Race and Children’s Literature

While this isn’t a new topic, I don’t think it ever gets old and discussions are always new and insightful, regardless of how many times the work has been read and discussed.

Today, a woman came in looking for Little House on the Prairie.  Now, as a child in fourth and fifth grades, I was OBSESSED with Laura Ingalls Wilder.  I wanted to become a school teacher and marry a man name Alonzo and have adventures as a pioneer with my awesome family.  At that age, the depiction of Native Americans and Ma’s now famously racist quote, “The only good indian is a dead indian”, never even hit me.  Maybe it was all the scenes of Bugs Bunny running around costumed in Native American stereotypes.  Or maybe, I already instinctively knew that those things weren’t true, and as many children so, just gloss over them and ignore those things that aren’t understood or agreed with.  I can’t actually say what I thought because I didn’t really remember the role of Native Americans in the story until I started analyzing Children’s Literature and reading Debbie Reese’s blog, American Indians in Children’s Literature.

As with any extreme racial stereotypes, like Little Sambo, Doctor Doolittle, that horrible horrible scene in the original Mary Poppin’s which has since been edited out, the gut reaction is to weed the book to save the feelings of the person being offended.  While I agree with this to a certain extent – we don’t want to offend people, we want those minority patrons to feel comfortable browsing the shelves and seeing themselves POSITIVELY reflected in the books they read, I fear this is a form of censorship.  While people were all up in arms over the new edition of Huckleberry Finn and the use of the word “nigger” and it’s replacement with “slave” (which, really, is that any better? but that’s beside the point), and how its terrible and censorship, I tend to agree.  While I don’t condone or agree with the negative depictions of minorities in books, when read with (adult) guidance and in context of the history, isn’t it okay to still read?

I have to admit, that I don’t recommend Little House to children.  Or other books that contain racial stereotypes.  But I also don’t think that they shouldn’t be in the collection.  Parents should be able, while reading with their child, to point out the discrepencies.  To point out the issues.  And show the children how far we have (or haven’t) come in treating people as equals, regardless of race.  Whenever someone asks for the Little House books, my heart gets excited, but then I wonder how the parent or teacher is presenting the text to the child.  Are they giving both sides of the story?  Are they also reading Louise Erdrich’s Native American response to the children, Birchbark House?  Probably not, and that’s what makes people want to pull these kinds of books from the shelves.

The debate is ongoing, and as a multi-racial child, I feel like these are not issues that I had to deal with, but I know that other biracial and multiracial children did.  The reason I probably didn’t have these issues was that no one really writes about Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders so most of the books I was reading fed into my white side.  I was never faced with that realization that people see me as one way in this book I’m reading – as a savage – as stupid – whatever – until much much later.  And even know, as someone who looks so racially mixed no one ever guesses what I am, I struggle with these things in a different way.

More on all of this later, with my review of Dance for the Land by McLaren…

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