Texas Bluebonnet Award 2015-2016

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Separate is Never Equal



Separate is Never Equal:
Sylvia Mendez & Her Family’s Fight for Desegregation
by Duncan Tonatiuh

SeparateIsNeverEqual_Tonatiuh, Duncan 2

Scroll down to find Related Activities & Resources, Book Talk Teasers, Read Alikes, and Book Reviews.

Readers Theater Script

Book Trailer

Author Interview


Duncan Tonatiuh’s blog:

Author’s website (Bio, Illustrations, etc…):

Sylvia Mendez’s website:

PBS Learning Media – Video segment in which Sylvia Mendez recalls Mendez vs. Westminster and her parents’ involvement:

Anti-Defamation League – “Separate is Never Equal” Discussion Guide:

United States Court’s website for Mendez v. Westminster – Information on the case and a re-enactment script:

Lesson on Mendez v. Westminster:

StoryCorps – The two sisters talk about Mendez v. Westminster:



Read the inside flap.


Also by Duncan Tonatiuh:
Tonatiuh, Duncan. Dear Primo: a letter to my cousin. Two cousins, one in Mexico and one in New York City, write to each other and learn that even though their daily lives differ, at heart the boys are very similar. (NoveList Plus)

Tonatiuh, Duncan.  Diego Rivera: his world and ours. Tells the story of Diego as a young, mischievous boy who demonstrated a clear passion for art and then went on to become one of the most famous painters in the world. (NoveList Plus)

Tonatiuh, Duncan.  Pancho Rabbit and the coyote: a migrant’s tale. When Papa Rabbit does not return home as expected from many seasons of working in the great carrot and lettuce fields of El Norte, his son Pancho sets out on a dangerous trek to find him, guided by a coyote. Includes glossary and author’s note about illegal immigration and undocumented workers. (NoveList Plus)

Segregation in Education – Non-Fiction:
Benoit, Pater. Brown v. Board of Education. Discusses the historic Supreme Court case that mandated school integration. (NoveList Plus)

Good, Diane. Brown v. Board of Education: a Civil Rights milestone. Explains the history of segregation in the United States and cases that tested the law allowing “separate but equal” treatment, including the five cases that came together as Brown v. Board of Education. (NoveList Plus)

Hinton, KaaVonia. Desegregating America’s schools. Describes the desegregation of public schools in the United States, from the monumental Brown vs. Board of Education court case to the issues and events surrounding the practical implications of integration during the 1950s and 1960s. (NoveList Plus)

Jackson Issa, Kai. Howard Thurman’s great hope. “A biography of Reverend Howard Thurman, who overcame adversity in his youth to pursue his dream of education and ultimately become a renowned African American theologian and civil rights leader”–Provided by publisher (NoveList Plus)

Kingston, Anna. Respecting the contributions of Latino Americans. Examines the struggles and contributions of Latino Americans, including Marco Rubio, Sonia Sotomayor, Jennifer Lopez, and Cesar Chavez. (NoveList Plus)

Lewis, Patrick. When thunder comes: poems for Civil Rights leaders. Presents an illustrated collection of poems inspired by the achievements and words of seventeen civil rights heroes, including Coretta Scott King, Mohandas Gandhi, and Nelson Mandela. (NoveList Plus)

Somervill, Barbara A. Brown v. Board of Education: the battle for equal education. Offers a brief history of the Supreme Court case which led the battle for school desegregation. (NoveList Plus)

Strum, Philippa. Mendez v. Westminster: school desegregation and Mexican-American rights. Gives a full account of the legal issues and legacy of the landmark law case, which was the first case in which segregation in education was successfully challenged. (NoveList Plus)

Segregation in Education – Historical Fiction:
Conkling, Winifred. Sylvia & Aki. At the start of World War II, Japanese-American third-grader Aki and her family are sent to an internment camp in Poston, Arizona, while Mexican-American third-grader Sylvia’s family leases their Orange County, California, farm and begins a fight to stop school segregation. (NoveList Plus)

Evans, Freddi Williams. A bus of our own. Although she really wants to go to school, walking the five miles is very difficult for Mabel Jean and the other Black children, so she tries to find a way to get a bus for them the same as the white children have. Based on real events in Mississippi. (NoveList Plus)

Rapport, Doreen. The school is not white! The Carter family struggles to integrate an all-white school in Drew, Mississippi, in 1965. (NoveList Plus)

Hispanic/Latino Civil Rights ~ Non-Fiction:
Arkham, Thomas. Latino American Civil Rights. Describes the history of the struggle for Hispanic civil rights in the United States, discussing the need for legal intervention to protect Hispanic Americans’ civil rights at work, in the home, and in school. (NoveList Plus)

Behnke, Alison. Mexicans in America. Examines the history of Mexican immigration to the United States, discussing why Mexicans come, what their lives are like after they arrive, where they settle, and customs they bring from home. (NoveList Plus)

Cruz, Barbara. Triumphs and struggles for Latino Civil Rights. Explores the history of Latinos in American history, including their fight for civil rights, including education and employment, and controversies regarding immigration policies (NoveList Plus)

Ollhoff, Jim. Identity and Civil Rights. Discusses the identity and influence of Hispanic Americans in the history of the United States. (NoveList Plus)

Tafolla, Carmen. That’s not fair: Emma Tenayuca’s struggle for justice. Tells how Emma Tenayuca, dismayed by the poverty and injustice she sees around her in Texas in the 1920s and 1930s, tries to help those in need and grows up to become the leader of a successful strike by pecan shellers. (NoveList Plus)

Worth, Richard. Mexican immigrants. Discusses the history of Mexican immigration to the United States and covers key issues, including the reasons for immigration, the struggles faced, and how the culture influenced Americans. (NoveList Plus)



Separate Is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez and Her Family’s Fight for Desegregation. Tonatiuh, Duncan (author).  Illustrated by Duncan Tonatiuh. May 2014. 40p. Abrams, hardcover, $18.95 (9781419710544). Grades 2-5. 379.2. 

