Thursday, September 23, 2010

Kidlit Quandary

What's a kidlit book blogger to do when she loves some books, but if she looks at them wearing her writer or book reviewer hat, she sees that the writing is flawed in some way? That's the case with some books from my childhood, and early teaching life.

Take Little Black Sambo. As an adult I do NOT want to promote racial disharmony or prejudice or stereotyping in any way. Yet I loved that story so much, my students loved it, we read it over and over, and when I see the cover and illustrations, I get a goofy grin on my face.

It's the same with Enid Blyton's Faraway Tree books. Even as an adult, I think back with fondness to Dame Slap and her impossible math problems, and a tree with magical lands revolving at its top. Admittedly, reading aloud about children with names like Fanny and Dick is a challenge, and the writing is not a style we emulate today, but my students loved those stories, begged for a new chapter each day, and their own writing, reading and playground games reflected that love. Now I see they have re-issued the books but made them more relevant to our day and age. Was it necessary do you think? I was fascinated by Tania McCartney's post about it, where she reveals her daughter's preference for the original versions. And lots of Amazon reviewers agree. 

Another old favourite of mine is William. Do you know the series by Richmal Crompton? William definitely wasn't a good role model. He broke windows with his slingshot, told fibs and hankered after all sorts of criminal activities. No, those books aren't great literature, but they make me giggle, and perhaps they'd still make children laugh today.

Sometimes I think we underestimate kids. Perhaps we don't understand that they're capable of recognizing prejudice or other problems in books, and making their own minds up about it. I worry that we are "dumbing down" by keeping kids away from some of the classics, yet I can see that emergent or reluctant readers in particular would be daunted by complex vocabulary and sentence structure.

Where do you stand on this issue? Do you think it's okay to share material or toys with kids that might not be ethical or worthy, so long as we discuss the problems and stereotypes with them? Do you think political correctness can be taken too far? Or are you always careful to provide your kids with literature and toys that support your family's values?

(Image of Little Black Sambo in Public Domain.)


  1. So far we've only come across racial stereotypes with the Tintin books. I've explained to my son why those stereotypes are wrong, and he understands. As far as I know, he's never copied the bad behavior or language of characters in literature. He reads about villains all the time and never acts like them. But I talk about his books with him. I think I'll look for the original Faraway Tree books for my boys...

  2. Dawn Riccardi Morris23 September, 2010

    I'm all for reading everything, as long as the material is age appropriate. Children's books can be great conversation starters; and if a book is questionable, it really is a good idea for a parent or a teacher to read it along with the child. Ignoring sensitive topics is not going to make them go away. The more genres of literature a child is exposed to, and the more diverse the characters, the better she'll come to understand herself and the world.

    By the way, there was a really great post about the importance of children reading books with characters of different races, which I found through @olugbemisola on Twitter. Here's the link:

    Thanks for asking some important questions, Susan!

  3. Holly, thanks for sharing those thoughts. I agree it's important to discuss books with our kids. They are definitely capable of understanding stereotypes are wrong, I agree.

  4. I agree Dawn - in fact, I think if we shelter kids totally from sensitive topics, ban them and ban the books that treat them, we end up making them extra attractive to kids. Reading together and discussing makes lots of sense to me.

    Thanks for the link!

  5. Hi Susan

    I am thinking of contacting publishers on this one & suggesting when they publish books like this in their original format to include an introduction to set the book in its context. I think a bit of a description of the mind set & cultural norms of the time in which it was written would help the reader discern why it was written the way it was.

    It's so easy for us to apply our judgements today on what was written in the past, but I'm sad that it's to the detriment of great children's literature.

    Viva la difference!


  6. Pip, that sounds to me like an excellent idea. I am all for publishers adding value to books in some way. Providing notes about the cultural context might make the book more accessible to people studying literature too perhaps. They could add some questions for readers to think about, questions that help us discern and challenge stereotypes but don't interfere with our enjoyment of the story.

  7. Caroline Starr Rose24 September, 2010

    It's absolutely good to share and discuss. When I read LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE with my son, I was struck by the negative descriptions of Indians (something I didn't remember during my childhood reads). This provided a wonderful opportunity to talk about stereotypes and how fear can shape our opinions of others unfairly. Also, that there are kind and unkind people no matter what ethnic group they're in.

    It was lovely to see how Laura is the character who ultimately sees the similarities she shares with the Indians.

