Thank you, Uma Krishnaswami, for directing me to Radhika Menon’s essay, “Questioning Cultural Stereotypes Through Children’s Books.” Menon, an editor at the Indian children’s publisher Tulika, makes some incredibly insightful observations in this piece. Highly recommended.
9 responses to “Children’s Books and Cultural Stereotypes”
Thanks for the link, Monica. I’m in Chennai (India) right now, and am heading over to visit Tulika in about 5 minutes!
growing up i read books from all over the british empire. the language was different, sometimes elements were puzzling, but i came to the books knowing that i might not understand everything in them and i was comfortable with that. these days even books in english are “translated” for americans with changes in spelling and vocabulary. i don’t see any value in changing colour to color, or deleting vegemite sandwiches because children don’t know what they are. it disturbs me that most multi-cultural books are written in an observational style, even those written by native members of the culture presented. Always the reader is the outsider looking in, with this and that explained for him. Why shouldn’t children be immersed in another, unfamiliar world and be left to sort it out for themselves?
i know why. left to figure things out for themselves, they might get things wrong. everyone fears the misconception. or worse: grown-ups are afraid that readers won’t bother to sort it out at all, that they will walk away uninterested in a story that is too unfamiliar. they have good reason to be afraid. which is better, to give a child a book that is compromised by a desire to keep the reader engaged, or to produce better books that fewer children will read?
i enjoyed radhika menon’s article and agree with her analysis, but i don’t see an easy solution. publishers need to make money. they will always go for the compromised book that will sell to a broader market.
and if you knew that you could only show a child one book about India, what would it be? would you purchase for your small school library the book that accurately portrayed a tiny minority of a hugely complex society? or would you buy the tourist version books that sweep across the entire country is 132 pages?
When I was in my final year of graduation, we had a popular fiction paper. It had one text that was supposed to encompass an entire genre like Spy, Suspense, Romance,etc. For Example, for Suspense we had Chrisite’s Murder of Roger Ackroyd, James Bond for spy and for Children’s Lit we had Through the Looking glass as Children’s Lit.
What me and my class found hillarious was that these terms like “children’s literature” and even terms like romance, etc. are too braod categories. In TTLG, there was so much we could point out as satire, lampoon, irony, sexual innuendos that children’s lit doesnt seem to cover any of it.
And just as an extension to that…Harry Potter is often termed as Children’s lit, but i think fans know better.
This is a fascinating article. A lot of the points the author makes remind me of the critiques in the book “A Broken Flute,” which critiques hundreds of children’s books with Native American content. Many of the reviews in that book also point out that children’s books about American Indians are often touted as virtuously “multicultural”, when really they’ve stripped all the true “Indian” content out of the stories to make them more palatable to non-Indian child audiences. Or rather, to adults who can’t imagine those audiences being able to understand anything too unfamiliar.
Hear! Hear! And Hallalujah! For all those who refuse to talk down to children by “dumbing down” text and who celebrate that children will puzzle out or ask real questions about things that come up in the text and content of children’s literature, examining new concepts and unfamiliar terms. I distinctly remember the point of where I , as a child, thoroughly connected with “Alice” as she fell down the rabbit hole, because I had often had nightmares of opening a door and falling away into a black abyss. Isn’t that why we teach children to read for pleasure, so they can have adventures and use their vivid imagination to “hook” them into learning and research? For nearly 30 years – I found all sorts of ways to intrigue children to question and learn about unfamiliar places, people and things as an Early Childhood Educator. How did I do that most of the time – Why by reading books to them about unfamiliar things and people of course! Then by expanding those questions into concrete and physical learning experiences. THAT IS WHAT A TRUE TEACHER DOES!
I guess it’s difficult to achieve a balance between deciding to give children what they like and what they “ought” to like. On the one hand, the best way to sensitise children on issues like gender equality, environment consciousness and respect for the underprivileged or disabled is through sensitively-written stories. On the other, it’s equally important that kids really enjoy stories for themselves without having to draw a moral out of them. I feel Rowling did a great job in her books by touching on these issues without being preachy (remember Dobby the elf and Hermione’s spirited defence of his rights, offset by the boys’ lighthearted digs at her?). Children nowadays are a lot more intelligent and mature than we give them credit for and they deserve to have good books rather than books which are good for them.
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