Removing racism from children’s literature will kill of culture? …whose culture exactly are you worried won’t withstand being held accountable to any standards of common decency and respect for others?
“Denial of Treatment to Obese Patients—the Wrong Policy on Personal Responsibility for Health https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3937915/
Eating Disorder Statistics /https://anad.org/get-informed/about-eating-disorders/eating-disorders-statistics/
“Glorifying Fatness, Really?: Why writing about fatness can be downright difficult” https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/dry-land-fish/201207/glorifying-fatness-really
Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health “Obesity Prevention Source” https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/obesity-prevention-source/obesity-trends/obesity-rates-worldwide/#References
Sources for this Post:
Lucy & James Catchpole https://thecatchpoles.net/
“Data on books by and about Black, Indigenous and People of Color published for children and teens compiled by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, School of Education, University of Wisconsin-Madison.”
Larsen, N. Lee, K., & Ganea P.. “Do storybooks with anthropomorphized animal characters promote prosocial behaviours in young children?” Dev Sci. 2018 May; 21 (3): e 12590 2
*C. Burke & J. Copenhaver. “Animals as People in Children’s Literature ” Language Arts Vol 81, N.3 Jan. 2004, P. 205-213 .
High up on my list of things that upset me is the phrase often used by creatives “I don’t do this for the money.”
I’m not sure exactly when art went from being seen as the work of a highly skilled paid craftsperson, to being a quasi spiritual pilgrimage to be endured only by destitute geniuses with wicked cool hair. But somewhere along the line, that happened, and the creative community has never recovered.
It’s really the most insidious idea that we’ve all embraced without question. One that we’ve been fed by a patriarchal capitalist society that actively feeds off of the unpaid and underpaid labour of it’s creatives. That to truly be an artist of substance, we should do it entirely for free. And on an even deeper level, that artistic work, just isn’t worth money.
There are so many consequences of this. For example, why are most children’s books made by white women? A huge part is that writers and illustrators of most children’s books make almost no money from it, so generally the only people who can afford to devote their lives to it, are white ladies who are already financially secure. To be able to say “I don’t do it for the money” is a privilege and by perpetuating this as acceptable, we are complicit in shutting people who cannot work for free out of the arts.
So if you’re someone who likes to proudly say “I don’t do this for the money” especially when receiving a negative review, I would kindly ask you to please cease and desist for the well being of the entire creative community. Encouraging each other to value our time, and our work, is necessary if we ever want the rest of society to value us as well. By pushing for a shift in values, we work towards change and better conditions for artists in the future.
And if you’re someone who unfollows and abandons creators who monetize their work; rather than getting angry about them “selling out,” maybe closely examine why you feel this anger? And consider supporting their efforts to make a living.
Everybody loves a winner, and when it comes to the stories we enjoy, all we see are stories of winners. On the surface I guess it makes sense, we invest our emotions in a character, and we follow their journey, through every obstacle and failure, in the end, we want to be uplifted mostly. We want to see that win, we want to glorify it. And yes that applies to picture books.
But what does it mean to lose then? If the only stories worth telling in our society, are stories of winners? Accepting defeat isn’t just a reflection of the moment, but accepting an inferior identity and some people, clearly, just can’t handle it.
The more I think about it, the more nefarious the whole thing becomes, the ‘chosen one’, the ‘hero’s myth’, it’s all wrapped up in patriarchal white supremacy. There is only room for one person at the top.
White men see themselves as the heroes of their own stories, and so it’s not over until they win. Because isn’t that how the stories go?
There are so many pieces of this narrative that we need to change, in every book, and honestly I think including BIPOC representation in the stories that are coming out just scratches just the surface. Because clearly, the narrative and values themselves need to change.
One facet of this is accepting a loser’s journey as equally valid, being able to accept loss gracefully, to not be the chosen one, and to still be decent and gracious has value.
Many reviewers have been asked to recommend books about losing graciously recently, and I just plum can’t think of a single one, can you?
Before 2020, the children’s book industry wasn’t something that most people could care less about. Sure, there were handfuls of teachers, librarians, niche collectors and people actually in the business of making kids’ books, but the general adult population at large wasn’t overly concerned with it.
2020 changed that, well, it changed a lot of things. It shone a burning spotlight on a number of issues and KidLit was one of them, people got fired up. The Black Lives Matter uprisings in June had people looking for ways to be anti-racist, to change the world, to take part, and it was decided a great place to start was with children’s books. The cynical part in me wonders if that’s because purchasing kid’s books, and putting them on a display shelf, is only two clicks up from the most basic form of armchair activism. Whether or not people were actually reading them and discussing them with kids is to be determined.
During the June uprisings, the status quo of children’s literature was found to be woefully inadequate, lacking in representation of BIPOC characters (Black Indigenous People of Colour), lacking in #ownvoices of Black authors and illustrators, lacking in stories that represented BIPOC characters in a range of types of stories. People who had probably never thought twice about what sort of books they were buying their kid at the grocery store, suddenly were up in arms demanding immediate change from an industry so slow that you’ve got to wonder if they’ve only got one poor fellow binding every book by hand. Of course, all of these problems I’ve mentioned were no secret; studies, surveys, statistics, have all existed and been done for years showing that this is a huge issue. It’s just in the heat of June, and the fire of the protest, people suddenly cared a lot.
