SADU, Itah; TAYLOR, Stephen Taylor. A Touch of the Zebras. Toronto: Women’s Press, 2003. 32p. Resenha de: HORTON, Todd. Canadian Social Studies, v.39, n.2, p., 2005.
Another in a long line of issue books written for children, A Touch of the Zebras is the story of Chelsea, a grade two student who does not want to go to school anymore. Her mother, Ms. Rose, tries to find out what is the matter but Chelsea is not telling, preferring to hide in her bed under the guise of sickness. Ms. Rose talks to the school principal to no avail and wisely rules out medical problems by consulting doctors and naturopaths. Input from caring relatives does not solve Chelsea’s problem but a kindly visit from Dr. Tara Lorimer does. It seems that Chelsea has taken a dislike to school because she is biracial and feels she must choose between her black and white friends. In short, Chelsea has a touch of the zebras, the feeling of being caught between two worlds.
Itah Sadu adequately captures the intellectual and emotional struggle that can develop when young children are confronted with words and behaviours that indicate race matters and people understand it in very different ways. Though we are never quite sure what transpired to make Chelsea feel like she must choose between her black and white friends, we know that whatever it was, lines of distinction have been drawn. She has heard a message that says she cannot have it both ways. The days of kindergarten play where everyone played with everyone else have gone forever and Chelsea must realize that we are grouped into racial categories. She must now choose the group with which she truly belongs. Living in a state of limbo is not an option. Sadly, the child is forced to make sense of that which is senseless.
The book also adequately captures the intellectual and emotional struggle of parents trying to understand their children and the lives they lead on a day to day basis. Ms. Rose consults her support system, asks questions and tries to fit pieces of answers together in an effort to figure out what her daughter is unable to clearly articulate. She knows that something has changed in the life of her once happy child but feels helpless to make it better. Almost every parent can relate to this feeling.
Amidst these struggles are subtle touches which lift this book above the ordinary. Stephen Taylor’s beautiful illustrations provide the story with a sense of cultural authenticity. The clothing and hair styles shown throughout are suggestive of Ms. Rose’s Guyanese heritage demonstrating the importance of culture(s) for our senses of identity and influence they have on the choices we make. The story demonstrates cultural accuracy in the names of Chelsea’s aunts and uncle along with a sense of tradition in the home remedies they suggest to help Chelsea get better. Each suggestion reflects the relative’s upbringing, highlighting the point that when confronted with something we do not understand we feel off balance and many of us turn to past practices to re-establish a sense of equilibrium. Finally, Dr. Tara Lorimer’s character quietly but effectively signals to the reader that women are not only doctors but that being a doctor is as much about listening and sharing as it is about surgery and the prescribing of medication. These touches enhance the overall credibility of the book as a tool for dealing with the issue at hand.
My one criticism of the story is the simplistic resolution provided for Chelsea’s problem. Though I am sensitive to the brevity of picture books and the age level at which they are aimed, I cannot help but feel that a quick personal story from a kindly doctor and a few slogans like rainbows come in all colours are not going to bring about feelings of exuberance at being biracial. The concept of race is incredibly complex and how people understand and respond to it is even more so, not to mention often idiosyncratic. The resolution is incredibly frustrating especially for anyone who has experienced feelings of in-between-ness like Chelsea’s.
That point withstanding, the book never strays into anger, hatred or self-pity, feelings that are very plausible for people who experience the challenges of being biracial in a racialized world. Indeed, the book strives to honour and celebrate diversity while revealing the common bonds of humanity. From this standpoint the book succeeds admirably.
The many benefits of children’s literature have been well documented. They arouse reader interest and more personal responses than textbooks. Children’s literature engages students aesthetically and according to some researchers allows readers to experience and empathize with other people, cultures, places and times. While not technically literature, picture books like A Touch of the Zebras can be used with young children as an entry point into discussions of what it is like to live in a multi-raced and multi-ethnic family. As well, we can not discount the power of picture books for older children. They can be effectively used as a hook or opener into more complex discussions about race, how it privileges some and is used to diminish others, how it affects individual and community esteem, impacts on our senses of social justice and overall social cohesion, how it is celebrated by some as an aspect of individual and social identity and of course how it is often ignored.
Todd Horton – Faculty of Education. Nipissing University. North Bay, Ontario.