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A Fuse #8 Production
Inside A Fuse #8 Production

Surprise! It’s Racist! Unwanted Children’s Book Surprises.

I think many of us have done this at some point.  You’ve picked up a favorite old children’s book to read to your own kiddos.  Everything’s going smoothly and you’re all having a fabulous time.  Then, WHAMMO!  Surprise!  It’s racist!

Have no idea what I’m talking about?  Well today we’re talking race and we’re talking classic children’s books.  It’s a match made in heaven!

A couple things inspired this post and the first was when I received a copy of the new edition of If I Ran the Zoo by Dr. Seuss.  Ladies and gentlemen if prior to reading this book you had asked me whether or not Dr. Seuss was ever racist in a picture book I would have laughed you off.  WWII political cartoons?  Sure.  But his books?  Not unless you count that theory about The Cat in the Hat and the elevator operator.  Then I bring this book home and my husband proceeds to read it to my daughter.  It’s all going well for a while . . . then we have some problems.

There are the little African guys, grass skirts and all:

There’s the Arabic fellow where it is suggested that he be collected along with his steed.

And then there’s this:

The text honest-to-goodness says they have “eyes all a slant” at one point.

You see, when it comes to surprising racism, we all sort of expect Native Americans and African-Americans to fare poorly.  We tend to forget how AWFUL Asian people had it, and they show up all the friggin’ time.  Whether it’s The Cricket in Times Square (see this rather lovely critique of it here) or Cheaper by the Dozen (check out the chapter “Chinese Cooking”) it’s out there.  But the most unexpected racism?  Voila:

Surprised?  Many of us have heard the tale of how the Oompa Loompas were changed from African pygmies to something significantly less offensive in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.  So why does no one recall that Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator has its own cringe-worthy moment?  I suspect because it isn’t accompanied by any art.  You see, there’s a moment when the President calls the Prime Minister of China . . . I’ll just leave it at that.  Let your imagination fill in the details.

Not that there aren’t surprises in books where Native American and African-Americans fare poorly.  We all know the Little House books are racist but we forget the details until we stumble on them.  Then there are the fuzzy cases.

I was having dinner with librarian Kyle Lukoff and we were discussing these types of books.  Heck, that conversation was the real impetus for this post.  We covered the usual suspects (Pippi in the South Seas, Doctor Doolittle, etc.) when Kyle pointed out a book that isn’t out-and-out racist but sure is unfortunate.  Remember the Mr. Men books?  Of course you do.  So do any of you guys remember this fellow?

Author/illustrator Richard Hargreaves was an Englishman so apparently the term “uppity” does not have the same connotations in his part of the globe as here.  It’s just awfully unfortunate that the only brown-skinned Mr. Men character I can think of happened to get that particular moniker.  The scan here makes him look possibly purple.  One can hope.

For my part, lots of my favorites have one element that drives me crazy: cannibals.  Lots of my dearly beloved books from childhood turn out to be just chock full of them.  From The Thyme Garden and Magic by the Lake (both Edward Eager) to Bednob and Broomstick and The Phoenix and the Carpet, seen here:

Doggone it.

So fess up.  What’s your childhood favorite that caught you off guard years later?

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About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.

Comments

  1. Not a children’s book, but having enjoyed listening to a couple of his well-received works, I started P.G. Wodehouse’s Thank You, Jeeves and after the second use of the n-word had to quit.

  2. The Secret Garden. It completely stumped me when I read it aloud to my eldest. Had clean forgotten the racist description of people in India.

  3. Liz Tipping says:

    “Uppity” just means snobbish over here in the UK. To British eyes Mr Uppity is just an upper class twit who looks down on other people as inferior. He probably has a title and went to Eton. Over here “uppity” has none of the connotations which it has in the US and very few people (least of all the late Roger Hargreaves) would recognize this reference at all.
    If you don’t like the word then don’t buy the book, but to label Hargreaves as racist is grossly unfair. As to the colour of Mr Uppity, well he is mauve not brown over here. Mr Greedy, however is most certainly pink, as is Mr Lazy, but I don’t read anything into that.

    • Elizabeth Bird says:

      I think I made it fairly clear that I don’t think of Hargreaves as racist in the least but that this is a cross-cultural terms that doesn’t work in the U.S. the same way as it works in the U.K. However, I did mention this book in a post called “Surprise! It’s Racist!” so I understand why you might interpret me as saying that he’s racist as well. I should be more clear that I don’t think that this is the case. What I’m saying is that you have to take different readers into consideration when you purchase a book in a library setting. Uppity is A-Okay in some places. In others (like America where it was used as a derogatory term for decades) not so much.

    • Hi Liz. “Uppity” means “snobbish” to me too, and I never knew any other meaning for the word…and I’m from the US. Perhaps it’s a regional slang thing that’s got people upset?

