Monday, June 08, 2009

Bowdlerizing Children's Books: A Poll

Should publishers edit beloved children's books like LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE or THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA to eliminate racial or ethnic stereotyping? When (if ever) is it okay? Please vote in the poll in my sidebar and/or comment below.

It's okay to update a classic children's book to reflect changing mores ...
  1. if the changes made are incidental rather than integral to the plot (see these changes made to Robert Lawson's Caldecott-winning THEY WERE STRONG AND GOOD, for example).

  2. if the publisher includes a note in the re-issue explaining the reasoning behind the change (as Roger Sutton references here).

  3. if the author is still alive and wants the changes (for instance, me).

  4. if the copyright holder (a descendant) is still alive and authorizes the changes.

  5. never.
Authors, when it comes to making changes in our own books, all of us reflect the ethics and morals of our time and culture, and all of us will err in one way or another. It's guaranteed that we'll reread our books a decade down the road and wince over something. When do we let those mistakes stand? How can we be sure that we're not pressured by new, erroneous cultural trends to make such changes (there's no guarantees that culture gets more ethical with time; i.e. 1930s Germany)?

Publishers, if a book from the past is unchanged, isn't it more helpful to package it with a vintage look to cue historical fiction instead of using a contemporary art or model to "draw in young readers"?

Educators and parents, how do you lead discussions around these topics with children/teens? Any tools or best practices you can share with the rest of us?

For more on this, author Laurel Snyder leads a discussion on her blog, where she invited me to share my thoughts on Edward Eager (HALF-MAGIC) and racism.

23 comments:

recordedbooks said...

I personally think it's more valuable to make the problem known when reading the book and open it up for discussion. Imagine if we edited all racist or otherwise objectionable texts from the past! We should be honest about what is there and why. Certainly there will be kids who read it without guidance and who have grown up in homes where they would not necessarily know to question such ideals, but such is life.

brendanhalpin said...

I can only speak to the author part of the question: everything I wrote is a reflection of where I was at the time I wrote it, and I think it just has to stand as is. 7 of my 8 published books have sentences that make me wince. Losing My Faculties in particular is gratuitously mean in spots. But that's where I was at the time. If I were to go back and fix everything that bugged me, I'd pretty much never stop editing.

literaticat said...

I would prefer that they leave it but perhaps put a note explaining WHY THEY LEFT IT, rather than why they changed it.

These sentiments might be repugnant to us now, but they are part of history, right? If we get rid of it... I don't know, it gives me a weird feeling.

Take the book THE EGG & I, a terrifically funny memoir by Betty McDonald (also author of MRS. PIGGLE-WIGGLE). IT is about a young wife who, with her husband, leaves Manhattan to live in completely rural Washington and start a chicken farm. It's really funny, and it was HUGELY popular at the time, and it sparked movies as well as TVs first comedy series.

It also has one chapter in particular as I recall that is, well, totally racist and awful about Native Americans. In the edition of the book that I have, the publisher opted to leave that chapter in, but Betty's descendents (grand-daughters?) wrote a nice introduction explaining their decision, and how though we might loathe that chapter, to realize why they left it in. And it struck me at the time that it was only fair not to change history, even if we don't like it.

It's important for people reading that book today to know that not only was this sort of attitude OK at the time, it was SO OVER THE TOP OK that this was one of the most popular books in the nation and nobody thought twice about it.

(There is also a beautiful new-ish edition of LITTLE BLACK SAMBO with lots of additional back and front matter that places it in history and explains it, and has lovely new illustrations. That is OK, too, though I'd hope that people don't forget the original. You have to know what something is to remember why it was problematic!)

Plus, obvs, it could be a bit of a slippery slope. So you excise that chapter of that book, then what? Do you make other "little" changes as times dictate? LITTLE PRINCESS could be considered racist - Magical Lascar and all. But what if somebody also thought it was not so nice to box children's ears and starve them half to death? It would be easy enough to take out just a word here and there and make the whole thing more palatable to the gentle tastes of today's mommys...

The Brain Lair (KB) said...

As an educator, a parent, and an African American I say, if the author is alive, let them make changes but have them note why. I hope we all change as we grow older and fortunately some of us grow wiser. Many of the books reflect the times they were written in, good or bad, and the author's thinking at that time. Some of us are "blind" to our inherent racism and may need others to point it out. It would be great if we then had the opportunity to show what we've learned.

Sheila Ruth said...

