Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Should we ban 'Little House'?: Racism in Classic Children's Texts

As we approach Banned Books Week (September 25 - October 2), the issue of book banning seems to be in the air. The YA writing community has been galvanized by one midwest community threatening to ban Laurie Halse Anderson's Speak - on the charge that discussing sexual violence is akin to pornography. This comes on the heels of another Missouri community officially banning Sherman Alexie's Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian. And of course, this all is shadowed by 9-11-10, a day whose memory became tarnished when some hate-filled individuals suggested it be used as a day to burn the Qur'an.

I am obviously appalled by these efforts to dishonor the written word - efforts motivated by xenophobia, hate, and fear. I blogged recently about the writer's responsibility to protest, stir up controversy and conversation, and challenge society to push itself in more just directions.

But what about written works that do the opposite? What about written works that promote stereotypes, prejudice and fear? As a rule, of course, I would say that freedom of speech means freedom of all speech. But, as a parent and pediatrician, what do I think about those works of classic literature which teach our children prejudice, racism, sexism or xenophobia?

I got thinking about this more deeply after reading Philip Nel's excellent blog post about Censorship of Children's Literature. In it, he discusses Roald Dahl's portrayal of the Oompa-Loompas as 'tribespeople' brought in small crates from the deepest jungles of a far away land. Although the original 1964 illustrations - in which the Oompa-Loompas were dark-skinned - changed by the 1973 edition - by which time they were white - the colonial implications remain. The Oompa-Loompas are a "primitive" people who don't mind - nay, even welcome - their status as chocolate factory slaves. As Nel discusses, the removal of explicit racial signifiers doesn't prevent this from being a racist gesture -- as it doesn't change a child's ability to assume that a non-Englishspeaking 'tribesperson' from a 'deep jungle' might very well be from Africa. His discussion of Dr. Doolittle is similarly nuanced.

In my household, it was my 8year old's recent fascination with the Little House on the Prairie series that raised my neck hairs. To be honest, I LOVED these books as a girl, and was looking forward to sharing them with my children. That is, until we started reading them out loud and I began skipping large sections - first about hunting, then about gun care, then skinning animals, and finally -- yikes -- all that stuff about the half naked, frightening, primitive, violent 'Indians.' (Had I forgotten all that?) And how much Ma Ingalls hates 'them'. Why? Because -- well, they're half-naked, frightening, primitive and violent. (Oh, yea, and mad that the white settlers are taking over their land - but we won't talk about that.) Even Pa Ingalls' semi-tolerance of 'Indians' is more a tribute to how cool Pa is than anything else.

I edited out passages in our read-alouds, but as my child began to read the books himself, how could I edit his reading? I certainly wasn't going to cut out or blacken pages, nor was I going to stop him from reading these classic texts - which have a great deal of good in them -- girl heroines, love of family and nature, wonderful writing. Even if I could have - as a publisher, say - edited out those explicitly racist chapters from the Little House series, should I? Would such a gesture remove the overall colonial and racist history of Westward migration in the U.S.? Would such a gesture not re-enact the book banning/burning urges of those who oppose freedom of speech?

The only thing I could do was to explicitly discuss with my child my feelings about those parts of Laura Ingalls Wilder's books. As well as to make sure his literary diet was varied, and consisted of plenty of other images of people of color -- of course the lack of multicultural children's books with multicultural protagonists out there (and their lack of humor and variety) is a whole other blog post.

Now, this doesn't mean I'm not squeamish regarding the unquestioning portrayal of racism. A few months ago, when my kids and I watched Disney's Peter Pan on DVD and the film got to that awful Native American village scene -- yea, I still fast forwarded over that.

When my 6 year old asked me why, my 8 year old (Little House reader) told her, "It's because it's promoting stereotypes. And stereotypes hurt people."

Well said, my boy. Well said.


  1. I, too, hesitated and edited on the fly when reading Little House aloud to my then 7 year old girl. I found myself eventually reading her exactly what was written, but stopping to talk through why some of the authors words made me uncomfortable. Now -- because of my family history and traditions around hunting, those sections didn't bother me a bit. My kids are exposed to hunting and guns by a very caring Grandfather who talks openly about how he uses them and why. He has taught all of the grandkids about gun safety -- for which I am grateful. But the language about the violent, half-naked "others"...well...I hope I found good enough words of my own to help my daughter see that as part of our national and cultural history -- but as a part that we are glad to have outgrown. Or at least we should have outgrown.

