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Nonfiction Picture Book Review – Without Separation



Prejudice, Segregation, and the Case of Roberto Alvarez

Written by Larry Dane Brimner

Illustrated by Maya Gonzalez

(Calkins Creek; $18.99, Ages 7-10)




Starred Review – Kirkus


I could not put down the nonfiction picture book Without Separation because, like the compelling but little-known case presented in the recently reviewed We Want to Go to School, this eye-opening account is about a civil rights case I had never heard about yet think everyone should.

Readers meet Roberto Alvarez on his way to school on January 5, 1931, just after the Christmas break. When the 12-year-old arrived at Lemon Grove Grammar School, “the principal told Roberto and other Mexican and Mexican American children that they did not belong there.” It soon became clear that the children were going to be segregated under the guise that the Mexican children didn’t understand English and were holding back white students.  



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Interior spread from Without Separation written by Larry Dane Brimner and illustrated by Maya Gonzalez, Calkins Creek ©2021.


I was stunned upon reading that the board of trustees of the school district had gone ahead and had another school built to separate these children. On top of that, they did it without telling the Mexican parents. They thought they were avoiding trouble this way but what they were doing was wrong or they would have been more transparent.

They may have thought that by going behind parents’ backs they could get away with their ploy but the inhabitants of the Mexican barrio knew better. Roberto’s parents had told him to come home if he were sent to the new Olive Street School, aka the barnyard.

That fateful morning, Roberto and a large group of other students refused to attend. While the school district tried to spin Olive Street School as a way to help the children learn English and American customs, Roberto, his parents, and other families knew the truth. This was a blatant and seemingly illegal attempt to segregate the students based on race.


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Interior spread from Without Separation written by Larry Dane Brimner and illustrated by Maya Gonzalez, Calkins Creek ©2021.


Fortunately, the families quickly organized themselves. When they met with the Mexican consul, he connected them with a couple of lawyers to help them. “Roberto brought the situation in Lemon Grove to the attention of the California Superior Court in San Diego on February 13, 1931.” A lawsuit against the board of trustees of the Lemon Grove School District was filed stating how Roberto wanted to go to the same school as the white students, where he’d gone before the new year.

The school board felt overly confident about winning the case because San Diego’s district attorney was on their side, but mistakes were made. The D.A. tried to get the case dismissed but luck was not on his side.


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Interior spread from Without Separation written by Larry Dane Brimner and illustrated by Maya Gonzalez, Calkins Creek ©2021.


The judge ultimately ruled in favor of Roberto Alvarez who the school district tried to prevent from returning to the local school he’d previously attended. The law said the lead plaintiff (and therefore all the others affected) had every right to attend the Lemon Grove Grammar School “without separation or segregation.” This important case along with several others was cited “before the US Supreme Court when it made its landmark Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (Kansas) decision of 1954 that outlawed school segregation.” And though the struggle recounted in Without Separation took place almost 91 years ago, the facts surrounding this case feel as relevant today when prejudice against the immigrant communities here in the U.S. continues and racial-based inequalities linger.

Author Brimner has written a timely and terrific book for today’s generation of children to gain greater insight into the power of community, commitment, and the change that even “one small voice” can make. Gonzalez’s gorgeous artwork, reminiscent of Mexican muralists with its bold lines and rich colors, helps bring this story to life.

Eight pages of interesting back matter go into more detail about the case including what happened to the principal Jerome J. Green. There are photos along with information about other similar lawsuits. I was happy to read how Roberto Alvarez became a successful businessman, civic leader, and philanthropist in San Diego before he passed away in 2003. It’s great that this book is available for families, schools, and libraries so readers can have a greater appreciation of the significant impact of Roberto Alvarez v. the Board of Trustees of the Lemon Grove School District.

  • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel
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How a Photograph Changed the Fight for Integration

Tomorrow we honor Dr. Martin Luther King, America’s great civil rights leader, but today I’d like to step back in time to 1957 to share the story of Little Rock Girl 1957: How a Photograph Changed the Fight for Integration ($8.95, Compass Point Books, ages 10 and up) by Shelley Tougas.

Imagine being a parent, sending your child off to school and then finding out that the National Guard was sent by your state’s governor to prevent your child from entering school? Shameful? Deplorable? Racist? Well this is precisely what happened to Elizabeth Eckford, an African-American, when she tried to attend Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas only 55 years ago.

The plan had been for Elizabeth to join eight other African-American students (forever to be known as the Little Rock Nine) selected because of their outstanding academic records to be the first to integrate the Little Rock high school. However Elizabeth never got the phone call and attempted to go to school on her own. Unaware of what opposition lay before her, Elizabeth exited her school bus and walked towards the entrance to school. Hateful shouts of  “Go home! Whites have rights too” greeted this fearful and stunned teenager.  Thinking the Arkansas National Guards were there to protect her, she soon saw them cross their rifles to prevent her from going through the school’s door! One kind looking woman who Elizabeth looked to for safety “lunged forward and spit on her.”

It took several weeks and the intervention of President Eisenhower to get those nine students into the school and it may have taken a lot longer had it not been for the photograph that was seen around the world.  Hometown boy, Will Counts, a budding photographic journalist from the Arkansas Democrat, captured a picture of Elizabeth Eckford walking just steps ahead of an angry mob, harassed in particular by Hazel Bryan, a white teenager.  This sad moment in our history exemplified the determination of locals to keep their schools segregated.  Tougas’s terrific book details the unbelievable story of these nine teenagers’ traumatic time seeking a public education that was their right and shows how powerful the medium of photography was in getting the message out to the public.

In just four chapters along with a timeline, glossary and additional resources section, Little Rock Girl 1957 is a must-have for any classroom and student interested in the story behind this amazing photograph and history-changing moment.

Part of the Captured History series of nonfiction middle grade books, Little Rock Girl 1957 has given me a broader perspective on these troubled times and will give student readers insight into the strength and courage displayed by the Little Rock Nine in the face of blatant discrimination and shocking, unlawful behavior.

This book was reviewed by Ronna Mandel.

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