New York: Abram’s Books for Young Readers, 2014
With the 50th anniversary of the Bloody Sunday march from Selma to Montgomery upon us, there has been a lot of attention on the brave individuals who fought for civil rights in the South. There was a lesser-known civil rights struggle happening 20 years earlier on the West Coast, too. Separate is Never Equal tells the story of Sylvia Mendez’s family who fought to integrate schools in California in the 1940’s. Much like the “separate but equal” schools of the south, some school districts in California ran schools for students of Hispanic descent that were separate, but certainly not equal.
Our story opens with Sylvia Mendez attending an integrated elementary school and being bullied by another student because she is Hispanic. Understandably, she tells her mother she does not want to return, but her mother reminds Sylvia how she came to attend that school. We flash back to Sylvia and her family moving to Westminster, California, where the family leased a farm and would be working their own place rather than working as a hired hand. Sylvia looks forward to starting school at the local elementary school with her siblings and cousins. However, she is turned away from the beautifully maintained public school and sent to the Mexican school.
When Mr. Mendez learns about that turn of events, he starts asking questions: why must the children go to the Mexican school? It is not located on their side of town, the family are American citizens, and the children speak perfect English. As he worked his way up the school district chain of command, not one could satisfactorily answer his questions. One day, while collecting signatures for a petition, Mr. Mendez met a man who suggested filing a lawsuit. And so he found a lawyer and sued the Westminster School District. After several years in court, in June of 1947, the governor of Californa signed a law integrating the schools in California.
This beautiful picture book with interesting, textured illustrations, tells Sylvia’s story in straight-forward language. The ugliness of “separate but equal” is clear, but not too graphic, making this an excellent read-aloud. Many children will understand Sylvia’s bewilderment and hurt feelings as she realizes that she is not welcomed by everyone at her school, and they will enjoy the happy, but not perfect, ending.
Includes author’s note, photos, glossary, bibliography, and index.
Idaho Core Standards: Reading Standards for Informational Text K-5: Grades 1-4; Standards 1-10.
Dewey: 379.2 Interest Level: Gr. 1-4
Awards & Reviews: Booklist; Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books; Horn Book; Horn Book Guide; Kirkus Reviews starred; Publishers Weekly; Pura Belpre Illustrator Honor 2015; Robert F. Sibert Informational Book Honor 2015; School Library Journal starred.
Middle School Readers might like: Latino American Folk Talkes edited by Thomas A. Green.
Fiction Pairing: Esperanza Rising by Pam Munoz Ryan.