      • Uppity has become morphed by certain people to mean something more, to have an edge, than its meaning, and sadly now too many Americans have accepted the alternate meaning. This is an otherwise wonderful post that is diluted by the inclusion of this example for reasons explained above. It is reminiscent (though not quite the same) of the hubbub that occurred awhile back over the un-racist word niggardly.

      • Elizabeth Bird says:

        I can see how you’d say that. Context is, after all, everything. But I think it’s important to include books that have different connotations in different cultures. What is innocuous to one reader is blatantly offensive to another. Could a mouse be made out of a molehill with this book? Absolutely. By the same token, I’m tackling this subject as a children’s librarian who has to be aware of what’s in her collection and the possible challenges she might have to face from the public. I don’t find Mr. Uppity to be problematic personally and I wouldn’t have any problem reading it to my child. But when I include this book in my children’s collection I need to be aware of its presence and the effect it might have on my patrons so that if a move is made to remove it from the library I have information at hand to explain why it is there. In this case I would point out to the patron that it is a British title and that the word “uppity” has an alternate meaning.

  4. Most of the time Elizabeth Goudge is extremely classist and doesn’t see diversity, but she tips over into out and out racism in Linnets and Valerians. It’s the paternalistic, “Magical Negro” kind, but that doesn’t really make it better.

    And then of course there’s Gene Stratton-Porter and her emphasis on “good blood” (shudder), but she’s not really writing for children.

  5. Anne Marie Pace says:

    THE COURAGE OF SARAH NOBLE. I loved it in first or second grade. A while back, I found a hardcover for a great price and brought it home to share with my kids. Thank goodness I read it before I shared it. Sigh. I didn’t share it.

  6. The example that jumps to my mind are the “Tottenhots” in the Oz books. They’re just as bad as you would expect, or maybe worse; they’re considered less than human. I’m sure the Oz books are rife with other examples; Baum had a lot of opportunities in the course of 14 books…

  7. Unfortunately, the Babar books fit in this category. Elephants (standing in for Africans) have to be dressed and introduced to civilization.

  8. My kids inherited my husband’s TinTin comic books during a trip to Grandma’s. I dug one out of the luggage to read on the drive home, and boy did I have to do some editing on the fly.

  9. Yep, I had to do some serious glossing and deep discussing with my kids when I read them the Little House… books – and, as Zoe says, The Secret Garden. The of course there’s the really obvious that I’ve never picked up with my kids – Little Black Sambo… and unfortunately, Tintin…
    But I am pretty certain that no racist undercurrent is to be found in Mr Uppity – I didn’t know until now about the word’s racist connotations in the US – but (and I am ready to stand corrected) I don’t believe that in the UK there is any such nuance. The fact that such a meaning can be attributed to the word in the US, though, does suggest that the book needs to be ‘translated’ for a US audience…

    • In the southern states of the US, particularly those with a strong slave-owning history prior to the Civil War, everyone knows exactly what “uppity” means. In the US, it’s first known use was in a volume of “Uncle Remus,” so while it may have originally meant just to put on airs and act above one’s station, it has a very racial history in this country. That’s not to say that Mr. Uppity IS racist (context, context), but in certain places in the US, that word is poorly received (or well received, depending on the quality of one’s company).

  10. The Oz books also have “Hottentots” and other dark-skinned savages. But The Royal Book of Oz (Thompson) is the worst. It’s one long stereotype of the Chinese people. I love the Oz books but I couldn’t let my kids read that one.

    • Elizabeth Bird says:

      Oh! The reminds me of The Horse and His Boy by C.S. Lewis. I forgot to mention that one in my post but it would certainly apply.

      • I was never a fan of the Narnia books to begin with, but upon revisiting this one a few years ago I was absolutely shocked! Made me dislike the series even more.

      • Yes, that’s another. Though I have to say that as a child I did not connect the Calormenes with any race on our earth. I just saw them as a fantasy rival country, which you have in many fantasy novels. As an adult I see the Turk/ Arab stereotypes, but I didn’t as a kid. I need to read that one again, especially since many people say it’s their favorite of the series.

      • Erin Murphy says:

        That’s the one that came to mind for me. Rereading as an adult, the series lost most of its magic.

  11. When my brother started rereading children’s classics to decide which ones to share with his own kids, he pointed out to me a virulently anti-semitic scene in E. Nesbit’s _Five Children and It_. Neither of us had recognized it as kids because it relies entirely on 19th century English stereotypes about Jews.

    This is in addition to Nesbit’s other bad moments; but I mention it as one I didn’t catch as a kid. It’s too bad. They’d be good books otherwise.

    Honestly, before the mid-1960s, it’s far harder to come up with titles of children’s books that *aren’t* racist (and actually contain or mention anyone not white and Christian).

    The older books can be edited, of course, with the permission of the author or his/her heirs, and sometimes are. (Both Dr. Seuss and The Cricket in Times Square were later edited by the authors IIRC.) Far more often, though, they aren’t edited. This would be less harmful if the books didn’t have such staying power. Adults come into bookstores requesting children’s books from the 1930s to the 1950s all the time. And therefore they’re a goodly proportion of what’s in stock.

