To read or not to read…

While reading about Enid Blyton’s Famous Five getting a makeover, I came across this very interesting blog post, Are Some Children’s Classics Unsuitable for Kids? More interesting than the blog itself were the responses that it received. I am currently re-reading E. Nesbit’s The Railway Children. When I first read it I took the story at face value. Now, when I read it again, I am both skeptical and cynical, something I would have never thought of being when I was younger… For me, the Author was God, and whatever they said was final. Maybe that’s why I like Kavitha Rao’s approach, questioning and understanding books at different levels.
My nine-year-old daughter loves to read. And unusually, she loves to read classic children’s literature. This should make me both happy and smug. And mostly it does. But it also makes for all kinds of dilemmas.
When she was about eight, we read Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder. She was immersed in the bucolic delights of pioneer life, when suddenly she was catapulted into the world of a bigot. “The only good Indian is a dead Indian,” is repeated several times by various characters, as the book goes on to describe Indians as “wild”, “terrible”, “savage warriors” and “screaming devils”. Then Charles Ingalls, Laura’s father, says, “When the white settlers come into a country, the Indians have to move on. White people are going to settle all this country.” ” Why do the Indians have to move when they were there first?” asked my daughter. I began to talk about how the world of the 19th-century settler was very different from ours. But eight-year-olds see the world in black and white. “I hate Laura’s family!” yelled my daughter. And that was that for Little House on the Prairie, for another year at least.
There are many children’s classics that I devoured as a child, but on rereading them I discover knobbly bits that stick in my craw. Like The Secret Garden, where the heroine Mary, newly arrived from India, is outraged at being mistaken for “a black”. “You thought I was a native! They are not people – they are servants who must salaam to you,” she sputters. Or the blithe stereotypes of Enid Blyton in her admittedly addictive St Clare series (let’s not even talk about Noddy) where French spitfire Claudine displays a variety of “un-English” behaviour such as cheating and fibbing. In the end, Claudine declares, “the English sense of honour is a fine thing”. As my daughter happily gobbles Blytons like cookies, I wonder how to explain away old Enid’s consistent portrayal of Gypsies as thieving, rascally, child-thumping varmints. Tintin was a beloved part of my childhood, but after reading about the revolting Tintin in the Congo (African women bowing and intoning “White master is very great!”) I will never feel quite the same again.
I have to wonder what message I am sending my daughter, especially since as an Indian Hindu girl she might once have been that “savage” or “heathen”. There are those who argue that racist authors were just a product of less enlightened times. “That’s just the way people were back then,” they say, pointing out that Wilder, and others of her ilk, were far less racist than many of their time. I don’t disagree, but not talking about why things were the way they were seems foolish.
Most people I know just ignore the racism, as my parents did. Many are just thankful that their kids are reading. That’s certainly the easier way out, but I’d like my daughter to read the classics critically. Particularly because in India – where we currently live – many classics are prescribed as school textbooks and therefore accepted as near gospel truth. As I read with her, I constantly tell her, “That’s the way people were back then, but that doesn’t make it right.” I’d like her to enjoy the sublime prose of Rudyard Kipling and Rider Haggard while challenging their covert, and sometimes overt, imperialism.
Of course, there is such a thing as looking too hard for racism, and that way madness most certainly lies. I didn’t get the memo, but apparently the Chronicles of Narnia, Babar and even Peter Pan are all racist now. The list of banned books that offend someone or something is ever growing. I don’t want my daughter feverishly scrutinising books for things to be offended by, and I would never support a ban on any book. I want her to hate the prejudice, not the author.
I could simply focus on reading modern children’s literature, replete with Asian heroines and positive role models. But I think the classics, even the dodgy ones, have lessons to teach modern children. Currently, we are reading a simplified version of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and talking about why she can’t use the “N” word. “But Mark Twain uses it,” she says. “Was he a racist?” “Why don’t you tell me when you have read it?” I suggest. And she does. We begin talking about slavery and end up talking about Barack Obama. Finally, we reach the conclusion that yes, we shouldn’t use the N word, but no, Twain was not a racist. This is not a conversation that I can imagine myself having while reading Harry Potter.
