Reprise: Should We Bowdlerize Classic Children's Books For Racism?

When classic children's books strike us as racist today, Philip Nel raises an interesting question. Even if we amend them to tone down the racism, do we "simply dress up racial and colonial ideologies in different costumes?"

Nel says that if we answer affirmatively, we face a choice:
(1) Discourage children from reading them.
(2) Permit children to read only the bowdlerized versions.
(3) Allow children to read any version, original or bowdlerized.
I took a poll about this issue last summer, so I thought I'd re-post my findings given the resurgence of this issue, raised today by Nel and by Monica Edinger.

I asked visitors to the Fire Escape when, if ever, it would be okay to update a classic children's book to reflect changing mores about race. The results (152 votes) were almost equally split between those who thought some changes might be in order, while the rest arguing that a book must stand as is.
Slightly more than half of you (83 votes, or 54%) said never.

Among those who felt it might be worth it to change a classic book, we see a strong belief that an author alone retains the right to change the story. Fifty-nine voters (38%) thought it would be appropriate to update if the author were still alive and wanted the changes.

Twenty-eight (18%) thought it would be permissible to revise a classic children's book if the publisher included a note in the re-issue explaining the reasoning behind the change.

Fifteen of you (9%) thought it would be okay to update if the changes made were incidental rather than integral to the plot, and fifteen (9%) more were amenable if the copyright holder (a descendant) were still alive and authorized the changes.
Where do I weigh in? I was in the "let the author do it" camp until this discussion, because I made changes to one of my own books. But I'm surprised to find myself shifting into the "never" camp, albeit cautiously.

It's worth a read through the comments to understand the "never" camp's arguments. Part is aimed at those of us who write, because all authorial cheeks burn while re-reading our earlier work. Do we have the guts to let mistakes stand, own them, and even discuss them publicly as part of our call to mentor the next generation of storytellers? Maybe a "what I wish I could change" or "using my book as discussion" section should be a standard feature of an author's website (featuring those books out of print, for those earning our rice from writing.) No matter how much an author wants to retain control over a story, once it begins the dialectical dance with a reader, it's out of our hands. Our primary job is to focus on telling the next story while we have breath.

The remaining bits of the "never" argument boil down to a call to shepherd a child through books from the past so that she can enjoy and learn from them. That's what I attempted as teacher and parent. But did I succeed? I'm not sure. No matter how large or small an adult gatekeeper looms in the background, ultimately the meaning and message stays between a particular child and that story.

Here's where the caution comes in. Keeping my eye on the margins, I have to re-post the video "A Girl Like Me," a 7-minute exploration of girls and skin color written and directed by a sixteen-year-old filmmaker, Kiri Davis, and produced by Media Matters. As you watch, remember that the children choosing the dolls aren't much older than six or seven. They live in supportive communities in Los Angeles, California. How did they already internalize the message "dark skin = bad" and "light skin = good?"

Creators and packagers of children's stories, whether in film or in print, must strive to be aware of the messages we're endorsing consciously and subconsciously. Nobody wants to be didactic these days, but all stories are laced with values. It's the nature of the beast.

(Postcript about Babar: In Alison Lurie's December 16, 2004 article in The New York Review of Books, The Royal Family, she wrote that "Laurent de Brunhoff has regretted his early drawings of African 'savages'; he decided years ago that Babar's Picnic will never be reprinted.")


sandhya said…
I don't know, Mitali- this is like saying let the present runners of a country re-write or censor history to sanitize it.
I think a book written in a certain period, with certain beliefs, should stay as it is, more because it mirrors that period. As an adult / parent, it should be on our shoulders to explain how it was at the time the book was written, why it was so, and how certain aspects are not right in the present context.
Case in point- I was reading 'A little Princess' by F. H. Burnett with my 9 yr old, and she pointedout that it was not nice of Sara to be wearing fur coats, since it meant that animals had been killed to make them. I pointed out to her that at the period in which this book was written, it was a common practice, and yes, that doesn't make it right. But people know better now, and know that it is not something that should be done.
tanita davis said…
Oy, oy, oy. This is always so tough for me.

I found myself annoyed by the number of people who were up in arms about changing the language of Enid Blyton's Famous Five books. She used very dated British phrases which were all but indecipherable to many modern kids, but the people who were loudest in defending the way she wrote seemed to be gatekeepers of a kind of social status and education whose sole purpose was excluding others who didn't know what it meant to "swot" or hadn't the classical education to have been exposed often to late 19th century English. I was peeved about that, because aren't books for kids to read, and how dare anyone say, "well, they're not for everyone," just because some kids didn't understand the lingo?

But then I realized that it was the ESTATE of Enid Blyton who wanted this bowdlerizing, in order to repackage and sell the books more widely - because of the usual reason for things: money.

