Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Book Review: Sylvia & Aki, by Winifred Conkling (Tricycle Press, 2011)

Recommended for ages 8-12.

In her first work for young people, author Winifred Conkling brings to light an important but little known story in our nation’s civil rights history. Several years before Brown v. Board of Education, third-grader Sylvia Mendez wanted nothing extraordinary--just the right to attend her neighborhood school rather than a “Mexican” school near her family’s farm in Westminster.  Her family challenged the policy in court, leading the way to a landmark school desegregation case that would pave the way to the abolition of school segregation nationwide.  

Conkling weaves Sylvia’s story with that of Aki Munemitsu; Sylvia is living in Aki’s house and farm, since Aki’s family was sent away to an internment camp in Arizona becaue of the war.  Sylvia discovers that Aki has left behind her beautiful Japanese doll, whom Sylvia names Keiko, and Keiko becomes the friend of Sylvia’s Mexican doll Carmencita.  Sylvia wonders if she will ever meet the girl who owns Keiko, and whether they might be friends some day.

The book’s chapters alternate between telling the story of the two girls.  We discover how Aki’s world changes overnight with the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the beginning of whispers and prejudices from their neighbors.  Aki has to hide her Japanese doll, hoping it will still be there when the war is over.  Aki and her family are sent to Poston, 250 miles away in the Arizona desert where the flimsy barracks didn’t keep out the summer heat or the winter chill.  

Sylvia is forced to go to a second-rate “Mexican” school, rather than the beautiful school in her neighborhood.  Her father was ignored when he complained and sent letters; but when he decided in 1945 to sue the school system, it was about more than just Sylvia and her family.  Something bigger was underway, not just for Sylvia but for children she would never meet.  “Her father said, ‘Sylvia, there cannot be justice for one unless there is justice for all.’”  

The author takes us inside the courtroom for the trial, as Sylvia’s father’s attorney questions one of the Orange County school superintendants.  This section is drawn almost entirely from court records.  His responses seem shocking to us now, but of course were indicative of the attitudes of many people at that time (i.e. he considered the Mexican children to be inferior to whites in regard to everything from personal hygiene to scholastic ability).    

In the epilogue, Sylvia graduates from high school, proud of what her father had done not only for her but for Mexican students across California.  An afterword provides additional notes about both the Mendez family and the Munemitsu family, Japanese internment camps, as well as on the end of school segregation in America and the nationwide impact of the Mendez case, particularly on Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka ruling in 1955.  The book also includes a bibliography as well as suggestions for further reading.  

This is a sensitively written novel that is well suited for elementary school students.  The author covers not only the prejudice toward the Mexican American community in California, but also the prejudice toward Japanese Americans because of the war.  These two themes dovetail very well together, and enrich the narrative as well as providing ample fodder for discussion if this book is used in class or for home schoolers.  I loved the moving cover illustration from award-winning illustrator Raul Colon, whose distinctive style you may recognize from his many picture books (including Pat Mora’s Dona Flor and Frank McCourt’s Angela and the Baby Jesus).  

In 2010, Sylvia Mendez was honored for her work as a civil rights pioneer with the nation’s highest civilian medal, the Presidential Medal of Honor.  At the ceremony in 2011, President Obama remarked, ““She has made it her mission to spread her message of tolerance and opportunity to children of all backgrounds and all walks of life.”  

There are many resources on-line to learn more about this important civil rights case.  An excellent blog, Mendez v. Westminster Case, contains a summary of the case, lesson plans, website links, research references, media recommendations, photographs and an historical analysis.To listen to an interview with Sylvia Mendez conducted by her sister, check out the Storycorps website.  

In addition, those wanting to learn more about this case can consult the recently published book Mendez v. Westchester:  School Desegregation and Mexican American Rights, by Philippa Strum (University Press of Kansas, 2010)

Disclosure:  Review copy provided by publisher.


Charlotte said...

This sounds like a good one--I'll add it to my list!

Allison said...

Oh wow, I'm so glad you reviewed this! It wouldn't have come onto my radar as I focus on teen lit for my job as a YA librarian, but I really want to read this and make sure my library buys a copy-- I'm in Orange County, so the Sylvia Mendez story is important for our collection from a local interest perspective. And Japanese-American history is a personal interest of mine, so I've really got to read this. Thanks for posting about it!

shelf-employed said...

This one's been sitting on my desk with other must-reads. I'd better get busy! Thanks, Margo.

Beverly Guzman Gallegos said...

Im very surprised that nothing is mentioned of the other families involved also Mr and Mrs. Guzman from Santa Ana who hired and atty to speak for the other families at the Santa Ana school board of education. This is just one part of this story What about Billy Jr they were willing to let him go to an all caucasion school if his parents kept their mouths shut. Mr and Mrs Mendez were also friends of the Guzmans