Separate Is Never Equal by Duncan Tonatiuh

Separate Is Never EqualCindy: “Cuando la causa es justa, los demás te siguen.” “When you fight for justice, others will follow.” This quote from Separate Is Never Equal (Abrams 2014) couldn’t have been more true. Tonatiuh brings to light a little known case about school desegregation in California that would go on to be used in the more well known Brown v. Board of Education. Sylvia Mendez and her brothers were denied admittance to Westminster schools, relegated to the inferior Mexican school because “that is how it is done.” Sylvia’s father followed the chain of command to the Orange County School Board, and at every step he was turned down without satisfactory reason for this inequity.

Unsatisfied, he filed a lawsuit and the ruling favored the Mendez family. After another appeal was won, the California governor, Earl Warren, signed the law desegregating schools in the state. He would go on to become the chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, hearing and supporting Brown in the historic national case.

We’re recommending this book for grades 2-4, but it really could stretch into middle and even high school. It would make a great launch for research on civil rights, segregation, or educational policy. Art teachers will be interested in the mixed media art with distinctive style. I cringe when I turn the page and see a public pool sign declaring “No dogs or Mexicans.” I get angry when I read the quotes taken from the trial transcripts that deny the Mendez and other Mexican American children equitable schooling because they are bad mannered, unhygienic, and inferior in scholastic ability or language.  Working as I do in a school system with a large percentage of Hispanic students, many of them children of farmers, I am thankful for this rare book that illuminates some of their important history, painful though it may be. Unfortunately, the alarming demographic statistics in segregated housing trends and educational opportunity warn us that this issue is not all past history.

Almost seventy years later we need to be reminded of the court statement by an education specialist at the time:

“Segregation tends to give an aura of inferiority. In order to have the people of the United States understand one another it is necessary for them to live together, and the public school is the one mechanism where all the children of all the people go.”

Lynn:  I couldn’t agree more with Cindy.  If you only buy a few picture books this year, make sure this is one of them!  This is an important story – one that everyone should know and honor.  But even more importantly, this story is told and illustrated in an absolutely outstanding way.  The story is clearly and compellingly told and told in a way that kids will directly relate to and understand.  Cindy’s comments are just right so I will only add that the back matter is really excellent too.  A lengthy Author’s Note, photographs of the family and schools, a glossary, and extensive bibliography are included.  It is worth noting that the dialogue in the trial scenes comes directly from transcripts that Tonatiuh shortened and edited for clarity and pacing.  The rest of the dialogue was inspired by conversations he had with Sylvia Mendez.

I am also crazy about the illustrations!!  They are “hand-drawn and then collaged and colored digitally,” according to the publisher.  They are starkly evocative, unique in style and flat-out amazing, according to me.  This one belongs in every youth library collection.

Common Core Connection:

Write opinion pieces in which they introduce the topic or book they are writing about, state an opinion, supply reasons that support the opinion, use linking words (e.g., because, and, also) to connect opinion and reasons, and provide a concluding statement or section.

Read the book to the students.  Discuss Brown vs. Board of Education.  Ask students if they think being able to attend school is important.  Ask them to imagine being told they could not attend school at all.  Would that change their life in the future?  Ask students to write their opinion on whether being able to attend school is important and why.  Read the essays together.  In follow-up discussion, ask students if they think the school they attend has the same things as other schools in the area.





About the Author:

Cindy Dobrez and Lynn Rutan are Booklist reviewers and middle-school librarians who have chaired both ALA’s Best Books for Young Adults and the Michael L. Printz Award for YA Literature committees. Follow Bookends on Twitter at @BookendsBlog. You can also find Cindy at @cdobrez and Lynn at @482april.

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  1. Books like these make me wish I was still teaching! Oh, the lessons I could teach and the lessons they could learn!

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