Racial stereotypes in children’s books
By Gordon Campbell
There’s so much crap in children’s bookshops and children’s tolerance of what is put in front of them is so immense, it should not be abused. That’s why it seems worth singling out some of the enduringly good books that, thanks to librarians and online purchasing, are still available.
According to the experts, an awareness of gender kicks in with children around the age of three, with racial awareness (and even racial repugnance) commonly evident by four or five. To make these distinctions, children filter their perceptions through the narratives they hear – and thus any family preferences and stereotypes will inevitably play a role in how they sort their early experiences into manageable form, and come to understand who they are, and who they are not.
All of which places quite a burden on children’s books, as they usher a child into literacy, and self-expression. This essay doesn’t pretend to deal with the treatment of race in children’s literature in any comprehensive way, but it does consider a few landmark examples. Helen Bannerman’s 1898 classic Little Black Sambo, for instance, is still a controversial part of any consideration of race in children’s literature. Bannerman, a Scot, wrote the story in India, and Sambo is supposed to be a Tamil – which explains why the story involves a pack of hungry tigers running round and round the tree up which Sambo is trapped, until they churn themselves into butter. Quite justifiably, Bannerman’s defenders point out how the story celebrates Sambo’s courage and ingenuity. Also, none of the black characters use comically illiterate language.
All the same, even at the time of writing it would have been hard to justify the choice of names : Sambo, Black Jumbo, Black Mumbo. By 1898, Sambo was already a generic term for black people. The name crops up in both William Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, and in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a protest novel against racism that accidentally gave the world yet another racist template in the shape of Topsy, the comically ragged girl slave. Topsy became a staple of minstrel shows for the next 50 years or more, at least until Sambo – and later, a new range of grinning, shiftless black characters from Hollywood – took her place.
Whatever her intentions, Bannerman has a lot to answer for. The book’s illustrations exaggerated Sambo’s facial features to the point of caricature, and they inspired a whole lot worse. Such was the book’s success that many knockoff editions were rushed out that contained even cruder stereotypes, with some of them setting Sambo down in the US, and back on the old plantation.
In recent years, attempts have been made to salvage the good aspects of the Little Black Sambo story. In 1996 for instance, Julius Lester wrote Sam and the Tigers, which transformed Sambo into Sam, a sassy upstart reminiscent of the trickster hero in the Uncle Remus stories. Later in the same year, Sambo was recast more successfully by Fred Marcellino in The Story of Little Babaji, in a version that was far more faithful to Bannerman’s original text.
At first glance, William Nicholson’s 1929 book The Pirate Twins looks like more from the same racist tarbrush. Mary, a little blonde girl with red knickers, finds two very black pirate twins on a beach and takes them home, She bathes them and tries to teach them the social basics – such as how to dance, the location of Jamaica and the Milky Way, and other essentials. The pirate boys however, are incorrigible. They play dominoes in bed and get up to other hi-jinks, before stealing a boat and making their escape.
So is this a story about blacks being impossible to educate ? Or is it, for Britons in 1929, a subversive text about the need to set people free from colonialism? Mary is forced to learn that people can’t be made over into her ideal of respectability, but must be allowed the freedom to be themselves. Moreover, she finds her ties with her former dependents need not be lost entirely. On the last page, we are told the pirate twins come home voluntarily, once a year at least, to celebrate Mary’s birthday.
The reprint of The Pirate Twins in 1995 has allowed a new generation to appreciate Nicholson’s work. Also back in print is his earlier children’s book Clever Bill, which Nicholson wrote for the children of his daughter Nancy – who was the first wife of the writer Robert Graves, and who was unwillingly embroiled at the time in a notorious ménage a trois with the American poet Laura Riding. In the new introduction, Maurice Sendak salutes The Pirate Twins as being a direct inspiration for his book Where The Wild Things Are – adding that it and Clever Bill are ‘two texts so simple that they seem to run through your fingers.’
So who was William Nicholson? Born in Newark, Nottinghamshire in 1872, Nicholson wrote and illustrated The Pirate Twins (and provided the original illustrations for the Margery Williams classic The Velveteen Rabbit ) towards the end of an illustrious career as a painter, illustrator and graphic artist that saw him knighted in 1936. More commonly today, graphic artists remember Nicholson for his revolutionary posters, as one half of the Beggarstaff Brothers, with his brother in law James Pryde. Their use of text, colour and woodcuts was very distinctive – and it cropped up again recently in Britain in a poster campaign about the use of cellphones in cars. Certainly, Nicholson’s illustrations for The Pirate Twins are the book’s main claim to fame, even more so than its political subtext.
Post-war, there have been conscious attempts to address the race and gender inadequacies of classic children’s literature. For good reason, too. In 1972, the landmark Weitzman 1972 study into gender stereotyping in children’s books had exposed a dearth of positive female characters in most of the books celebrated over the years by the Caldecott prize system, as being the best in children’s literature.
By the 1980s, the process had carried over into a virtual academic industry of similar content analyses on racial stereotyping, and the invisibility of racial and colonial themes in children’s books. Well beforehand though, a few gifted writers, such as the Jewish author /illustrator Ezra Jack Keats ( 1916-1983) had recognized the problem, and consciously set out to create children’s books that featured black characters, and the urban environments in which they lived. As Keats said : “I decided if ever I did a book of my own…my hero would be a black child. I wanted him to be in the book on his own, not through the benevolence of white children, or anyone else.”
