This One’s For the Children

N927S32ABy Denise Balkissoon

I’m a former child bookworm who was hurt and confused by the racism in some of my favourites (I suppose Frances Hodgson Burnett was just “a product of her time”). I’m also a very new parent who wants my babe to love books, but avoid those icky feelings. So I was unhappy to see the stark stats in a recent New York Times piece about characters of colour in children’s books–of thousands of books published in the U.S. last year, not even 500 have African-American or Latina protagonists–and pleased that it sparked some good convos on Twitter.

I figured that compiling all of the suggested books into a handy list would be handy. Thanks to everyone for their suggestions, most especially Amena Rajwani of the Toronto Public Library . If you’ve got more, add them in the comments!

After the jump: a WHOLE BUNCH of multicultural books for babies, kids and teens (in absolutely no particular order):

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The Death Issue


Calavera Las Bicicletas, by the Mexican artists José Guadalupe Posada

It’s the time of year to honour the dead, usually by wearing outrageous costumes and eating too much candy. While we at the Ethnic Aisle love a good party where you can’t tell who anyone is, this year we thought we’d take All Hallow’s Eve and Día de Muertos a little more literally.

Here are some personal reflections by Torontonians of various cultures on death, dying and remembering both here, and abroad. They’re about ancestors, and decisions, and grief – and also about love, and how we choose to live.

In A Way of Death, Heather Li describes why her annual visit to her family graves is actually kind of fun.

Rawiya Kameir explains the Sudanese ritual of beit el-bikka for In the House of Crying, a dramatic display of grief that first annoyed, then comforted, her.

Perhaps it happens in many cultures, but Helen Mo has only seen Asian and South Asian families hide death and illness from older relatives. “With one act, it’s possible to both love and disrespect,” she writes in Don’t Tell Grandma.

In God Lives in India, Vivek Shraya writes about love, faith, disillusionment, and the death of his personal God, the multifaith guru Sai Baba.

After 40 years in Toronto, Septembre Anderson’s relatives still grieve using Trinidadian mourning rituals. She talks about the death of her uncle in Nine Nights and Forty Days. 

For many Torontonians, deaths of relatives we loved–or hardly knew–happen on different continents.

Adwoa Afful reflects on the passing of her grandmother and great-grandmother in On Death and Mourning From a Distance. 

While Pacinthe Mattar talks about how “shame and guilt move through my veins” when she missed the funerals of her grandmothers and uncles in Death Struck Where I Was Born, But Never Lived.

Death Struck Where I Was Born, But Never Lived


By Pacinthe Mattar

I knew my Booba was gone before anyone told me. My phone screen showed a missed call and voicemail from my brother in Dubai, and the tears came right away. “I don’t wanna check that voicemail. I know what it is,” I said to my best friend.

But I did, and after listening threw myself onto that spot – half-chest, half-shoulder – and sobbed. My Booba, my mother’s mom, the woman who infused generations to come with ideas of kindness, warmth, generosity, and above all love, love, love – had died.

It was March 2010 in Toronto. Mid-week. I was enrolled in a Master’s program with a full course load, a thesis project, and a job as a tutor. There was no way I’d be able to fly to Alexandria, Egypt, for the funeral. According to Islamic custom, burials take place as soon as possible. She’d be buried before I got off the first of two flights it would take to get there.

I was 25, and I’d still never seen death up close. Not my kind of death, where a life ends sometime before dawn and is put to rest before sunset after a final cleansing. All my life, deaths have taken place in Egypt, where I was born but had never lived, and I was never there when death came.

The first time death struck close to home it was my cousin’s father Khalo Mohsen, a heavy smoker who was just recovering from a heart attack. I was barely 10 and my cousin Mai, just a couple of years older than me, had already lost her mother to a car accident. Mai, whom I’d always envied for her beauty, was suddenly an orphan and completely unenviable.

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On Death and Mourning From a Distance


by Adwoa Afful

My family is Ghanaian, but we’re spread out across the globe. For this and a number of other reasons,  I never really got to know my mother’s side of the family. I had met many of my father’s siblings and relatives, but we never got along, and all communication with them ceased shortly after my parents separated. And so it is only towards my mother’s family that I feel a strong, but ambivalent sense of kinship, a feeling that  has been further complicated with the deaths of my great grandmother and grandmother.

The women in my family tend to outlive their husbands by decades and my great-grandmother was no exception. She passed away in 2009, having already outlived my great-grandfather by nearly 40 years . My mother isn’t quite sure what year she had been born , but she was about 96 when she died.

When my great-grandmother passed away, it was my mother who broke the news to me. I do not remember much of that time. I know my mother grieved, but she did so mostly away from my sister and me.  It was heartbreaking for my mother, but my sister and I were not sure how to feel. We had only spoken to my great-grandmother on a handful of occasions over the phone. Despite her age, by all accounts, she was a lively, active and large woman (though we were told by relatives that she had lost a substantial amount of weight near the time of her death), with light gray eyes. She was a true matriarch. She had loved her Ghanaian husband deeply, and raised their children and grandchildren in a strict, but supportive household.

