'Historical prejudice in classic literature should not be erased – we should teach our children to challenge it'

Quality literature doesn’t shy away from difficult topics, but weaves them into great stories – and we shouldn't shelter our pupils from these awkward texts, writes Dr Bernard Trafford

Bernard Trafford

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At the beginning of September, the US celebrated National Read a Book Day. On which, Melania Trump sent a gift of books to elementary schools in 50 states – the bundle included works by Dr Seuss which, she said, she had enjoyed reading to her own son.

This worthy, if perhaps naïve, gesture promoted a response.  

One school librarian in Cambridge, Massachusetts, took exception to the gift and published a long open letter (hastily disowned by the school board). She sneered at the cost of postage and suggested more deprived schools than hers had a greater need: then she came to her real point.

Dr Seuss’s work, she continued, is “a cliché, a tired and worn ambassador for children’s literature. Dr Seuss’s illustrations (he was foremost an illustrator) are steeped in racist propaganda, caricatures and harmful stereotypes.”

And in The Times some weeks ago, the redoubtable Libby Purves acknowledged that Seuss was an illustrator of his time, though he also moved with the times.

But, she accuses that librarian of betraying her own prejudices when she produced another list of books about “children who stand up to racism and oppression” and have “parents who are incarcerated simply because of their immigration status”: take, for example, Mama’s Nightingale: A Story of Immigration and Separation.

Awkward moments

Libby Purves insists that there’s plenty of established, historical and modern fiction dealing with children battling and overcoming trials, not least Harry Potter. Dr Seuss’s style grates with me, but I’m not about to outlaw him from the canon of children’s literature, which – as the Times columnist insists – is gloriously broad and offers ample opportunities to children for “entering into other lives and attitudes past and present”. 

To be sure, there are awkward moments and issues in classic literature: but the use of the “n word” in Mark Twain's work is surely something to be challenged and argued about, not hidden away as if it were never written.

For many of my 60 years, Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew has been a rarity on stage, its sexist basis presumably regarded as too tricky to tackle. Now it’s being done again, the theme (I presume) tackled head-on. Similarly, both Shakespeare’s Shylock and Dickens’ Fagin present problems for today's actors and directors but, in our hopefully enlightened age, we can surely engender an understanding of the prejudices that helped form their character without weakening them as the villains (to the extent that they are) of their respective stories.

We are modern adults, and we can help our children to tangle with the complexities of historical prejudice rather than hiding such issues away.

A colleague once said to me, “I hate agenda drama!” We don’t need books or plays that preach at us. Quality literature doesn’t shy away from difficult topics, but weaves them into great stories.

Dr Bernard Trafford is a writer, educationist and musician. He is a former headteacher and past chair of HMC. He tweets at @bernardtrafford

To read more columns, view his back catalogue

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Bernard Trafford

Bernard Trafford

Dr Bernard Trafford is a writer, educationalist, musician and former independent school headteacher

Find me on Twitter @bernardtrafford

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