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 don’t 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.