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Separate Is Never Equal (or how to find out more about a book)

tonatiuh_separate is never equalI’m going to stop using so many words (as I am well aware of their soporific powers) and try to be brief. I am also including a ton of links, so hang on tight!

During our last conversation, Martha brought up a point about art that comes from other places and cultures that we may or may not understand. I wanted to try to explain how members of the committee (and reviewers, too) might try to bridge that gap between what they already know and what they must learn. When I served on the Caldecott committee, my chair exhorted us to examine ourselves when we did not care for a particular style of art. We were never allowed to dismiss things with throwaway phrases like, “I have never liked his art…not my cup of tea…”

Here we have a book from a Mexican American illustrator who takes his influence from pre-Columbian codices. I found this out by googling the illustrator, who was interviewed by Julie Danielson on her Seven Impossible Things blog and in her Kirkus column. For those of you (like me) whose head just spun a tiny bit because the word codex drew a big fat blank, here is some background on codices.

A person on the committee would, I know, want to know a few things about the book and its creator. First, I know that I cannot read a book without knowing how to pronounce the author’s name, so I would run to for that help. Right here. Then I would do a little happy dance because the publisher tells me (on the copyright page) that the illustrations are “hand-drawn and then collaged and colored digitally,” so I don’t have to figure that part out. Further internet digging revealed this, a movie showing the how the illustrator was inspired, with examples of codices and everything! I love finding out more about how the art was made, and YouTube comes to the rescue with this demonstration of how Tonatiuh digitally colors his work. I hope you are impressed by my mad internet skills; this from someone who has never read an e-book in her life!

The next step I would take if I were on the committee would be to show the book to someone familiar with Sylvia Mendez’s story. Because the back matter is substantial, I would dig through that. I would hope that someone on the committee would be from the Southwest, so that person could speak to how the colors and details of the art square with the setting.

On the committee, all this information would become part of the conversation about the book. If anyone wondered about the unusually static forms, someone would explain that she researched this and that the characters are all shown in profile because they are inspired by pre-Columbian art. The ears are shaped like the number 3 for the same reason. (Then people would decide if this approach worked or not. If no one is buying it, the defender of the book should have lots more evidence of excellence, or that sound you hear would be the sound of the book sliding off the table. But I digress.) Since the story is about one family’s search for equality of education in California, the style is perfect to tell the story (see the criterion “appropriateness of style of illustration to the story, theme or concept”). The committee would then have to ask the questions it always asks: Is the art distinguished? Is it for a child? Do the pictures advance the story? Is the art excellent throughout? Does the digital art work to make the art feel modern, or does it detract?

But, no matter, if the book was nominated, someone would do a boatload of research to make her case for the book.

Robin Smith About Robin Smith

Robin Smith is a second-grade teacher at the Ensworth School in Nashville, Tennessee. She is a reviewer for Kirkus and The Horn Book Magazine and has served on multiple award committees.



  1. Susan Dailey says:

    Is this book eligible for the Caldecott? To quote the Seven Impossible Things blog, “Tonatiuh and I chatted further about his research and the artwork itself. The author-illustrator, born and raised in Mexico and still living there, finds much inspiration in Sylvia’s story.”

  2. Susan Dailey says:

    If I’d checked out the Teaching Books website, I would have know that Tonatiuh’s father is an American. He is eligible, right?

  3. Robin Smith says:

    Nice research, Susan!! Glad to hear from you!

  4. I loved this book so much. Entirely separate from the criteria, for me it had a personal connection–my grandparents are Mexican-American and lived through this kind of segregation in AZ. When I showed the book to them, they were SO amazed and happy to see their experience represented–my nana said she wished it could be given to every single teacher. It reminded me that we need diverse books for children, but they can have just as powerful an effect on grownups, even if it’s a picture book.

  5. Robin Smith Robin Smith says:

    This makes me very happy. When I read SEPARATE IS NEVER EQUAL the first time, I was moved by the story and the incredible research. It’s such an important story that few children and adults know yet. Thank you for sharing your family story.

  6. Susan Dailey says:

    Thanks, Robin. I really appreciate your blog! It’s invaluable for planning the consideration list for the Mock Caldecotts I host. I’ve come to depend on people who have connections and the ability to see pre-releases instead of having to wait for last minute review journals. You’ve made my life SO much easier. I also valuable the insight you three have about illustrations. Thank you!

  7. Great to hear this one is eligible. I know there is some confusion with certain books, that are thought to be on Caldecott’s radar. I spoke directly to Jennifer Berne at the Princeton Book Festival a few weeks ago, and she surprised me by saying that her book ONE A BEAM OF LIGHT (so beloved here at the Horn Book, and chosen by many as one of their absolute Caldecott favorites) was ineligible for a Caldecott because the renowned illustrator of the book is not American. Some while a t least a few lamented its being left out, in this instance the committee members knew what they were doing.

    SEPARATE IS NOT EQUAL is so beautifully written and illustrated and deeply felt.

  8. ah, typo.


  9. Robin Smith Robin Smith says:

    Hmmm. That’s interesting about ON A BEAM OF LIGHT. The eligibility is not about being an American citizen, it’s about residency. The chair will forward any eligibility questions to ALSC (the part of ALA that sponsors the Caldecott) and the folks there will do the research and deem the book eligible or not. That process and the result is confidential, so even the author might not know if her book was considered.
    I remember doing my research on him that year and being happy that he lived in the States. (But I am not the ALSC detectives, of course!)
    I do remember some books my year that were thought to be ineligible by people who write about books, but were totally considered. And there were some books with eligibility issues that no one seemed to catch.
    (Many other things besides residency come into play here–most notably publication dates. Those Jan 1 books that arrive early or Dec 31 books that arrive late can be a bear.)
    Interesting, Sam. Of course, we will never really know…

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