Plot/Content Summary: “What are you?” a question some people hear every day, particularly people of mixed racial heritage. Pearl Fuyo Gaskins, herself a mixed-race child of an Asian-American father and a European-American mother, interviewed 80 mixed-race young people about their experiences growing up in the US. Gaskins’ book includes poetry, essays and portions of interviews with approximately 45 of these young people. The young people address discrimination, racism, dating, family dynamics, identity. They discuss that issues that are unique to being mixed race as well as issues that are universal to young people in general. Readers of mixed race heritage are likely to find validation and reflection from the book as well as new ideas to consider. Those reading the book who are not from a mixed race background will likely find a great deal of insight and information from the brave young people who share their stories. The book also includes an extensive, annotated “Resources” section at the end.
Critical Evaluation: In What Are You? Gaskins has managed to take on a big and complicated topic with grace and intelligence. The diversity of the voices in the book lend it great accuracy. Chapters are organized by common themes experienced by multiracial youth, and many of their voices appear in multiple chapters. Gaskins explanatory and exploratory pieces throughout the book reflect and expand on the young people’s thoughts and feelings. Their voices are authentic and clear and leave readers feeling as if they have gained insights into hard-to-grasp topics. These issues are complex and multifaceted, but hearing directly from the people who experience them brings the issues down to a human level, reminding us that no matter what we are, we all have similar needs to be accepted, celebrated, and loved for exactly who we are. Derek Salmond, age fifteen says, “People often ask me the question, ‘So, what are you anyway?’…I say, “I’m a human being. Why? What are you?” (p. 21).
Reader’s Annotation: Mixed-race young people, in their own voices, tell of the joys and pains of living in a culture that wants them to “check one box.”
Information about the Author: After the dedication page, the first line of What Are You? is, “I’ve wanted to write this book since I was fifteen years old,” (p. vii). Gaskins was herself a mixed race child, born in 1959, a time when interracial marriage was illegal in many states. As Gaskins grew up she experienced many of the same things that the young people in her book describe: racism, discrimination, feeling invisible and alone. Gaskins watched as consciousness grew within multi-racial communities as well as in society as a whole. She wrote this book for the mixed-race young people today, it is a book, she says, “I wish I’d had when I was a teenager,” (p. 8).
Topics covered: Identity, Mixed-race, Multi-racial, Racism, Discrimination, Family, Friends
Curriculum Ties: Social Studies, Race in America
- There are so many great quotations to read to stimulate discussion, like, “People often ask me the question, ‘So, what are you anyway?’…I say, “I’m a human being. Why? What are you?”
Reading Level/Interest Age: Ages 13 -25
Challenge Issues: There are no obvious challenge issues associated with this book. Preparation for any challenge can include the librarian’s: reading of the book, adhering to the library’s collection development department, and possessing reviews of the book from well-regarded sources.
Why is this book included? A good collection includes a diversity of books. This book contains the voices of mixed-race youth, a group often underrepresented in literature, so is an important piece to include in a collection for young people.
Gaskins, P. F. (1999). What are you? Voices of mixed-race young people . New York, NY: Henry Holt and Company.