I think that an author should have the right to change their own book. But I don't think that a book should be changed by anyone else, even for noble purpose. I agree with literaticat that it's important to view the book in the context of the times that it was written, and providing information about the period and why the racist content exists would be more valuable than removing it all together. I think it's better to educate children than to pretend that none of our ugly history existed. I also agree that it's a slippery slope; once you start making changes, where do you stop?

maria i lavis said...

I agree that if the author doesn't edit it, the stereotyping is part of the authentic historic context in which the book was written, and I agree that my favourite option would be a footnote of some sort by the publisher. If it is really extreme, or some sort of disguised hate mentality, then I wouldn't mind editing and make an end note at the end of the book if it is just a small part of the book. If it is a more central theme to the book, then I'd say it would be more appropriate as a study for high school than for younger kids.

I'm not for rewriting the reality of what history was. As mentioned above, this can be used in part to illustrate historic change to kids.

Ellen Etc said...

Scrubbing up a text today that may need to be unscrubbed tomorrow as values change? Imagine when humans no longer kill animals for food, one would then need to change all those turkey dinners at Thanksgiving to tofu dinners.

It smacks of Wal-Mart's sanitized CDs, with their policy of not selling any music with parental advisories. I just don't trust Wal-Mart to set the value standards for the country, and I would have to say that I feel the same about editing to conform with whatever is PC at the time.

Jeanne Kramer-Smyth said...

This reminds me of the Connie Willis book 'Remake' in which there is a trend of going back and editing old movies to remove objectionable things - like drinking alcohol and smoking.

I think that the best option is to use it to open discussion -- to package the book with a preface or epilogue giving some perspective on the attitudes of the time.

Pradipta Sarkar said...

Hi Mitali,

I vote 'never'.

In response to what you said in 'Mea Culpa in Writing Race' regarding an author who is alive and desires such a change:

I would be far more comfortable with something like the post appearing as a preface or an author's note in the second (or third or fourth) edition, with the now-preferred alternative appearing as a part of that or parallel to the original within the text. Given that the original piece was written and published, it means that there were at least ten people in the world who found nothing wrong with it in its then-current context, and thus there was a modicum of social/political acceptability. I am not saying that an author may not want to change something; in fact, it is wonderful when an author becomes conscious of a fundamental 'flaw' such as racist profiling or stereotyping - I just feel that the reader has the right to know about the change and what prompted it, and how things stood in the original, rather than a complete erasure of the 'flawed' original. Just as one cannot wish away cringeworthy love letters sent in one's adolescence, one cannot entirely deny/revise one's erstwhile social and political perceptions without acknowledging it. Because one must, after all, take responsibility for what one has chosen to write and make public. Hopefully not a terribly purist point of view, this...

Pradipta

tanita davis said...

Some good, good points on all sides of the issue. I roll my eyes reading about the "savages" in Little House, I cross my eyes reading those Southern narratives where all the "help" is dark-skinned, wide-eyed, easily frightened by "haints" and overly, eagerly servile. Those romances where a woman has to give up her wants or is forced into a masterful man's arms -- all of these things reflect times and tastes that may have changed or been unknowingly influenced by something we later think through and find repugnant.

I'd love to think I could change my own work, but I agree with the notion that sanitizing the past is a big no-no -- if we forget it, we repeat it, isn't that the saying? I think a note, talking about what the author knows now and how times have changed might be appropriate, thought-provoking and a worthwhile challenge to the reader. Excising the mistake, maybe not so much. Though I love my tofu, the old Saturday Evening Post cover with Rockwell's big turkey and all the thankful guests would look really weird Photoshopped with a stir fry...

Lain Shakespeare said...

At our museum (the home of Joel Chandler Harris -- the guy who penned the Brer Rabbit stories / Uncle Remus cycle), our professional storytellers will often tell the Brer Rabbit stories from different perspectives.

Take "The Wonderful Tar-Baby Story" for example: how would a West African tell the story? an African American slave? a white journalist recording the stories? someone retelling the story in the 21st century? What changes and what stays the same?

Similarly, we welcome reinterpretations and responses both by authors and kids. By expanding the authorship beyond just one dude, kids especially can learn more by retelling a story in their own voice.

Obviously this is easier in folklore than in text. But I think as many commenters above have thoughtfully explained, it's best to respond to history rather than try to change it.

Mitali Perkins said...

I deeply appreciate these comments and am reading each one closely, mulling over your points. Thank you.

