Reading While Black: The Kids Lit Edition

When I was a child of ten or so, I wanted to be a writer (and illustrator) like the authors idolized. I decided to read as many “classic” children’s books as possible, mostly using the Newbery Award Winners as a reading list. One of the books on that list was Doctor Doolittle, by Hugo Lofting. I had seen the (1960s) movie and assumed that the book would be similar, if not the same. Not only wasn’t it similar, it came with a heaping dose of open racism. In one scene, the good doctor bleaches a black man white so that he can marry a white woman. I was so disturbed by this scene that I did not finish the book. At ten, I wasn’t “woke,” so I just filed the racism away and lowered my expectations of becoming a Famous Author. I learned that Famous Authors were white people.  I also learned that Famous Authors could get away with blatant racism.

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Doctor Doolittle, of course, was not the only book that had blatantly racist messages. There was the Victorian fairy tale novel The Water Babies by Charles Kingsley, which outright stated that black people were ugly and stupid. (I hunted down this book after reading Alistair Gray’s novel Lanark, which references Kingsley’s book). There was a passage in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s classic novel The Secret Garden where the spoiled brat heroine blithely claims that people of color aren’t even people. (I loved the Burnett book anyway). I had to stop reading A Cricket in Times Square by George Selden because one Asian character spoke in pidgin English. (By the time I encountered that book, I had read Laurence Yep and could spot harmful stereotypes).

The Association for Library Service to Children recently removed Laura Ingalls Wilder’s name from its award because of racism in the Little House books. I never read the Little House books; I did like the television show with its plucky tomboy protagonist and her nemesis, the campy villainess Nellie Olsen. Apparently, the books have some moments of severe values dissonance, with racist portrayals of Native Americans (who were displaced from their land by the Homesteading Act) and in one scene, Pa and a bunch of his friends put on a minstrel show, complete with blackface. Of course, naysayers are screaming about how such an action is on the slippery slope Book Banning and Burning, and how this is tantamount to censorship and another attack by the Tyrannical PC Snowflakes.

I think about all the Native and black children who come across these stereotypical portrayals, and the racist message they absorb.

 

Lois Lenski, the John Steinbeck of children’s literature: regional tales of diversity and classism

Strawberry Girl was the first novel I read by children’s book author and illustrator Lois Lenski (October 14, 1893 – September 11, 1974). I read the book in the fifth grade in secret, because with its pink cover, not to mention title, was girly. At the time, I was in the process of reading books that had the Newbery Award, regardless of content. There were some duds in that bunch. For instance, I could not get into Dr. Doolittle by Hugh Lofting, due to the archaic language and the fact that there was a stereotypical black character.

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Strawberry Girl’s synopsis sounded girly, too. According to the back cover blurb, Birdie Boyer is a plucky ten-year old heroine in turn of the century Florida who oversees a crop of strawberries in the hopes of winning some Four H-styled prize. The actual story is somewhat darker. It’s about a Hatfield vs McCoyesque feud between the Boyer’s neighbors, who are in reality, squatters. The father, in particular, is a drunken lout with rage issues. The mother is not much better. The Boyers, by contrast, are one class above them, and while not educated, per se, have strong bourgeois values and a Puritan work ethic. The neighbors don’t resort to violence. Instead, they use criminal mischief, such as ignoring property boundaries and destroying crops. The neighbor’s son is the lone good egg in the family, and with the help of Birdie, tames his wild streak. The families enter into an uneasy truce, thanks to the friendship between the two kids. The story is accompanied by the author’s stark, black-and-white illustrations that have the austere quality of folk art.

I ended up reading other Lenski books that year. Her regional series followed the lives of children in various US locales. Most of the scenarios dealt with poverty in some form or another. Appalachia is explored in Blue Ridge Billy. Judy’s Journey is about migrant workers. She even dealt with racism in a book that I only heard about, entitled Mama Hattie’s Girl, which features an all-African American (or in the parlance of the time, Negro) cast.  Yet another novel is set in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Lenski was prolific, writing and illustrating many picture books, historical novels and even songbooks. Her focus on poverty and effects on children make her a kind of children’s lit version of John Steinbeck.

Lois Lenski

Lois Lenski

Much of her work is out of print. This past summer, I volunteered for my local library (MLK Public Library here in DC), and I had the pleasure of working with the Rare Children’s Book Collection. Many Lenski works are housed in there.

It’s a shame that more of her stuff isn’t in print. Her focus on the vulnerable left an impresseion my young mind, and made me empathetic and curious about the lives of others.

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