Books like “A is for Activist” by Innosanto Nagara, were cleaned out of every online store for months. Social Media Accounts focused on Diversity and Black representation in kids’ books were flooded with new followers, some accounts growing by fifty thousand followers or more practically overnight. An entire generation of new Bookstagram accounts emerged.
With people clamouring to buy more books that just didn’t exist, the publishers have been left scrambling. They couldn’t do much that would have any immediate effect aside from reallocating marketing budgets to favour the books they did have featuring BIPOC characters. Suddenly popping out new books wasn’t an option. Especially given the constraints of being in the middle of a pandemic. Even under normal circumstances it takes about two years for the average book to be produced,
Publishers have gotten to work as fast as they can, finding BIPOC authors and illustrators, and getting to work on publishing socially conscious books, but it will still be approximately a year and a half before most of the books will come to fruition.
The big question is, how will these books be received, and how will that reception impact the course of Kidlit into the foreseeable future?
Will these books be rushed? Will they be of questionable quality because of that rush? Will the books all focus on delivering incredibly serious messages of social activism instead of providing picture books by and about BIPOC people that are meant for children to enjoy again and again? Because if the answer to any of those questions is yes, then there’s going to be a problem.
Secondly, by the time these books are released how many people will still be interested? The fervour of the uninvested has cooled considerably in the last few months. That paired with having had to endure the absolutely revolting deluge of self published Amazon books about Racism slapped together in an attempt to Capitalize on the BLM movement has me wondering, will people be tired of it?
The fact remains that lack of representation in kidlit, is an issue that needs to be addressed. If this massive wave of #ownvoices books by Black Creators about BIPOC characters does not fulfill the industry’s expectation, then what will happen? What will their conclusion be? What happens if they do not sell?
If things don’t work out my concern will be that the industry executives will conclude that they were correct all along in not investing in BIPOC creators and BIPOC stories. Capitalism may dictate it would be best to just quietly close the lid on all of this, and let it collect dust with every other trend from 2020.
Or maybe, maybe I’m just jaded, and it’ll be fantastic, and people will turn up in droves to buy them. Maybe the demand for change brought out in 2020, is just what we needed to launch a new era in children’s books, a more inclusive one.
“The Secret Garden” by Frances Hodgson Burnett, first published as a full novel in 1911, is my favourite book of all time, since the first time I read it when I was a child. It is also, therefore perhaps surprisingly, the book I am putting forth today for #LibrarianFightClub, because when it comes to examining internal biases and problematic messages in books, nothing should be sacred.
I was first alerted to the problematic nature of the portrayal and attitudes towards disability in this book while chatting with my friend Lucy, @thecatchpoles. Previous to us discussing it I had never questioned this book.
You may be familiar with the story, it has been redone as plays, movies, picture books, etc., though I find that the original novel despite being a “classic” very readable for a modern reader, because Burnett was a boss writer.
The story is as follows, Mary is a British expat raised in India when, after Cholera strikes her parents and basically everyone she knows dies. She couldn’t care less, beyond inconvenience to her lifestyle. She is shipped back to England, to be raised in Misselthwaite Manor, the home of her Maternal Uncle by marriage. It is all very Edwardian gothic, she is a miserable “sickly little creature” and being back in the healthy English air and surrounded by good English people who take “no nonsense” improves her horrible temper and health. In fact upon her arrival at the English manor her maid says that India is full of “a lot of blacks instead of respectable white people.” To which Mary very angrily informs her “Natives are not people.” It is not mentioned again overtly, but the implicit racism, colonialism, and colourism runs deep in the veins of this book.
Serious question, is it possible to find a classic book that isn’t full of a deep base of white supremacy and colonialism? I’m not sure. And how does this affect if and how we approach reading it. These overt lines are of course scrubbed from modern retellings, but can you really remove the attitudes which form the basis and premise of this entire book? Does simply erasing the overt lines actually do more bad than good because it makes it harder to critically look at the entire structure?
Now, as to the depiction of disability and chronic illness, that gets complex. So, in this book the uncle is a romantic wretched fellow who is a “hunchback.” After being widowed by a beautiful girl who it is made clear should never have looked at him twice he never recovers and abandons his son who is also disabled, to wander around the world being morose and stinking rich. The son is a miserable tyrannical child who lives his life in bed having panic attacks about being ill. After meeting Mary, and spending time outside with her and learning about love and friendship, he is magically cured? Or, it was all in his head in the first place. His father when he sees his son is not in fact disabled, decides to return and be a father. Talk about a fairweather relationship.
So the trouble here is that really, this attitude that disability is partly in the mind and inextricably tied with a poor attitude is something that is still arguably ingrained into society. Or that disabled children are a depressing burden on their parents. We can connect these ideas back to all of the sorts of books people applaud about disabled people using a can-do attitude to overcome, to be inspiring. The basis is all here, and written out in the 1890’s.
