When my son was five, he was watching TV when a commercial came on that showed a woman slathering her peach-colored arms with lotion. He glanced down at his own brown arm. After poking it with a finger, he asked: “Mommy, do I have white skin?”
It was a moment that seemed straight out of Jacqueline Woodson’s verse novel Locomotion. In the prose poem “Commercial Break,” the book’s eponymous protagonist comments on the difference between his brown-skinned arm and the white world of television. There are many small moments such as these, when kids of color register their difference from the dominant images around them.
A few years later, when my daughter was five, she stared at the back of her hand, which, with her summer tan, was a sandy brown, and asked: “When will I be peach?” Her question was not whether or not she had white skin, but how it was that the skin color she did have could be so different from her mother’s. My children have the same skin color as their Palestinian father; they are so much darker than I am that on occasion people have asked if I am my children’s nanny or if my children are adopted. By my daughter’s reasoning, if her mother was “peach” and she was brown, then maybe her skin color would change as she got older.
My own mother was of Belgian descent and Christian, while my father was a Lebanese Muslim immigrant. We didn’t talk about skin color, in the same way that my father didn’t teach us Arabic or observe Islam: maybe if we didn’t talk about what made us different then we could happily assimilate into our (predominantly white) suburban community. Being light-skinned, I assimilated so well that friends were shocked when they came to my house and discovered my father spoke with an accent and my grandmother had dark skin. These experiences were reminders that Arabs could be close to being considered “white” Americans, but not quite. They were also reminders that most people assumed all family members have the same skin color. With these thoughts in mind, I was determined to find a way to talk with my children about skin color, ancestry, and how Arab Americans fit into the larger conversation about race and ethnicity in America.
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We’re surrounded by images that tell us mothers and children should look alike. Adoptive, interracial, and intercultural families do not have what Christopher Myers called in his essay “Young Dreamers” an “image library,” a robust visual archive that reflects and validates their existence. Using picture books, I set out to cultivate an image library that would give my children pictures of families that, like ours, were of mixed ancestry and had skin tones that ranged from light to dark.
The majority of the picture books on our shelves contained mothers and babies who did resemble each other. Even when they’re anthropomorphized mice, such as in Kevin Henkes’s Penny or Lilly series, or monsters (My Monster Mama Loves Me So, for example), the parents and children look alike. Books such as Are You My Mother?, Is Your Mama a Llama?, and Little Owl Lost didn’t help, finding humor rather than normality in the funny mismatches between baby and parent. And so I found myself reaching for three kinds of books in order to launch a wider discussion about family, skin tone, and ancestry: those that could be mirrors for my children’s Arab heritage; those about families of mixed racial or ethnic ancestry in general; and those explicitly about skin color.
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There were only a few picture books I could find that feature Arab or Arab American families in ordinary circumstances and not as pre-modern, exotic, or quaint. A good many, such as Jeannie Baker’s Mirror, depicted Arabs as strange Others who lead mainly simple lives outside of civilization. Many books with Arab characters were text-heavy and didactic to the extent that they weren’t appealing to my children. The few realistic books, such as Sami and the Time of the Troubles, dwelt on how war affects daily life. Others, including The Librarian of Basra and Silent Music, home in on war’s effects on libraries, literacy, and print culture in the Arab world. But where were the ordinary Arabs or Arab Americans?
I was able to find two great examples in Rukhsana Khan’s Big Red Lollipop and Naomi Shihab Nye’s Sitti’s Secrets. Big Red Lollipop was successful in my house in part because it had humor. The book begins knee-deep in the family politics of an immigrant Muslim family (the exact ethnicity is ambiguous). Rubina feels her mother’s demand that she take her younger sister, Sana, along to a birthday party (first, her mother asks “What’s a birthday party?”) is inappropriate. “They don’t do that here!” says Rubina. The larger conflict is a serious one between a child’s cultural assimilation and traditional family obligations, yet it’s presented through a spirited sibling rivalry (Sana: “I wanna go too!”) which, amplified by Sophie Blackall’s humorously expressive drawings, broadens the book’s appeal.
