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“What Color Am I?”: Mixed-race Identity & the “Perfect” Book

Illustration by Yesenia Moises from Honeysmoke by Monique Fields

“What color am I?” 

My 6-year-old has been asking questions lately as she thinks about how to describe herself to her friends. Given her age, she’s thinking about this in a very concrete way.

I’m the Director of the Diverse BookFinder. In addition to co-founding and running this project, I’m also a Professor of Psychology at Bates College, where I also serve as Associate Dean of the Faculty. And I am the mother of two beautiful daughters, which is most important to our conversation today. 

Like me, my children are mixed race  -- one (19) chooses to emphasize her connection to the African American community and has adopted a Black self-label. The younger one is still formulating her sense of self. Identity is fluid. According to psychological research, my children will likely both change how they self-label over time and in different contexts. I’ve always seen my role as helping them grow into themselves, so I follow their lead. Assisting where and how I can. 

I turned to the DBF for books that might help her on this journey.

We aspire to be a go-to resource for librarians, educators, parents, book creators, and publishers who seek to create collections in which all children can see themselves -- and each other -- reflected in the picture books they read.

Towards this goal, we strive to collect all of the picture books featuring BIPOC characters published since 2002 -- not just the best reviewed or most literary/artistic books. Collecting and analyzing all of the titles makes it possible for us to provide data-driven resources designed to help balance representation in classroom and library collections. 

Ok. So here’s how I searched for titles to help inform my daughter’s thinking:

First, I selected the Bi/Multiracia/Mixed Race tag, which yielded 230 titles. 

Next, I filtered for gender identity. My daughter identifies as female, so I selected the girl/woman tag (yielded 209 titles). 

Then, I filtered for Concept Books. This is one of our unique categories, and focuses on books featuring BIPOC that explore and/or compare aspects of human difference, like skin color. 

Incorporating this tag into my search got me to what I felt was a manageable list of titles to review (17). (The numbers listed here reflect the number of books that came up with each tag or combination of tags. Every time we add a book these numbers have the potential to change; these were the numbers when I conducted my search.)

Taking each title one at a time, I looked at the images for any that looked like my kiddo, whose hair is brown and more straight than curly. I noted that very few of the characters featured on the book covers looked like her, which was interesting. It made me wonder whether the visual representation of biracial/multiracial children captures the full range of ways mixed heritage can physically manifest. 

Scrolling through the pages, I also read the book summaries. One stood out to me -- “A young biracial girl searches for the perfect color word to describe herself.” The associated book was Honeysmoke, by Monique FIelds and Yesenia Moises (2019). 

I remembered when we received this book at the DBF. At the time, the book didn’t really jump out at me. I didn’t personally find the style of illustration as appealing as some others, and the message seemed very, perhaps overly, simple. I wasn’t sure how my daughter would react to the book, but I went to the collection, retrieved the title, and brought it home. 

We read Honeysmoke that night. My daughter was enraptured. The protagonist, a young girl with light brown skin and red curly hair, didn’t look like my daughter. But she was struggling with the same questions, in almost the same way. And, her family looked like ours, with a brown-skinned mother and a white-appearing father.

The character and the story really connected with my daughter, and, although I’d had my doubts, it opened up an important conversation. And my ability to find the book really showed my daughter that her questions matter to me and that I am committed to helping her on her journey. It enabled me to not only make her feel heard, but also make her feel felt.

The perfect book for any child may not be among the best-reviewed, best-selling, most-awarded, best-known books. And, it might not be the one you would have chosen at first glance. Although I didn’t anticipate it, Honeysmoke ended up being the perfect title for my child right now. 

The fact that we strive to collect all picture books featuring BIPOC characters (published since 2002) makes it possible for you to discover hidden gems also. Happy searching!

Illustration by Yesenia Moises from Honeysmoke by Monique Fields

Many of the cover images on this site are from Google Books.
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