- Some classic children’s books have not stood the test of time.
- While J.M. Barrie’s classic “Peter Pan” is beloved by many, his depiction of the Native Americans in Neverland are problematic for readers today.
- Hugh Lofting’s “Dr. Dolittle,” was revised posthumously to edit out passages with racist material.
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Over the years, many once-beloved classic children’s stories have been re-examined for problematic or disturbing tropes and stereotypes as societal mores continue to progress and parents and teachers get more sensitised to the material youth are consuming.
For example, novels by acclaimed authors like Dr. Seuss, J.M. Barrie, and Laura Ingalls Wilder that were once an indispensable part of a school’s reading curriculum are now receiving backlash or even being altered for containing themes or characters displaying overt racism or sexism.
It’s not surprising that all classic literature hasn’t kept up with the evolution of the times, and in some cases, experts and parents are still divided on whether or not these works can still be used as a teaching tool for children to learn about racism and biases.
From “Peter Pan” to “Dr. Dolittle,” here are 10 classic children’s books that many believe have not aged well.
“If I Ran The Zoo” by Theodor Seuss Geisel, aka Dr. Seuss, has been criticised for containing numerous offensive images.
The book drew criticism for including drawings of, among other things, two African men wearing grass skirts without shirts or shoes. In addition, the book also refers to Asian characters as having “eyes all a slant” alongside a drawing of three men of Asian descent carrying a caged animal on their heads.
The book was challenged but retained at the Vancouver Public Library for the line about people of Asian descent, but will no longer be read at the library’s story-time, according to The Edmonton Public Library.
“The Cat in the Hat” is apparently based on characters from minstrel shows.
Another book by Dr. Seuss, “The Cat in the Hat” has also drawn criticism.
NPR pointed out that Seuss was said to have performed a minstrel show while in college. Minstrelsy was a form of vaudeville that mocked African-Americans using offensive stereotypes and “The Cat in the Hat” is apparently based on the main characters of such shows.
“The Cat’s physical appearance, including the Cat’s oversized top hat, floppy bow tie, white gloves, and frequently open mouth, mirrors actual blackface performers; as does the role he plays as ‘entertainer’ to the white family – in whose house he doesn’t belong,” wrote Kat Ishizuka, director of the Conscious Kid Social Justice Library in an analysis piece addressed to Read Across America, a US literacy program that often uses Suess’s name and work to promote reading for children.
Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House On The Prairie” series told the story of the author’s childhood as a settler and a pioneer.
This series has recently come under fire for its racial stereotypes of Native Americans and African Americans. According to the Washington Post, the Harpers publishing company decided to change the word “people” to “settlers” in 1953 to edit her original sentence “…no people. Only Indians lived there.”
In 2018, Wilder’s name was dropped from the lifetime achievement award given by the Association for Library Service to Children. The association said that the stereotypes found in the series were “inconsistent with ALSC’s core values.”
The Lynne Reid Banks book “The Indian in the Cupboard,” which was followed by a 1995 film of the same name, has come under censure for the colonial undertones of its depiction of Native Americans.
Readers criticised the author for having Little Bear (the toy figurine) speak only broken English and view things in a simplistic way.
Many, including the blog American Indians in Children’s Literature, pointed out that even the concept of owning a “plastic Indian” is problematic in and of itself.
Today, the book is on Random House’s banned book list.
While J.M. Barrie’s classic “Peter Pan” is beloved by many, his depiction of the Native Americans in Neverland are problematic for readers today.
In the text, the Native Americans are called a racial slur and display certain stereotypical characteristics like speaking in grunts and calling Peter Pan the “great white father.” Peter Pan himself uses a racial slur when referring to them.
Film adaptations of the story have tried to update the references to Native Americans – or leave the tribe out altogether – while others have continued to fall flat and offend.
Astrid Lindgren’s “Pippi in the South Seas” contained a racial slur.
The offending words were modified when a 1969 television series about the red-haired heroine was re-aired in 2014, according to the New York Times. At the time, producers announced that they were choosing to edit two different scenes that were deemed offensive.
The book has also been criticised for containing colonial undertones. Dr. Eske Wollrad from the Federal Association of Evangelical Women in Germany was the most-public critic of the book.
“It is not that the figure of Pippi Longstocking is racist, but that all three in the trilogy of books have colonial racist stereotypes,” she told German paper The Local.
Wollrad cited a passage of the book in which black children throw themselves into sand as another point in the book that she took issue with and struggled to read to her nephew, who is black, according to The Local.
Hugh Lofting’s “Dr. Dolittle,” which was first published in 1920, was later revised posthumously to edit out passages with racist material.
The book came under fire for portraying negative stereotypes of black people, colonialist overtones, and for using racial slurs. For example, in one part of the original book, the doctor agrees to help an African prince who wants to marry a Caucasian princess by bleaching his skin.
One of the early criticisms of the book came from LibrarianIsabelle Suhl, according to The New York Times, who called the book “chauvinistic” and said ”the ‘real’ Doctor Dolittle is, in essence, the personification of The Great White Father Nobly Bearing the White Man’s Burden and that his creator was a white racist and chauvinist, guilty of almost every prejudice known to modern white Western man.”
The book ceased printing in the ’70s, according to the Times, and was altered in the late ’80s to remove much of the offensive content.
“Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” originally had a particularly offensive plotline, but some still take issue with it.
Fans of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” may know the story as a fairly harmless one, but the original story had some aspects that have not fared well in modern times.
The Oompa Loompas, now seen as orange people from a made-up place, were originally African pygmies. When the book was released in 1964, many took issue with the portrayal, and Roald Dahl said he was ashamed but that he originally didn’t see the issue.
“You can’t buck the tide,” he said, according to The Organisation of American Historians. “It was the last days of the British Empire.”
“The Secret Garden” has some blatantly racist lines.
“The Secret Garden” has been criticised for many things, including colonizing overtones and outright racism against black and native people, and saying that they’re not respectable and even “not people.”
The book does not appear to have been altered since its original publication.
Not everyone is a fan of “The Giving Tree.”
The giving tree may be a classic tale of selflessness but many have taken issue with it in modern times.
While the “giving tree” is seen as an allegory for a mother who gives and gives until it’s no more than a stump for its child to sit on, not everyone agrees that it’s a heartwarming story of parental selflessness.
“Children’s books educate children, but children’s books also educate parents,” children’s book author Laurel Snyder told the Chicago Tribune. “When you give a new mother, after her first baby, 10 copies of ‘Giving Tree,’ it does send a message to the mother that we’re supposed to be this person.”
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