Book Review: Side by Side/Lado a Lado by Monica Brown, illustrated by Joe Cepeda

 

Reviewed by Maria Ramos-Chertok

Side by Side/Lado a Lado CoverDESCRIPTION FROM THE PUBLISHER: Every day, thousands of farmworkers harvested the food that ended up on kitchen tables all over the country. But at the end of the day, when the workers sat down to eat, there were only beans on their own tables. Then Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez teamed up. Together they motivated the workers to fight for their rights and, in the process, changed history.

Award-winning author Monica Brown and acclaimed illustrator Joe Cepeda join together to create this stunning tribute to two of the most influential people of the twentieth century.

MY TWO CENTS: Growing up, my mother told us we had to boycott grapes. At that time, I only understood farmworkers were treated badly and Cesar Chavez was helping them. Years later, I’ve found a bilingual children’s book that would have helped me understand, not only the history of the farmworker movement, but who Cesar Chavez was and how he and Dolores Huerta worked together to inspire a national consciousness about the treatment of farmworkers. I love that this book introduces Dolores and Cesar as children and connects their early life experiences to the decisions they made as they grew up. I value the discussion of poverty, which the author introduces by explaining that Cesar’s family ended up working as migrant farmworkers after they lost their home. Given the shame and confusion children are apt to feel when their family faces eviction and/or loss of a home, the book offers an important perspective on family displacement by following Cesar throughout the loss, showing how it impacted his life as an activist for human dignity. It also does a good job of showing how a teacher, Dolores Huerta, became a social justice leader, adding a texture and dimension to those in the teaching profession that students might not otherwise get an opportunity to witness.

The illustrations by Jose Cepeda really welcome readers into the story and younger children will be engaged visually. His illustrations are lively and are reminiscent of comic book characters.

I learned several things about the early lives of Caesar and Dolores that enriched my understanding of them as people and about the farmworker movement, so while the book is focused on ages four to eight, I suspect adults will learn something new as well.

Given that I longed for bilingual children’s books when my two sons were growing up, I only wish I had known about this book earlier. I applaud our local library for having a copy on display and bringing it to my attention.

TEACHING TIPS: The story offers educators the chance to engage their students in discussions about social justice. While there are many ways to talk about how and why people have to fight for human rights, this book offers a slice of American history that has resonance with contemporary issues related to the working and living conditions of the people who grow and pick our fruits and vegetables. Teachers might even bring in some fruit or veggies and ask children to think about how it ended up at the supermarket or fruit stand. Making a connection between planting, cultivating, growing, harvesting, marketing, and shipping and the human beings behind each step could be a valuable lesson on introductory economics.

There’s a deeper issue that surfaces in the book about “Why people do things that hurt other people?” (or why would a person do something that hurts another person?). Pre-school and elementary school aged children would already have a frame of reference for exploring the motivations and psychology behind this universal question. Along these lines, I offer one cautionary note related to the issue of how the landowners and bosses are portrayed. The author writes that “mean bosses sprayed the plants with poisons that made the farmworkers sick.” I understand the need to provide accessible language and concepts for four to eight year olds, as well as the desire to avoid delving into profit margins, racism, immigration, landowners versus farmworkers and economic class. Yet, there may well be children in one class/school/community who come from both farmworker families and farm owning families. As such, I think it is important to explore the term “mean” and work to avoid polarized thinking/labels. I’d recommend focusing young children on what motivates someone who’s being “mean” and the consequences of mean treatment:

  • What makes people act in a mean way?
  • Why are people mean to some and not to others?
  • What happens when you are on the receiving end of someone who is mean?
  • What if the person being mean has power over you (e.g. boss, police officer, parent)?

Children know about these issues first-hand, and I’d suspect they’d have amazing insights.

I also see Side by Side being used to talk about work and career. So many adults ask kids what they want to be when they grow up, and that pressure can make kids feel like they have to provide an acceptable response. This book provides insights into how your calling can find you. It also shows how one’s chosen profession, teacher in Dolores’s Huerta’s case, can morph, grow, expand and change over time.

The book offers a wonderful opportunity to explore friendship. By highlighting the platonic partnership and bond between a man and woman working toward a common vision, it shows a model of what two people can do when they unite. The idea of strength in numbers or working in pairs can be explored by asking students about the benefits of working with someone else on a school project or a sports team.

The book can also be used to discuss feminism. Many people think about Cesar Chavez’s connection to the farmworker movement. This book highlights Dolores Huerta’s work as a bold and fearless leader in her own right. She is an important role model for girls, displaying courage, skills to inspire and mobilize, and political savvy. For lessons that focus on women in American History, she would be a great person to showcase.

Finally, because so much of the telling of history has to do with who is telling the story, Side by Side provides a perspective on history that departs from the dominant culture’s narrative on landowning, California’s natural agricultural bounty, modernization, and unionization.

I’d recommend reading the Note for Parents and Teachers at the back of the book to gain more context and facts about Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta.

WHERE TO GET IT: To find Side by Side / Lado a Lado, check your local public library, your local bookstore, or IndieBound. Also, check out GoodreadsAmazon, and Barnes & Noble.

 

 monica6ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Monica Brown, Ph.D. is the author of many award-winning books for children, including Waiting for the BiblioburroMarisol McDonald Doesn’t MatchMarisol McDonald no combina The Lola Levine series including: Lola Levine is Not Mean!Lola Levine, Drama QueenLola Levine and the Ballet Scheme, and Lola Levine Meets Jelly and Bean. Find Monica on Facebook at Monica Brown, Children’s Author, on twitter @monicabrownbks, or online at www.monicabrown.net.

For other posts about Monica Brown, click here and here.

 

second_pic_4x6_72ABOUT THE ILLUSTRATOR: Joe Cepeda is an award-winning illustrator of children’s books who also works in magazine illustration. He lives in California and serves as president of the Society of Illustrators of Los Angeles. For more information, visit his website.

 

 

Joe Cepeda did a two-part interview with us about his work. To read those posts, click here and then here.

 

Extra: A movie about Dolores Huerta released on September 1, 2017. Here is the official trailer:

 

ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Maria is a writer, workshop leader and coach who facilitates The Butterfly Series, a writing and creative arts workshop for women who want to explore what’s next in their life journey. In December 2016, she won 1st place in the 2016 Intergenerational Story Contest for her piece, Family Recipes Should Never be Lost. Her work has appeared in the Apogee Journal, Entropy Magazine, and A Quiet Courage.  Her piece Meet me by the River will be published in Deborah Santana’s forthcoming anthology All the Women in my Family Sing (Jan 2018) http://nothingbutthetruth.com/all-the-women-in-my-family-sing/.  She is a trainer with Rockwood Leadership Institute www.rockwoodleadership.org and a member of the Bay Area chapter of Write on Mamas. For more information, visit her website at www.mariaramoschertok.com

Book Review: Separate is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez and Her Family’s Fight for Desegregation by Duncan Tonatiuh

Reviewed by Lila Quintero Weaver

Separate is Never Equal 2

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: When her family moved to the town of Westminster, California, young Sylvia Mendez was excited about enrolling in her neighborhood school. But she and her brothers were turned away and told they had to attend the Mexican school instead. Sylvia could not understand why—she was an American citizen who spoke perfect English. Why were the children of Mexican families forced to attend a separate school? Unable to get a satisfactory answer from the school board, the Mendez family decided to take matters into their own hands and organize a lawsuit.

In the end, the Mendez family’s efforts helped bring an end to segregated schooling in California in 1947, seven years before the landmark Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education ended segregation in schools across America.

Using his signature illustration style and incorporating his interviews with Sylvia Mendez, as well as information from court files and news accounts, Duncan Tonatiuh tells the inspiring story of the Mendez family’s fight for justice and equality.

MY TWO CENTS: Kudos to Duncan Tonatiuh for shining a bright spotlight on a consequential, but often overlooked chapter of American civil rights, and bringing this true story of Latinos fighting for racial justice to young readers. The book features Tonatiuh’s trademark, award-winning illustration and his retelling of the facts.

In the mid-1940s, when the action takes place, Sylvia Mendez is nine years old. She’s the daughter of Gonzalo Mendez, a Mexican-born, naturalized citizen of the United States, and his wife, Felicitas, from Puerto Rico. When the Mendez family moves from Santa Ana, California, to a farming community in Orange County, Sylvia and her brothers are not permitted to enroll in the neighborhood school and are instead sent to a school designated for Mexicans, which is farther from home. Unlike the white children’s school, it’s dirty, crowded and lacks a playground. The students eat lunch outdoors next to a fly-infested cow pasture. To top it off, the teachers seem indifferent, as if Mexican children weren’t worth the bother.

The Mendez family launches a campaign to demand equal education for their children. Sylvia’s father first pursues answers from officials all the way up the line to the board of education, but no one offers a credible explanation. The common refrain is “that is how it is done.” Mr. Mendez organizes members of the Mexican community and hires a lawyer to challenge the discriminatory practices in court. Young Sylvia is in the courtroom during the proceedings, where she hears statements by a school official about the supposedly lice-ridden, inferior nature of Mexicans. It takes two court cases to settle the outcome. The judge’s final ruling states that “public education must be open to all children by unified school association regardless of lineage.”

After Sylvia’s parents successfully face down California’s version of Jim Crow laws, she enrolls in the neighborhood school, shattering longstanding color barriers. In the corresponding page spread, a white boy tells Sylvia, “You don’t belong here,” and Sylvia is shown with a bowed head and a tear sliding down her cheek. Reminded by her mother of the long fight they undertook to win her right to equal schooling, Sylvia perseveres, proving herself as steely as her parents. In the closing pages, she and other brown-skinned children are shown side-by-side with white classmates in the school playground.

Separate is Never Equal spread

Tonatiuh’s account highlights the exemplary character of Mr. and Mrs. Mendez. Every movement for justice has its heroes and pioneers, and the Mendez family richly deserves that level of recognition. Taking up the fight involved considerable personal risk. They used their life savings to kickstart the legal fund. Eventually, they received wider support. Leading the charge took Mr. Mendez away from the farm for long stretches, leaving Mrs. Mendez to perform farming tasks that her husband normally would have handled. As the story shows, many Mexican families in the community declined to join the lawsuit, for fear of economic retribution. “No queremos problemas,” they said.

The California campaign for educational equality, spearheaded by the Mendez case, ultimately led to the 1954 ruling on Brown v. Board of Education. The victory illuminated by Separate is Never Equal belongs in a clear line of prominent milestones of American civil rights. How fortunate that someone with Tonatiuh’s skill has brought it out of the shadows.

TEACHING RESOURCES: Beyond the importance of the story, Tonatiuh’s groundbreaking illustrations deserve readers’ attention. His drawings marry childlike innocence with characteristics of ancient Mixtec art. (See my review of Pancho Rabbit and the Coyote: A Migrant’s Tale for a fuller discussion of his style.) In Separate is Never Equal, the illustrations take on the added dimension of historical details from the 20th century. Teachers may want to provide students with photographs from the era to demonstrate how carefully Tonatiuh researched and reproduced clothing, hairstyles, automobile models, and other authenticating markers of the 1940s.

As is generally the case with nonfiction picture books, younger readers will likely need adult guidance to understand sections of the story that deal with legal proceedings and other points of the Mendez’s battle.

This book presents powerful opportunities for teaching empathy and strengthening awareness of the pain that racism inflicts. One scene shows a public swimming pool with a sign stating, “No Dogs or Mexicans Allowed.” Mexican children look longingly through the fence at the white children frolicking in the pool. Teachers can pose discussion questions such as, “Imagine yourself on both sides of the fence. How would you feel in either situation?” Consider comparing Sylvia Mendez’s experiences with those of Ruby Bridges, the young African American girl who integrated New Orleans schools in 1960.

A section in the back of the book includes an author’s note, a glossary, a bibliography and explanatory details about methodology. Much of Tonatiuh’s research came from court documents and extensive interviews with Sylvia Mendez. Glossary entries include a handful of Spanish phrases used in the book and historical terms that round out the context. One example is the origin of “separate but equal,” a phrase plucked from the 1896 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court in the Plessy v. Ferguson case, which laid the foundation for decades of Jim Crow laws.

In 2010, Sylvia Mendez received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. She is interviewed on this video, which highlights points of the story told in the book and shows photographs of her as a child and of the schools in question.

Duncan Tonatiuh

Duncan Tonatiuh  was born and raised in Mexico. He studied art in the United States. His picture book Pancho Rabbit and The Coyote: A Migrant’s Tale won the 2014 Tomás Rivera Mexican American children’s book award, and two honors for text and illustration from the Pura Belpré Award. Read more about Duncan on his official website.