Mixed Messages: the depiction of racially mixed families in picture books
Interracial marriage was not fully legal in the United States until 1967. A mere six years later came Arnold Adoff's groundbreaking picture book Black is Brown is Tan (1973, HarperCollins, illustrated by Emily Arnold McCully). When Arnold Adoff (Caucasian) married his wife Virginia Hamilton (African American) in 1960, their union violated segregation laws in 28 states. Black is Brown is Tan is a straightforward poem addressing the various skin tones in the family and has the refrain "This is the way it is for us, this is the way we are." The book was reissued in 2002 with new illustrations, also by Emily Arnold McCully.
One thing that stands out to me about these illustrations is that the parents are not depicted as being physically close to each other. Only one image has them touching, and even when they are in bed, there is enough space between them to place another adult.
Marisol McDonald Doesn't Match (Children's Book Press, 2011, illustrated by Sara Palacios and written by Monica Brown) is a bilingual book about a little girl who is Peruvian-Scottish-American. The story depicts her as someone who combines things in ways that other people do not, like making a burrito with peanut butter and jelly. Her own brother criticizes her mismatched clothing, although, presumably, he shares the same biological parents as Marisol. He is depicted as looking more typically Latino, while Marisol has dark skin and red hair, making her "mismatched." Because of the comments that people are making to Marisol, she tries to match. This is boring and makes Marisol unhappy. She decides to go back to her old ways and is once again happy. The conclusion of the story has Marisol adopting a puppy, seemingly a mixed breed puppy. "He's mismatched and simply marvelous, just like me." she says. I find the comparison of a biracial child to a mixed breed dog unsettling, paralleling the word mulatto.
Mixed Me! by Taye Diggs (2015, Feiwel and Friends, illustrated by Shane W. Evans) is the story of a biracial child with an African American father and a Caucasian mother. It echoes many of the sentiments that were expressed in Marisol McDonald; kids tell Mike that his parents don't match. He introduces himself as "mixed-up Mike" at the beginning of the story and talks about people staring at his family. Being biracial is presented as a problem. At the end of the book, Mike says "I'm not mixed up, I just happen to be mixed." While I'm glad that he no longer sees himself as "mixed up," the messages delivered by Mixed Me! are quite negative and awkward.
Lisa Brown's The Airport Book (2016, Roaring Brook Press) is the shining star out of this group of books that feature interracial families. It's very clearly a book about traveling by airplane, not a book about race. The racially mixed family is revealed on the title page, gracefully and unselfconsciously. We see a Caucasian mother, an African American father, and two brown children, packing for a trip. The entire book is filled with a wide variety of people, all ages, races, disabilities, body types and sexual orientations. It is one of the most flawless examples of inclusivity and diversity in recent publishing history. Race is not the subject, race is not the problem. There is no sense that Lisa Brown is being "charitable" by including these characters, these characters seem to exist organically. Obviously, Ms. Brown made all of the decisions about who to depict in The Airplane Book; it is not organic in the literal sense. The tone of the book and the depiction of a wide variety of people feels natural and beautiful and accurately reflects the diversity of people in our world.
For next month's post and moving forward, please send me questions and topics that you would like to discuss that involve libraries, books, diversity, and the children's literature community. firstname.lastname@example.org
Fifi Abu spends her days surrounded by books that have already been created and the rest of her time writing and illustrating books yet to be born. She looks forward to a day when all children can see themselves reflected in the books they read. Ms. Abu holds a master's degree in children's literature and a master's degree in library science, is an active member of SCBWI and a Children's Book Academy graduate.
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