The pen is indeed mightier than the sword. And when it comes to children’s literature the power of words to shape the attitudes of the child reader is awesome. Should well-written stories (classics, even) be scrubbed clean of sexism and racism? The characters with derogatory names re-invented? Should the offending books just be piled up in a public place and burned? Might be tempting, rather than have your child read that Mary in The Secret Garden thinks that “blacks are not people”.
But what about the role of those outdated books in highlighting thoughtless attitudes and in educating children in the way things used to be? In The Daily Beast the suggestion is that if publishers, librarians or teachers simply withdraw offensive books then they are of course indulging in censorship, which could lead to a distortion of history. Anna-Marie Crowhurst is a great fan of Enid Blyton and as a child adored the quirky, outdated language and the jolly japes the children got up to. But she clearly grew up in a thoroughly enlighted household because at the age of nine she already knew that a story in which girls always did the cooking was “silly”. To my shame there is a host of classic children’s literature out there which reveals racist and sexist attitudes which I hadn’t ever spotted. Do we bin them all? If so we would be depriving children of E. Nesbit, the Barbar stories, Tintin, TS Eliot, Dr Seuss and Roald Dahl, to name but a few.
The Greater Good is a really thoughtful and interesting American website which reiterates the idea that—with a few exceptions—many stories are simply reflecting the times they were written in and can be seen as history up for discussion. The valid point is made that very few people are wholly bad or wholly good and therefore many stories are simply introducing young readers to a complex world. Laura Inglis Wilder, writing about the Americans setting up a homeland in the mid West, wrote about real life as she and her family saw it. Her own history. And that included indigenous people who were described as “dirty and thieving”. Fertile ground for discussions with children: Why did people think like that? Does that make them bad people? Are we different now? Why?
Of course an enlightened and positive antidote is to actively promote books which combat racism and sexism. I found a great website called A Mighty Girl which suggests lots of books containing strong and successful girls and women, including the true stories of Rosa Parks, Billie Holiday and Malala. I particularly like the choice of the word “mighty”, which makes a change from “feisty” and “strong”. The Guardian offers an extensive list of children’s books which promote diversity, including one with the lovely title Amazing Grace, another about the life of Stephen Lawrence, and Frank Cottrell-Boyce’s story called The Unforgotten Coat. I love the idea that a children’s book can challenge and educate us all on the subject of difference in its widest sense, and that it’s never too early to start talking about the issue. How lucky we are to live in an age where these things are openly discussed by children, parents, teachers, writers and publishers. Now what about a children’s picture book about combatting the rise of racism since Brexit?