    And in schools and libraries. And on reading lists and curricula.

  12. Picture books are tricky. But with older children, I think it’s fine to read the classics to them while pointing out the racism of the time and how it’s not acceptable.

  13. Mary Poppins caught me off-guard (they travel all over the world and see many different types of people).

  14. When my daughter turned one, and everyone asked us about gifts, I suggested picture books. I had the idea of building a library of children’s classics. One of those books was the first Curious George. I hadn’t read it since I was very young, but I couldn’t get over the obvious racist imagery. I’ve even heard of it referred to as a metaphor for African Imperialism. I couldn’t in good conscience read this to my daughter, and promptly gave it away. Another book that made the give-away pile was Babar, who, as you know, married his cousin.

  15. The Travels of Babar by Jean de Brunhoff. The scenes with the cannibals are just WOW! I adored Babar as a child, and I guess, as an adult, I should have realized there would be a fair amount of early 20th century French colonialism in them, but it still shocked me. If you don’t remember the scenes you can see some if it on amazon using the Inside The Book feature.

  16. Yeah, I address the full spectrum of Seuss’s racism & anti-racism in the article to which you link (only an excerpt of which is printed at my blog, but which I will send to anyone who wants it — just email me). You’ll probably also want to skip Scrambled Eggs Super! (for Ali & the Mt. Strooko Cuckoos).

    It’s really important that readers recognize the racism in Seuss, Dahl, Travers, de Brunhoff, & all the rest. It’s equally important that people not just dismiss it as “oh, those were different times” or say “don’t apply current standards to books from then.” In 1950, people of African and Asian descent were just as human as they are now. Seuss represented them as racial caricatures. It’s fair to historicize that racism, to contextualize it, to think about it as part of his larger body of work (which includes the anti-discimination classic, The Sneetches). But history does not excuse the “helpers who wear their eyes at a slant” or the “natives” from the African island of Yerka. If I Ran the Zoo was and is racist. Period.

    • Elizabeth Bird says:

      Well put, Phil. And one thing this post I’ve written doesn’t do is address how to react when you find yourself in the situation of reading these books to your kids. That actually might be worth a separate post altogether. As you say “it’s equally important that people not just dismiss it”. But how do you best contextualize it? Do you mention it or not mention it to your kids? Is there damage to be done either way? What’s the best tactic? Much fodder for discussion there.

      Now curious about Scrambled Eggs Super . . . .

      • Hi, Betsy. Well, the age at which you want to have this conversation is, of course, a judgment call. But I don’t think we do children (of any color) a favor by turning a blind eye, even though it’s often for the (well-intentioned) goal of protecting them. In order to survive in America, children of color need to learn about racism and how to cope with it. In order not to perpetuate racism (especially structural racism), “majority” children also need to learn about the unearned privileges they have inherited. It gives me no pleasure to make this argument: all children should be granted a childhood free from the injuries of prejudice. But the alternative — ignoring racism — is worse. I have an unpublished piece on this question that I’ll forward you (it’s part of a larger book project).

        Scrambled Eggs Super! isn’t as bad as If I Ran the Zoo, but it does include an Arab character as a figure of fun. And, like If I Ran the Zoo, Scrambled Eggs is imperialist — in this case, little white boy, traveling the world, stealing rare eggs as if it were his birthright to do so.

      • Elizabeth Bird says:

        As is often said, only white people have the option of pretending that racism doesn’t exist. I agree with you wholeheartedly. I just think it’s also important to know about these books so that you can prepare yourself ahead of time and figure out what to say to your kids.

  17. J.R.R.Tolkien has an obsession with blood lines, in his cosmology, the ‘right to rule’ goes to those with the closest connection to the earliest Elvish families. Seems to echo the British imperial system that has perpetuated racism throughout the world!

    • Tolkien’s portrayal of the southern tribes and the brief mention of the short statured people that the people of Rohan and Gondor had hunted and persecuted is very racist. So is the mention of the Eastern tribes who’d allied themselves with Sauron. I was surprised to see them portrayed as such in the movies whereas all references to the tribes that had been hunted and persecuted was removed. I remember reading the Lord of the Rings several times and thinking how Aragorn didn’t want their help even though they were in desperate circumstances. Ents and trees are fine, but not odd looking brown short statured people.

  18. I have a really long blog post about Mary Poppins, with text and illustrations from the old version.

    http://americanindiansinchildrensliterature.blogspot.com/2014/01/travers-author-of-mary-poppins-i-lived.html

  19. Dr. Seuss’ And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street – I made the mistake of reading it aloud to a group of students last year as part of our Read Across America activities. I had no memory of the line about a “chinaman” or the accompanying yellow illustration. It was an unpleasant reminder to preview all books no matter how fondly I remember them from my childhood!

