Recently I did a brief post noting a Guardian article about a situation in Germany involving what to do about an older, but still beloved children’s book with some language that is very problematic today. I wasn’t surprised because I had noticed such imagery and language before in my childhood German books and also because this is a difficult situation that is happening in many countries, not just Germany. Now Judith Ridge has written an incredibly thoughtful post related to this, “Censor or suck it up? Racism and children’s books.” As she and many in the comments note, it is a dilemma. On the one hand you don’t want children being hurt, but on the other hand it is uncomfortable to start changing books for this when the author is no longer around to give his or her okay to the process.
A few years ago there was quite a todo when someone brought out a new edition of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn with “the pejorative racial labels” removed. I have to admit that didn’t sit well with me and I concluded in “The Problem with Protection” that “History ain’t pretty, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be known.” But then that was a book that most young people encounter in a classroom with a teacher to guide them through it. The situation is more complicated with books that children read on their own.
Say with Hugh Lofting’s The Story of Doctor Dolittle. I loved the book as a child, back in the early 19060s when the adults around me weren’t as on top of this sort of stuff as we are today. And so I was oblivious to the book’s completely problematic plot thread involving the Doctor and his animal friends tricking an African prince who loves classical European fairy tales into thinking he has turned white. Yep, you read that right. Just check out Chapters 11 and 12. And so, some years ago, an edition came out in which “Patricia and Fredrick McKissack gently revised for modern sensibilities a few small portions of the story so as to preserve and emphasize Lofting’s message of universal caring and understanding.” Because I’m sadly, very uncomfortable with the original and the change, I think the only solution is for the book to be one for those interested in the history of children’s books, not children today.