Children’s books are the most important books to take seriously, as they tell children whose stories are worth telling and whose stories are not,” says American academic and children’s literature expert Philip Nel. “They’re the most important books we read.”
This is why the distinguished professor in the department of English at Kansas State University thinks his latest book should be required reading for teachers. The premise of Was the Cat in the Hat Black?: the hidden racism of children’s literature, and the need for diverse books is clear from its title, and Nel believes even many of our best-loved children’s classics may be transmitting a certain amount of insidious racism to their young readers. Educators and parents have a duty to tackle this, he says.
Spotting the problem material can, he admits, be difficult.
“Racism isn’t always obvious in children’s literature because attempts to clean up classics – like Doctor Dolittle, or Huckleberry Finn – simply re-encode the original’s racism in more subtle ways,” he explains.
But then, he says, there are books like Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. “Dahl’s vision of happily enslaved Oompa-Loompas conveys the idea that some types of people are happier in subservient roles. In the original 1964 version, they were not small white people from Loompaland,” he explains. “They were African pygmies. Changing their colour in the 1973 [revised] version makes the racism less obvious, but does not erase it. They are still ‘a tribe’ who are delighted to be shipped to England in packing cases, and who find life in a factory – where they are literally paid beans – preferable to life in the ‘thick jungles’ of their native land.”
Highlighting these problematic features of much-loved books has not always made Nel popular. Some dismiss the importance of his work, he reveals.
“People’s affection for favourites of their youth can prevent them from asking critical questions about the books,” he explains. “And, of course, some people consider children’s literature insufficiently important to take seriously.”
The latter is a very misguided view, he says: “What we learn as children shapes our world view profoundly because when we are small we are still in the process of figuring out who we are and what we believe. For this reason, children’s books are some of the most important influences on who we become – and on what biases we harbour or don’t harbour.”
It’s certainly impossible to view Willy Wonka and his team of helpers in quite the same light after Nel’s analysis, but despite powerful examples like this, some have claimed he is reading too much into some of the much-loved stories he critiques. It’s a suggestion he refutes robustly.
“It is intellectually lazy to see this as ‘reading too much into’,” he argues. “Books are not doors through which truth or meaning simply arrives, unaided. When we read, we inevitably ‘read into’ – we bring our own knowledge and experience to the text, in an effort to make sense of it. ‘You’re reading too much into that book’ is a dishonest way of saying ‘You interpreted that book differently than I did.’
“Of course, not all interpretations are equal. Those that can be supported by better evidence are more persuasive. And that’s the conversation to have: what evidence have we for this interpretation?”
The answer to this question, of course, varies from text to text, but Nell points to a 2015 study by the Pew Research Centre that found almost no adults are without some unconscious racial bias. So perhaps it’s unsurprising that many books may also contain subconsciously racist attitudes.
And he says that this is far from being a phenomenon confined to books by long-dead authors writing from bygone ages.
“I’ve spoken to living authors about racism in children’s literature and how to avoid it, though I have not addressed living authors’ racist books directly,” he explains. “I think that children’s authors [of any race] should be aware that racism is not aberrant. It’s ordinary. It’s not unusual. It’s woven into the fabric of the culture in which we live. It’s impossible to grow up in a racist culture and not have its ideas affect your thinking. In other words, we need to begin by understanding that we absorb racist ideas unconsciously and are often unaware of how those ideas shape us.
“We are not born racist. We learn to be racist. Artists recycle racist imagery unconsciously, not aware that they’re doing so. When child readers absorb that imagery, it infects their imaginations, too.”
Avoidance ‘not the answer’
Faced with this reality, should we simply avoid teaching books that may contain these racist biases? Do schools need to sweep their book shelves for hidden prejudice? Nel’s answer is not as straightforward as you might expect.
“Racist texts can inflict real psychological damage on children of all races, but the child who is a member of the targeted group bears a heavier burden than the child who is not,” he explains. “Indeed, one could argue that the best way to hasten the decline of a racist classic – and thus the racism it may propagate – is not to teach it at all, at any level.
“Although I respect that argument, I would suggest that ignoring the symptoms does not cure the disease. It is a less-risky choice to teach offensive books critically, helping students see the ways in which they reinforce racism and engaging in painful, but sadly necessary conversations.”
In other words, avoidance is probably not the answer – and it may even do further harm if we fail to use these texts to engage, as Nel points out: “Children of colour face racism from their earliest days, so the adults in their lives do not have the choice of whether to discuss racism with them. Discussing it via the safer realm of children’s books can actually prepare them to face it in the world beyond the classroom. They need to know that it’s OK not to like a book or to be angry at a book.”
More than this, Nel believes that drawing attention to issues of race in children’s literature can help children from all perspectives grapple with these concepts.
“Such discussions can help children of colour survive in a racist world, but they can also help prevent white children from remaining oblivious to their white privilege and the structural oppression upon which it rests,” he argues. “All white people are beneficiaries of white supremacy, whether we want to be or not. That’s a tough lesson for children to learn, but learning it can help white children become more compassionate and become allies in the fight for justice.”
But as much as teachers may wish to address these issues, it can be tricky to know where to start. How then do we best begin these conversations?
“For any book, ask children: whose view of the world is this and which kinds of behaviour are presented as normal?” says Nel. “Why is the book written from this perspective? And whose perspectives are silenced or ignored? What would happen if we rewrote the story from one of those ignored or silenced perspectives?”
Of course, it’s not just about challenging racism when it does appear in children’s literature. As teachers, we can help to ensure that our pupils are experiencing a range of more diverse and positive texts too and Nel believes that this needs to be a part of the strategy.
“Non-white children need to see themselves in all kinds of stories,” he explains. “And white children need to see children of colour in all kinds of stories.”
If you’re keen to seek out some of these stories, he even has some recommendations
(Tes also ran some suggestions online at bit.ly/TESdiversitybooks).
“For children’s books that promote equality, I’m a big fan of Jim Averbeck and Yasmeen Ismail’s picture book, One Word from Sophia, which is a very good example of incidental diversity – that is, the character’s race is incidental to the story. The title character is also smart, funny, and determined.
“And G Willow Wilson’s reboot of the Ms Marvel comics – featuring a Pakistani-American Muslim teen in the title role – is great for readers who enjoy comics and graphic novels. When it is ordinary to find non-white characters starring in dystopian novels, science fiction, comic books and fantasy, we at last have truly liberated our imaginations.”
Nel offers a stark assessment of the consequences of failure to act in the ways he has laid out.
“If we do nothing to address racism, we perpetuate the problem and sustain a racist status quo,” he argues. “Silence here is complicity.
“Educators can make a difference. Fighting racism at all levels of education can strengthen democracies.”
The good news is that change has already begun, he says. The result is not only open discussions of racism, but also better books.
“To point to a recent – and positive – example, when critics pointed out the likely inadvertent racial caricature in the black cloud he had drawn over the title character of Lemony Snicket’s The Bad Mood and the Stick, artist Matthew Forsythe re-did the illustrations and made a better book,” says Nel. “Instead of a Golliwog-esque black cloud, there’s now a multi-hued cloud that offers a stronger visual echo of the child whose mood it represents.”
Kate Townshend is a teacher in Gloucestershire