Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Racism in Well-Loved Children's Books

I read about a book a week to my son. We've read lots of wonderful books over the years. When he was younger, I made sure to have lots of picture books with Black characters, celebrating their lives. (My son is Black and Latino; I'm white. The Latino books have been harder to find.) Some were about escaping slavery, some were about civil rights, and many were just simple stories of children's lives. When we shifted up to mostly reading chapter books, I found a few good series: The Julian books and the mystery series starring Ziggy and the Black Dinosaurs. There are also fantasy books, like The Moorchild, that address issues related to racism. (In The Moorchild the villagers react violently to a fairy child living among them, their fear of difference blinding them to any other possibility.)

We recently read two books by Lawrence Yep about families coming to the U.S. from China, which featured characters dealing with racism, with strength and dignity. (Mountain Light, set in the 1850's, and Dragonwings, set in the early 1900's.) Recently, though, we've read two books that made me cringe.

A dear friend gave us a book that is fascinating, sometimes delightful, sometimes terribly sad. King Matt the First, written in 1923 by Janusz Korczak, is translated from Polish.  In this book King Matt,  about ten years old, learns to govern his kingdom, becoming wiser as he gains experience. (In his first month in office, he commands that every child be given candy.) I like the character, and liked watching him grow, until the book introduced the 'savages'.

King Matt befriends King Bum Drum, an African cannibal king, and convinces him to stop eating people. The Africans are repeatedly called savages; they're depicted as quite smart, but backward. One of Kin Bum Drum's hundreds of daughters, Klu Klu, falls in love with Matt. When Bum Drum comes to visit Matt, she stows away in a crate and comes too. She is smart and wise, and saves the day many times. But the overall feel is of the white king Matt  liberating the savages by showing them civilized ways of living - colonialism unquestioned.

The next book we picked up was Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, by Roald Dahl. I knew what to expect in that one, because my son has watched both of the movie versions multiple times. I was hoping that reading it would give us more space for questioning things. Also, books are usually better than movies, so I was hoping for a bit more depth. (Nope.) The problem is colonialism again. The Oompa-Loompa's are officially white (page 76, "His skin was rosy-white, his long hair was golden brown, and the top of his head came just above the height of Mr. Wonka's knee." ), but...
So I shipped them all over here, every man, woman, and child in the Oompa-Loompa tribe. It was easy. I smuggled them over in large packing boxes with holes in them, and they all got here safely. They are wonderful workers. they all speak English now. They love dancing and music. They are always making up songs. (page 71)
I told my son it reminded me of slavery, of how the owners would say their slaves were happy. The Oompa-Loompas had previously lived in Loompaland, where they were being eaten left and right by whangdoodles. So once again we have the white 'hero' saving the natives. Doctor Doolittle has more of the same. I'd like to be able to read 'classics' to my son, but I'm much happier with contemporary novels.

Do you know of any 'classics' that show contact between different cultures, and don't glorify colonialism?


  1. Hawking makes a very good argument for NOT trying to contact any extra-terrestrials, especially more advanced ones, based on human history of colonialism: http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/science/space/article7107207.ece

    It's a good follow-up to "King Matt."

    Also, there is a sequel to the book, which is darker, deeper and much much sadder. It addresses some of the first book's issues more explicitly. It's out of print, though. The name is "King Matt on a Deserted Island."

  2. I am reading a VERY lovely series, by Novik, starting with "His Majesty's Dragon." It is described as, "This Alternate History series sets out to answer a vital question that has intrigued historians for millennia: What would the Napoleonic Wars have been like if the countries involved fought them with dragons?" It treats colonialism in a manner that had me cheering. I won't give you spoilers, but the countries that treat dragons (and fellow humans) respectfully, in that universe, obtain major military and cultural bonuses, and England suffers bitterly for its attitudes.