Updated: July 3, 2021 8:30:01 pm
In 1955, American children’s author Theodor Seuss Geisel (better known as Dr. Seuss) met William Spaulding, director of Houghton Mifflin’s educational division, to discuss the crisis in American education and the possibility of writing a new primer that would encourage first-graders to learn to read. As Dr. Seuss took the elevator at the publisher’s office in Boston, he noticed the elevator operator — an elegant, petite woman with white gloves — who later influenced the character of the feline protagonist in his book The Cat and the Hat.
While biographers of Dr. Seuss have discussed the incident, what they did not mention was that the woman in question was an African American, writes Philip Nel, Professor of English at Kansas State University, in his book Was the Cat in the Hat Black?, while highlighting that the origins of the character is racially complicated as it also draws upon cartoonist George Herriman’s depictions of the gendered and biracial Krazy Kat, and traditions of blackface minstrelsy.
Earlier this year, the decision by the Sir Seuss Foundation to stop publishing six titles due to their racist and insensitive portrayal of people of colour produced a huge backlash from certain quarters, with many calling it an attack on free speech and yet another example of “cancel culture”.
More recently, the decision by English Heritage to acknowledge “racism, xenophobia and lack of literary merit” in Enid Blyton’s writing, and the “racist and imperialist sentiments” of Rudyard Kipling produced sharply polarised reactions. Many are wondering if books by these authors are fit for consumption by children and others, while others are calling it an effort to erase the nostalgia associated with their childhood memories.
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But not just Blyton, Kipling and Dr. Seuss, over the years many other popular authors of popular children’s books have been criticised for perpetuating the most damaging forms of racism and sexism. Among the others who have been accused of upholding power structures and portraying marginalised identities in a problematic manner are some of the biggest names, starting from Roald Dahl to J K Rowling and Hergé.
Though some of these criticisms are nothing new, the recent action by the English Heritage has rekindled the conversation on what children should be reading. It has also elicited a diverse set of reactions from authors, academics and scholars on effective strategies of reading that need to be adopted and encouraged calls to sharpen the critical lens through which we examine some of these popular books for children.
Exclusionary politics or product of their times?
Salman Rushdie, in his introduction to a 1993 re-edition of two volumes of early (1888) India tales, writes: “Kipling’s racial bigotry is often excused on the grounds that he merely reflected in his writing the attitudes of his age [though it’s] hard for members of the allegedly inferior race to accept such an excuse.”
Rushdie seems to be echoing here a familiar line of argument that has been applied for many of these children’s authors — what they wrote was perfectly acceptable back then but this became problematic later on. Such an argument also states that these authors should be read as a product of their age when Darwinian theory and Victorian anthropology supported attitudes of white supremacy and patriarchy.
Supriya Chaudhuri, Professor Emerita at the Department of English at Jadavpur University, Kolkata, however, pointed out that this line of argument normalises the reaction of white Anglophone readers as the only judge of “acceptability”. “It’s not a question of finding these authors racist ‘later on’. They were always racist, but the people who would have been offended by their racism had no critical voice earlier. All we can say is that now white Anglophone readers are becoming more sensitised to what appears racist to the rest of the world,” she told Indianexpress.com.
She added, “Indians have long been aware of the problematic nature of Kipling’s views on empire and race, but on the whole the English-educated middle-class took a more uncritical approach towards Enid Blyton, largely because she produced an addictive, easy-to-swallow type of children’s fiction in ‘series’ form that drew millions of child readers. It is a good thing if children read books, but I have long felt that Blyton’s school stories, and the Famous Five, Secret Seven, or Five Find-Outers series, promoted a number of dangerous physical and gendered stereotypes. A more critical examination of the books might yield surprising insights (for example, George/Georgina’s cross-dressing in the Famous Five series, the treatment of Jack’s sister Susie by the Secret Seven, and so on). So, a critical reevaluation of both Blyton and Kipling is absolutely welcome.”
