Classics, Colonization and a Call for Change by Padma Venkatraman
Last year, I gave in to horribly un-American behavior. Confident that my citizenship would not be revoked if indulged in censorship, I picked up a thick sharpie and blackened out offensive words in A Child’s Garden of Verse on my daughter’s shelf.
Other “classics” just plain aren’t on her shelf. I’m confident her childhood can be quite complete even if she isn’t exposed to every classic. After all, there are many brilliant authors influenced by modern sensibilities who write equally marvelous books. Instead of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series, she’s read Louise Erdich’s Birchbark House series. Has she missed something? Sure. Yes. But our time as children is limited, and really, aren’t those children who haven’t visited the Birchbark House because they’ve been so busy following Laura from one Little House to another, also missing something? Or, worse, perhaps they’re unquestioningly absorbing age-old prejudices…
I’ll confess my desire to do my best to keep my daughter from unwittingly imbibing stereotypes has also led me to indulge in behavior abhorrent to people of my South Asian Indian heritage. I have dumped in the recycling bin certain books that my daughter received as gifts (despite my sense that books are sacred).
Despite all the amazing recent work that the organization We Need Diverse Books is doing, despite the many dedicated individuals who have been working for decades to raise awareness about the need for diversity and multiculturalism in children’s books, I’m sorry to report that my daughter has been given The Secret Garden and A Little Princess as gifts; not once, not twice, but an astounding seven times all in all. This gift has always come from thoughtful individuals who remembered that the stories had something to do with India; I am sure, however, that they didn’t quite realize how Indians (and other people of color) are portrayed in these (and so many other) classics. After all, I’ve even heard some librarians and authors of Indian origin say they’ve never come across a poor portrayal of an Indian person in a book.
Re-reading “children’s classics” I realized how much I myself had forgotten. Though I had vague memories of feeling upset or angry when I read certain books as a child, as an adult I was astounded by the plethora of negative ideas perpetrated by brilliant authors of the past. Both The Secret Garden and A Little Princess portray Indians as – to say the least – lesser mortals. As a child, I felt attracted to Mary’s magical adventures but repulsed by her character. How could I feel sympathetic toward a character that throws a tantrum when a maid dares to think she might be brown-skinned? (Let’s not even get into the maid’s voyeuristic tendencies). How could I, growing up in a family where so many relatives had disabilities, accept the idea that Colin’s father is a loving man, when he secrets his son away because his son has a disability? As for the little “princess” – it was clear she would never accept me as an equal, let alone a friend (given the way she reacted to the “lascar” who so kindly helped her).
Rudyard Kipling (of the Jungle Book) proudly proclaimed that east was east and west was west and “never the twain shall meet.” E. M. Forster was certain that married Indian men, as a rule, visited prostitutes whenever they wished. Joseph Conrad reduced the entire continent of Africa to a ghastly backdrop for one white man’s descent into insanity.
Colonial attitudes aren’t restricted to portrayals of India, the proverbial “Jewel” in the British crown. Nor are they all written by British authors. The second book in the Wizard of Oz series has an army of silly girls who race away squealing the moment a mouse appears – (heterosexist brainwashing, here we come). And what of Pippi Longstocking, whose dad is the white chief on an island filled with dark-skinned cannibals? The list is endless.
Perhaps when many of these “classics” were written, our world was less sensitive. Some of these works that we hold in high esteem unquestioningly reflected the prevailing notions of the time. We like to put authors on pedestals and worship them, but not every author is a deeply questioning, self-reflective individual – some just possess an unusual talent for describing society, as they know it. Their characters unthinkingly parrot prejudiced ideas.
When I shared my concern regarding these “old favorites” with a friend, he tried to cheer me up by pointing out that films based on these books are quite clean. “Don’t worry. Kids these days only watch movies made from these books,” he said. “They never actually read the stories.” He forgot, I guess, that I actually write books for a living. He also glossed over the fact that some books that have been turned into movies do, in fact, provide an unadulterated version of the original (Babar the elephant and Curious George have quite terrible and terrifying beginnings).
So what do I do about these classics?
Forbid them? No.
Restrict readership? Why not?