Doret said...

I am in the never camp. Stereotypes in literature are make me cringe awful, but they're a reflection on society that we can learn from. It just seems wrong to go back and try to clean up and make everything nice nice.

Charlotte said...

I think authors should be allowed to change their books. I've never written a book, but I do change blogposts from last year (a pathetic comparison, I know, but I would hate to have lost my power to fix mistakes).

I think, becauase I do this, that parents have the right to change what they are reading to their children, when specific words or phrases are rascist. I think parents have the right not to read their children books they think rascist.

I wish to high heaven that there could be some changes made to If I Ran the Zoo, which I read (again) last night. But I don't think I can bring myself to excise the most offending page.

Roger Sutton said...

I'd like to clarify that I thought Scholastic's behavior in the case I discuss in my blog post Mitali links to above was disgraceful, not something I would "suggest." Yikes!

Rather than busily papering over the sins of the past, writers and publishers need to move forward, giving us new books that, in their turn, may or may not stand the test of time. (Most books don't, but for reasons more banal than changing perceptions of political or cultural propriety.)

Mitali Perkins said...

Duly fixed, Roger. So SATISFYING to go back and fix an error. Maybe that's why I like blogging so much.

d.b.mcgrew said...

Per Mitali's request, here is an edited version of some of the comments I made on her Facebook link to this blog page:

If the author rewrites something, then by definition, it isn't bowdlerizing or censoring or anything like that. It's just part of the artistic process. Ditto if the author's editor makes a change with the author's consent (even if the author later regrets giving that consent).

Retelling an existing story is a time-honored tradition followed by Shakespeare, Disney, Sondheim, and many others. But it's dishonest to retell an existing story while claiming that your version is the original. On the other hand, if you call yours an abridged (or edited or revised) version, that's fine. And if there's something worth retelling, then I really don't have a problem with someone retelling only the good bits (whatever they think the good bits are), as long as they don't claim that their retelling is the original.

For younger kids who are just reading for the story (I recall childhood book reports that just summarized the main characters and the plot), an abridged version is fine. But at some point, older kids should start thinking critically about the work. At that point, I think using an abridged version does them a disservice.

kayjay15 said...

I would have to vote never. By taking out offensive words and ideas we are denying our kids the chance to develop critical thinking. If we don't show our children where we've come from, how do we expect them to be moving forward in their development? To paint our past as perfect is a discredit to our children, they need to see that society and individuals can change.

Chris said...

If people acted stupidly in the past, we can't just go back and rewrite history and pretend that everything was kittens and rainbows. There is a lot of ugliness and it is reflected in the literature. That's why discussing what we read is so important. And kids aren't stupid. They know what is appropriate or not (hopefully, if their parents have taught them).

Abridgement is another thing altogether. I read a lot of those as a kid and it encouraged me to read the real thing. Those books introduced me to Dickens.

Meghan said...

Definitely never okay. It's extremely important for kids to be exposed to all these problems and issues so that they can deal with them in real life. Intelligent discussion about it can educate children and I think that's a much more sensible course of action than sugarcoating everything they may encounter. Erasing history only ensures that you perpetuate misinformation and ignorance. In my opinion, discussion and exposure is the way to go. How else do we learn?

Mitali Perkins said...

I hear you guys, but I used to read widely and freely as a brown tween and teen without any adult assistance in interpreting such books as historical or understanding how and why things are different.

I also had classroom teachers who read us books without pointing out how times have changed, and perhaps they didn't even notice the racism that rings so clearly to me now as an adult.

Do the Little House books (Ma: "The only good Indian is a dead Indian), for example, have the power to damage an already marginalized kid growing up on a reservation who encounters them with or without an astute or informed adult shepherding him or her through the story?

Tera Lynn Childs said...

I studied historic preservation (saving old buildings) for my masters degree. One of the major rules is "honoring the passage of time." As in, don't restore a house that has been adapted and added-to over time back to the original version because those changes document the story of that house over time. And it is that story, that evolution, that brought us to where we are today.

Erasing racism from past works does not erase the racist past. It is more valuable to us, as a sensitive, tolerant and caring society, to understand those weak points in our past, rather than pretend they never happened. Those who forget history, blah blah blah. Do we censor the text of Hitler's speeches to make him politically correct? Or do we teach our children why what he said was wrong? Works of fiction are no less reflective of the surrounding society than political speeches. And no less educational in retrospect.

So, I guess my short answer is (D) never.

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