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.