  20. As a child I used to love hearing the poems from T.S. Elliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats read aloud. It wasn’t until as an adult I started reading them to my nephew that I choked on this couplet in Growltiger’s Last Stand :
    Then Gilbert gave the signal to his fierce Mongolian horde;
    With a frightful burst of fireworks the Chinks they swarmed aboard.
    “Chinks”???! Suddenly I was looking at my childhood favorite in a whole new light, and not an especially good one.

    • Elizabeth Bird says:

      What’s interesting is that that was reproduced word for word for the stage musical of CATS. As I recall it’s a VERY problematic scene. One wonders how they’ll handle it in the upcoming remake.

  21. This is a great post – I’m curious to see what other “surprises” people mention. I wonder if it’s worth making a distinction between books that include obvious, human or human-esque racist caricatures or plots, and books that more subtly replicate things like colonialism. I’m thinking of Babar here, specifically – no doubt it can be read as colonialist (civilizing the elephants, making them wear clothes). It’s been awhile since I re-visited the entire Babar oeuvre, so I may be totally wrong (correct me!), but on the surface level of plot and image, I can’t think of anything overtly racist. Is there a difference between a text with surface-level racism, and a text that yields up a racist reading under close inspection? At the risk of being terribly tacky, I’m linking to a blogpost I wrote a couple of years ago, after a piece in the NYTimes about “how to read racist books to your kids.” Linking because I did spend quite a lot of time thinking/writing about how one could handle encountering these stereotypes when reading to kids. (http://themovingcastle.blogspot.com/2012/06/how-not-to-read-racist-books-to-your.html)

    • Elizabeth Bird says:

      This is great, Kerry, thank you! I agree that this is an important distinction. I suppose this post is concerning itself with very surface problems. The imagery and offensive language. For Babar or Curious George you get into an entirely different problem area. I’ve been meaning to reread SHOULD WE BURN BABAR? for some time. Maybe this will prove a good impetus.

    • Kerry – For an obviously racist scene in Babar that involves human characters, see the one I reference above in The Travels of Babar. Not only are the cannibals a mess of wretched stereotypes, but each one in the scene looks the same. Because, apparently, they all must look alike. /sarcasm

      It’s not just a problem of the civilization of an Elephant.

  22. I had a reverse experience. My parents never read Kipling to me because of his racism. When my son was young I got Just So Stories from the library and read it to him. I was surprised at the beauty of Kipling’s writing. Certainly he was racist (ever read “The White Man’s Burden”), but I wish I hadn’t missed out on his storytelling and his writing when I was a kid.

  23. Especially during banned books week I would love to see you address how to talk to kids about these things as parents and teachers. Editing them out seems the right idea at first, but then we’re giving our kids a false history. I think it’s better to talk with them about it and point out the problems. Discuss the lies of stereotypes and the truth of diversity– in an age appropriate way of course.

    I love the intro Whoopi Goldberg did for the Looney Tunes cartoon collections. You can find it on YouTube. She says they were wrong then and they’re wrong now, but we don’t pretend they didn’t happen. And she also points out good things Warner bros. did regarding race. This is obviously important for us to do also. For instance, I remember a scene of neighborhood racial integration and welcoming in another Edward Eager book (I think it was 7 day magic).

    • Elizabeth Bird says:

      Precisely. The wrong response is to pretend racism never happened in the first place. I’m sure guidelines for introducing your kids to these books exist, but I’d be grateful if someone could point out to me where one might find them.

  24. I re-read Cheaper by the Dozen a couple years ago and kept having to scrape my chin off the floor.

  25. I had some cringing moments while reading my daughter Louisa May Alcott’s Eight Cousins. But since my daughter is half Asian, and likely to experience racism first-hand at some point in her life, I figured an introduction to the concept though a classic book, as explained and interpreted by her mom, wasn’t necessarily a terrible thing.

  26. I find it interesting that this discussion should happen smack in the middle of Banned Books Week (does anyone else find that ironic?). All this talk of editing books (some of them classics) before allowing one’s children to read them…. Is that not a form of censorship? What about allowing the child to read the book “as is” and then using the questionable parts of the story as springboards into a discussion about racism and how that sort of thing is not acceptable. Most likely the child didn’t even notice those questionable parts while the story is in progress. They’ll just enjoy the story. That’s how it was for me growing up.

    Also, one must take into account when the book was published. Please note that I’m not excusing such racism in books (there’s NEVER an excuse for racism!). Standards were much more lax in, say 1964, than they are today. People today are much more globally aware of and sensitive toward racism. Also, when it comes to children’s books (picture books especially), authors and illustrators tended to “dumb things down” with stock stereotypes (again, no excuse). That could come off as racism, whether intentional or not.