  2. Kari - I was thinking of your Dad when I posted that in fact. I'm pretty sure he might have been my own childhood vision of a loving, all wise Pa Ingalls. To me, the issue is a. taking the time to talk through these things with kids lest they take them as "fact" b. finding enough multicultural texts to counterbalance these messages from 'classic' kids literature. So the onus I think is on us as writers to get diverse voices/characters out there but more importantly on publishers to publish a wide variety of books!

  3. Absolutely! And thank goodness Dad didn't start calling one of us "half pint"!

  4. Hey, directed here from a comment on sociological images. While I can totally understand the discomfort the Little House Books can bring up, I'm not sure it's a bad thing. I read all of them as a kid and to ME they illustrated the difference in perception of Native Americans between then and now...because I was raised in the 80s and 90s when kids were getting spoon fed a lot of the post-racial and P.C. lines of thinking. I saw in Pa and Laura's reactions to them (remeber, Laura was intimidated but fascinated) a relatively sensible reaction to those who are "different" and in Ma's the the truth that even otherwise loving and sensible people can be foolish about the "other". Probably those ideas were formed in discussion with my mother who closely supervised (but rarely, restricted) my reading. The exact things that make us uncomfortable in kids books can end up being the catalyst for the greatest knowledge or understanding our kids take away from them.

  5. Agreed mumsyjr -- my issue is complicated by wanting to give my children positive role models in their reading. I really don't restrict their reading at all - but do want to make sure they have plenty of positive role models around (in literature, in life). From my own experience growing up in the 70's, internalized racism is a hard thing to get over... and yet, I did get plenty out of pleasure out of the Little House Books too... (like your smart observation about Ma- that loving and sensible people can be foolish too...)

  6. I came here from Phillip's page. My pointers to LITTLE HOUSE are there, too.

    I've written about those books several times. The focus of my work (I'm currently a professor in American Indian Studies at the University of Illinois) is on depictions of Native peoples in children's and young adult lit.

    I ground my work in research studies that demonstrate the harmful effects of stereotypical images.

    I invite you to visit my site. Search on American Indians in Children's Literature and you'll find it. I've been blogging there for several years. My site is used by professors in children's literature across disciplines (Library Science, Education, English) and librarians, parents, and teachers.

    In addition to blogging several times a week, I link to full-text articles on topic.

    When using books with children, I think of something you're familiar with... "First do no harm."

  7. Thank you for your post, Debbie - I will indeed go to your page and am delighted to use you and your work as a resource.
    For me too, the tension is always what self-story these tales are telling children of color - and the internalized racism that we all drink in through narratives - by not seeing ourselves portrayed, by seeing ourselves negatively portrayed, by seeing beauty as always something other than our bodies, etc. etc.
    So for me, the rallying cry is around making a multiplicity of POC narratives available out there for children - a multiplicity of LGBT narratives too (just blogged on this today). Without that, it's impossible to ever change the narrative of these 'classic' children's texts - or challenge what should be called a 'classic'!

  8. Sorry I am late to this discussion- I just stumbled on this linked from the Scholastic blog. My mother read us the Little House books when we were small, and she didn't skip anything. We did spend a long time talking about Ma's feeling about the 'Indians' and why Ma might have felt that way, and how that was similar to the way and reasons why people feel about 'other' people now. I remember struggling to understand all of this- my mother talked over our heads a lot, but in a really good and challenging way that made us better thinkers. So in sum, my mother is awesome, and reading stuff like this to kids is good, in my opinion. I think that some try and shelter children from the fact that anything bad happened or happens, ever. I understand this impulse, but I don't think that this is ultimately helpful in raising people who will grow up to be able to see for all of the horrible things that do happen for themselves. I also agree that it's helpful to learn early that people are not all-good or all-bad and that good people can and do have stupid and wrong ideas. I agree that it is also helpful to read narratives from POC perspectives.