My Mom is a Foreigner, But Not to Me – Julianne Moore and Meilo So, Chronicle Books, 2013
The title of this book is a little matter-of-fact, a little defiant. Actress Julianne Moore, author of the popular Freckleface Strawberry series, and prolific illustrator Meilo So, have collaborated on an homage to motherhood in all its diversity and all its sameness. The underlying political message of embracing immigrants is implicit; it never interferes with the child’s ambivalent perspective. Her mom can seem “weird,” “not cool,” “crazy,” but Moore and Meilo makes it clear that it is really those who are suspicious of mom’s special attributes who are strange and obtuse. However much an immigrant mother may need help with acculturation, she is an expert at what matters:
“There are SOME things I don’t tell her,
Because she already knows,
Like how she should take care of me,
From my head down to my toes.”
So why even remark on her mother’s difference? In unobtrusive and natural rhymes, and celebratory images, Moore and Lo express empathy for kids whose moms are weird. The food they force on their reluctant offspring can seem “gross,” the endearing nicknames in different languages are unintelligible, and the special festive clothing she treasures is “weird.” None of these observations are disrespectful or cruel. Any frustration children feel is offset by attachment to the wonderful, strong, figures in this book. “She teaches me to read/She sings when I am sad/She listens to my stories/And hugs me when I’m mad.” Each one of those essential jobs are printed in different font, accompanied by moms of different races and ethnicities, some different from their own children.
The pictures are absolutely wonderful. They use bright colors, and combine intricate detail with broad strokes and sometimes exaggerated expressions. They are realistic and, at the same time, idealized portrayals of a mother’s love. One two-page spread shows an elderly grandmother hunched over a cutting board in the kitchen, while a mom in colorful dress and jewelry raises her hands in what might be song. A swirl of green ribbon extruded from a pasta maker extends to float over the mother’s head. Meanwhile, a little girl holds her nose, presumably at the array of cheese in front of her. A beautifully carved cabinet holds candlesticks and a simple bowl of three symmetrically placed pears, and the window overlooks a busy street scene. There is so much going on in each picture, because mothers are incessantly busy performing the world’s most important job.
I was surprised to read a negative evaluation on Kirkus Reviews. I am as skeptical of celebrity-authored children’s books as the next reviewer, maybe more so, but I found their problems with this one to be puzzling. The reviewer calls the text’s rhyme “amateurish,” and complains of the changing typefaces and images of mothers from many different parts of the world in quick succession. That is the point of the book. Publishers Weekly makes a similar complaint about the book’s poetry, noting that “the meter is inconsistent and many rhymes are slant.” Are we only to allow end rhymes and quatrains, or poems that resemble nursery rhymes, in books for children? I thought the rhymes, the changing font, and, most of all, the beautiful range of mothers, some of whom elude conservative standards of beauty. My Mom is a Foreigner is for every child, since every mom is sometimes “weird, crazy, not cool.” Children and parents will both recognize themselves in this lovely book.