‘Separate Is Never Equal’ by Duncan Tonatiuh: Picture book about desegregation

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Rating: 5 stars

In the picture book “Separate Is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez & Her Family’s Fight for Desegregation,” Duncan Tonatiuh tells a story that predates “Brown v Board of Education.”

In California, children of Mexican descent were not allowed to attend the regular public schools. Instead, they were forced to attend the “Mexican” school if they wanted an education. This infuriated Sylvia Mendez’s father. As is told in the story, when her aunt went to register Sylvia and her two brothers, and the aunt’s two daughters, the school told her that while her daughters might attend (they had light skin and a last name that was not Hispanic), Sylvia and her two brothers needed to go to the “Mexican” school.

Unlike the beautiful public school with a lovely playground and immaculate rooms, the Mexican school was surrounded by pasture, cows and dirt. There was no playground and no caring staff, and children were treated as if they would surely all drop out of school by eighth grade.

Sylvia’s father found a lawyer and they worked hard to get other families to join in a lawsuit to fight this segregation. It was a long fight, but in the end the Mendez family won their case, and later that year a law was passed granting all children the right to attend their local public school regardless of race.

Duncan Tonatiuh’s illustrations are very stylized. The faces of the people in the story look like carvings from ancient statues in Mexico, and his website states, “His work is inspired by Ancient Mexican art, particularly that of the Mixtec codex.”

This story is one that will interest older readers. Teachers wanting to interest students in nonfiction historical picture books would do well to add this one to their classroom library collection. It would make a great companion text to books about Ruby Bridges as well as other picture books about desegregation.

Please note: This review is based on the final hardcover book provided by Abrams for review purposes.