I am on my daughter’s school’s book fair committee. I insist on including as many diverse titles as possible. I insist on bringing parents’ attention to the plethora of information on the web and the many wonderful sites and blogs that show case diversity and highlight problematic books – WNDB, Disability in Kid’s Lit, Debbie’s Reese’s blog, Cynthia Leitich Smith’s blog, the Pirate Tree social justice and literature site, this Nerdy Book Club site etc. I suggest that they may not always agree with everything they read on these sites, but they should at least be aware of them. I point them to awards such as the South Asia Book award, the Jane Addams book award, and the IBBY books on young people with disabilities award – awards that sincerely seek to showcase authentic diverse literature. A prize-winning book is not necessarily flawless, but it’s interesting, if nothing else, to keep abreast of these lists.
I’ll admit my zeal is often met with trepidation. “I want my child to be well read,” parents say, afraid that if their children read Show Way, Drum Dream Girl, A Single Shard, or If I Was Your Girl they might not have enough time to read whatever it is that society at large deems essential. On the one hand, this worry seems trivial (after all, they’ll be forced to read A Catcher in the Rye and listen to a rich white boy whine about his problems at a swanky boarding school while he parties with prostitutes – behavior that no first generation immigrant or person of color could dare to indulge in with such impunity). On the other hand, if our children manage to escape having such novels force-fed to them, is it really a bad thing?
“We can’t throw the baby out with the bathwater,” I’m told. Meaning, we must make time for “classics” like Gone with the Wind, because otherwise we’re losing our culture. In addition, I’m told, a book like Huckleberry Finn raises issues that we learn from. I agree, and it’s a marvelous piece of literature, but if we read it and don’t give equal time and space to books like Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry, aren’t we looking at certain issues only through the lens of a white narrator?
I’m also assured that as parents or librarians or teachers, we always ensure that we indulge in deep discussion with every child who ever reads a book in which disturbing points of view are accepted as the norm. Do we?
Too often, despite our sincere intentions, we are too tired to speak and to listen; at best we talk and hear. Or we don’t have the time to spend energy and effort educating ourselves about problematic issues in iconic literature, let alone broadening our children’s understanding. We delude ourselves by insisting that we will somehow make it right, when really, we ignore these issues. Let’s face it – these issues aren’t easy to raise.
Not even for me.
My daughter, at five, was already bullied for the color of her skin. She was told, “You’re brown and not beautiful, you’re brown and stupid, you’re brown and I don’t be your friend because you’re the color of poo.”
This experience increased her compassion for others. Nevertheless, this and other incidents she’s already been through in her young life, imbue me with a greater sense of responsibility when I talk to her about colonialism, racism, and other kinds of exclusionary isms in books. I do not wish to raise a child who feels threatened by stereotypes, but rather a child who feels empowered to fight against them.
Recently, my daughter was invited to a live performance of Peter Pan. Peter, I knew, would introduce us to Captain Hook – a one-armed villain with few if any redeeming qualities – and he’d stereotype First Nations peoples. We did attend the performance because her friend was acting in it. Then, then we spent a month on a project at home: examining how people with disabilities and from the First Nations are belittled in so many acclaimed books.
Finally, for the record, I’d like to state that I didn’t recycle The Secret Garden or The Little Princess. They’re on her shelf and they’ve inspired several insightful conversations. So yes, I do think such books may have a place and vital place in our lives. If and only if we truly use them as springboards for acquiring knowledge and taking action.
But I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again – if you feel your home or school or public library is running out of shelf space, reconsider why you think a classic is a classic – and whether it’s time for you to start changing the trend by sending some classics to the recycling bin. You can help establish which books will be revered as classics a hundred years from now. You can decide which children will be considered “well-read” adults when they grow up – and what “well-read” truly means.
Award winning American author, Padma Venkatraman, has worked as chief scientist on oceanographic ships, spent time under the sea, directed a school, and lived in 5 countries. Her 3 novels, A Time To Dance, Island’s End, and Climbing the Stairs, were released to multiple starred reviews (12), received numerous honors (> 50 best book e.g. ALA, IRA Notable; Booklist, Kirkus, NYPL, Yalsa BBYA; IBBY outstanding; and > 10 state lists), and won national and international awards. She gives keynote addresses, serves on panels, conducts workshops, and visits schools and author festivals worldwide. Visit her at: www.padmavenkatraman.com and Twitter at