I have to say, I’m not really sure what to make of this book.
As background, I grew up in a big and diverse city. The worst overt racism I remember experiencing is when the Japanese boy at school made slanty-eyes at me. (This confused me, although now that I think of it, his eyes were marginally rounder than mine). Anyways, like many City Kids, I have City Biases, one of which is a fear that the small place where I live will somehow be less tolerant of me and my kid. There are so many “what ifs” that I sometimes can’t control them. I am told (by people, like Vicky, who grew up in smaller places and now lives in a larger one) that racism is everywhere and I shouldn’t generalize. But, founded or not, the fear is still there.
So when I saw At the Same Moment Around the World at the library, I was unreasonably excited. A book that takes us around the world! Following the lives of kids! From country to country! At “the same moment” in different time zones! Teaching the concepts of time and geography! With beautiful illustrations! With a fold-out map of all the countries and children in the book! It’s multi-racial! It’s for kids! It’s in our library! Exclamation point, exclamation point, exclamation point.
As a member of a multi-racial family, and having grown up mostly reading books with kids who didn’t look like me, I always like to see books where there are lots of different children of many ethnic backgrounds. And the illustrations are beautiful, interesting, and really very cool. I was super stoked to make my child love this book.
But then I turned to the pages of Vietnam, China, and Japan.
You see, at eleven o’clock, Ravshan and Yuliya in Uzbekistan are returning from the market on their donkey. They are the colour of milky tea.
At the same moment, Lilu eats lunch in the Himalayas at noon. She is a slightly darker brown.
And at one o’clock, in Vietnam and two o’clock in China, a bunch of super brown kids with squinty eyes run around in “coolie-hats” parading with a dragon. Turn the page and Keiko, in Japan, wanders through a bamboo forest and looks more to me like a Pacific Islander than a the many pale-skinned pink-cheeked Japanese girls that I know.
Maybe it’s just me, but those pages made me feel kind of icky inside. I looked at my not-brown skin and wondered (again) what people in our (white) town see, when they see me with my Anglo-Scots guy and our mixie baby. It made me wonder how many of the other pages were mostly stereotypes. It made me look more closely at how the children are drawn. I noticed that the Hawaiians were white, with red and blonde hair, unlike the actual racial make-up of Hawaii where less than a quarter of Hawaiians identify as “one-race: White”.
Okay, part of this is the illustrator’s artistic license. The kids from the Alaska, California, Arizona, Paris, Sydney, and Russia are all white – and I mean no-colour white. Clotilde Perrin clearly thought it would be more illustrative if they had absolutely no pigment (except on their cheeks and in their hair). And even a brief look at the fold-out map shows clearly that most of the world’s population has more pigment than that. But I still find it strange that Chen, from China, is so dark. I find it odd that, with so much representation from the U.S.A., there is not a single African-American or Hispanic-American or any non-white face. It made me feel uncomfortable about a book that I can only imagine is meant to be inclusive.
This isn’t meant to be a rant about how to be politically correct. That would be boring. But kids only see the world we show them. They take a lot of things for granted. Books hold the power to invite different worlds into our home and kids (like me, when I was an avid, non-discerning, uncritical, wide-eyed, book-gobbling fiend/child) may think that books are an accurate reflection of how the world is or should be. I distinctly remember being little and seeing yellow-tinted drawings of Asians and thinking, “Oh, am I supposed to be yellow? Are my so squinty?” I remember drawing myself with both yellow and flesh-coloured crayons and being confused when they came out the “wrong colour”. I remember wondering a lot about my skin colour being different at an age when different was not always good.
I grew up to be a well-adjusted adult, so there was no lasting damage – and I certainly don’t think that At the Same Moment Around the World is a damaging book. But my guy (who never had these thoughts until we spent several months living in Africa) and I both agree: we don’t want our kid(s) to feel out of place or “wrong” if we can do anything about it. By drawing East Asian stereotypes with dark skin and coolie-hats, this book has crossed into my discomfort zone, so out it goes! And what a shame.
Rating: B-, based on the illustrations alone. The concept is still fascinating.
Reading Ages: 4-7. I think the illustrations hold a lot of interest and that, conceptually, an older child would still enjoy looking at it.
How I felt about the book until I got to the Vietnam/China/Japan section: I won’t lie. I was thrilled and just loved it. Sigh.