We Need Diverse Children’s Books, but Not Those Diverse Children’s Books

TW: Really a large number of racist caricatures and slurs.

Mother Jones had an interesting article, and some SEO expert persuaded them to put the words “slavery” and “twitter” in the URL, but actually it’s about diversity in children’s books. The article has problems, but it includes a passage that is impressive in its honesty (especially for Mother Jones):

Some diversity advocates fear that the vitriol of the internet attacks will give pause to skittish writers and publishers. “For me, the biggest issue is the chill on diversity that is happening because of the feeling that it is okay to destroy people on social media,” Taylor-Butler told me. “We have lost the perspective that these are books and they are going to be imperfect.”

Obviously I think that social media is a red herring in this passage, and what is important is our desire to “destroy somebody.” Speaking as a writer who has been called a racist for poking good-natured fun at Frenchmen (!) in a children’s book, this is a danger near and dear to my heart. But I would like to point out that we have a problem with diverse children’s books irregardful of our insatiable malice. Look, we have had diverse children’s books for a long time. And they’re all racist.

By which I mean some of them are racist. No one can agree on the definition of the word racist (although everyone feels very strongly about it), so I’m not here to quibble about it today, but Little Black Sambo didn’t start out racist. In 1899 (his first appearance) he wasn’t even black! Sambo, in Helen Bannerman’s classic children’s book of the same name, is not African but Indian, and beyond the inauthentic names of his parents there’s nothing really problematic in his story, which involves defeating tigers with cunning. At some point between 1899 and now, though, sambo became a racial slur (the word predates the book, but good luck figuring out just how offensive terms were in the nineteenth century), and l_p1021062967.jpgillustrations of him became stereotypical. It’s worth contrasting Bannerman’s original illustrations and noting how little control Bannerman had over the worsening situation (many editions were pirated in those fast-and-loose copyright days). Here’s an article, from the kerfluffle surrounding a Japanese reissue of Sambo, that backhandedly calls the author a racist based on the book’s content while grudgingly admitting that “Bannerman was no Hitler.” (It also mentions that the Japanese Olympic committee encouraged parents to burn their copies of the book, in an attempt “to appear cosmopolitan.” So, yikes!)

One problem is that nearly every illustration of a black person made before the mid twentieth century is racist, whether intended to be or not, because the conventions of imagesillustration have become taboo. Walt Kelly’s black characters—Bumbazine and Buckwheat—were clearly intended to be respectful, but they’re going to raise an eyebrow simply because Kelly was unsure how to produce a caricature that would be acceptable now, four decades after his death, while still signaling the character’s race. I think we can grade him “above average,” depending on what point of his career we peek at (eventually, of course, he stopped drawing humans altogether).

Obviously plenty of children’s books are what I’ll call “intentionally offensive”—the first Bobbsey Twins volume contains a scene played for laughs where Flossie’s black doll is segregated from her other, white, dolls, and although I don’t think the white readership of 1904 was offended, it’s hard to pretend that this passage was not designed to be, at the very least, exclusionary.

13450923_1106904436037701_1575609566108809786_nI picked this example almost at random from a vast sea of possible examples, but it’s worth noting that what is offensive now differs from what was offensive in the past (pace Matthew Berry on the right) in hard-to-guess and sometimes arbitrary ways. We’ve already seen that retarded started out as a positive, progressive word; it’s not as though people who named the UNCF or the NAACP did so while gritting their teeth over the taboo terms Negro and colored, vowing that someday they would have the power to fight back against these offensive names for their organizations. Far from being a relic of a time when people were more racist, these names are a relic of a time when we had not decided that certain words were taboo.

This is a little off-topic, but it plays into some of my favorite themes: You may have heard that Eskimo is now considered (like many ostensibly neutral older terms such as Chinaman)  as slur, and that the preferred term is Inuit. If you have, it is the result of a deliberate campaign by the Inuit to have their name changed in everyday speech. The only problem is that not all Eskimos are Inuit. A subgroup of Eskimos, admittedly the largest subgroup of lo_squawEskimos, has managed to persuade much of America that their own name should become a generic term for other people. Imagine if the Chinese government convinced aliens that the only inoffensive term for Earth is China and all these Earthlings should be called Chinese. This is exactly analogous to the Inuit situation. In our attempts to be more inclusive we have been bamboozled into “erasing” (to use the current buzzword) the native population of Alaska, for example.

Browse through America’s racist place names and see how many may never have been intended as racist. Did you know “squaw” was racist, and, according to a debunked etymology, obscene? Was it racist when used, as a common word, in all Algonquian languages, or did it become racist later on? If “Negro” is flagged every time (as it is here) what do we make of the UNCF? Is “Dago Creek” racist (as it is here) and if so are Italians a race?; are, then, the French? If every place name with the words “Uncle Tom”in it is forbidden And_Then_There_Were_None_First_Edition_Cover_1939.jpg(as it is here), what are we to make of the book the term comes from, which is undoubtedly problematic but was still intended to be in direct opposition to racism? I raise these issues not to pretend that Squaw Mountain is inoffensive or should not be changed, but merely to point out that in all likelihood it is we who chose to change the meaning of the word, making the innocent connotation corrupt, just as we chose to change the meaning of Stowe’s saintly Uncle Tom.

