I'm putting the Friday Wish-List on hold this week. I want to talk about something a little more serious - and I'd love comments with your opinions.
The Dr. Dolittle/Savage Garden combination I posted Tuesday is one that I've been putting off for several weeks. You see, I read the Dr. Dolittle books when I was a kid. Our school library had several of them, fat, rather dusty, with that old book smell, in that classic library binding that still draws me like a magnet. I remember them with great fondness and had them on my list of Classics To Share With My Children.
When I write a post, though, I tend to go poking around the internet. I might start off looking for a good copy of the song's lyrics, or the correct spelling of an author's name, but before long I get distracted into reading reviews and biographies (and then I remember what I'm doing and grab my ear to haul myself back to work.) While poking around this time (looking for a good biographical page for Hugh Lofting) I ran across this page from The Universe of Discourse, which is all about racism in, and the bowdlerization of, the Dr. Dolittle books.
Dr. Dolittle? Racist? I didn't remember anything like that!!! But, looking it over with adult eyes, there it was. Some of the examples cited I really can't agree are problems - other examples, though, had me cringing. I put off posting until I'd thought this over a bit.
The whole thing flashed me back to the time I downloaded a free audiobook version of The Treasure Seekers, by Edith Nesbit.
E. Nesbit was another childhood favorite. A fan of stories about magic and adventure from before I could read, it didn't take me long to learn to look for the name Nesbit when I was scavenging the school library. She and Edward Eager have the honor of being my first two favorite authors. I was so excited to share her wonderful stories with my children!
So, there we were, the CD popped in to entertain the kidlets while Mommy drove all over town on errands. We listened to the book for days. They were riveted, and begged me to start the story again each time we got in the car. Everything went beautifully - until right at the end of the book. One of the characters used a racial slur.
Now, as an adult, I can look at the time when the book was written, look at the context, and say, "OK, this is horrifying, but given the way people thought back then, not unexpected. It's lamentable, and disappointing, but when you are reading something this old, it can't be entirely avoided." As a parent? I practically hyperventilated while I stabbed frantically at the Off button.
Once I started breathing again, we had quite the family discussion about Bad Words and how sometimes books use words that we would never, ever, ever use in real life. That was a Very Bad Word. That was a Mean Word. We never, ever, ever use Mean Words. And so on and on and on. The kids stopped listening long before I stopped lecturing.
When we got home, I threw the audio book away.
I've never heard my children use that word. I doubt if my lecture was the deciding factor - I think it's just that they only ever heard that word once and it just didn't register with them. Nevertheless, it's left me nervous about the children's classics I was so fond of when I was a kid. What's lurking in Mary Poppins (1934)? Do I need to reread Heidi (1884) or Hans Brinker (1865) before I put them on my childrens' bookshelf?
I'm not as worried about anything overtly ugly in any of those books as I am about the foundational attitudes. In The Treasure Seekers, that word was thrown out there in such a matter of fact fashion. It was just a word to E. Nesbit, no more important than the word train or the word stair. That's what horrifies me. That's what I don't want my children to absorb.
I'd love opinions here. Do you read classics to your children, or give them to your children to read? How do you handle racist and sexist attitudes you find in such books? I oppose banning books - and yet I don't want my kids reading something with that kind of casual bigotry. Does that make me a hypocrite? What do you think?
Books: Dr. Dolittle, Hugh Lofting
The Treasure Seekers, Edith Nesbit