    Finally, if we, for a moment, disregard racist elements, some of these books carry valuable lessons. Take the very obvious and often-sited “Little Black Sambo”: True that this is positively horrific, and the author most certainly could have gotten the point across without resulting to such racism. But strip away those elements and look at the story itself in its most basic form: A little boy encounters three bullies and, rather than fighting them or stooping to their level, he figures out a way to outsmart them. That is definitely a good moral!

    • Hi,

      I think Banned Books Week is the *perfect* week to discuss this. I doubt anyone is suggesting banning these titles; rather, this is the time for contextualizing. Especially for young children reading picture books who don’t notice the negative images. Parents and teachers NOT commenting upon these images is exactly what makes them insidious.

      Even young children can understand something as simple as the reader having a shocked reaction and pointing out that a picture or passage is disrepectful to a given culture/ethnicity. Parents – and teachers – can explain their reaction very simply, and use that opportunity to mention that the book comes from a time when the voices of these cultures weren’t put into books.

      The racist passages or images don’t ruin a story, as you point out. But glossing over them does no good service to anyone!

    • Joan Raphael says:

      The author, Helen Bannerman, had nothing racist in mind whatsoever. If you read the text only, there is nothing particularly racist that I can recall. The author never got copyright protection in the United States, and Americans ran with the story and added the racist illustrations. There is a version out that is a lot truer to the author’s origins, which was India. The Story of Little Babaji. The only addition to the original story in addition to the new names for the kid and his parents, is the word ghee, to describe the end result of the tigers, and a mention in parentheses that ghee is clarified butter. You might want to take a look. It is an utterly delightful story, a great way to show the kids how to use logic to guess what happens next. And is there a single kid out there that doesn’t adore the idea of pancakes for supper?

  27. LM Montgomery has quite a bit of it, especially regarding the French and Italians. I just reread her first book, Kilmeny of the Orchard, and the villain is an Italian boy who was brought up by “whites.” You can tell he’s a villain by looking at him. And he dares to fall in love with the girl he grew up with! It’s pretty bad. He just can’t control his wild passions, and finally runs away to manual labor, to everyone’s relief.

    LMM really believed that “blood will tell.”

    In some ways it comforted me that Anne of Green Gables was not the first book LMM wrote. She didn’t *begin* as a genius!

  28. As a child I loved Little Black Sambo. I wanted to be him outwitting the tigers and eating a bazillion pancakes. Surely this story could be updated?

    • Elizabeth Bird says:

      It was in a couple different ways. There was the Christopher Bing version, which retained the original text and updated the pictures. There was The Story of Babaji which set it in India with Indian characters. And there was Sam and the Tigers which took the story and reinterpreted it by Julius Lester and Jerry Pinkney.

      • Stephanie Bange says:

        Elizabeth, I suggested these same titles to the class I talked to yesterday about Intellectual Freedom, trying to clarify the fine line between censoring and selecting, Elizabeth. Some of the students had never heard the word “Sambo” before. (That’s a good thing!)

  29. Jill Tatara says:

    I adore Nancy Drew books, but The Mystery of the Fire Dragon was so offensive and racist I had to stop reading it.

  30. Freaky Friday uses the word “spic” to describe Latinos standing on a street corner. I was reading the book to my kids because I fondly remembered the Disney Sunday night move version featuring a very young Jodi Foster.

  31. Robin Smith says:

    This might be the three sentences I steal and use for the rest of my life:

    It’s really important that readers recognize the racism in Seuss, Dahl, Travers, de Brunhoff, & all the rest. It’s equally important that people not just dismiss it as “oh, those were different times” or say “don’t apply current standards to books from then.” In 1950, people of African and Asian descent were just as human as they are now.

    Thank you, Phillip Nel.

  32. This is such a very good discussion. Thank you all for your thoughts…so much to consider.
    I would love to hear what you have to say about the extremely racist cartoon drawings in Lenore Look’s Alvin Ho: Allergic to Birthday Parties, Science Projects, and Other Man-made Catastrophes. Unreal depictions of Native Americans as the kids play “cowboys and Indians.” Here is a great blogpost about it: http://americanindiansinchildrensliterature.blogspot.com/2011/06/alvin-ho-allergic-to-birthday-parties.html.
    The thing is…I loved this series before, but now I can barely bring myself to recommend it to anyone. Has anyone else had trouble with this series after this third book and if so, do you still recommend it to kids? Would you still buy the series? It is just so awful.

    • I found this a fascinating blog post. and one really relevant to my own writing. Thanks for sharing! And thank you, Matt, for writing it. (It also led me to your blog post on dealing with difficult language, and now I am down the rabbit hole of interesting and important reading! Who know when I will emerge)? But one of Matt’s points kind of reminded me of Gene Luen Yang’s recent speech on diversity. I think the point both he and Matt are making (albeit differently), is that…thoughtful authors try. They try their best, they think through the repercussions of their words, and they gamble. Every. Single. Time. Brave writing is dangerous stuff. So per Matt’s decision and Gene’s speech, if you make a mistake, or rethink a choice, just…do better next time. Learn from it. Keep writing and being brave. It sure beats the alternative.

