I grew up in mostly-white Edmonton, Alberta, Canada right smack in the middle of the Iran-Iraq war. Awareness of difference was low and I remember fantasizing about having a name just like everyone else.
The name calling and the teasing was too much at times. “Arriba, Arriba, Undalé, Undalé!” was called after me every time I was around. Adults too would struggle. And although they tried, I eventually shortened my name from Fariba to Fari. It didn’t help. “Fairy? No. Fiery? No. Ferrari?”
My chosen name? Jessica. In all of my fantasies, I was Jessica. Because Jessica was like everyone else, Jessica’s parents weren’t from somewhere else and best of all, Jessica didn’t stand out because of her name.
In Yangsook Choi’s book, “The Name Jar”, Unhei (pronounced Yoon-Hye) moves from South Korea to America. She starts her first day of school having to explain her new name to all of the other kids and, inevitably, they laugh and tease her about how it’s pronounced. “You-hye, bye bye!”, they tease her.
The story develops with Unhei wanting to choose a typical American name like Laura or Amanda. But she’s reminded soon enough about what her Grandmother taught her about her name. Unhei means grace. And her name’s meaning is far more important than fitting in.
Through a boy she becomes friendly with, he discovers her real name and it shows her she can be proud of her name- even in America.
With beautiful illustrations throughout, The Name Jar has inspired conversations with my children about how and why we’re different as a family. How we might ‘stick out’ and why it’s important to embrace those differences because they make up who we are.
I wouldn’t change my name for the world. But I only discovered that as an adult. I wish I’d been able to stand tall and correct the teasers and conformists who desperately tried to make my name sound english.
This book is about immigrants, about fitting in, peer pressure, multiculturalism and third culture kids. Definitely one for your bookshelves if you’d like to inspire conversations about diversity.
Marisol McDonald Doesn’t Match by Monica Brown is the second in our mixed race book review series by Mixed.Up.Mama.
This is one my daughters’ favourites (and mine). Inspired by her Peruvian-American heritage, Monica Brown has won numerous awards and starred reviews for her Marisol series which, incidentally is also written in Spanish.
Marisol McDonald is a wonderful book about a Peruvian-American girl named Marisol who loves to be different. She loves to wear green polka dots and purple stripes, eats peanut butter and jelly burritos and tells her cousin off when he tries to tell her her skin colour (brown) does not match her red hair. Simply said, she loves who she is. When everyone, including her teacher, tells her she should match, she decides to change herself and the next day, she wears a matching outfit, plays pirates with her friends how they like it and writes her name in printed letters as her teacher says she should. But soon, she discovers how boring it is and how proud she is to be a mismatched Marisol.
The illustrations, done by Sara Palacios and the fact that it is written in Spanish beside the English are bonuses to the lovely story behind author Brown’s loveable character. For bilingual children as well as kids that come from more than one culture, this is a fantastic choice.
Another recommendation if you want your child to be proud of their mixed heritage!
We were recently re-united with our children’s extensive book collection. So what, I can hear you saying.
Well, the last time we moved, I couldn’t carry more than a handful on the plane so sadly we had to leave our extensive collection back in Nigeria.
You know the feeling, when you’re looking for things and you know you have it but can’t bring yourself to buy it again, it can drive you nuts. Well, it drove me nuts anyway.
So finally, almost 2 years later after we moved to London, a friend was able to bring the lot. So that’s where I am… reunited with my vast collection of books. And there you are, wondering why this matters…
When I got these back, it was like going through years of memories, moments and experiences my daughters and I had shared reading endless stories every night.
You see, books are not just books to us. They are a way of communicating with my children. With books, we’ve introduced the concept of bullying, sharing, loneliness, and skin colour. With books, we’ve been able to talk about difficult subjects without making it about them.
My daughter’s concept of a bully was defined in a book called “Me and My Dragon” because it featured a bully who was incidentally a chubby boy with a baseball cap on. I remember reading it once and it sparked a conversation about what is a bully. To this day, when we’ve spoken about someone bullying, my daughter protests, “but he isn’t wearing a baseball cap”!
The day identity and my daughter’s skin colour came up after school, I swiftly went online and ordered about 20 books that featured mixed race or brown skinned characters. Some of these included girls who bucked the mould and didn’t conform to ‘princessy’ ways or girls who were just different but were nonetheless proud of who they are.
I was not about to raise a child who is confused or ashamed about who she is. And with media and the majority of people she encounters donning white skin, we knew we needed to be proactive in discussing this important topic with her. After ordering our first haul that first time, within three weeks we could see a change in how our daughter talked about and discussed her own identity. She’s proud of her curly hair now and recognises the value in being unique and not following the crowd.
Other topics we’ve broached through the use of our books include curly hair, puberty and the changes our bodies go through, anger, gender stereotypes and following the crowd. Every time a topic comes up, it sparks a conversation about their lives and how one girl in their class for example, told her that her red hat was a “boy’s colour”. We discussed why she might say that and how much of what we see and hear might make us think that. Books that challenge our way of thinking are invaluable.
Many of our books now feature brown skin characters- an effort we’ve been intentional about but have sadly realised is way behind. Only 1% of children’s books feature brown skin characters.
But when you do get them and you see your daughter’s eyes light up when she sees the Little Red Riding Hood with brown skin and curly hair, she can’t hide her excitement. “She looks like me!”, she’ll say.
You see, for us, books are instruments. They are windows into important conversations and topics that I know will come up. As our children get older, we’ll inevitably encounter discussions about bodies, sexuality, death, religion, racism, cyber bullying and jealousy, amongst other things. Without books to turn to, these topics can become abstract. Throw in a protagonist who’s going through it and you have yourself an ‘in’. Then hopefully, the door will be open for further discussion when she actually does go through these things.
Indeed books have already introduced precious memories as our children have grown. We paged through the book “Going on a Bear Hunt” and relived days gone by when our nearly 6 year old was our only child and my hubby and I used to act out the story finishing off with an undercover cave where we’d hide from the bear.
Perhaps it was only through missing them that I realised my missing books’ value. I would encourage every parent, be careful what you’re giving away. I know we can’t keep all the rubbish we collect from our children’s childhoods and by no means am I a hoarder. The day will come when I’ll have to go through their books and give them away but hopefully I’ll know these aren’t just pieces of paper we read every night but memories we’ll want to cherish. I hope they do too.
Visit my Pinterest page for inspiring lists of books for brown skinned or mixed race kids: