It’s not easy feeling different, especially when it seems all the other kids fit in. Two new picture books gently and playfully take on these insecurities and turn them into celebrations of diversity.
In French Toast, Kari-Lynn Winters explores racism in the story of a half-French-Canadian, half-Jamaican girl named Phoebe. While out for a walk with her grandmother, Phoebe cringes when she hears her school nickname, “French Toast.” How can she explain to Nan-ma, who is blind, that the nickname refers to Phoebe’s skin colour? Sensing Phoebe’s distress, Nan-ma asks her granddaughter to describe the colours of people’s skin. Phoebe’s descriptions serve up some tantalizing comparisons: her mother’s skin looks “like stirred peach yogurt” and her father’s is “like warm banana bread.” As she hits her stride, she notices that the kids playing basketball have skin the colour of “toasted coconut and cinnamon honey,” and a friendly girl from school has skin like “chocolate hazelnut spread.” Ultimately, Phoebe’s explanations culminate in a delicious breakfast feast of all sorts of colours and flavours, and Phoebe sees herself as a valid part of this mix.
French Toast looks as delectable as its title, thanks to François Thisdale’s dreamlike illustrations: the landscapes seem to float in the background as giant loaves of banana bread and juicy peaches appear in the foreground.
With almost 20 books to her credit since her 2007 debut, Jeffrey and Sloth, Winters obviously knows how to write for children. In this effective picture book, she engages her readers’ imaginations – and their stomachs. She also doesn’t dwell on negativity, but spins the story into one of self-affirmation as Phoebe embraces her nickname and the different cultures that make her who she is. Simply told and cleverly imagined, French Toast is a great starting point for talking to young children about race, diversity, and respect.
Phoebe’s culturally diverse family would sit comfortably on the pages of Sara O’Leary’s A Family is a Family is a Family. O’Leary’s concept isn’t new, but it’s great to see such a range of families represented in one book. There are families with gay parents, a grandmother and her grandchild, divorced parents, and single parents. And O’Leary includes foster families, a welcome and important addition to the list.
In the opening scene, the young narrator sits at the back of the classroom, blushing and thinking, “My family is not like everybody else’s.” What follows is a child’s-eye view of all sorts of family groups. “Both my moms are terrible singers,” says one child, while another marvels about the arrival of a new baby: “I think my mom ordered him online.” As each child reveals his or her varied family arrangement, the narrator, a foster child, relaxes, remembering an encounter in the park. When asked to point out her “real children,” the girl’s foster mother had replied, “All my children are real.”
O’Leary captures the dialogue perfectly, with a mix of comical (“They really like each other. It’s kind of gross”) and warm (“My mom says that before I was born, I grew in her heart”). Qin Leng’s delightful illustrations are as openhearted as the text, full of energy and whimsical detail. Look closely and even more families are represented: young and older couples, and even a pack of dogs on the back cover. A Family is a Family is a Family is a wonderful addition to school and home libraries. Children will giggle at the funny stuff, but take to heart the message that each family is special regardless of its makeup.