What to Do About Classic Children’s Books that are Racist

One of my favorite childhood books was Hugh Lofting’s Doctor Dolittle. I’ve the original book and as a young teacher realized that it was…um…horribly…racist and so kept it home and did not recommend it. At one point a parent expressed shock to me that it was on the reading list for the grade above mine. When I told the teacher she showed me a version of the book in which the racist storyline had been completely removed.   I wasn’t sure what to think about that. Yes, the original version is unquestionably racist and problematic for kids, but to rework it without the author’s okay (even if he is dead)?  It made me then and still makes me very uneasy.

Now Phil Nel has picked up the gauntlet, so to speak, with his superb post, “Can Censoring a Children’s Book Remove Its Prejudices?”   In it he focuses on the way Roald Dahl’s Oompa-Loompas in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory were changed over the years (with the author’s okay) and the changes made to Lofting’s book (not with his okay, he being deceased).   What I appreciate so much about Phil’s post is that he goes far beyond considering these fixes to the overall racist sensibilities in the two books — how the fixes are only surface and leave very problematic viewpoints in the books.

And then what do you with these books and kids today?  It is a hard, hard call. Phil considers very carefully a variety of responses and points out their limitations.  He concludes:  “As an educator, I’m inclined to fall back on the (albeit imperfect) solution of reading troubling texts with young people, and talking with them about what they encounter.”  Me too.

Also on my Huffington Post blog.

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10 Comments

Filed under Children's Literature, Classic, Huffington Post

10 responses to “What to Do About Classic Children’s Books that are Racist

  1. KT Horning

    Thanks for the link. You can also add Mary Poppins to the list — Travers revised it not once but twice to remove racist content.

    With questions like this, I think it’s good to call attention to the issues so people are aware of them. But when it comes to what to do with such books, it would only be a real dilemma for me if I were stranded on a desert island with a 10 year old and Dr Dolittle was the only book we had. My point is that there are so many great children’s books out there that aren’t racist that as librarians and teachers we should be promoting them instead.

  2. Jennifer Armstrong

    As a white adoptive parent of an African child I have made the possibly cowardly choice of just avoiding many of these books. I have already been faced with the innocent question on my daughter’s part, after I tried to explain this country’s slavery history to her — “Am I your slave?” I went to Ethiopia and brought her back with me without her consent. Yikes. How else could that look to her? So I am especially sensitive about classic literature where white folks go to Africa to do something “to” or “for” Africans. I console myself with the happy truth that there is an abundance of wonderful literature to share with my daughter; I honestly don’t feel she’s being denied anything by not reading Dr. Dolittle.
    As far as I know, few people read Uncle Tom’s Cabin as recreational reading these days, but it’s read in college as an an artifact of cultural or literary history. I think the same fate awaits many classics of children’s literature, too.

  3. I’ve written about this a bit before (and before I knew what a terrible homophobe Orson Scott Card is — to what extent that permeates his fiction, I’m not sure, but it has permanently soured me on the man — but it’s an endlessly fascinating topic.

    I haven’t read Dr. Doolittle or Charlie & the Chocolate Factory since I was a kid. I may have read a revised Charlie; I almost certainly read an original Doolittle. I do remember, though, watching an early Disney movie with some college friends and being appalled at the ethnic stereotypes — and then looking around at my friends, realizing we all could see the problems with the film now when they’d gone completely over our heads as children, and thinking that we were, on the whole, white people who were doing our best to recognize our own prejudices.

    Some things we encounter as children damage us forever; some, though, seem to be overcome.

  4. You might be interested in this comparison I did of four versions of The Voyages of Dr. Dolittle. I do think it is important that editors acknowledge and identify any changes made from the original, so at least the reader can make an informed decision.

  5. KT, I agree that there are plenty of other books out there. (But I have to say I can just picture you on that desert island with Bumpo and the ten year-old. Bet you could still do better than the original Dr. Dolittle:)

    Jennifer, that is quite a story. Do you think though that eventually she will perhaps encounter some of these one way or another? That is always what I wonder. Still I have done as you did in comparable classroom situations.

    Laura, interesting post with other classics I’d not thought too much about. Thanks for the heads-up.

    Amanda, excellent breakdown of the changes over time. I knew some, but not all this. Thanks for letting us know about it.

  6. Toby Rajput

    I came to this discussion after reading Phil Nel’s thoughtful post. I have also done a lot of thinking about racism in classic children’s books and whether or not they are only inappropriate or can, as Laura said, damage children forever.

    Jane Yolen, in her book Touch Magic, wrote about her love for E. Nesbit’s The Story of the Amulet when she was a child. When she reread it as an adult however, she became aware of the anti-semitism characteristic of the author’s upper middle class English culture. In Yolen’s words: “I loved the Nesbit books uncritically, had not ever noticed the small knee-jerk prejudicial parts. I had read past the metaphors, skimming over the things I did not understand, and around the ugly stuff. I had not noticed that Nesbit’s characters – like Nesbit herself – were anti what I was. Because when I was in Nesbit’s books, I was not me, I was one of them.” What damage might be done to children who unconsciously absorb someone else’s prejudices against their own selves? And isn’t this what we do to all children when we permit stereotypes to define minority cultures in children’s books?

    I agree with KT however, that raising awareness is important and that ultimately the solution is to take responsibility for selecting, purchasing and filling our schools and libraries with the very best books available.

  7. It depends on how you see the book/ story. Just be responsible when it comes to explaining it to the kids that all people are equal.

  8. If ever this will happen and the kids would ask regarding about it, it is better for you to explain it to them.

  9. Jerry Griswold

    I address the issue of race in my Introduction to “The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle” (Signet Classic). It might be of interest to others. I’m sorry that the 3 pages of reasoned argument can’t fit in this space.

  10. Pingback: Everyone’s a Little Bit Book Bannerish « educating alice

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