your favorite un-PC children’s books

Richard the Narnia-hater points to this NYRB article from 2006, which says, among many other things:

Many critics who first read The Chronicles of Narnia as children report being unaware of its Christian meanings or of any other hidden messages, but several complain that when they reread the books as adults they were shocked and dismayed.

and:

Last year [Philip Pullman] denounced the Narnia books as religious propaganda, and called the series “ugly and poisonous.” He summed up their message as “Death is better than life; boys are better than girls; light-coloured people are better than dark-coloured people; and so on.” 

There you have it. Religious propaganda, racism and anti-feminism – all masquerading in one convenient place as magic and high adventure.

One does sometimes find that works one read as a child without questions and with much enthusiasm become subject to doubt and deconstruction when re-viewed through adult contemporary lenses. Phenomena like Doctor Dolittle, Mary Poppins and the Swallows and the Amazons come to mind, to name but a few. And there was Edward Said and Kipling’s Kim, all very sad and difficult. 

I know I came across an online catalogue of un-PC former children’s favorites, but can’t seem to find it again. Among those mentioned above, it also had things like Little Black Sambo, pretty much anything by Enid Blyton (golliwogs!) and Tintin in the Congo, as I recall. And there’s Little Women and Eight Cousins and those Louisa Alcott books (remember how the latest film version of Little Women worked in some very contemporary revisionist feminist/anti-slavery activism…?), and what about the What Katy Did series…?

How to deal with it? Another ghastly continuum in human affairs. In the end, I suppose, you muddle through to some accommodation — you can’t simply denounce and discard things that made up the very fabric of your development (nor do you particularly want to), but neither can you pretend they are as innocuous and wholesome as they appeared to you when you first read them as a child.

I suppose the real test of where you come down is whether you encourage or actively discourage your own children’s access to those books.

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6 thoughts on “your favorite un-PC children’s books

  1. Scavella says:

    My particular take on this is that I don’t particularly care. I was steeped in British colonial racist antifeminist literature as a child and still turned out as a semi-radical nationalist and antiracialist; yet I still read the books I read in the past, and am sharing them with my children. There has been very little more useful in my understanding of the endemic and structural racism of the world and world cultures than my childhood reading, and the ability to discuss and understand — and respect, within their contexts, the valuable aspects of that literture — in the shaping of my political stance.

  2. jee leong says:

    I grew up on Louisa May Alcott, Narnia, Enid Blyton and Mary Poppins, and so they have a special hold on my imagination, even if I don’t read them again. I hated the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe film for its Christian message, its substitutionary (im)morality. I was surprised by the strength of my reaction against it, much of it to do with my present reaction against evangelicalism. Perhaps I don’t hate misogynism and racism enough, for I think I will probably enjoy Little Woman and Enid Blyton done well on film.

  3. Gene says:

    I tend to agree with Scavella and Jee. Literature seldom transcends either the ethos or politics of its era.
    If we start culling all material that reflects attitudes that were contemporary at the time they were published our libraries would soon be empty. Exposing children to good literature is important as well as teaching them that some literature needs to be read and enjoyed in the light of historical context, not necessarily by that of today’s moral and social standards.
    That said my favorite pre-school story book was Little Black Sambo (I loved the part where the tigers turned to butter), but I would not and did not provide a copy to my own children.

  4. I think these comments either miss or sidestep the point.  Lewis’s tendentious books–his theological tracts and Narnia, for example–are not innocuous books which accidentally betray a trace of the social attitudes of their times.  Political correctness has nothing to do with it.  They are polemics, meant to convince: selling a viewpoint is no more incidental to their purpose than it is to Christopher Hitchens or Richard Dawkins, writing today. Hugh Lofting did not intend to produce veterinarians; his racism is deplorable, but not particularly relevant to the story. But to dismiss Lewis’s intention to persuade as an accident of his historical moment is like dismissing the theology of Pilgrim’s Progress as tangential to its purpose.

  5. Scavella, Jee, Gene — There’s nothing clear-cut on this issue and, as you indicate, each one of us makes their own judgment based on the individual response the “problematic” material calls forth from within us.

    Richard — I don’t think anyone’s dismissing Lewis’ “intention to persuade as an accident of his historical moment”. Rather, people acknowledge it and it move on — or not, as the case may be. Some people are bothered enough by the nature and bent of the Christian underpinning of the books to reject them all on that basis. (Not me, by the way — any more than I am bothered by Milton’s all-pervasive intention to persuade in Paradise Lost. I’m far more bothered by the racist worldview in the Narnia series, although again, not bothered enough to reject the series — for me or my children — on that basis.)

    The Narnia books are a great adventure story that has captivated children for many years and no doubt will do so for many more. Is it captivating because of Lewis’ intention to persuade, or irrespective of it? One could argue either way, I suppose, but surely at the end of the day, whether or not that is in any way a germane question depends on the experience and perceptions of the individual asking it (or not asking it, as the case may be).

    Thanks to all of you for taking the time to stop and comment.

    Best, Nic

  6. Glenn I says:

    A friend in college sold me on the idea that Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy was rife with racism — dark skin meant evil! The farther back you go in literature the more casual racism & sexism & classism is unexamined, merely given. Even the courageous, ahead-of-their-time writers were full of mixed messages.

    L. Frank Baum’s Oz books are meant to give comfort to the unconventional and they are surprisingly feminist and queer friendly. Yet I noticed as a child that when a character who had been transformed into an animal was returned to his rightful form via a series of “evolutionary” steps, the next step to White Man was Tottenhot. It was weird enough that intelligent animals weren’t considered human equals and that an ostrich was a closer evolutionary step to human than a mammal (it was the two legs?); Baum tends to make dark skin a marker of the suspect, I suppose. Hardly unusual for his time (1900), if disappointing for ours.

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