  33. Eve Yohalem says:

    Thanks for this important conversation. Sometimes racism is in what’s NOT depicted. Seven years ago, when my daughter was in second grade, she went through a huge Childhood of Famous Americans kick. The Simon and Schuster series has been around since the 1930s, and it’s a staple of many school libraries. Imagine my surprise when we were reading the story of young Thomas Jefferson growing up on his father’s plantation where they employed white servants. Slavery never came up in the book. I wrote to the president of Simon and Schuster. He wrote back and said they were planning to re-issue the series and would make corrections. Just did a quick search and it looks like the series was re-issued this year. I haven’t checked the Thomas Jefferson book yet, but I will!

  34. Love this article and the thoughtful and thought-provoking comments that follow. My question is, “then what?” How do I, as a parent as a reader, go forward? Are the books taken off my shelves (only my shelves — I’m not looking to censor anyone else’s)? Are they read with my kids but with a long and involved discussion of what is problematic? It’s different in a picture book read to a three-year-old than a middle grade novel read with a nine-year-old, or is it? Certainly there is no dearth of other wonderful (diverse!!!!) books, but do we avoid Narnia because of the Calormenes, or stay away from Babar? These aren’t rhetorical questions…I really am curious how parents are handling it in their homes, and how teachers and librarians are handling it in the larger (and stickier) world of OPK (Other People’s Kids)!

    • Elizabeth Bird says:

      There are honestly so many different conversations we could have and I like the “Then what?” way you have of putting it. Reading your comment makes me think of the eternal Materials Specialist dilemma. I help buy all the children’s books for New York Public Library. Many of these books are either requested from patrons or librarians or they are republished in new editions. So I buy them, but should I also alert the staff to their potentially problematic nature just so they don’t get blindsided by angry patrons? What is the responsibility of the gatekeepers (so to speak)? Some of this was said more eloquently here: http://agnosticmaybe.wordpress.com/2014/09/21/banned-books-beast-2014/

      For my own part, I took home Babar for my own 3-year-old the other day. At her age she has far more issues with the death of Babar’s mama than the undercurrent of rampant patronizing colonialism. As she gets older the conversation about the book is bound to change.

      I know of someone who has written an article on this very topic but it hasn’t been released yet. Stay tuned . . .

      • I’ll keep an eye out for the article! And, yes, these questions are really tough ones. Parents are gatekeepers for their children, but it’s on a personal scale, not an institutional one. I had a friend tell me last night that she hadn’t quite worked up the nerve to give my book (with two gay dads) to her niece (one of seven kids in a very conservative religious family). She decided she will do so at Christmas and feign ignorance about the content. It’s easy for me to applaud her wanting to open her niece’s horizons. But what about the flip side — a book that holds elements of racism or sexism? Do I want my kids’ gatekeepers to let me know? Let them know?
        The whole Banned Book Week conversation trends toward the simplistic, but in fact it’s a much more complicated and difficult issue. I do not want any book banned, ever. But do I want young children to have access to every single book, all the time? Knee jerk reaction: OF COURSE. More thoughtful reaction: Huh…what about a book on making a homemade bomb? What about a terrible, ugly book that graphically glorifies all kinds of racism and misogyny violence? I don’t know.
        ANYWAY. Thanks for having this conversation. Back to writing something that hopefully will not get banned!

      • The example of Babar with your 3 year old is a good one in the “Then what?” category. I often hear the theory that parents/teachers will later contextualize the controversial aspects of these books (and I’m not questioning that *you* would, Betsy), but I suspect that in many reading situations these picture books are read to or with the younger child, then returned to the library/set on a bookshelf and never revisited at an age when said contextualization could occur. Which results in warm feelings and memories about a book that may be problematic but the problems may have either not sunk in or worse, were subconsciously accepted.

    • Joan Raphael says:

      I read the Laura Ingalls Wilder series to my preschool sons. When I got to the most racist section with Ma’s opinion of Native Americans, I put down the book and explained to the kids that people used to think this way but don’t any more. OK, I’ll admit the second part of that sentence is problematic, unfortunately, but I was talking to preschoolers. Of course, I would think this, but my 29 year old and 31 year old seem very accepting of others’ sexuality, color or religion. I was delighted to hear a long ago girlfriend refer to someone’s sexuality in the same way she’d have identified the hair coloring and go right on with the story she was telling about those friends. Don’t censor the books, explain them! Explaining doesn’t mean condoning. How do you explain the land grab of American settlers like the Ingalls without mentioning prejudice and racism? It happened. Pretending it didn’t happen is actually making the possibility of it happening again more likely. Those who don’t remember history are doomed to repeat it. (Phrase not in quotes since I can’t remember the exact original or the speaker)

  35. Diane Hearn says:

    I’ve read many of the comments here and I can’t help but think about the big push to support banned books, many of which have been banned for subject matter that has become more acceptable within our current culture. It seems to me that keeping books from kids on the grounds they contain some racist elements is very similar to banning books that contain other subjects that have been disturbing to some. I agree with the people who allow their children to enjoy what’s good about these classic books while pointing out some elements within them that are no longer acceptable.