My great-grandmother was fluent in many languages, but only spoke the barest English. My sister and I only spoke English and French.  I do not remember any of the conversations that I had with her, but my sister has some memory of them, mostly of my  mother translating between Twi and English. The last time they spoke, my great-grandmother said, in her stilted English, “I love you,” over and over again. That was among the few English phrases that she knew.

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Nine Nights and Forty Days: Grief, Trinidadian Style

Septembre Anderson with, from left, her Uncle Ojay, grandmother and Uncle Lyndon.

Septembre Anderson with, from left, her Uncle Ojay, grandmother and Uncle Lyndon.

By Septembre Anderson

Two years ago, my 47-year-old Uncle Lyndon died from lymphoma.  A persistent shoulder injury turned out to be a tumor, and over a painfully distressing year, my family watched my athletic, energetic uncle, winner of many dancing, lacrosse and boxing trophies, succumb to the Big C.  Before him, the last person on the maternal side of my family to pass away had been my great-grandmother, when I was still in diapers. A family unused to death and loss was devastated as my grandmother had to bury her son and my mom and her siblings had to bury their younger brother.

My family has lived in Toronto for almost 40 years, but for my elders, coping with death means the Trinidadian ritual of the Nine Nights. The Caribbean is a medley of various cultures and the Nine Nights has its roots in the Yoruba tradition of Nigeria. For nine nights after my uncle passed away, my family held wakes filled with food, friends, family, booze and music. This collective mourning ensured that the darkest hours, figuratively and literally, wouldn’t be spent alone.

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The Graveyards of New Orleans

By Renee Sylvestre-Williams

Halloween, All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day all are occasions  to remember and celebrate the dead. It’s a time we spend in cemeteries cleaning up the graves of our loved ones. It’s also a time to wander through the cemetery, reading the epitaphs of those buried and admiring some of the elaborate tombstones and mausoleums.

Cemeteries have become tourist destinations— witness the constant desecration of Jim Morrison’s grave in Paris’ Pere Lachaise Cemetery, the Discovery Walk through Mt. Pleasant cemetery — and none more popular than the cemetery tours of New Orleans’ grave yards.

The New Orleans mausoleums allowed people to buried above the ground. Lore says it was to prevent flooding, or perhaps because burying the dead above ground in the mausoleums means the bodies can decompose faster in the heat, so that multiple family members can be buried in the same space. Whatever the reason, graveyard tours of New Orleans remain popular.

This gallery features the graveyard in the Garden District. I was there last October for Halloween and wandered through the cemetery. Apart from the sense of age, there was a quiet eeriness to the place (aside: I am not a fan of cemeteries). Those who could afford to went big. Those who couldn’t had smaller crypts. Some were very old and looked abandoned, while others had so many people buried in them that they had to add extra marble slabs to accommodate the names.

Photos courtesy of Renee Sylvestre-Williams and Gail McInnes

God Lives in India

Illustration by Juliana Neufeld

Illustration by Juliana Neufeld

By Vivek Shraya

Sri Sathya Sai Baba was an Indian multi-faith guru who was widely adored, worshipped and criticized. He died on April 24, 2011. This was twelve years earlier than he’d predicted.

I loved Sai Baba so much that I wrote about him in my first book, God Loves Hair:

“When man is bad, God comes to Earth in a human body to bring change. This is what I learn in Sunday school. I learn that man has been bad and God, as promised, has come. God lives in India. His name is Sai Baba, which means Divine Mother and Father. I learn that Baba has come to remind everyone that they too are God, but they have just forgotten.

I understand that I am supposed to be focusing somehow on remembering my own good ways, but it is so much easier to love His. I wear His face around my neck. I plaster my bedroom in His photos, transforming it into an enchanted altar, candles included. He is my rock ‘n roll God, with an afro to match. I stare at Him for hours. Can you see me? God is my first love.

I tie a red ribbon around a tree in the field to mark it, render it holy and meditate at its foot during recess. I conjure rain to prove His love for me – Brahma let it rain, Vishnu let it rain – and it pours. In my dreams, I am in a crowd waiting for Him. He walks right to me. We sit together and He tells me things I won’t remember in the morning. But Him actually visiting me in my dream confirms our bond. God is my first best friend…”

As I grew older, I began to question what I read to be inconsistencies in Sai Baba’s teachings. Karma, for instance, no longer felt like an adequate justification for the horrors of our world; it wasn’t enough to say, “Well, that person must have done something very bad in a past life,” because the God I loved was mercifulwasn’t He? My mom told me to pray for answers but no answer ever came. So I stopped asking questions. With that came the end of prayer, as well.

I watched Sai Baba’s funeral on the internet, holding the cyber-hand of a friend via IM. Earlier in the week I’d scoffed when my mom had mentioned that many Sai Baba devotees were speculating he would resurrect like Jesus. Grief makes people delusional. And yet, as pundits performed the last rites around his body, which was wrapped in orange sheets, I found myself whispering to my computer screen: “Wake up Baba! Wake up!” I realize now that we weren’t delusional. We were believers until the very end—no, beyond the end—and this was one of his greatest gifts to us: to audaciously and persistently believe in the impossible.

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