Sitti’s Secrets was powerful for my children because it expressed the confusion that comes with knowing that some Americans fear and even hate Arabs, along with the desire to convey the good aspects of a culture to those who view all Arabs as a threat. After Mona returns home from visiting her grandmother’s village “on the other side of the earth” (in what appears to be the Levant), she writes the president of the United States a letter. “Last night when I watched the news on TV, I felt worried. If the people of the United States could meet Sitti, they’d like her, for sure.” The text and illustrations display both similarities and differences between the two peoples and places without fetishizing difference.
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Because there was only a short stack of good books I could find specifically about Arabs or Muslims and because none of them addressed the issue of skin color, I cast a wider net for picture books that more broadly featured interracial or intercultural families. Fortunately, there were a good number to choose from. The Anna Hibiscus picture books and chapter books; Olu’s Dream; Everywhere Babies; “More More More,” Said the Baby; Oscar’s Half Birthday; The Aunt in Our House; The Hello, Goodbye Window; and many others present racially or ethnically mixed families as a “normal” backdrop. Given my children’s questions about skin color, however, I wondered if a story that included casual diversity was enough.
Arnold Adoff and Emily Arnold McCully’s black is brown is tan, originally published in 1973, features what might have been the first interracial family in children’s literature. It was groundbreaking at the time for its warm, straightforward depiction of interracial marriage and for its attempt to present skin color on a spectrum (although today we see the book’s use of food and spice metaphors to describe dark skin as problematic, if still prevalent). The book’s refrain captures its message:
black is brown is tan
is girl is boy
is nose is face
is all the colors
of the race
However, my children found this refrain confusing. For them, black was not brown, just as their olive skin was not white. They saw these differences, knew well the “hierarchies” that existed among the shades, and I wanted a way to talk about them in ways that honored, not erased, what made each unique.
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While books such as Karen Katz’s The Colors of Us, Michael Tyler’s The Skin You Live In, and Sheila Hamanaka’s All the Colors of the Earth are often recommended because they give children language to describe skin color, I found these books’ use of food and animal metaphors problematic, as comparisons such as these can fetishize dark skin and are often used only in reference to darker skin colors. (When was the last time you heard anybody describe white skin with an animal metaphor?) I found only a few books that did not use such metaphors. Shelley Rotner and Sheila M. Kelly’s photographic book Shades of People is useful as it develops the premise that skin color exists on a spectrum. “People come in many different shades…Not colors, exactly, but shades.” All the Colors We Are / Todos los colores de nuestra piel by Katie Kissinger takes a more scientific approach by explaining all skin colors are really “a different shade of brown,” and that color comes from the combination of ancestry, melanin, and exposure to the sun. Furthermore, Kissinger explains, “When one parent has light skin and one parent has dark skin, their children’s skin may be light, dark, or in-between,” which helped my children understand how there could be variations in skin color even among siblings of the same parents. Just as in Shades of People, photographs of families accompany the text.
Other books, such as Happy in Our Skin and Whoever You Are, celebrate the similarities among all people, no matter their color. Skin Again by bell hooks and Chris Raschka puts skin color into a larger perspective by suggesting in its refrain the limits of skin: “The skin I’m in is just a covering.” The text spends time discussing what skin color is as well as discussing what it is not, which contrasts nicely with books whose primary aim is naming colors. Skin color is not the definitive element of a person; while it can be an indicator of familial history and heritage, color “cannot tell my story” in its entirety.
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Next, I sought books that featured intercultural families. There are several books that call out a mixed-racial, -ethnic, or -cultural background as “mismatched.” But instead of seeing this as an unacceptable deviation from the norm, these books put forth the argument that being mismatched is a source for individuality, style, and pride.
Dušan Petričić’s My Family Tree and Me and Andrea Cheng and Ange Zhang’s Grandfather Counts are about families with origins in both Asia and Europe. Grandfather Counts is subtle in its acknowledgement of difference: only the illustrations make the point that the family is interracial. My children enjoyed the story because they too could relate to cultural and linguistic differences. They could understand how it was difficult to give up a bedroom for a grandparent, and that cultures view obligations to the elderly differently. They could relate to the girl’s confusion with Chinese script, as their family members write in a different script, and how Western names and words take on different forms when translated. My Family Tree and Me traces the author’s family members, both from the Balkans and from China, and cleverly embodies this duality in the book’s presentation. One half of the book is about the author’s Balkan side of the family, and starts at the front of the book; the other half is about the author’s Chinese side of the family and starts at the back of the book. The meeting point is a central double-page spread that combines the families into one. Petričić subtly works in other kinds of difference here, such as same-sex partnerships and other interracial unions, all of which my children loved, for it more accurately represented their own extended family.
