the blossoming universe of violet diamond

So. We bought this book, The Blossoming Universe of Violet Diamond, at work, and I hadn’t ever heard of it, so I didn’t pay attention to it on the order list until it came in the mail. Then I saw the cover and was like “Oooh! That looks like little girl me!” So I had to take it home immediately after I processed it and before the kids even saw that we had it. Then I took awhile to actually read it, but when I did, it was a quick, maybe three- or four-hour read over two days.

It’s cute, but it also made me sad, because it’s problematic. But it also made me think about how much it paralleled my own life, and how little I see books that deal with such things in books. By “such things” I mean growing up with a white family (whether you’re mixed race or adopted into it or stepfamily’d into it or some combination thereof) and discovering and meeting the of color part of your family at a specific time, not knowing them your entire life. That resonates with me because I met my birthmother at 19 and have been getting to know her family over the past six years, so in a way, being African American is totally new to me. To be fair, my adoptive family is also mixed, so it’s not like I’ve been completely removed from a minority experience or family my whole life. But Chicano is not the same as African American, and all of the cousins on the Mexican side of my family are half white (except one, who is half Indian, but I have only met him twice). Anyway, I’m still becoming a part of that family and learning how it affects me, and I’m not entirely comfortable writing more about that, because I try not to write about my family. Too much emotional shit that I’m not mature enough to share publicly. Too many people I don’t know well enough to share my emotions with, period. So back to the book. When Violet, at 11, gets to meet her black grandmother for the first time, and then goes and meets her family and has a little bit of culture shock, I totally get it.

So the thing that scares me is also the thing that makes the book very realistic, so I can’t really be mad – except that I have a little tiny gatekeeper in the back of my mind that says, “But what if THE CHILDREN read this and think these people are right!?” And then I hate myself for being the kind of adult who thinks that children don’t know how to be thoughtful or critical and that they ingest everything from books whole, not piecemeal. But basically every adult with privilege in Violet’s life (her white mother, her best friend’s Greek grandmother, etc) keeps telling her that race isn’t real and they love her just the way she is, and that is shit that will fuck a brown kid up for life. They tell her she’s beautiful and brown and still looks like her white half-sister, which is great, because that’s an important thing to remember. But they also tell her things like “we’re all part of the human race,” which is completely unhelpful when you’re a young kid trying to find your way in a world where you’re surrounded by people with privilege, who transfer some of their privilege to you (class, education, access to things), but who also can’t or refuse to recognize that not all their privilege (standards of beauty, independence and success as an adult, strangers’ first impressions of you) will transfer. It doesn’t matter that race is technically not a real thing. It’s a totally real thing, because society decided it is. You can’t tell your child of color that race doesn’t matter. Their race doesn’t matter to YOU. It matters to them – and to the world.

Violet’s grandmother is much better about talking about race while remembering she’s talking to a little girl who doesn’t need to figure everything out that minute. She tells Violet that she had a hard time accepting that her son married a white woman, and that she was a bit unfair in thinking that interracial relationships were a bad idea. She acknowledges Violet’s (warranted and true) concern that no matter what she feels inside, the world will see her as black first. She also scarily (but again, realistically) encourages Violet to take on a lot of her feelings and beliefs when it comes to her identity as a black woman, asking her to call her Bibi (Swahili for “grandma”), and Violet really internalizes them – though I trust how smart she is and think that as she grows up, she will re-assess and decide how she feels about being black for herself, not for her grandmother.

Violet’s sister is also a great influence, and she reminds me of my own sister. She shares inside jokes with Violet and makes fun of people who have visible looks of shock on their faces when they learn the girls are related. She repeatedly tells Violet that she loves her, that they do have physical traits in common, that she understands that this is hard for Violet but that she is on her side. That’s the kind of “race doesn’t matter” that’s appropriate, not pretending like it actually doesn’t matter. If you’re not white, race will always matter. Exploring it on your own and with the help of other people is what you need, which is what Violet gets to do in this book. So ultimately, I think it’s a good one, and I think it would be a good fourth or fifth grade classroom read so that readers can be sure to explore all those aspects fully, no matter their race. But it will also be a boon to little girls reading on their own, especially if they have a mixed background that they’re learning to have opinions about.

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