means to step forward. Their writing is paired with art by artists like Ekua Holmes, James Ransome, Floyd Cooper, and Javaka Steptoe. The poems are wrenching and honest, revealing the world that people of color live in every day, the challenges they face and the ways they find a way to make change despite the obstacles. There are poems that are poignant, other pieces that are angry, none that are ready to give up.
A call to action for young people, this book is an anthology that belongs in every library in our country. Appropriate for ages 6-10.
Reviewed from e-galley provided by Crown Books for Young Readers.
Fresh Ink edited by Lamar Giles (9781524766283)
Explore diversity in a variety of ways in this anthology for teens that offers fresh takes on life. The anthology includes work from thirteen young adult authors. Short stories, a one-act play and a graphic story are all part of the collection. The authors are some of the best writers at work today as you can see from the cover image above. The collection is rich in diversity and voices, featuring stories about race, coming out, death, spray paint and making your mark on the world.
Giles, who is cofounder of We Need Diverse Books, has edited this collection very well. The group of contributors is astounding, each new story shining with their skill and voice. The quality is exceptional and the range of stories leads you from one type of diversity to another, exploring finding your way in a world that stands against you.
Strong writing, great stories and a call to action will make this collection a popular one. Appropriate for ages 13-17.
Reviewed from copy provided by Random House Children’s Books.
Can I Touch Your Hair?: Poems of Race, Mistakes and Friendship by Irene Latham and Charles Waters, illustrated by Sean Qualls and Selina Alko (9781512404425)
This book of poetry for children is written by two authors, Irene Latham who is white and Charles Waters who is African-American. The two create a fictional setting where they attended school with one another and were assigned to be partners in a poetry-writing assignment. The poems here explore hair, families, church, shoes, and hobbies but most of all they explore race in America. Told in alternating voices, the poems show each of the authors as children and are based on real childhood experiences.
In this book, there is a feeling of safety to explore difficult subjects that the poetry itself creates. The characters are not perfect, sometimes saying the wrong thing or reacting the wrong way. Their trust in one another builds and readers can see that through their growing friendship they are learning to reach out to other children who are different from themselves too. The writing in each voice is exceptional, the two authors are clearly different but also work together to create a unified whole for readers to enjoy.
The illustrations by Alko and Qualls are wonderful, offering just the right details to support each of the poems and reflecting the emotional quality in the poem they accompany. Done in acrylic paint, colored pencil and collage, the illustrations are rich and organic, filled with dancing words and swirls.
A book that invites conversation, this one belongs in every library. Appropriate for ages 6-9.
Reviewed from e-galley received from Netgalley and Carolrhoda Books.
Ruby Lee and Me by Shannon Hitchcock
Sarah knows that she is responsible for her little sister being hit by a car. Their entire summer has changed now with Robin in the hospital and her prognosis unclear. Sarah has moved to live with her grandparents on their remote farm, which is usually one of her favorite places but even that has changed. Her best friend, Ruby Lee, is changing too because the color of their skin has become all the more important in North Carolina as the school desegregate. When it looks like the girls will be going to school together, they struggle with their friendship under the rules of their parents and grandparents and their own high expectations. Sarah has a lot to navigate in this summer before middle school.
Based on the author’s family history with a car accident and a sibling, this book’s real heart is the family itself. The warmth of the grandparents’ love and care during the tragedy are palpable as they feed Sarah all sorts of good homemade cooking and teach her skills in the kitchen too. Sarah discovers that she is surrounded by people who care, but even that is not enough to assuage her guilt at what has happened to her sister as well as her guilt about how she treats Ruby Lee.
As this guilt builds, it becomes almost another character in the book, unspoken and real. It traps the real Sarah beneath it, unable to speak of what she needs to say most desperately. This is an honest depiction of what it is to feel this level of responsibility and not be able to communicate that at all. The book embraces these large feelings, gives them space to come out and be revealed, and also shows how these emotions play into civil rights in a larger scale where guilt, tradition and societal expectations come together and stop forward momentum.
A powerful mix of personal story and Civil Rights history, this book shows how important change is at every level. Appropriate for ages 10-13.
Reviewed from ARC received from Scholastic Press.
Mixed Me! by Taye Diggs, illustrated by Shane W. Evans (InfoSoup)
The author of Chocolate Me! returns with his second picture book. Mike is a boy with wild curls whose skin doesn’t match that either his mother or his father. His father has dark skin and his mother light, and Mike is somewhere in between. Mike loves to run and dash with a cape on his back. He knows exactly who he is and is proud to be a mix of both of his parents. He’s not mixed up at all, he just wants to do his own thing, wear his hair the way he likes it, choose his own clothes, and be exactly who he is.
Taye Diggs, the well-known actor, keeps his book fast moving and filled with rhythm. The character of Mike is a joy to find on the page, a creative boy who has a look and personality all his own. The frank look at skin color is also very welcome as is the exuberant acceptance of being mixed race and the beauty that brings.
Evans’ illustrations are a dynamic collage of fabrics, printed paper and skilled drawing. The way that Mike’s hair is shown gives it its own personality, often moving ahead of Mike himself as he zips through life. The art celebrates different races and colors and the way that Mike stands out for all sorts of reasons from the crowd.
A celebration of self-acceptance, children of all backgrounds will enjoy this book. Appropriate for ages 3-5.
Reviewed from copy received from Feiwel and Friends.
The Blossoming Universe of Violet Diamond by Brenda Woods
Violet feels like she just doesn’t fit into her family. Whenever she goes anywhere with her mother and sister, people are surprised to hear that she is related to them. They are both white and blonde while she has brown skin and brown hair. Violet’s father died before she was born, and while her sister knows her other grandparents, Violet has never met hers. But now Violet takes things into her own hands and starts researching her African-American grandmother who happens to be a well-known artist. Violet convinces her mother to allow her to go to her grandmother’s new gallery show but things do not go as Violet had dreamed. Violet just wants to put the pieces of her family into a whole where she fits seamlessly, but it may be too late for that.
It is a joy to have such a charming and positive book that speaks to biracial issues. Woods does a great job of focusing on both the positive and negative aspects of being bi-racial and having two distinct sides of the family. I was particularly pleased that all of the adults in the book were supportive and loving towards Violet as she explores her African-American heritage. Woods also addresses the differences in religions in the book, something that children who come from two religious heritages will appreciate.
Violet herself is a particularly radiant protagonist. Though she worries about fitting into her family and seeking out the other side of her family, at heart she is an optimist and approaches each event with a sense of adventure and openness. This is a book that cheers children on to explore their own families and discover others in their world who will adore them too.
Positive, cheery and yet addressing difficult situations, this book is a pleasure to read. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from copy received from Nancy Paulsen Books.