In Monica Brown’s (bilingual) Marisol McDonald books, beginning with Marisol McDonald Doesn’t Match / Marisol McDonald no combina, Marisol has brown skin and red hair, which reflect her parents’ Peruvian and Scottish backgrounds. Being “mismatched” or “clashing” allows Marisol to draw from two cultures in her lively, offbeat combinations of food, clothes, and play. She eats peanut butter and jelly burritos, pairs a traditional Peruvian knitted hat with loud print shirts and mismatched knee socks, and plays soccer-princess at recess. She doesn’t pick a side; she combines sides, and in doing so breathes life and creativity into her days. My daughter commented that our family is like Marisol’s: we frequently combine Arabic and American food, music, and customs to create something different and new.
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Reading these picture books with my children gave us language to discuss culture and ancestry as well as the differences in skin color within our family. It also launched a discussion about what language was helpful and what wasn’t. Do we need more books that represent Arab or Muslim Americans in their full humanity? Absolutely, but there is something to be said for not confining ourselves to “reading silos” and to reading books that place different cultures and family scenarios side by side. If we read books like Marisol McDonald Doesn’t Match, Big Red Lollipop, and My Family Tree and Me together, for example, it could launch a sophisticated, inclusive conversation about race, ethnicity, and color that will develop a heightened awareness and appreciation of self, others, and the wider world. Perhaps the proof is in the pictures. Now when my daughter draws pictures of people, she searches long and hard for a crayon whose shade matches what she wants, whether it be light, dark, or somewhere in between. The whiteness of a white piece of paper — a blankness, or absence of color — is never an option.
Useful Picture Books for Discussing Skin Color
black is brown is tan (Harper/HarperCollins, 1973) by Arnold Adoff; illus. by Emily Arnold McCully
Double Trouble for Anna Hibiscus! (Kane Miller, 2015) and others by Atinuke; illus. by Lauren Tobia
Marisol McDonald Doesn’t Match / Marisol McDonald no combina (Children’s Book Press/Lee & Low, 2011) by Monica Brown; illus. by Sara Palacios; trans. into Spanish by Adriana Dominguez
Grandfather Counts (Lee & Low, 2000) by Andrea Cheng; illus. by Ange Zhang
Olu’s Dream (Tegen/HarperCollins, 2009) by Shane W. Evans
Whoever You Are (Harcourt, 1997) by Mem Fox; illus. by Leslie Staub
Oscar’s Half Birthday (Candlewick, 2005) by Bob Graham
Skin Again (Jump at the Sun/Hyperion, 2004) by bell hooks; illus. by Chris Raschka
The Aunt in Our House (Orchard/Scholastic, 1996) by Angela Johnson; illus. by David Soman
The Hello, Goodbye Window (di Capua/Hyperion, 2005) by Norton Juster; illus. by Chris Raschka
Big Red Lollipop (Viking, 2010) by Rukhsana Khan; illus. by Sophie Blackall
All the Colors We Are / Todos los colores de nuestra piel: The Story of How We Get Our Skin Color / La historia de por qué tenemos diferentes colores de piel (Redleaf, 1994) by Katie Kissinger; photos by Chris Bohnhoff
Happy in Our Skin (Candlewick, 2015) by Fran Manushkin; illus. by Lauren Tobia
Everywhere Babies (Harcourt, 2001) by Susan Meyers; illus. by Marla Frazee
Sitti’s Secrets (Four Winds, 1994) by Naomi Shihab Nye; illus. by Nancy Carpenter
My Family Tree and Me (Kids Can, 2015) by Dušan Petričić
Shades of People (Holiday, 2009) by Shelley Rotner and Sheila M. Kelly; photos by Shelley Rotner
“More More More,” Said the Baby: Three Love Stories (Greenwillow, 1990) by Vera B. Williams
From the November/December 2016 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.