Review of the Day: Separate is Never Equal by Duncan Tonatiuh
If I blame my childhood education for anything I suppose it would be for instilling in me the belief that the history worth learning consisted of a set of universally understood facts. One event would be more worthy of coverage than another. One person better positioned for a biography than another. It was only in adulthood that I started to understand that the history we know is more a set of decisions made decades and decades ago by educators than anything else. Why were weeks and weeks of my childhood spent learning about The American Revolution but only a day on the Vietnam War? Why did we all read biographies of Thomas Edison but never about Nicolas Tesla? And why did it take me 36 years before someone mentioned the name of Sylvia Mendez to me? Here we have a girl with a story practically tailor made for a work of children’s nonfiction. Her tale has everything. Villains and heroes (her own heroic parents, no less). Huge historical significance (there’d be no Brown v. Board of Education without Sylvia). And it stars Latino-Americans. With the possible exception of Cesar Chavez, my education was pretty much lacking in any and all experience with Latino heroes in America. I’m therefore pleased as punch that we’ve something quite as amazing as Separate is Never Equal to fill in not just my gaps but the gaps of kids all over our nation.
Sylvia is going home in tears. Faced with teasing at her new school she tells her mother she doesn’t want to go back. Gently, her mother reminds her that teasing or no, this is exactly what the family fought so hard for for three long years. In 1944 the Mendez family had moved to Westminster, California. When the first day of school approached their Aunt drove five of the kids to the nearby public school. Yet when they arrived she was told that her children, with their light skin and brown hair could attend but that Sylvia and her brothers would have to go to “the Mexican school”. Faced with hugely inferior conditions, the Mendez family decides to fight back. They are inspired by a lawsuit to integrate the public pools and so they hire the same lawyer to take on their case. In court they hear firsthand the prejudices that the superintendent of their district holds dear, but ultimately they win. When that decision is appealed they take it to the state court, and win once more. Remembering all this, Sylvia returns to school where, in time, she makes friends from a variety of different backgrounds. Backmatter consists of an extensive Author’s Note, a Glossary, a Bibliography, additional information About the Text, and an Index.
When I say that Sylvia’s story adapts perfectly to the nonfiction picture book form, I don’t want to downplay what Tonatiuh has done here. To tell Sylvia’s story accurately he didn’t have a single source to draw upon. Instead the book uses multiple sources, from court transcripts and films to books, websites, articles, and reports. Culling from all of this and then transferring it into something appropriate and interesting (that is key) for young readers is a worthy challenge. That Tonatiuh pulls it off is great, but I wonder if he could have done it if he hadn’t interviewed Sylvia Mendez herself in October 2012 and April 2013. Those who know me know that I’m a stickler for non-invented dialogue in my children’s works of nonfiction. If you can’t tell a real story without making up dialogue from real people then your book isn’t worth a lick. At first, it appears that Tonatiuh falls into the same trap, with Sylvia wondering some things and her family members saying other. Look at the backmatter, however, and you’ll see a note “About the Text”. It says that while the trial dialogue comes from court transcripts, the rest of the book came from conversations with Sylvia herself. So if she says her parents said one thing or she thought/pondered another, who are we to doubt her? Well played then.
Librarians like myself spend so much time gushing over content and format that often we forget one essential element of any book: child-friendliness. It’s all well and good to put great information on picture book sized pages, but will any kid willingly read what you have? In this light, framing this book as a flashback was a clever move. Right from the start Tonatiuh places his story within the context of a child’s experience with mean kids. It’s a position a great many children can identify with, so immediately he’s established sympathy for the main character. She’s just like kids today . . . except a hero. At the end of the book we have photographs of the real participants, both then and now. As for the text itself, it’s very readable, keeping to the facts but, aided by the design and the art, eclectic enough to maintain interest.
When we talk about Tonatiuh’s art it’s important to understand why he’s chosen the style that he has. In interviews the artist has discussed how his art is heavily influenced by ancient Mexican styles. As he said in an interview on the blog Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, “My artwork is very much inspired by Pre-Columbian art, especially by Mixtec codices from the 14th century. That is why my art is very geometric, my characters are always in profile, and their ears look a bit like the number three. My intention is to celebrate that ancient art and keep it alive.” Heads of participants are always shown from the side. This is combined with the decision to digitally insert real hair, of a variety of shades and hues and colors, onto the heads of the characters. The end result looks like nothing else out there. There are mild problems with it, since the neutral expression of the faces can resemble dislike or distaste. This comes up when Sylvia’s cousins are accepted into the nearest public school and she is not. Their faces are neutral but read the wrong way you might think they were coolly unimpressed with their darker skinned cousin. Still, once you’ve grown used to the style it’s hardly an impediment to enjoying the story.
I think it’s important to stress for our children that when we talk about “integration”, we’re not just talking about African-American kids in the 1950s and 60s. Segregation includes Native Americans, Asian Americans, Latino Americans, and more. At one point in this book the Mendez family receives support from the NAACP, the Japanese American Citizens League, and the American Jewish Congress amongst others. Sylvia’s mother says, “When you fight for justice, others will follow”. For children to understand that freedom is never a done deal and that increased rights today means increased rights in the future is important. Books like Separate is Never Equal help drill the point home. There is absolutely nothing like this book on our shelves today. Pick it up when you want to hand a kid a book about Latino-American history that doesn’t involve Chavez for once. Required reading.
On shelves now.
Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.
Like This? Then Try:
- The Girl From the Tar Paper School by Teri Kanefield
- Through My Eyes by Ruby Bridges
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
SLJ Blog Network