Kid Lit Frenzy’s Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge is my favorite reading challenge of 2014. Visit her blog to discover more excellent nonfiction picture book titles.
Duncan Tonatiuh’s Separate Is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez and Her Family’s Fight for Desegregation introduced me to an important story in the desegregation movement of the 20th century: a lawsuit filed by the Mendez family in California in 1945 to try to end school segregation. The Mendez family’s efforts paved the way for lawsuits in other states and, eventually, for the landmark Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision that officially ended school segregation nationwide in 1957.
The story is structured as an extensive flashback. Sylvia comes home from school feeling discouraged because one of her classmates told her she didn’t belong at their school. She doesn’t want to return the next day, but her mother reminds her that her family fought hard to win her the right to attend that school.
The first and last spreads frame the main story which begins three years earlier in 1944. Sylvia is an American citizen, but when her aunt tries to enroll her and her lighter-skinned, auburn-haired cousins at the local public school, the school only agrees to enroll the lighter-skinned cousins. The darker-skinned, black-haired Sylvia and her brothers are told that they have to attend “the Mexican school,” even though it’s farther from their home. Her parents have no success lobbying the school or even getting the school to explain its policies, so Sylvia and her brothers begin attending the Mexican school, where, due to lack of resources and poor facilities, they are most definitely not getting the same education as the white children enrolled at the local public school.
Sylvia’s father tries several different tactics to advocate for his children’s right to an equal education, but nothing works. He finally decides to file a lawsuit against the school board. The original judge takes nearly a year to make a decision on the case (he decided in favor of the Mendez family), but then the case still has to go through appeals court. The appeals court also rules in favor of the Mendez family, and so eventually Sylvia and her siblings are enrolled in the local public school.
After her mother reminds her of the family’s long fight for justice and equality, Sylvia decides to return to school. She ignores the children who whisper and call her names:
By the end of the day, she had made a friend. And by the end of the school year, she had made many friends of different backgrounds. She knew that her family had fought for that.
This is a longer picture book, both in actual page numbers (40) and in the amount of text used per page to tell the story. The reader is able to appreciate the full scope of the Mendez family’s fight for justice and equal rights to education. Tonatiuh masterfully synthesizes a complex, complicated story into a clear, focused narrative that will be comprehensible to quite young readers though probably best appreciated by older children.
The art is also important to the story. I appreciate that Tonatiuh has such a strong individual style. His work is heavily influenced by ancient Mexican art, and I am always interested to see how he works within, references, and uses that tradition for his own purposes. His work for Separate Is Never Equal is a bit more restrained and sober, which does fit the subject matter. Because Tonatiuh’s art is so powerful, I often feel that it commands more of my attention than the words in the story he’s illustrating, but in this book, the story felt primary. I think that might be because of the palette Tonatiuh uses. The colors are a bit darker than in his other work and with none of the small pops of color that I’ve seen in his other books. The colors are primarily browns, gray-blues, and olive greens. Even the children’s clothing is usually brown, gray-blue, or olive green. The darker palette emphasizes the words on the page (printed in white) as well as the book’s seriousness of tone, topic, and theme.
Tonatiuh and his publisher outdid themselves with the back matter. There is an Author’s Note, photos, extensive bibliography, glossary, and even index! Can’t remember when I’ve seen a picture book with an index! I’m not sure an index is really necessary, but I love to have this as a teaching tool for text features in the elementary classroom.