Challenging the Canon

Meghan Dietsche Goel - August 18, 2017

Last week, fellow ShelfTalker Leslie Hawkins wrote a compelling piece on talking to kids about racism directly so that they can see it and name it and react to it. She pointed to Holly McGhee’s Come with Me as a title designed to help kids engage with tough topics and figure out what they can do. I completely agree and think that books that depict kids finding ways to push back against hatred and racism and bias can be especially impactful—books like The Story of Ruby Bridges, Emmanuel’s Dream, Separate Is Never Equal, We’ve Got a Job. But as Grace Lin reminded everyone in a PBS video last week, there are plenty of books that introduce racism but don’t call it by name, and some of those books come labeled with the word “classic.” It’s embedded racism in bestselling, famous stories that we can’t afford to gloss over with young readers, even if it’s tempting to keep turning the pages to get back to the fun parts.

This topic is by no means new (Debbie Reese has written in depth about the Little House series many times on her blog American Indians in Children’s Literature). And problems of racism and bias in children’s literature classics are well known. There are many books on the list (The Secret Garden, Pippi Longstocking, Peter Pan, to name a few), but Grace focuses her video on Little House on the Prairie, and that’s an example that speaks strongly to me from my childhood as a reader.
I remember two substantive conversations with my mother that came out of reading the Little House books. One was about the fact that when Jack the dog died, he was actually dead and wouldn’t be coming back. And the other was that the book’s attitude toward American Indians was really racist and was rooted in the perceptions and conflicts of a troubled, complicated time. I also remember my mom talking about how Ma didn’t really want to keep moving west, but that women were expected to follow and support their husbands. The nuance and details of these talks are lost to my memory (they occurred circa 1985), but they have always stayed with me. They planted seeds that changed the way I viewed a reader’s relationship with books; they made me realize that there was such a thing as reading with a critical eye.
Now, as an adult with children who love books, my memories about the Little House books are complex, and my opinions of them have continued to evolve. I know that as a kid I relished the Ingalls family’s stories of survival and resourcefulness. And I remember the teaching opportunity my mom created and know that it had value. But I also know that the books offer stereotypes without any windows into the lives of American Indians as complex individuals with perspectives of their own. As a bookseller now, I recommend that someone reading these books at home pair them with Louise Erdrich’s excellent The Birchbark House to round out the picture.
Grace Lin’s story about the emotional impact that Ma’s hatred of Indians had on her as an Asian-American child proves why these books might not hold up without context. But this particular series isn’t necessarily the point. Grace’s real point is simple. We need to look at classic books (really all books) with critical, modern eyes to see what they say to readers now. And as parents, as educators, as literacy advocates, we need to be prepared to dig in to help kids parse it all — especially when it’s tough. How else will they figure out how to interpret what they see in the world? As we’re reminded daily, the world can be really hard to explain.

2 thoughts on “Challenging the Canon

  1. Josephine D. Escamillo

    This article expresses the classic POV of what Nabokov called Poshlost– aka Philistinism: the conviction that Art should do Useful Social Work. What is most amazing, is that even civilised people do not see it for what it is: Philistinism pure and simple.
    Indeed, even so-called sophisticates today often judge books by their “message,” whether they are tinted of “racism,” misogyny,” or other social evils, and see it as a test of literary worth.
    Books, in other words, are judged by philistines like the writer of this piece, not as Art, but a useful Agitprop — useful to the aim that the critic has in mind. As a result, you see today tendentious books masquerading as literature that win literary kudos and awards, yet whose main aim is to show the reader the error of his / her thinking, and educate him/ her.
    The fact that the reader may be 10-12 years old is irrelevant. This PoV is still based on dishonesty: Saying something is literary, while in effect it is propaganda.
    And no, in such a case, it doesn’t matter if the writing is good. It only makes the book into a competent piece of salesmanship. It would be like listening with pleasure to a charming conversationalist in a party, when little by little you begin to realise that she is trying to sell you insurance, or vitamins.
    Today there are many books like that; and the fact that vitamins they sell you are socially correct, is irrelevant. The very idea that a work of literature should improve the reader is the essence of High-brow philistinism. I will avoid giving examples. They should be obvious. Just look at the latest NYT bestseller list of so-called “fiction,” and you will find several.
    Joesephine D. Escamillo

    1. Meghan Dietsche Goel Post author

      Josephine, Thanks for your comment. My point is simply that I think parents and educators should be prepared to talk with kids about the books they read rather than avoid conversations that make them uncomfortable. I am not trying to separate books as art or not art or to classify books according to their message. I think some books shine that have a great message, and some books shine that don’t. I agree that the message is not what makes the book. My opinion is that books, and kids, deserve discussion. But thank you for weighing in. — Meghan


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