Agatha Christie wrote a book titled, and based around the rhyme, Ten Little Niggers. To be inoffensive, the rhyme was later recast as “Ten Little Indians” (while the book was retitled And Then There Were None); “Ten Little Indians” was what people came up with while trying not to offend. We’ve already seen how recently Indian (like Redskin) became taboo. Current printings have the rhyme as “Ten Little Soldiers” at least until some pacifists complain; but like the precession of the zodiac, this precession of offense is inevitable as we change our minds about what is offensive and what isn’t; and as long as we believe children should be more shielded from offensive material, children’s books will be most at risk of becoming taboo.

Bear in mind, we’re not talking about what I’ll call the predictably offensive: The comic relief ethnic sidekicks with their malapropisms and their Jar-Jar klutziness. I’m talking about things that become racist because the winds of fashion change. When you were a imageschild, did anyone, of any race, think The Five Chinese Brothers was offensive? Peter Pan‘s Tiger Lilly? Speedy Gonzalez? The answer may be yes, but the answer reveals more about your age than about anything inherent in these texts.

I hope I’m clear on this. I am not the offense police, and I am not here to tell you when you should be offended. I’m not saying Ten Little Niggers is offensive and Ten Little Indians is not, nor am I saying that anyone who gets offended by the story of five Asians who look exactly alike is in the wrong. I don’t think books or words are inherently or platonically offensive or inoffensive. I have my opinions, and I sometimes can’t keep myself from being snarky at those who stray too widely from my opinions. Sambo may well be too offensive today to be a children’s book, regardless of how it was intended in the nineteenth century; Huck Finn may be too offensive to be read by sniggering tenth graders, regardless of how much we value the book’s content.

But please note that if you want more diversity in children’s literature you cannot continue to support the precession of offense. This is not me laying down prescriptive law. This is just an acknowledgment of the way the world works. Taxing a product drives down use (the cigarette principle); taxing a behavior will never encourage it.

If you, like Macaulay, want the book you write to live through the ages, you will have to choose something that will age well; presumably this is why you’re writing a book and not BdayCakeforGeorge_cover.jpgmaking up an ephemeral meme. But nothing ages well in the precession of offense. Every book that contains the word oriental sounds racist now, even though pre-Said this was not even an ambiguously offensive term. The faddishness of racial language, as well as the ever-changing set of taboos and regulations revolving around how certain peoples and situations should be depicted, means that any book with a diverse cast is in danger of drawing the short straw and getting left behind by history. This isn’t a question of white writers getting in trouble for their tone-deaf stereotyping: A Birthday Cake for George Washington got recalled (!); Nappy Hair got its author’s talks canceled; even though the creators were black.  They’d failed to ascertain the zeitgeist correctly, but even if they’d “gotten away with it” (Nappy Hair may yet survive this controversy), what will the zeitgeist be in five, or fifty years? Who would have guessed that (I love this example) America’s Chief Diversity Officer would decide “hold the fort” is racist? Who would have guessed that The Jungle Books are racist because the Asian characters are mysteriously allegories for whites? Obviously I think these are not sober interpretations, but sober interpretations perpetuate the tax on diverse books as well, simply because diverse books are unlikely to guess even the sober opinions of the future correctly.


Eventually they just gave up and made Sambo white. 1971.

Any diverse book, especially a diverse children’s book, is entering a lottery. “Non-diverse” books are in the lottery as well, and they may have too much violence or too much surveillance state, but the odds of guessing tomorrow’s Overton window on race is much lower than—well, almost anything else, except guessing tomorrow’s Overton window on sexuality. You’d have to be insane to write a kid’s book with a demisexual character until America or tumblr works out whether this is a thing we care about and how we want it presented; insane because whatever you write will be unreadable in six to twelve months, let alone years.

Macaulay once wrote that we shouldn’t be so hard on early reformers or progressives just because they didn’t go as far as we would have liked them too: “The difficulty is to find men who are ready to go first into the breach; and it would be bad policy indeed to insult their remains because they fell in the breach, and did not live to penetrate to the citadel.” Similarly suppressing or fretting over works with a diverse cast is bad policy…if you want b7dee44851d557a2e09264fd97996bd8.jpgmore diverse casts. You cannot have both, an increase in diverse books and a carefully curated set of absolutely pure pages.

Have a look at Pippi Longstocking, who has been called a colonialist stooge in other contexts; here the Mary Sue (writing about the Pippi TV show, based on the books) quotes with a straight face people talking about “the N-word” being cut from rebroadcast, and crows in its subtitle: “If you’re getting sentimental for derogatory terms, it’s time to check your privilege.” The “N-word” in question, the article notes in passing, is “Negroes” which was hardly a derogatory term in 1969, the date of creation. (The show appears to actually be in Swedish, which makes sense, but I have no idea how these slurs play out in another language; I have only this article to go on.)

I’d never hold the Mary Sue up as a bastion of thoughtfulness or tolerance, but it is useful to point out that given the choice between promoting an understanding of the precession of offense and crowing that other people should check their privilege, they choose to crow. We always choose to crow.

ETA: For more information on Sambo, for the curious, it’s worth reading this pamphlet (in PDF); especially good are the details on the changing depictions of ancillary details of characters as their races change.


  1. I thought this was an excellent overview of the topic, though it felt a little awkward reading it at work due to some of the images…

    The link to the guy complaining about “hold down the fort” immediately made me think of (the second half of) this, which I’m confident will amuse you: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=om7O0MFkmpw

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Heh. I generally say “hold the fort” (except when forbidden to), but obviously “hold down the fort” I’ve heard enough that it doesn’t sound weird to me. I wonder where that came from.

      I will say that I have always believed “I could care less” is just sarcasm, like “smooth move” or “you’re cool.”

      My betes noires are (especially) “trope” and “begs the question.”


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