  36. Jo Beth Dempsey says:

    Years ago I had a mother come to me about the racism in Abraham Lincoln by Ingri and Edgar D’Aulaire. Native Americans were negatively portrayed in the book. She told me that she made it a teachable moment with her daughter. She explained to her daughter that back in the days when the book was made, it was acceptable to describe Native Americans as “redskins” and “squaws” but it is not acceptable now and she must never use those words ever when referring to Native Americans. It was a valuable lesson for the child and an eye-opener for the mother.

    Kids need to learn about racism, that it still happens, and that it brings out the worst in people. We need to fight against that ignorance. Sometimes these very books can be the tool to help us with that battle.

  37. The early editions of The Bobbsey Twins had “colored” servants Dinah and Sam speaking in a dialect that embarrasses me to remember. I don’t know whether later editions changed anything.

  38. I highly recommend Michael Dorris’ essay, “Trusting the Words”, Booklist (89) and also available in his book PAPER TRAIL. He describes how excited he was when he set out to read the LITTLE HOUSE books to his kids, and the “slammed-into-a-brick-wall” sensation he had when he came across passages he’d skimmed right over as a kid. His solution (which didn’t last) was not to erase anything, but to add to it; hence, after Ma sounds off about how “the only good Indian is a dead Indian”, he had Laura reply, “Gee, Ma, that’s a terrible thing to say. I’m ashamed of you.” It’s tragicomedy of the highest order.

  39. Wow, all very very helpful! I especially love this, “Kids need to learn about racism, that it still happens, and that it brings out the worst in people. We need to fight against that ignorance. Sometimes these very books can be the tool to help us with that battle.” Thank you Jo Beth and all!

  40. I think it’s okay to read many of these books to children and let them enjoy them – as long as you discuss the racism, implicit and explicit, along the way. I do appreciate that racism was racism at whatever time it occurred, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that blame accrues to the author in the same proportions as it would to an author today. A white woman living in England around 1900 like E. Nesbit had much less chance of not being racist than she would have had a century later. It would be a great shame to ditch all her books completely. After all, many of the greatest Renaissance paintings are anti-Semitic in their depictions of, for example, Judas Iscariot. We may and should deplore this when we look at them – but it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t look at them.

    • I concur with this thought: “It would be a great shame to ditch all her books completely.” To do so smacks of censorship.

      I feel anger at the accusation of racism. Perhaps stereotyping would be the better word, as it seems that this truly is what is happening. Racism suggests that one tries to deprive others of services based upon appearance.

  41. Andi Sibley says:

    Excellent discussion. I am currently in a MOOC about Laura Ingalls Wilder’s work, and I hope to have this type of discussion there too. For those of us privileged to be in the “majority” ethnically, and to have been raised with access to this literature, I think it’s an excellent opportunity for us to start to see the racism we were taught to be blind to. It’s the air we breathed, and it’s no accident that we were surrounded by it. Now if we start to see it and are repulsed and horrified, we have the chance to respond and grow past that. Letting our children witness our responded might be one of the best bonuses. I am all for reading the books and reacting in an age appropriate way, even if it’s just a comment on my sons’ favorite Curious George movie, such as, ” Hmmm, I wonder where all the other monkeys are in George’s jungle home, and why the story makes it seem like he needs the man?” Or some such.

  42. This post is a pretty safe one in that it looks at racism in books of old. More interesting would’ve been a look at more recent titles that are racist like Levy’s Gonzalo Grabs the Good Life, in my opinion, with its very stereotypical representation of Latinos. Then the article would’ve been a much more significant piece, especially during this time when we’re having that talk on diversity in children’s books, and more specifically the lack of it. And what’s the purpose of it, ultimately? What is the author’s call to action! That we stop reading the obviously racist Seuss altogether? Or just this one book or two by a clearly racist author?

    • Elizabeth Bird says:

      Howdy, Rene. Enjoyed your recent post Forgive Me My Bluntness: I’m a Writer of Color and I’m Right Here In Front of You: I’m the One Sitting Alone at the Table. Believe I linked to it recently. Ah yes. There we go: http://blogs.slj.com/afuse8production/2014/09/26/fusenews-properly-vicious/

      Feel free to address me directly as I am “the author” (which makes me sound rather proper and formal, like I should be wearing a monocle and sipping a gimlet) in question. My call to action? There doesn’t appear to be one here, does there? No, alas, this is just a think piece about a situation we all grapple with, whether as parents or librarians or teachers. What I like is that in the course of the comments here the people have jointly agreed that this is a situation that demands understanding and, ultimately, some guidelines. Obviously we don’t stop reading Seuss or Nesbit or Eager or any of these folks. What we do need to do is find solutions, and a couple interesting ones are mentioned in the comments. Everything from discussion with our children, giving context to the insult, to adding text (that Michael Dorris selection was fascinating, was it not?).