Critical voices across the globe have called out Kipling for his racism and argued that his works should be read as a part of the larger imperialist project and the construction of an English colonial identity. For instance, students at Manchester University in 2018 painted over Kipling’s poem “If” and replaced it with American poet and civil rights activist Maya Angelou’s “Still I Rise”. They claimed that it was impossible to separate Kipling’s works, including The Jungle Book, from a poem like “The White Man’s Burden” where he justifies imperial conquest as a civilising mission.
Blyton’s work has been widely criticised during her lifetime as well for books such as The Little Black Doll, where the character of Sambo is accepted once its “ugly black face” is washed “clean” by the rain. In the popular Noddy series, she cast “gypsies”, foreigners and golliwogs — a racial caricature of a black rag doll — as antagonists and villains. There is also problematic gender politics at play, with her tendency to resort to lazy stereotypes while portraying girls in the mystery novels and books in the school series.
Professor Philip Nel, who is also the Director of the Program in Children’s Literature at Kansas State University, pointed out that it is worthwhile to ponder over whether popular works deserve to be taught in the classroom even if they promote problematic race and gender politics. He told Indianexpress.com, “If you’re going to teach racist, imperialist, or sexist children’s literature, what do you hope to achieve? Are you teaching against these sentiments by, say, showing children how to read these critically, alongside works that challenge racism or imperialism or sexism? Or do you insist on reverence for popular or revered works of the past, irrespective of the damage those works caused then and will continue to cause now?”
Sreemoyee Dasgupta, a PhD student at the University of Pittsburgh who is researching children’s literature, also said that racism is not something that can be dismissed as a “sign of those times”. She added, “However, I think you can enjoy something but also critique it. These are not mutually exclusive. For instance, there are elements of Peter Pan that offer useful historical glimpses, but there is no denying the fact that J.M. Barrie’s representation of native Americans is problematic. We can enjoy the works of Junot Díaz while acknowledging the fact that the way he depicted women is offensive. And we can say Chander Pahar (Mountain of the Moon) by Bengali novelist Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay is a lovely read even though his portrayal of Africans is rather primitive. But accepting these problems doesn’t take anything away from your childhood.”
Of Oompa-Lompas, Mudbloods and Tintin-gate
Authors of children’s books being called out for their exclusionary politics is nothing new — criticisms of Roald Dahl for his portrayal of the Oompa-Lompas date back to the 1970s. Children’s author and critic Eleanor Cameron had in an essay titled “McLuhan, Youth, and Literature” in the 1970s slammed “Willy Wonka’s unfeeling attitude toward the Oompa- Loompas, their role as conveniences and devices to be used for Wonka’s purposes, their being brought over from Africa for enforced servitude, and the fact that their situation is all a part of the fun and games”.
In the original 1964 edition of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Wonka seeks to justify the inhuman treatment being meted out to the Oompa Loompas by explaining that they are “tiny miniature pygmies” who have been “imported direct from Africa!”.
Among the other popular children’s authors who have been criticised for racism is J K Rowling for the stereotypical depiction of the character of Cho Chang, her writings on native American wizards in her 2016 Pottermore essays on the ‘History of Magic in North America’, and anxieties about “pure blood” in the Harry Potter novels.
As Neil Mulholland argues in The Psychology of Harry Potter: An Unauthorized Examination of the Boy Who Lived (2009), ethnic racism does not play a prominent role in the novels but there is a constant othering of Mudbloods (an insult for a witch or wizard born of Muggle or non-magical parents) and half-bloods. Voldermort’s obsession for “pure-blood” has led many literary critics to draw parallels with Hitler’s project of building a “superior race”. However, many have also pointed out that Rowling’s art is self-conscious because the novels also offer a critique of this othering.
Many of the Tintin comics by Hergé (Georges Remi) have also been criticised for passive endorsements of colonialism. The Belgian author has also been called out for resorting to racial stereotypes while depicting non-white characters like Chang Chong-Chen, Sheik Mohammed Bin Khalish Ahmed and the Maharaja of Gaipajama. Tintin, on the other hand, has been portrayed as the white male hero who repeatedly rescues natives from dangers and even “civilising” natives in Tintin in Congo, and propagating anti-communist propaganda in Tintin in the Land of the Soviets.
