Today's book is Should We Burn Babar: Essays on Children's Literature and the Power of Stories, by Herbert Kohl. In it, he discusses the ways that racism, sexism, and classism are maintained by both fiction and non-fiction written for children and how progressive teachers can help overcome these -isms by promoting critical reading skills.
The most persuasive of these essays is his exploration of how history texts describe Rosa Parks in such a way as to de-emphasize the collective effort that led to the Montgomery bus boycott. He offers an alternative version of the story that talks about group planning and persistence as well as her individual courage and describes her as a community activist, rather than a poor seamstress whose feet hurt after a long day of work. I was convinced by his argument, and am curious to see whether it has changed the tone of books published in the 10 years since this essay first appeared.
The most provocative of the essays is the title one, in which Kohl takes on the classic Story of Babar, asking what should we do today with books that are charming, imaginative, and entertaining, but also include messages that are subtly (or not so subtly) colonialist, classist and racist. He points out that a hunter in a pith helmet kills Babar's mother, the elephants are portrayed as uncivilized until they are bought clothes and learn to walk upright, and that the Rich Lady has power because of her money, which is from sources unknown. Kohl encourages directly discussing these issues with children, explaining the historical context, and getting their reactions but concludes that an "uncritical reading" of the stories is sufficiently damaging that he would not purchase them for a child or a library (although he does not go so far as to encourage actually burning the books, the title notwithstanding).
We currently have four Babar books in the house. A friend gave us Babar's Museum of Art as a gift. This contemporary book (published 2003) uses the characters from the Barbar books, but all of the racism and sexism has been eliminated, to the point that I can't imagine anyone objecting to the book. The conceit of famous artwork drawn with elephants instead of people is more amusing to adults who recognize the originals than to children, but the book is a nice introduction to the concept of an art museum.
My parents found another Babar book, Meet Babar and His Family, in their box of old children's books. This one is essentially an introduction to the seasons, showing the elephants engaged in leisure activities appropriate to different times of the year. Only the boy elephants are shown participating in sports, but otherwise it's fairly innocuous.
The problems develop as we get into the older books. In Babar and Zephir (purchased on sale from Daelalus Books without an advance read) all is well until the last two pages when the General who rules the monkeys "gives" his daughter to Zephir to marry as the reward for rescuing her. In Babar and His Family (borrowed from the library), the sexism is more subtle, but also more woven into the story, as Flora is shown as delayed and not having the adventures of her brothers. For now, our solution is to redact the text as we read it out loud, changing pronouns so that Pom is also a girl. (The fact that the General's daughter is a Princess makes my husband and I shake our heads, but we're not particularly worried that our sons will learn that military dictatorships are an appropriate political system.)
Alison Lurie, in a recent New York Review of Books discussion of Babar, is pretty dismissive of Kohl's concerns, pointing out the many charms of the books. (Article found thanks to DaddyTypes.) I think she misses the point; if the books weren't so charming, no one would care. They would join the thousands of other books published in the 30s and 40s that are thrown away as their pages crumble and no one would think of reprinting today. It's because of their charm that we have to wrestle with their sins.
I have some similar issues with the Curious George books, which are huge hits in our household these days. On what basis is the Man in the Yellow Hat, who kidnaps George from the jungle and puts him in a bag, considered George's friend? This bugs me every time I read the original Curious George book. In Curious George Goes to the Hospital, all the doctors are male and all the nurses are female. And I know this is affecting my older son's view of the world; he's told me that I have to be the nurse in our pretend hospital. This is true even though his pediatrician is a woman.
In another essay in the collection, Kohl talks admiringly of some books that portray concerns from the everyday lives of working-class children and families, such as A Chair for My Mother, by Vera Williams. I think he's right that it's valuable for children to read such stories and that they are remarkably rare in books for young children. (There are plenty for teens). Let me therefore say that the people who wrote the recent book Corduroy Makes a Cake are total idiots. This is a story using the characters of Don Freedman's classic books Corduroy and A Pocket for Corduroy. These are lovely children's books that happen to address Kohl's concerns; Lisa, the protagonist, is an African-American girl. She's not poor -- she's saved enough money in her piggy bank to buy Corduroy, a teddy bear -- but she's not rich either -- she lives in a fourth story walkup and she helps her mother wash their clothes at a laundromat with a multi-ethnic clientele. So what's happened in Corduroy Makes a Cake? Lisa's been gentrified! She now lives in a suburban house big enough to have a "sewing room" and all the other children at her birthday party are white! What were they thinking?