However to further complicate things, it turns out, that this is actually a story that reflects the author’s own very fascinating life. Frances Hodgson Burnett as it turns out lived many of the experiences she wrote about personally including chronic illness and depression.
As a child, her family fell into ruin after the sudden death of her father. They were forced to immigrate to America from England, where she befriended a young ‘invalid’ boy, who she later married (arguably her inspiration for the relationship between Mary and Colin?) She began writing to support her impoverished family when she was only 18 and continued to write as breadwinner her entire life. She supported her husband through medical school, while raising two boys and keeping a household. She suffered from chronic undiagnosed illness throughout and bouts of depression. She eventually left her husband, and her elder son fell ill with tuberculosis. She moved back to England with her elder son, where he died. She divorced her husband, had an affair with a much younger man who then blackmailed her into marriage. She was roasted by the media and local religious leaders for her “advanced ideas regarding the duties of a wife and the rights of women.” She was also criticized heavily for the femininity with which some of her male protagonists were depicted, they were based on her son.
She wrote “The Secret Garden” after the death of her own son, surrounded by an English garden, in the depths of the grief and depression that her characters experience. Does this change the way we see the book?
This really brings me to think about European “classics” in general. They’re all problematic because they’re all written by people who lived within this society. They inform an entire Anglophone writing tradition and I’m not sure if simply removing it from a reading list is the most useful choice. You might disagree with me. Thinking on the ideas in this book, on its context, and then considering how it impacted, influenced, and inspired so much of modern children’s literature. Do we not gain something from picking apart the original? Especially when that original is written by a woman who was really pushing the boundaries of women and what was acceptable in society? What do you think?
As a child of the ’90’s and an avid reader, I owned a behemouth stack of “The Berenstain Bears” Books. I found them calming, honestly. I always liked the treehouse where they lived, with the little windows. Things never seemed that bad in their world. They are the literary equivalent of plain oatmeal and a glass of tepid water. But as an adult, I see what lurks beneath, and it makes me deeply uncomfortable.
Obviously I am not the only person who enjoyed these books, given the enormous popularity of the series over the last sixty years. However, when my daughter asked me to read one of the old books that I had the other day, “The Bully” it didn’t quite sit right and it took me some thinking to figure out exactly why.
In the book, Sister bear gets beat up by a bully. She runs home crying to her family, and Brother Bear, incensed, rushes over to the playground before she can finish talking. He is going to fight that bully. When he arrives, he is absolutely completely and totally flabbergasted that the bully is a girl, and obviously he can’t fight a girl. They really do play up the absolute almost impossibility that a girl could ever behave that way. So he does the next obvious thing, he teaches his sister how to fight because, clearly that’s the only way to solve this problem?
Sister Bear fights the bully and they both get hauled in to see the Principal. The Bully, Tuffy (what an original name), divulges she is frightened of being hit at home. Sister bear gives her a sidelong look, realizing her behaviour is due to abuse and quickly moves on because thinking about that messy family is not her problem.
So, a lot just happened right there. First of all, the implicit heteronormative 1940’s gender role assumptions are rampant, as they are in every single Berenstain Bears books. Mama Bear is the house maid and cook and wanders around trying to be perfect, while Papa Bear gives out orders with certainty and goes out into the world to provide. We could tear all of the books apart and you will see this but who has the time?
Aside from the horrific gender role assumptions, this whole issue of how to deal with a Bully is problematic on another level. First, there doesn’t seem to be any kind of attempt to talk directly with this Tuffy girl. The parental unit tells her to ignore, but it glamorizes Sister’s Karate Kid transformation. After the two are sent to the principal office, her home situation is given as a blanket backstory for all aggressive behaviour on the playground, and in the end Tuffy has to spend time with the school psychologist and, Sister Bear moves on with her life never having to think of this unsavoury character again. What?
Berenstain Bears books are at their core, vaguely veiled Self Help Books in sit com format. Created in 1962 by Berenstains and their editor Theodore Geisel aka Dr. Seuss. The advice given with such absolute concrete certainty harks from a different age. Apparently this was intentional, Stan Berenstein admitted in interview that the Berenstein Bears were written as existing an an older, pre war, a better time. They use out of date slang on purpose to set themselves apart from the hustle and bustle and confusion of the modern world.
What is even more shocking to me is the Universal nondenominational spirit of the series has veered off completely since 2006 when Mike Berenstain took over writing the series from his parents (who had passed away.) Stan and Jan Berenstein were not religious, Stan actually came from a Jewish family. But their son and current writer Mike, became deeply religious as an adult. When he took over the books he began adding titles such as
“The Berenstain Bears God Loves You,” The Berenstain Bears Say Their Prayers,” “The Berenstain Bears and The Big Question,” and a huge collection of more religiously dogmatic titles. The Christian centered titles have been selling exceptionally well, especially among homeschooling moms.
I always thought throwing some Berenstain Bears books in a collection, was just harmless bland filler. But it seems to me, that underneath the sunny and plain facade, lurks an intention to create internalized dogmatic and patriarchal values in every child. I am not here for it.
Check out the article below if you want to learn more about the story of the Berenstein Bears.