Leo Lionni’s “A Color of his Own”: Cross-race versus same-race spaces
by Sachi Feris
As a long-time reader of Leo Lionni, it surprised me that Google searches of Lionni’s books did not yield lessons plans explicitly discussing race, since many of his books speak to themes of racial identity and the concept of “being different.”
Lionni’s “A Color of his Own” is about a chameleon who is sad that he constantly changes colors. When I read this book to my three-and-a-half-year-old, I ask her:
“Would you want to change colors all the time like a chameleon?”
My daughter answers that she would not like to change all the time…just as the chameleon feels. She isn’t sure as to why so I add; “It sounds like the chameleon feels lonely sometimes since he is the only one to always change colors.”
At the end of the book, the chameleon finds another chameleon who suggests that they stick together so that even though they keep changing colors, the two chameleons will always be the same color.
“Why do you think the chameleons want to stick together?” I ask my daughter.
“So they can have a friend,” she answers.
“Yes,” I affirm. “I think they want to be with someone who understands how they feel.”
On a parallel note: Last week, my daughter and I passed an advertisement for Dance Theatre of Harlem and, as a long-time Alvin Ailey fan, I stopped to look at the dancers and point them out to my daughter who noted: “They are very beautiful.”
“Yes,” I agreed, “they are…is there anything you notice about the dancers in the advertisement?”
“There are both men and women,” she told me.
“True,” I affirmed. “And I notice that all of them have brown skin—and some of them probably identify as Black, because the company is called Dance Theatre of Harlem and Harlem is a neighborhood that has a history of being a Black neighborhood.”
“Qué feo,” (How ugly) my daughter replied. (I usually translate all of my conversations with my daughter to English but I wanted to use her exact words in this case.)
I was confused by her response and, upon further inquiry, realized that her response was related to my frequent communications about the value of diversity—how I love that she goes to a school that has children with all skin colors and that we live in a neighborhood that is diverse, etc.
Back to Leo Lionni: I picked up “A Color of his Own” quite purposefully this evening and initially, my daughter rejected my book choice—I told her I wanted to read this book with her for a special reason and that convinced her to stick with my choice. Towards the end of the book, I again read:
“We will still change color wherever we go, but you and I will always be alike.”
“Why do you think the chameleon wants to be with a friend who is looks like him?” I asked.
“Because he wants a friend that’s like him,” she told me. Then she asked, “What is the special reason we are reading this book?”
“Well, remember the other day when we saw that subway ad for Dance Theatre of Harlem? And you said “qué feo” when I told you about Harlem being a historically Black neighborhood? It’s true that I really like places like schools and neighborhoods to be diverse—but it’s also really important that people have spaces where they can share experiences with people who share their same experiences. For example, I love that you get to play with your friend Alessia because she speaks Spanish just like you and none of your other friends speak Spanish.”
Little does my daughter know that I am explaining the reasoning behind the use of identity-based affinity groups (or caucuses). (See this HuffPost article for my thoughts on affinity groups.)
Sachi Feris is a blogger at Raising Race Conscious Children, an online a resource to support adults who are trying to talk about race with young children. Sachi also co-facilitates interactive workshops/webinars and small group workshop series on how to talk about race with young children. Sachi currently teaches Spanish to Kindergarten and 1st grade at an independent school in Brooklyn. Sachi identifies as White and is a mother to an almost four-year-old daughter and six-month-old son.