In fact, Tintin in Congo was removed from a children’s library in Kulturhuset in Stockholm in 2011, which led to what came to be known as ‘Tintin-gate’, spurring heated debates in mainstream and social media on issues of racism and censorship.
Aratrika Choudhury, an independent illustrator and doctoral researcher at the Department of Comparative Literature in Queen Mary University of London, said dropping problematic sections from popular literary texts can never be a part of the solution. “It is never-ending in a sense, isn’t it? This is also largely tied to our notions of ‘protecting children’ and shielding them from harsh realities. We should definitely re-examine how we can best express that protective impulse as well…I grew up on Blyton and Kipling and at the time I did not fully recognise these problems. Children have a great capacity for segregating different bits of information and making sense of things in their own way.”
‘Cancel culture’ versus strategies of reading
Last year, over 150 academics and authors, including Rowling, Rushdie and Margaret Atwood, signed a letter, which was published in Harper’s Magazine, denouncing the weakening of a culture of debate in the favour of “ideological conformity”.
Moreover, the decision to stop publishing six Dr. Seuss books this year for his racist caricatures of non-white characters also triggered heated discussions on whether “cancel culture” was destroying freedom of speech.
Nel, however, said that “cancel culture” is not real and it is wrong to state that six Dr. Seuss books have been cancelled. “Dr. Seuss Enterprises did a product recall on the six books. But the books in question still exist. It is not illegal to read them. The books have not been erased, banned, or cancelled,” he said.
Chaudhuri said she doesn’t believe that the publication of books should be stopped and justified criticism should not be equated with ‘cancel culture’. “It is very important to recognise that books can perpetuate damaging forms of xenophobia, sexism, and racism. There is nothing wrong with pointing out such instances where they occur so that people can make an informed decision as to whether they want to read such books — or give them to their children — or not. For example, Nabokov’s Lolita is a great classic, but it is also a book about the sexualisation and exploitation of a child, and for myself I never want to read it again. I don’t, however, think that it should be banned.”
Dasgupta said that rather than calling for books to be cancelled, the focus should be on devising strategies of reading where children are encouraged to contextualise, question and critique the texts they encounter. “If Enid Blyton is problematic, then there’s a conversation around it that parents should have with their children. The idea is to start training children to read and also understand the context.”
She argued that the onus is on figures of authority to take up the responsibility in this regard. “For instance, if I find children who are immersed in Disney culture, I encourage them to also read stories in which princesses have more agency. Children should be allowed to build these contrasts and decide who they find more engaging — a fair princess who spends her time sleeping or one who is out there fighting with swords.”
Over the years, critics have pointed out that fairy tales, starting from Brothers Grimm to modern popular adaptations, uphold many sexist and racist stereotypes, starting from promoting heteronormative gender roles to depicting romantic union and matrimony as a sort of final goal through which women are meant to find happiness. In this light, feminist retellings of fairy tales — such as Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber, Anne Sexton’s poems like ‘Cinderella’ and ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’, and Soman Chainani’s The School for Good and Evil, which is being adapted into a fantasy film for Netflix — that challenge and subvert these ideological tropes have become extremely popular.
Choudhury said, “Several modern storytellers are doing a good job of introducing healthy perspectives. For instance, it’s brilliant how homosexuality is expressed in And Tango Makes Three by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell. However, I must say that children’s literature, despite being aimed at a young audience, ironically revolves around adults making decisions. But it is in many ways unavoidable. I feel that the popular and the problematic always have and will largely continue to remain entangled. It is more important to understand and unpack that fully than shut it off completely.”
Donnarae MacCann, White Supremacy in Children’s Literature (New York and London: Routledge, 2001)
Gillian Klein, Reading into Racism: Bias in Children’s Literature and Learning Materials (London and New York: Routledge, 1985)
Philip Nel, Was the Cat in The Hat Black? (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017)
Veronica L Schanoes, Fairy Tales, Myth and Psychoanalytical theory (Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2014)
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