    Still don't think I'll bring out SAMBO, though I too loved it as a kid.

  8. I guess we all have a line we draw and don't cross, Caroline. I very much agree with what you say about fear shaping our perception of others. One of the things I love most about literature is the opportunities it gives us to walk a mile in different people's shoes. It seems we are far less likely to make sweeping generalisations about a group of people when we've had the chance to develop understanding of them, either in real life or through media.

  9. I think that it is important to share these and not shelter kids from them. I agree with your assessment that kids are much more insightful than we give them credit for. They recognize prejudice and it offers an excellent platform to talk about the past, the changes, and the future.

  10. Good point, Kelly, thanks for contributing!

  11. You raise so many great points here. My mum loved this story and read it to my children before she died so it's really special to me. She also LOVED (and so do I) Epiminondas. I LOVE THE BOOK SERIES. So much so I've tracked down several old copies for my own.

    I see this issue similar to Barbie dolls. In the blogsphere there is a lot of taboo around them due to poor body image etc. I get the point but I LOVED playing with Barbie dolls when I was a child and I never even though of their bodies... never came to my mind! Sometimes I think we try so hard to "make" thinkgs not happen that we can unwittingly "make" them happen.

  12. Donna Perugini25 September, 2010

    PC (Politically Correctness) has swung to a far end. Eventually it will make its way back to the middle. Meanwhile, I'd like to say that PC affects more than just our old books, old movies, words we use, political views....everything has been touched by PC.

    In the US I remember when they had a restaurant named Little Black Sambo's that was changed to a new name and all decorations that referred to it were deleted. Uncle Tom is a wonderful book that many call not PC; Huckleberry Finn is another that was being pulled off the shelves earlier in our history with words that were not PC.
    Then we get into 'ban the offensive books', but we ask, "Where's the line drawn?"

    Where do I stand on all of it? I believe in the freedom of speech, but if it is going to denigrate my neighbor, I'll set it aside. I can still find the books I want to read even if they're taken off the shelves that are open to the public. I'll pull with the people who want to have equality in their lives and not use the 'hate words'.

    Do I love the old books? I'm not so attached that I can't leave it behind if it is truly hurtful and offensive. I can look in a book and not be using the same terminology used by Mark Twain. He heard it in his day, but I don't have to repeat it in mine. The terminology has taken on such a difference now.
    I don't think we'll ever see any of the old books like Sambo being reprinted as they were. The publishing company won't make any money on it in its old format. I do think that what Samuel Clemmons wrote will remain, as will Uncle Tom's Cabin. It's probably due to the fact that older children are reading them in school, discussing and pointing out what does not work for today. They are also classics, but little children won't be reading them...more for the older children. We look out more for the little children and try not to give them images and words that stereotype and support racism and hatred.

  13. I loved reading Epaminondas aloud. The rhythm, the repetition, the simplicity of the story and the scope it gave me to indulge my sense of theatre (aka the Book Chook is a drama queen!) all made it loved in my classroom. I hasten to add that if my kids had gone around saying "You ain't got the brains you were born with." to each other, I would have instituted a discussion about put-downs very smartly. To my knowledge, they stuck with the usual playground taunts instead.

    I think you're right, Kelly, it is a similar issue to the Barbie doll one. And to the toy gun one. I believe we each need to decide where we stand and not allow advertisers/publishers/manufacturers to make the decision for us.

  14. Good point, Donna. In lots of ways, to me, political correctness is a good thing. It opens my eyes to situations beyond my limited vision, and makes me aware that my unwitting remarks may offend. But I am certainly aware of situations where it has been taken, to me, too far.

    I guess for me as an individual, story is paramount, so with my own child, I would happily read and discuss stories like Epaminondas and Little Black Sambo. But with a group, I wouldn't. My public persona would not want to risk offence.

    In books, good writing is just as important though. Some of the books I loved as a child, I still love, but don't want to re-read because of the writing. Others have stood the test of time.

    I guess, in the end, we all balance somewhere on the spectrum. Maybe our position changes because of age, life experiences, becoming more open to other points of view. But it's definitely a balancing act between avoiding stereotypes and embracing choice.

  15. "Lawks a massey me, Epaminondas!" HA! Love it! And you are right, I wouldn't let my children go and speak to others like this: "You ain't got the brains you were born with."

    And my children never have. I just makes so much sense in the book and in context with the Mammy character -- I adore her! I think we often like to pick out details without looking at the big picture.


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