REVIEW.  First published May 1, 2014 (Booklist).

Pura Belpré Award–winning Tonatiuh (Pancho Rabbit and the Coyote, 2013) makes excellent use of picture-book storytelling to bring attention to the 1947 California ruling against public-school segregation. The concise, informative text, with occasional and always translated Spanish lines, discusses how being banned from enrolling in an Orange County grade school because of her skin tone and Mexican surname inspired Sylvia Mendez’ family to fight for integrated schools. Soon they were joined by many others, including the NAACP and the Japanese American Citizens League, which led to their hard-won victory. Tonatiuh’s multimedia artwork showcases period detail, such as the children’s clothing and the differences between the school facilities, in his unique folk art style. An endnote essay recapping the events, photos of Sylvia and her schools, and a glossary and resource list for further research complete this thorough exploration of an event that is rarely taught. This would be a useful complement to other books about the fight for desegregation, such as Deborah Wiles’ Freedom Summer (2001) or Andrea Davis Pinkney’s Sit-In (2010). — Francisca Goldsmith

Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books:
Tonatiuh, Duncan. Separate Is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez & Her Family’s Fight for Desegregation. July/August, 2014
ISBN 978-1-4197-1054-4
Audio: 9781629238562

Before Brown v. Board first brought in the heavy equipment to level the national educational field, important court battles were being fought and won at local levels. Among the most notable, and later overlooked, cases involved the Mexican-American Gonzalo Mendez family in California, whose dark-skinned children were assigned to a substandard “Mexican” public school, while their fairer-skinned cousins were invited to attend the “white” school. Mendez attempted to rally parents whose children were likewise shut out of the better public school, but found many too afraid of economic reprisal to raise a protest. Finally, Mendez found an attorney, and the school case went to court. There, testimony from the school superintendent demonstrated the depth of bigotry against the Mexican Americans, but a final ruling stated that “public education must be open to all children by unified school association regardless of lineage.” Tonatiuh frames the story through the experience of the Mendez daughter, Sylvia, whose first day at the integrated school is far from a social success. When her mother reminds her of what they had been through to get her into a good school, the story proceeds through a flashback, culminating in a better second day and a promising school year for Sylvia. Tonatiuh’s cast, stylized with subtle motifs that echo indigenous Central American artwork, replays the legal battle with dignified formality. An author’s note provides adult readers with additional material to share on the Mendez family in the aftermath of the trial, in addition to a glossary, index, bibliography, and photographs. This will rightfully be a first choice for juvenile collections on civil rights.

Horn Book:
Separate Is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez & Her Family’s Fight for Desegregation
by Duncan Tonatiuh; illus. by the author
Primary, Intermediate   Abrams   40 pp.
5/14    978-1-4197-1054-4   $18.95

Seven years before the landmark Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education, Sylvia Mendez and her family fought for—and won—the desegregation of schools in California. Tonatiuh, a Belpré-winning illustrator, uses a child’s viewpoint to clearly and succinctly capture the segregated reality of Mexican Americans and the little-known legal challenge that integrated schools. When the Mendez family moves from Santa Ana to Westminster only to find that their children must attend the inferior “Mexican” school for no particular reason, they first try petitions before turning to lawyers to set matters right. The straightforward narrative is well matched with the illustrations in Tonatiuh’s signature style, their two-dimensional perspective reminiscent of the Mixtec codex but collaged with paper, wood, cloth, brick, and (Photoshopped) hair to provide textural variation. This story deserves to be more widely known, and now, thanks to this book, it will be. Author’s note, photographs, glossary, bibliography, and index are appended. JONATHAN HUNT
(July/August 2014 Horn Book Magazine)

Reprinted from The Horn Book Magazine by permission of The Horn Book, Inc., www.hbook.com

School Library Journal:
★Tonatiuh, Duncan. Separate Is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez & Her Family’s Fight for Desegregation. illus. by Duncan Tonatiuh. 40p. bibliog. glossary. index. photos. Abrams. May 2014. RTE $18.95. ISBN 9781419710544. LC 2013032089.

Gr 2-5–When the Mendezes moved to Westminster, CA, in 1944, third-grader Sylvia tried to enter Westminster School. However, the family was repeatedly told, “‘Your children have to go to the Mexican school.’ ‘But why?’ asked Mr. Mendez…‘That is how it is done.’” In response, they formed the Parents’ Association of Mexican-American Children, distributed petitions, and eventually filed a successful lawsuit that was supported by organizations ranging from the Japanese American Citizens League to the American Jewish Congress. Younger children will be outraged by the injustice of the Mendez family story but pleased by its successful resolution. Older children will understand the importance of the 1947 ruling that desegregated California schools, paving the way for Brown v. Board of Education seven years later. Back matter includes a detailed author’s note and photographs. The excellent bibliography cites primary sources, including court transcripts and the author’s interview with Sylvia Mendez, who did attend Westminster School and grew up to earn the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Tonatiuh’s illustrations tell a modern story with figures reminiscent of the pictorial writing of the Mixtec, an indigenous people from Mexico. Here, the author deliberately connects his heritage with the prejudices of mid-20th century America. One jarring illustration of three brown children barred from a pool filled with lighter-skinned children behind a sign that reads, “No Dogs or Mexicans Allowed,” will remind readers of photographs from the Jim Crow South. Compare and contrast young Sylvia Mendez’s experience with Robert Coles’s The Story of Ruby Bridges (Scholastic, 1995) to broaden a discussion of school desegregation.–Toby Rajput, National Louis University, Skokie, IL


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