Children’s literature – should children read the old classics?

I listened to The Guardian Books Podcast from December 10th, 2010 today and they had a very interesting discussion about Children’s literature.

The debate was about older classics like Babar the elephant, Little Black Sambo, Tintin and more and whether these are damaging for children to read. Are they imprinting unhealthy values on our children like colonialism, prejudism and racism?

They went on talking about how we don’t know what effect Little Black Sambo and other books have on children. We don’t know to what extent we are being prejudiced by the colonialism books. We know that children learn positive things from children’s books so of course they can also learn the bad things. But a book doesn’t begin and end with the book – there are a lot of stuff before and after the actual reading. But for some children the book does stand alone – what then?

One of the important debaters was Michael Rosen who had some interesting points – for instance that you could argue that the problem of Babar is both the representation of Africa as some strangely savage Eden that needs to be civilized, that Celeste is one step below the King Babar, that hierarchies are natural etc.

Of course some books have lasted very well – and others are so horrific that children shouldn’t read them at all anymore. In all genres there are books that become outdated in one way or the other and some children’s literature have aged rather badly and for various reasons shouldn’t be read anymore (except maybe by scholars).

I’m not quite sure what I think. I have two small children, the oldest is just two years old, so she’s slowly growing old enough to start reading books like this. But should she? I knew both Babar and Little Black Sambo when I was a child but they were not among my favourites so it doesn’t mean the world for me that my daughters should read these books.

I’m in a position of being able to explain to them the not so good parts of these books and I can give them something else to read to balance these books. But not all children have parents that have the time, the inclination or the opportunity to do this. Will these children be worse off? I have no idea and I don’t think anybody know. I know I don’t think these books should be banned because I don’t believe in banning books for any reason.

But should they be censored? I remember when Tintin was censored so Captain Haddock stopped swearing and smoking and I found it so silly. But what about doing something about Babar so the African people aren’t the lowest of the low, the idea of hierarchy isn’t presented as right and true etc. Or edit Little Black Sambo so it isn’t so racist? I think there could be some good in this. Maybe. Racism in any form, the idea of some people being better than other because of anything like skin color, where you were born etc, is just plain wrong. There is so much hatred in the world today so if you can stop some children growing up hating by censoring these old classics, shouldn’t you do so?

I think – after going back and forth on this – that my answer is no. No, you shouldn’t censor. You should never censor. Who is to determine what to censor anyway? Besides, children see the whole picture. If they grow up in a world where their parents respect other people, they go to school with all kinds of children, and they are exposed to a lot of different books, movies, games etc, reading Little Black Sambo will not make them racists. And if some children do not grow up in this world, maybe they will be racists. But these books are not what will push them over.

Like so many other things, you have to look at everything that influence children. I don’t believe that small children should watch the news but the appropriate thing to do about it is that the parents make sure they don’t – not to ban the news. And it’s the same with these books. If parents let their children read them, then they must make sure to put them into context and explain what’s wrong with them – and read other books that promote multiculturalism, appreciation of different values and cultures and the idea that it’s okay to be different.

The podcast can be found here (the discussion about this subject is towards the end of the podcast).

Anybody have any thoughts on this?

6 thoughts on “Children’s literature – should children read the old classics?

  1. Great discussion! I think you’re right in not advocating the censorship solution. I too think it is about balance and context. Also there is this thing about books and ideas that are censored or forbidden that seems to attract attention from easily impressionable people and I think that is far more dangerous than letting your kids have all kinds of reading experiences along with good discussions with their parents.

    • Good point! If you ban something, it do tend to attract some special types of people, simply because it’s banned … On the other hand, I do appreciate people reading books that are wrongfully banned (like reading Catcher in the Rye, Harry Potter etc) – book banners need to be un-succesful in keeping books away from people!

  2. The idea of censoring children’s literature is one that confounds me. Personally, I think that we underestimate the resilience of children. From literature children only absorb ideas that they already have an understanding of, or which they are ready to gain an understanding for. In other words children choose to focus their attention on that which is familiar to them and that which makes reading enjoyable. In the event that a children’s book shows violence or racism then these acts are interpreted as fiction to the child – something that is just there and that is to be taken with a grain of salt. If a child finds a book too scary, or if a book contains ideas that are too complex for the child to understand, then it is unlikely that the child will continue reading. It is best if children are given the opportunity to make up their own mind about what is appropriate and what is inappropriate.
    As adults we look at this from a scholarly (or perhaps parental) point of view and we tend to overanalyse the impacts of reading on children. I read Enid Blyton as a child, consequently, despite becoming familiar with Gollywogs, I have not become a racist. I read the stories of Babar and I don’t think that colonialism and the hierarchy that was established in India was condonable. When children are growing up they gain their understanding of matters by learning through a variety of resources and through their own experiences. Books provide rounded learning and in no circumstances should fictional children’s literature, whether anachronistic or not, be censored or be given an age classification.

    • I agree with most of what you said. I think that in the cases where children have acted out in extreme ways and it has been blamed on games, role plays, books, tv etc, there are always other reasons – like they don’t come from homes where they have gotten the upbringing that can teach them what is right and what is not. If a child has learned from it’s parents and kindergarden/school, that it is not okay to bully someone, then it’s not going to start doing it by reading or seeing something with someone bullying someone else.
      I read Enid Blyton too and Astrid Lindgren and Little Black Sambo and much much more. I’m not a racist either. I think we often underestimate our children! I know my 3 year old constantly amaze me with what she knows and what insights she has. I rather think I’ll ruin her by trying to keep her from experiences than letting her go nuts in a library!

  3. I grew up reading Babar and Tintin, and have no qualms with having my (future) children read them. I was a voracious reader and read anything I could get my hands on, including Babar, TinTin, Asterix & Obelix, J’aime Lire, The Berenstein Bears, The Hardy Boys (I wasn’t much of a Nancy Drew kind of girl), Goosebumps, I’m in my mid-twenties and it only dawned on me literally yesterday that Babar is supposed to be an African child, living in Apartheid South Africa (not India, as the previous poster mentioned). But also as the previous poster said; we look on these issues with the knowledge of an adult, not that of a child. I feel that in this day and age, if a child is to grow up to be racist it is likely not from reading the classic children’s books, but more so a testament to the environment in which they are raised; being around intolerant, unaccepting adults, witnessing hate crimes that are often seen as a normality in our culture and the like. I was raised to think for myself, love and accept all people regardless of their race/ethnicity, culture, socioeconomic background etc. which had little to nothing to do with my literary choices. However, after my Babar epiphany last night I joked to my boyfriend that it was thanks to Babar for bringing us together; I am a white Canadian, and he is a black African. I also believe that adults should have to re-read Dr. Seuss’ books to uncover all of the wisdom that went unnoticed when read as a child. “Oh, The places you’ll go” was inspiring and eye-opening, I read it this afternoon for the first time in probably 20 years.

    • I’ve never read Dr. Seuss! He wasn’t known in Denmark when I grew up – at least I never found any books by him. Now, with all the movies that have been made based on his books, I think I can find his books and read them to my daughter and I think we will both enjoy that. She has watched Horton Hears a Who and we both liked that so I think we should move on to the books.
      But on the subject, again, totally agree with you. If children have a proper environment, they are not going to be racists by reading Babar, Little Black Sambo or Tintin. I think we’re overprotecting them sometimes. But on the other hand – studies show that if kids and teens watch a lot of tv where people smoke, they are more likely to smoke. So in some instances, I guess it’s okay to prohibit some things … but then again, we’re back to Captain Haddock the clean version and that’s just ridiculous!

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