For this week’s En la Clase, I’m sharing our review of Separate is Never Equal, one of this year’s Americas Award Winners. It’s a great book to explore themes of love of self, love of family, and love of community, while also teaching about an often overlooked but important piece of the Civil Rights Movement.
In next week’s En la Clase, I’ll share the free educator’s guide created for the book.
Separate is Never Equal
Written and Illustrated by Duncan Tonatiuh
Published by Harry N. Abrams, 2014
Age Level: 7-12
Almost 10 years before Brown vs. Board of Education, Sylvia Mendez and her parents helped end school segregation in California. An American citizen of Mexican and Puerto Rican heritage who spoke and wrote perfect English, Mendez was denied enrollment to a “Whites only” school. Her parents took action by organizing the Hispanic community and filing a lawsuit in federal district court. Their success eventually brought an end to the era of segregated education in California.
There are a number of reasons why Duncan Tonatiuh’s book, Separate is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez & Her Family’s Fight for Desegregation, is so important. In writing it, he did something that no one else has. No other children’s picture book on the Mendez case exists. Moreover, the book is well-researched and compellingly illustrated. By drawing on primary source documents, court transcripts, and interviews with Sylvia Mendez herself, Tonatiuh has created an important historical book for younger and older children alike.
Too often the content knowledge we present in our classrooms on the Civil Rights Movement is dictated by a “holidays and heroes” approach to education. Our discussions of civil rights are narrowed, limited to Black History Month and lessons on Martin Luther King, Jr., and Rosa Parks. But this narrow focus is misleading. We can’t provide an accurate picture of the depth of the Civil Rights Movement by limiting our discussions to just the involvement of the African-American community and a handful of its leaders. The Civil Rights Movement was diverse and the literature and content we use in our classrooms should reflect that. Tonatiuh’s book on Sylvia Mendez and her family’s fight against desegregation helps to communicate the diversity of the movement. Most people are familiar with the Brown v. Board of Education court case, but few have heard about Mendez v. Westminster School District. Many have argued that the Mendez case laid important groundwork for the success of the Brown case. In telling the story of the Mendez family and their legal battle, we complicate our understanding of the fight for desegregation and the ways in which key civil rights victories were won.
With Separate is Never Equal we move beyond the canonical multicultural children’s literature that focuses solely on heroes such as Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, Cesar Chavez, or Dolores Huerta. Here, Tonatiuh has called attention to the lesser known aspects of the history of Latin@s in the U.S. and Latin@ activism. Not only does this book show the role of Latin@s in the Civil Rights Movement, but it focuses on the role of a young woman in fighting discrimination and racism. What better way to empower our own students than to provide them with books that tell the stories of other youth who have had the courage to be activists?
Furthermore, the book contextualizes the fight for equality beyond simply the individual, including also the roles of the family and their community. As others have critiqued, too frequently we’re presented with heroes who are portrayed as if they operate in a vacuum. Tonatiuh’s book clearly shows the essential role both community and family played in the success of the Mendez case.
This is a book that belongs in all classrooms, from elementary through high school. Younger students will benefit from read-aloud exercises, while older students can dig deeper and use it as a research aid. For both, it serves as an excellent model for engaging students in historical non-fiction. Discussing Tonatiuh’s process and the way in which he based all of the dialogue on what he found in primary source documents and interviews demonstrates the ways in which non-fiction can be both creative and exciting, something that can often be hard to convince students of. His book also provides a way to discuss art as a means of resistance and social justice. Tonatiuh’s digitally rendered collage illustrations are as powerful a means of telling the Mendez story as his text. Through his text and illustrations he brings the story to life. The extensive back matter provides excellent resources for furthering this conversation with students.
Discussions of discrimination and racism can often be complicated and complex, but with this book Tonatiuh makes it as clear and concise as possible so that students can easily engage with the narrative. In communicating the pain of the Mendez’ family’s experiences of racism, he not only gives voice to all those who have suffered discrimination, but also encourages empathy and courage so that readers will hopefully be moved to challenge injustice when they see it.
It really is an excellent book that we hope you’ll check out. We also have an educator’s guide available for using this book in the classroom.