Considering the Classics

Long, long ago I wrote a professional book for Scholastic called Fantasy Literature in the Classroom. After Harry Potter, they had me update it and then retitled it Using Beloved Classics to Teach Reading Comprehension.  Both books feature my E. B. White author study, my teaching of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and other works of classical fantasy literature for children. Since writing the book I’ve been attentive to others who write of the problematic nature of many beloved classics, especially in terms of diversity. Most recently I appreciated Padma Venkatraman‘s Nerdy Book Club post, “Classics, Colonization and a Call for Change” in which she relates her own experiences with certain classics and urges us to carefully consider if and how we share them today with children.

While I’m clearly still a fan of teaching certain classics, I also think we need to vigilant at examining the ones we share with children to be certain that they aren’t problematic. Repeatedly. Just this weekend I visited a dear former colleague to whom I had at one point suggested do something with Kipling’s Just So Stories. (I illustrated “The Elephant’s Child” when I lived in Sierra Leone and remembered the stories fondly, thus my recommendation.) She was game until she read them and encountered some seriously racist language I’d completely forgotten and there was no question that it wasn’t suitable. (For those interested it is “How the Rhinoceros Got Its Skin.” Often editions edit out the n-word so you may be unaware of it. I just came across this thoughtful post by a parent on reading the stories to his child.)

Padma reports:

Despite all the amazing recent work that the organization We Need Diverse Books is doing, despite the many dedicated individuals who have been working for decades to raise awareness about the need for diversity and multiculturalism in children’s books, I’m sorry to report that my daughter has been given The Secret Garden and A Little Princess as gifts; not once, not twice, but an astounding seven times all in all. This gift has always come from thoughtful individuals who remembered that the stories had something to do with India; I am sure, however, that they didn’t quite realize how Indians (and other people of color) are portrayed in these (and so many other) classics. After all, I’ve even heard some librarians and authors of Indian origin say they’ve never come across a poor portrayal of an Indian person in a book.

I am so glad Padma wrote this post for the Nerdy Book Club audience. It is a large one and I suspect some in it are as unaware as those who kindly gifted those seven copies of Burnett’s book to Padma’s child. I just hope it is widely read. My audience here is far smaller, but I’m pointing it out hoping others will pass it on as well.

I still love many classics and will continue to teach favorites in my classroom. However, I will also point out issues such as those Padma highlights when necessary. For more on my thoughts around classics here are a couple of posts:

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