And yes, we have returned to the Little House series. Thanks to Wilder, my daughter now knows about the plight of the American Indian. “I think Laura wasn’t a very nice person, but we should read her books anyway because she’s a very good author,” she says. Exactly.
Here are some comments this blog post received:
Billy Mills: So, your daughter learned an interesting thing about fiction; that it reflects the world in ways that are often different to our own viewpoint, and that this includes things that are not pleasant. Now, you can choose to “protect” her from such disturbing idea or you can trust her to question what she’s reading on the basis of whatever values you share with her. From the sound of that last paragraph above, you, and she, are doing a decent job and she is turning into a sophisticated reader. I know any number of PhD’s who seem to believe that authors whose ideas do not conform to our modern ideas of “acceptable” should be excised from the history books.
Craig Butler: Looking at simple writing works you can see negative stories put in a good light in children’s fairy tales. Reading a collection of children’s bed time stories to my 3 and 5 year old, we come across Jack and the Beanstalk. No matter what version you come across it is the story of theft and finally murder. Whilst I don’t go into the full depths of explaining murder we do discuss how stealing is bad and that Jack really isn’t being very nice. I think the key is that regardless of the story the benefit comes in communicating with your children and guiding their development so that they can take the right messages out of any piece of literature.
If you’ve got a message that you want you kids to hear you can always write your own stories. I’ve written a couple for my kids that have the message to stay away from snakes and to stay in one spot if lost in the bush. A local printer will make it look like a real book. The kids love them because usually they are in them, I get to impart the message I want, and they will have familiar text as their reading skill progresses to reading the classics. If you try you’re luck with a publisher you may get to sell your Safety in the Bush message or what ever message you want to teach to a whole lot more people than just your family. I did. Follow the link to see.
Denzil Dragon: It’s not just racism that’s a problem with the classics. What do you do if you also don’t want your children to read books with sexism, religion, animal cruelty or homophobia (admittedly not that common in children’s books, though some of them are quite derogatory about, for example, ‘pansies’)? Then there’s the whole monarchy and class issue. And things like corporal punishment. There’s really little choice but to let your children read them all & then discuss the issues with them later. (Unless you’re willing to write all of your children’s books, & personally I’d like my kids exposed to a few more ideas than just mine!)
KatyEB: Oh for heaven’s sake. Or is ‘heaven’ a dirty word now too? OMG, people used to think differently from how we think!
And how anyone can possibly say that Laura Ingalls Wilder “wasn’t a very nice person” because her MOTHER had a prejudice – a prejudice that’s never presented as anything BUT that, in a scenario where actually life was dangerous for the white settlers – is beyond me. Laura Ingalls Wilder did something really remarkable and admirable: she described (60 years after the fact) her childhood life as it had been, warts and all, in a world that had, by the time she wrote in, disappeared. She looked unflinchingly so that children could understand. She was a kind of hero, in fact.
Kavitha, do you not want your daughter to know everything and have the tools for seeing things as they are? Or do you just want her to swallow whatever you tell her and look down on everything else?
There is, as well as historical trend, such a thing as CHARACTER, you know! The Secret Garden is about a deeply unhappy – and mean – girl who loses her snobbery and prejudice as the book goes on, and becomes both happy and nice. In FACT, it contains exactly the sort of lesson you are aiming to teach your kid! Or were you too prejudiced by one sentence to be able to see that?
Sorry, but all this mealy-mouthed smug I’m-so-greatness just makes me tired. And yes, I’m a liberal. I’m just the kind who gives their kids information – I trust my kids’ moral compasses, and so far they have never let me down. As Kulturtrager says, you can teach kids thew facts without purveying bad old ideas. And you can certainly teach them a bit more tolerance for people who aren’t just like you.
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