Coming along the height of the civil rights movement, Keats’ 1963 book The Snowy Day was a genuine breakthrough. It depicted a young boy’s responses to a snowstorm, without once commenting on the fact he was black. The political subtext – the invisibility of being black in a white, white world and of being human, not an ethnic category – fitted the mood of the time perfectly.
Just as inevitably by the early 1970s, this approach had began to be attacked by more radical writers. In one such critique, Ray Anthony Sheppard took Keats sternly to task for portraying young blacks as being just like young whites. “ The Snowy Day said black kids were human, “ Sheppard railed, “by presenting them as coloured white kids.” What had seemed like revolutionary compassion only ten years before, was now treated as evidence of inverse racism. Keats’ urban settings – once celebrated – became criticized as mere liberal “travelogues” that took young white readers into the cities to show them the sights.
These days, much of that debate seems passé. Keats is now far more likely to be celebrated for his bold splashy use of colour and for techniques he borrowed from of a mid-century range of painterly influences. In a nod to Jackson Pollock, Keats reportedly used a toothbrush to apply the thick white India ink for the winter environment in The Snowy Day.
If you look hard enough, you can also find traces of the jagged abstract expressionism of Clyfford Still, or the collage /cut out period of Matisse in Keats’ books, but any such influences are always being harnessed to convey a child’s eye view of the world. His editor, Annis Duff, certainly saw The Snowy Day that way : “ The flat shapes and colours of buildings, the formalities of trees, are just as what might appear to a child, closed in poetic delight of being all alone – the most important person in the world – in the first deep snow he has been big enough to enjoy all by himself.”
Personally, the Keats’ books did always seem a bit thin on narrative. But then again, it is generally conceded that his books always did function better as mood pieces than as stories. Travelogue or not, the alleys and parking lots in his 1968 book Goggles for instance, are full of colour and movement ( right down to the lines of washing waving in the wind) and the illustrations perfectly match the energy of the two protagonists. One has to give credit where it is due. Almost single-handedly, Ezra Jack Keats created a type of urban picture book in which race and ethnic variety were at last, finally visible – and it would be up to others to deal with the implications.
Good intentions of course, do not automatically translate into good books, yet sometimes the ingredients come together. The New Zealand book Kimi and the Watermelon by Miriam Smith is one successful example. An even better story of intergenerational harmony is Not So Fast Songololo, by the South African writer/illustrator Niki Daly. In this book, as in several of his other efforts, Daly traces how a solitary child discovers self-worth with the help of an adult. “As a solitary child myself,” Daly once explained, “ I suppose I have always counted on there being a powerful figure to open doors for me and to help me fulfill my dreams – in other words, a fairy godmother!”
In Not So Fast Songololo, that dependence flows freely in both directions, which helps make it such a satisfying tale. The little boy helps his elderly grandmother Gogo do her shopping, and cope with the disorienting hustle and bustle of the big city, while she guides him in the purchase of his heart’s desire – some bright red sneakers. Daly’s prose is quite lovely : “Gogo was old, but her face shone like new school shoes. Her hands were large and used to hard work, but they were gentle. ” Even so, some critics in South Africa deplored the fact that a white writer should portray Gogo, a black woman, as being overweight. It has been, Daly once recalled wryly, the book of his that has been most praised, and most criticised.
More appreciative readers have pointed to the subtlety of the political subtext. In this book, blacks ride in buses, while whites use private cars. Within the text, deprivation is an ingrained feature of daily life. The boy wears worn hand me downs, and Gogo’s decision to buy him new sneakers is a sacrificial one – both she and the boy are well aware that she needs new shoes even more than he does.
Other examples ? For even younger readers, Molly Bang’s ingenious counting book Ten, Nine, Eight, unobtrusively uses a brown person’s foot and toes to count down the pathway to sleep. For slightly older ( yet still pre teenage readers ) Jill Paton Walsh’s book Babylon uses the song “Rivers of Babylon” to explore the impact of emigration on the children of a Caribbean family now living in Britain.
The older children retain their memories – and, as in the song, they can weep for the lost smells and sounds of Jamaica – but the youngest child, born in Britain, doesn’t even have the memory of her culture to sustain her. By and by, her mother gently promises her, her life will surely bring her something to weep for. The prospect of having something someday that she will be attached to that deeply serves, for now, to cheer up the young girl. She feels that she belongs – and finding your own sense of belonging is what Babylon is all about.
The end point of all this, I suppose, is that positive messages about race in children’s books will not stop children from categorizing on the basis of race. The evidence – some of which is contained in the recent Newsweek cover story called ‘See Baby Discriminate’
indicates that children are not colour blind, and that race tends to be part of their initial sorting of reality. The process is fundamental. What one can do is argue against the injustice of race being a determinant of the outcomes in society. Which is a lifelong debate, and children’s books are one place to start it.
Gordon Campbell is indebted to the Children’s Literature Review and the Something About the Author series for quotes and reviews used in this essay.