      But safe? Indeed. But I think a look at contemporary racism is a different post altogether, don’t you? It would deserve its own place in the sun.

      • Yes, Elizabeth, and a worthwhile piece that would be. Please, if you can, get that piece written. It is so necessary, especially as Eric Holder steps down and his first significant speech under Obama will be one of THOSE speeches: a nations of cowards must be transformed into a nation united. Get us talking. And thanks for the link up.

  43. Some years ago I read Around the World in 80 Days to my son, and was horrified. Verne pretty much stereotyped every culture around the world. It made a good teaching moment, though, as we were able to have a good discussion about stereotypes and racism.

  44. I am in love with this discussion. When I was a kid, my favorite book of the Narnia series was THE HORSE AND HIS BOY, but I was just too uncomfortable sharing it with my kids as a read-aloud. It felt too complicit, you know? And THE LAST BATTLE is even worse with Tash (read: Allah) depicted as the anti-christ. Good lord.

    And while I knew as a child how problematic the depiction of Native Americans were in the Little House on the Prairie books, I really was shocked while listening to my son read that book out loud. I kept wanting to interrupt him and provide context and counter-examples.

    • I felt that the Narnia series was too important not to read. As a kid I only ever read The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe and although I loved it, started reading The Horse and His Boy and just couldn’t finish.

  45. I have found these discussions fascinating. It’s encouraging to see people really get what us minorities have been complaining about for years. But what able the popular time travel type books or books that are simply set back in time? How they gloss over the attitudes towards minorities because their main characters would have shared those attitudes and viewed through modern sensibilities it would make them look horrendous. I recall a workshop I sat through where the writer said the way she ‘dealt’ with it was by completely ignoring it. Reminds me of some of the scenes in Titanic. Where you get a glimpse of the ethnic immigrants bit it really is all about the injustice of class. Also reminds me of the incredible irony that didn’t quite occur to me at first in Casablanca. Where we’re supposed to feel sorry for these French expats who are suffering occupation and yet, hello, the story takes place in Morocco which is suffering under French colonial rule. Such is the power of the story I watched it properly for the first time many years ago, feeling really uneasy. That something was bothering me and finally when I realized the irony and how Rick’s place was reminiscent of the British clubs with signs posted ‘no dogs or Indians allowed’ although yes, you do see a few locals allowed in so it’s not that bad, but then the caricature of the locals including the fat guy in the fez that Rick ends up selling to…well. what can you say?

  46. This is crazy. We are grasping at straws here, I think. Racism, in the typical sense of the word does not fit in your demonizing of these books. Presumptuous, maybe, generalizing, possibly. Racist, not hardly. To draw or say Chinese people have eyes full of slant is an observation. Google “Chinese people” and click images. Are there some Chinese without much slant at all in their eyes? Of course. Do an overwhelming majority of them have slanted eyes? Of course. He didn’t use any expletives, any derogatory, demeaning words to describe the charters. He made an observation based on a common physical trait.

    You could take anything there into the realm of racist if you try hard enough. I liken this to the fundamentalists that claim satan is in “insert completely innocent work of literature here”. Just someone over-analyzing, projecting their own insecurities or secret skeletons onto someone or something else. Seriously… grasping at straws like you wouldn’t believe.

  47. The Great Gilly Hopkins threw me off when I read it to my daughter recently.

  48. Oh, gods, Betsy, I’m all kinds of discombobulated right now. :S

  49. Check out Robert Louis Stevenson. Among his poems is “Foreign Children” –with lines as “Little frosty Eskimo,/Little Turk or Japanee”. The end line is just total xenophobic: “Don’t you wish that were me?”

  50. I don’t get the point of preventing kids from reading or seeing these books. Most of what people are referring to as racist are only outdated stereotypes that kids are not going to reverse-engineer into their own attitudes and beliefs, anyway. And then as they revisit the books when they’re older, they will better understand the past, and gain an understanding of historical attitudes and beliefs. This is better than being intellectually sheltered.
    Once they are reading independently, kids notice when their books are being censored or withheld. That is a poor lesson. Not to mention that they will resent it. Let them read freely and develop their own minds.

Trackbacks

  1. […] been thinking about this because of the conversation over at Betsy Bird’s post about older books that include racist elements and even more so this post by Matt Tavares about his […]

  2. […] been thinking about this because of the conversation over at Betsy Bird’s post about older books that include racist elements and even more so this post by Matt Tavares about his […]

  3. […] Having weeded a few very old collections, I am constantly on the lookout for books that are casually racist. Betsy Bird at Fuse8 wrote about realizing that a beloved book — or one you’re in the middle of reading out loud — is surprisingly racist. […]