Friday, September 3, 2010

Bigotry In Classic Children's Books

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 Story of the Treasure Seekers (Nesbit)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.

Hans BrinkerThe 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.

HeidiNow, 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


Man of la Books said...

Insightful and thoughtful entry. I tweeted it to my following under the hashmark #helpotherbookblogs, hope you can do the same for another blogger.

When I read a book to my kids I do edit it, but mostly just as to not scare the daylight out of them.

Like you said, you have to take everything in context and I'll add to that that we cannot and should not just people of gone eras by today's standards. Just like we will not want to be judged a hundred years from now by their standards.

That being said, I see nothing wrong with updating children books, after all all fairy tales are meant to reflect the times and teach a lesson. Little Red Riding Hood originally ended with the wolf eating her and the grandmother. Tough lessons for tough times.

Cannwin said...

The first thought that ran through my head when I started reading this was... I guess Dr. Dolittle wouldn't be happy with the Eddie Murphy movie version... Ironic much?

But, all silliness aside I am picky about the books I let my kids read, for whichever reasons.

Tamora Pierce is one of my favorites but I won't let my eight year old read her (although she'd devour them) because of the sexuality in her storylines.

Recently that same child has started reading The Hobbit and has been asking all about The Lord of the Rings. I hesitate to let her read it because of the point in the Return of the King when they launch the heads of the people over the city walls.

The 4th Harry Potter was nixed until she was 9-- and now I wish I'd said 10.

I guess that what I'm saying is there are certain ages when I feel my children will be ready for certain content, because they are mature enough to understand it's place within the book. Until I feel they are ready for that I won't be letting them read it. :)

La Coccinelle said...

I don't have any kids, so I'm really not sure what my approach would be. I think it's important that kids know that those words existed at one time (it's part of history, after all), but I wouldn't want them to hear the words before they were old enough to really understand that they really shouldn't use them. It's a tough question.

I guess this is why we don't generally read Adventures of Huckleberry Finn until high school, when we're old enough to understand the connotations of certain words.

Jolene Perry said...

I am often shocked when I pick up older children's books.
I agree with La Cocinelle about many of them need to wait until high school when kids are old enough to understand they came from a different time when things that we don't find acceptable, were acceptable.
Good food for thought.

Cari Hislop said...

I think parents need to remember that children don't see/read the same things as adults. When you're a child you relate to what you're reading, seeing, hearing from an childish perspective. For instance when I was about nine, one of the songs on the radio I LOVED was My Sharona by The Knack. I always assumed he was singing about his car. It wasn't until a few years ago (and I'm nearly 40) that I finally realized what he was singing about! At the same time I remember jokes and conversations about sex in the playground also around nine that would have had parents gasping in horror. I think telling a kid that they can't read something will only make them want to read it that much more only now they'll be reading in hope of learning the reasons you didn't want them to read it.

If my parents had said to me I couldn't read a Harry Potter book I would have checked it out at the school library and read it at school during recess! As for frightening content, I'd wager your children's nightmares are more violent and terrifying than anything you could ban them from reading (mine were).

There are always words we have to learn that aren't nice. When I moved to England, I had to learn a whole new set of words. I was at a church function for young women when I made the passing remark, "Toss that!" In America it means throw it away, but they all gasped in horror. In England Toss means to masturbate. I've never made the mistake again! At some point your kids are going to hear all sorts of awful words at school or church or wherever. I think it's best to fight a fire when you see a flame rather then unwittingly starting a fire you'll have to put out.

Jennifer said...

I love the comments everyone has made. They've been so thoughtful and really helpful to me in sorting out my options on dealing with this. Thank you!

zxcvbnm said...

Well, you don't have to go to the classics for bigotry and other negative issues. What about Enid Blyton's Golliwog? And Little Black Sambo? And so on, ad nauseam?

Selwyn said...

No, you're not a hypocrite! Like most great literature (or simply excellent stories), it's in the discussion that you can clarify things - just like you did with your kids.

I have my nearly 13 year old hooked on the Skullduggery Pleasant series, and while there IS violence and death in them, there is also honour, friendship and difficult choices, which we talk about. It's been a while since I looked at my old favourites - I'll have to see what they turn up! said...

Very cool post! Important topic. In kids books ugh. But the classics are full of slurs, stereotypes and anachronistic thoughts both racial and gender biased. The Wind in the Willows is supposed to be awful. Maybe there should be a code on a book that is out of its own time if it has anachronistic and wrong thinking words or themes. Then instead of horrifying it can be instructive. On the other hand I grew up with all those slurs and assumptions and would never use the "word which shall no longer even be hinted at by saying its first letter." So maybe kids today will be even smarter than kids were in my youth. I would like to say we just shouldn't let kids see those books. But, we have been talking a lot about banning books and why that is bad too. I can't draw the line where I want it and then not allow someone else their own line. But I am no scholar or educator and know more of cats than kids.

Carin S. said...

Last weekend I was at a beach house and ran across an old Bobbsey Twins books. Started reading it. Was pretty horrified when I ran across the description of Dinah, their cook, and the way her dialogue is written. I think they're okay for older kids who can discuss the historical context of words that are now inappropriate, but for very little kids, I think minor editing is fine. Personally, I couldn't stop wincing and had to put the book down after 20 pages. Which is a shame becuase I remember loving those books so much. Memory is a funny thing.

Jennifer said...

I read those when I was a kid. At first, I loved the books, but when I was older I reread a couple of them and was disturbed by the portrayal of Dinah and other minorities. It absolutely killed my liking them.


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