And then I recalled that The Famous Five books have major elements of racism and gender discrimination in them that is not what's being suggested for change. Should we want kids not to read these books at all?

It's a tough push-pull discussion, but I still think I'm on the side of the "nevers." It's embarrassing, narrow-minded, foolish and short-sighted, but they're books which reflect a time. Let them stand, and let the adults be useful as interpreters and sounding boards. The kids, with guidance, will make up their own minds, as is appropriate.
Mitali Perkins said…
Exactly, Sandhya and Tanita. That's why I, too, find myself siding with the "Never" crowd. Thanks for putting it so well.
aquafortis said…
Yes and yes. I find myself siding with the "nevers," too. To follow onto what Sandhya said about it being on our shoulders to explain why certain ideas were written about in a certain way--I think that by changing those aspects of classic books, we miss an opportunity to teach readers (either through an introductory foreword, or annotation, or something else) the importance of how and why things have changed...and even the fact that things HAVE changed, period. Those who cannot learn from history, etc. How can we learn from history if we have no idea that anything was ever different? And the simple knowledge of beneficial change in the past can instill in the reader a sense of hope for the future, for righting current injustices. I think there's far more to be learned from keeping them as is than if they were altered.

Of course, the history of our country has already been largely rewritten and sanitized for safe consumption by our youth, but that's a separate issue. :)
Teri Hall said…
I am firmly in the "never" camp. I think it's actually dangerous to change things like that. I think they NEED to stand, as markers and examples of how things were, as reminders for all of us of how easy it is to think something is okay when it is so far from okay. We need these sorts of reminders.
Olugbemisola said…
I tend toward "never" as well. I'm a big believer in reading and discussing the problematic issues that pop up in 'classics' or any books and other media, exploring the 'whys', and the fact that racism, discrimination, etc. is unacceptable at any time...And it gets clearer and clearer, how much we need those reminders!
mclicious said…
I am half black, and I was the only person in my white junior English class who was not uncomfortable saying 'nigger' when we read bits of Huck Finn aloud. And then I wrote an essay defending the racism in the book. I side with the never. Some things in history are awful and should not be looked at again, like "Birth of a Nation." But I would prefer to just not watch it, not have someone alter it and pretend that it's not completely racist. So I say never.

Then again, there are some times when I think things should be fixed, but that's generally in the case of books for very young children, and mostly having to do with changing illustrations or passe terms (like how Indian and Negro would be changed to Native American and African American) when the books are pedagogical in nature. There is an interesting post at Sociological Images showing how a Richard Scarry book has been updated, with his permission, and I totally agree with the spirit of those types of changes:
writerjenn said…
What I wonder about is recommending such books. "This is a great book, except for the racism." I feel weird saying it, yet I feel equally weird giving an unqualified recommendation. Not recommending at all is an option, of course, but I can't help thinking that as our culture evolves, we see more and more things in our old writing that trouble us. And the real challenge becomes not interpreting older works, but trying to see which of our current works will stand up to examination through the lenses of the future.
Thanks for opening up this discussion!
Andrea said…
As with anything, leaving the text as it was written just allows for discussion with children about race and culture, etc. I think that's fabulous.
pussreboots said…
I am in the never crowd. Let these books be teaching moments to show how our attitudes have changed (hopefully improved) over time. We need these records to keep an open dialog.
So pleased to have come upon your blog (via Color Online). What a cogent discussion of this tricky territory--I certainly learned from reading your take and the comments!
Marjorie said…
Yes, I'm so glad you highlighted this post in your Color Online interview as I missed it first time round.

I too come down on the "never" side - but it also throws up the importance of adult involvement in children's reading. I think Tanita makes a good point too - I swallowed Enid Blyton's books whole as a child, as did many of my generation in the UK (girls rather than boys?). I remember feeling very peeved when I heard that tweaks were being made to the Magic Faraway Tree Series, such as changing Fanny's name, though that is a triviality compared with the inherent male/female stereotyping in, say, the Famous Five books. My two have never been tempted to read them, although my old copies are readily available - but we have all enjoyed listening to dramatisations on cd - and they have actually been a great springboard for impressing on my two boys that times have changed!

I know that there are many criticisms of Laura Ingall's books, which I also loved as a child. I am glad that we are enlightened now as to their wider historical context; when I read them all with my two, we were able to discuss this in some depth and I would say they have a better awareness of this area of US history than many British kids their age. As Aquafortis says, we learn from history - and young people also learn a lot from what they read - so we have a responsibility both to ensure a ready supply of books portraying different cultures and ways of going about daily life, and to open up discussions about what kids are discovering through reading and guide them towards being able to make an independent assessment of a book's content.

Oh, and I was really interested to read your PS about Babar.