One of my favorite parts of being a parent is introducing my children to the books and movies that I loved as a kid. Now that my daughter, Zuzu, is almost 8, she is ready for some of the longer children’s books that I remember so fondly from my elementary school days. She and I just finished reading The Secret Garden, for example, which is one of the best books for children ever written, in my view. Sometimes, however, I open a beloved book from my girlhood only to discover that it contains some really troubling racial stereotypes and use of racially charged dialect - the kind of thing that would never appear in a contemporary book. Some of the books that contain these offensive portrayals of racial minorities date from the 19th century, but many go back from only a generation or two, which reflects how much our society has changed in the past 50 years.
As an example, I was so excited for my husband and daughter to read A Cricket in Times Square together because I had fond memories of my mother reading that book to me. My husband was not familiar with the story, but I was sure that he, as someone who spent formative years in New York City, would love it. Midway through the book, however, my husband pulled me aside and asked what I had been thinking when I suggested the book. It turned out that the author portrays a Chinese character speaking in a broken pidgin English that reflects outdated stereotypes about Asian-Americans. Oops! I hadn’t remembered that part. I had a similar embarrassing moment after I recommended the book The Indian in the Cupboard, which had been a favorite of my younger brother. The portrayal of the Native American protagonist makes me cringe.
Offensive portrayals of Native Americans, in particular, are everywhere in children’s literature and movies. Have you watched the Disney classic “Peter Pan” lately? Ouch! The song “What Makes the Red Man Red?” is excruciating. We forget how many “classic” films contain these kind of painful moments. Think of Mickey Rooney as a buck-toothed, slant-eyed Mr. Yamamoto in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s?” Ugh. It makes this otherwise delightful film almost unwatchable. Perhaps if you are Japanese-American, not even Audrey Hepburn can redeem this film for you.
The question is, of course, what to do when you encounter one of these outdated and racially insensitive stereotypes in a children’s book. As adults, we have a context for understanding why books written 30, 50 and 100 years ago handle the topic of characters’ ethnicity differently than a contemporary book would. And we can evaluate the book accordingly. Moreover, racism is part of American history, like it or not. When high school students and adults read Huck Finn, for example, understanding the racism depicted in that classic novel is an important part of understanding 19th century American history.
Yet, young children lack our knowledge and understanding of this less-than-savory aspect of our nation’s past and we may not want to introduce it to them at such a young age. How can I tell my 7 year old that it used to be okay to make fun of how Chinese immigrants speak English or call Native Americans “red men?” She is still so innocent and free from prejudice. I am not ready to expose her to some of these ugly truths. And I worry that she is not sophisticated enough to understand the larger historical context at work. So, does that mean I have to avoid these books altogether? But what if these books have redeeming value and the ugly ethnic stereotype is only a minor detour? Such is the case with A Cricket in Times Square. That beloved favorite appears on many “best books for kids” lists and the Chinese character’s broken English only appears on a few pages. Should we dismiss the whole book? Is that throwing the baby out with the bath water?
I actually raised this question with one of the children’s librarians at my town’s wonderful public library. I had gone to the library that day looking for a book called The 21 Balloons which I remembered my second grade teacher reading out loud to my class. But then I saw that the book contained a cringe-worthy scene with a minstrel show and I hesitated. I asked the librarian her thoughts and she responded that she really did not believe in censoring or avoiding books that contained racial stereotypes. Again, these books are part of our cultural history as Americans. Rather, the librarian said she preferred to approach these awkward scenes as teaching moments. We may not want to talk to our kids about racism, but it is our obligation to do so. You have to tailor the message to the child’s age, certainly. But schools teach kindergartners about Dr. King and Abraham Lincoln. Surely five and six year olds don’t really understand words like “slavery” and “segregation.” But their teachers are laying the groundwork for more sophisticated discussions of these painful topics down the line.
Ultimately, we may prefer to postpone tough conversations about prejudice and racism until we believe our children are “ready” for them, but maybe that is not the right approach. Maybe these are topics that we need to introduce early and continue discussing in more depth as our children grow. And perhaps some of these “classic” books and movies can provide the very opening we need to begin an otherwise abstract conversation.
I still am going to skip that awful song in “Peter Pan,” however. That is beyond a teachable moment.