Saturday, September 18, 2010

Other Half of My Heart, by Sundee Frazier (ages 9 - 12)

When do you talk with your children openly about race? Do you talk about noticing the color of someone's skin? I was fascinated last spring listening to Po Bronson, author of NurtureShock, talk to a group of parents about scientific research and implications for raising children. One of the topics he covered was how parents are doing a grave disservice to their children by trying to be "color neutral" and avoid discussions of race. As he writes in a column in Newsweek, "Ignoring the color of skin, yet dutifully pointing out the color of every inanimate object and animal, only sends a message to children that talking skin color is taboo." Children notice colors all around them, and they certainly notice the color of skin. We must help them understand why different people have different color skin; talk about it in a calm way, encouraging their mindfulness without preaching to them.

This got me to thinking - how is race portrayed in the children's books we read? Do any of the books I love help children talk about race, understand race and the impact skin color may have? A book I recently read, The Other Half of My Heart by Sundee Frazier, and really enjoyed does this wonderfully. It provides food for thought, talks openly about race and raises questions - in a funny and heartfelt way.
The Other Half of My Heart
by Sundee Frazier
NY: Delacorte / Random House, 2010
ages 9 - 12
available on Amazon and at your local library
Minni and Keira are 11 year-old twins, but they are fraternal twins who look nothing alike. Minni looks like her father with light skin and red hair, and Keira looks more like her African American mother, with dark skin and kinky dark hair. Minni and Keira are best friends and each other’s strongest supporter, but the differences they experience as biracial siblings test their relationship the summer they visit their grandmother in North Carolina.

Grandmother Johnson flies Minni and Keira out to participate in the Miss Black Pearl Preteen pageant. Keira is thrilled to be able to shine in the spotlight, but Minni is shy like her mother and dreads the attention. Even more so, Minni dreads the inevitable – people asking why she is competing in a pageant for African Americans when she looks white. Is she really black? Is who you are determined by what’s inside or how people see you? Has she ever really stood up for Keira when people judge her by the color of her skin? Has she been treated differently than Keira at home and not realized it?

Sundee Frazier won the 2008 John Steptoe New Talent Award (presented by the American Library Association to an African American writer who has published three or fewer books) for Brendan Buckley’s Universe and Everything in It (2007). I haven't read this, but it looks like a fun novel that also raises questions about race in a way that kids can relate to.

In The Other Half of My Heart, Frazier raises questions about race, identity and inner strength, in a way that helps children think about these issues without giving them the answers. She bases much of this on her own experiences as a mixed race person, growing up as the daughter of an African American father and a white mother.

I found the character of Minni to be more fully developed, since the narrator shares her thoughts and feelings. We really can get inside the turmoil that Minni is going through. So at times the novel seems a bit unbalanced, and I found myself wanting to know more about Keira's inner thoughts and emotions. However, I wonder if this would have been difficult to share both sister's perspectives. In any case, tweens will definitely enjoy the humor and insights that Frazier brings to this story.

The review copy came from the Association of Children's Librarians. If you make a purchase using the Amazon links on this site, a small portion will go to Great Kid Books (at no cost to you!). Thank you for your support.

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