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Lantana stands in solidarity with Black communities and all who are working to protect Black lives. We have been watching the events unfolding in the US with great sadness, and we condemn the ongoing violence and injustice towards Black people, and all people of colour, not just in the US but in all parts of the world.
Alexander Fernandez (Mr Alex’s Bookshelf) recently wrote a review of our book I Am Brown, and we were moved by how it captures our thoughts and hopes for the next generation of young readers, and demonstrates why we think inclusive children’s books are more important now than ever. With his permission, we are sharing his review in full. Please read his moving and insightful piece below.
When I asked for a review copy of this book a few weeks ago, I did not know that on the day I received it, the United States would literally be in flames; or that protesters would be confronting authorities over the treatment of black people at the hands of police officers. I did not know that federal officials would be deploying active duty troops to Washington, D.C. (almost a literal stone throw from my house) to provide “security.” I did not know that the President would be tweeting from the bunker of the White House. There is a lot of stuff I did not know. There is a lot of stuff I still do not know. And, it worries me. What I do know, is that we have a problem. Race, still sharply divides this Country.
But, why am I writing about civil rights when I usually reserve this space to review children’s books? Well, it’s not really a complicated answer. Oscar Hammerstein II eloquently answered it for all of us in the score of South Pacific back in 1949: you’ve got to be carefully taught. Funny thing about that song. People always remember the hook, but they forget the verse:
"You’ve got to be taughtTo beAfraidOf peopleWhose eyes are oddly madeAnd people whose skin is a different shadeYou’ve got toBe carefullyTaughtYou’ve got to be taughtBefore it’s too lateBefore you are sixOr sevenOr eightTo hate all the peopleYour relatives hateYou’ve got toBe carefully taught"OSCAR HAMMERSTEIN II
To hate all the people your relatives hate . . . . Bold, right? Hammerstein II wasn’t messing around. He was outright telling us that children were being taught to hate, in that case Asians; and, that that hate was forged into their very beings, as part of a national programming. That was over 70 years ago. Have things changed?
What have we been taught? What exactly have we been taught? What have we been teaching our six, seven and eight-year-olds? Or more importantly, what have we learned, that in over 140 years since the Emancipation Proclamation, 52 years since Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered and 28 years after Rodney King was brutalized by the police, we still see George Floyd on the ground pleading for his life? It looks like not much. On a broad scale, society still acts like black people are less than. Society has been carefully taught.
Well, it’s time to start teaching other things. It’s time to change the narrative on People of Color.
I am Brown, written by Ashok Banker in his picture book debut, is not a political book. Rather, it is a testament to everything diversity is; which is everything. Through simple recitation, it illuminates who a Brown child is, can be, and will be. It tells you that Brown people are everywhere and can do everything, With its gorgeous, rich, vibrant illustrations it is a simple, joyous celebration of being. And, although it is not a political book, it does make a political statement, albeit one that should not be political at all.
In humble, elegant writing, Banker extolls the universality of Brown. Although I normally do not like “list” books, this one is different. Banker, aided by Prabhat’s beautiful imagery (and the precision with which she captures multiple cultures and ethnicities) needs to make lists to capture the totality of everything required to fit in this book. And, it’s the ability to capture the totality of experience (or at least a great portion of it) that makes the book work. Because brown can be everything and anything, or as Banker writes, “I am amazing. I am you.” the book needs the breadth of the lists it contains. Banker knows that within each child is the potentiality for anything. With the book, he tries to make certain that that potentiality is fulfilled.
I am Brown is sadly revolutionary. Revolutionary because it speaks truth to power in a gentle, understated, innocent way. Sadly, because it has to fight the same revolution that’s been fought for many, many years. And, if it is revolutionary to teach six and seven year olds that they are capable of everything their lighter-skinned counterparts are, sign me up for the revolution.
Lastly, let us not forget that this is a children’s book–although some adults would benefit greatly from reading it. There are those that will want to limit its influence; because, well, that’s what people do. By no means, however, should it be limited to children of one or another race. It is a universal book; that children, unencumbered by the prejudices of adults, will understand. Children, after all, have to be carefully taught.
If you want to do more reading on diversity with your child, here are some: [The problem with writing a list is that some are always left off. This list is a starting point. Please, please, add your own thoughts and recommendations in the comments.]
Hair Love, by Matthew A. Cherry (Author), Vashti Harrison (Illustrator)
I am Enough, by Grace Byers (Author), Keturah A. Bobo (Illustrator)
Julián is a Mermaid, by Jessica Love
Just Ask, by Sonia Sotomayor
An additional resource I found at EmbraceRace: 31 Children’s books to support conversations on race, racism and resistance
Alexander Fernandez. Father, children's book critic, writer, judge, director, actor and amateur photographer–together with his husband of 25 years–raising an energetic four-year-old! "Parent is not just a noun, it's a verb. If you're ever in doubt as to what to do, substitute the word caregiver. It will steer you in the right direction." Find him on Mr. Alex's Bookshelf.