New Guardians of Education

Gillian Avery

  • Racism and Sexism in Children’s Books edited by Judith Stinton
    Writers and Readers, 147 pp, £4.95, November 1979, ISBN 0 906495 19 9
  • Babies need books by Dorothy Butler
    Bodley Head, 190 pp, £4.95, May 1980, ISBN 0 370 30151 X

‘The father places his penis in the mother’s vagina.’ Modern prudery shies away, affronted, from this statement in a manual of sex education – not for Dr Bowdler’s reasons, but because the Young Person of today might infer from it that the female role in life is to be passive. Racism and Sexism in Children’s Books, which enshrines this and much other theorising about what should bring a blush to the cheek of the Young Person and, more important, to that of his mentor, is an undistinguished, one might even say dismally puerile, little collection of essays. But as the authors take themselves and their themes very seriously, and the blurb states that the volume has been prepared because of the ‘overwhelming response from readers and teachers’ to an earlier book on these subjects, it is worth looking at the views of the Bowdlers of the 1980s. The book has an English editor, who has apparently worked in English bookshops and a London public library, but most of the contributions are American in origin, coming from a digest first published by the Council for Inter-Racial Books for Children in the USA. I will reveal myself as an out-and-out racist when I say that it is permeated with a peculiarly Anglo-Saxon self-righteousness – Auden’s governess lying awake and giving the universe nought for behaviour.

Children’s books have always been particularly vulnerable to the crackpot theorist because they are so often a projection of an adult’s views about how the ideal child should behave (an ideal which varies from century to century, if not from decade to decade). In the early years of the last century a Mrs Trimmer set up her Guardian of Education, and in it scrutinised the children’s books of the period, searching them for statements and attitudes prejudicial to religion and the established order. She was, of course, deeply troubled about what was going on on the other side of the Channel, and fearful lest atheism and Jacobinism should find a foothold in England. It was marvellous what bogeys she discovered lurking in apparently blameless texts: ‘John Gilpin’, for instance, ‘because it places an honest, industrious tradesman, worthy to be held out as an example of prudence and economy to men of his rank, in a ridiculous situation, and provokes a laugh at the expense of conjugal affection’. Robinson Crusoe led to an early taste for a rambling life (she had known some little boys who had run away to sea because of it); Primrose Prettyface would suggest to girls of the lower orders that they might aspire to marry gentlemen (who would likewise think that they could decently marry servant-girls).

Bogeys have changed, of course. Robinson Crusoe is dangerous today because of ‘its treatment of cannibalism and the dog-like Friday’. It is unlikely that these essayists would have heard of Primrose Prettyface, but they would deplore it on élitist and sexist grounds. The anti-sexists and anti-racists make themselves fully as ridiculous as Mrs Trimmer, and are offended even more easily. One good lady, ‘active in several American feminist groups’, has been through children’s dictionaries: ‘two solid days of reading – filled with eyestrain, boredom and outrage’. She finds that John is able to touch his toes, while Ann is not able: John is at the top of the ladder, while Ethel is at the bottom; the soldier was brave; and three wise men came from the east. And so on and so on. She describes this as a vicious pattern, and concludes that in dictionaries, just as in the rest of the world of children’s books, females (and, of course, Third World people) are virtually invisible.

Albert Schwarz is an associate professor in New York. He visited P.L. Travers, to tell her about the complaints the Council of Inter-Racial Books for Children had received about Mary Poppins. There was the use of words like ‘piccaninny’ and ‘street arabs’, for instance, and there was that chapter called ‘Bad Tuesday’. For the benefit of those whose memory of Mary Poppins is hazy, I should say that Bad Tuesday was the day on which the redoubtable nursemaid conveyed her charges by the flick of a compass to the North Pole, to Africa, to China and finally North America. They meet appropriate families of these regions and are received by them with the greatest cordiality and courtesy, the African mother offering the children a slice of watermelon and expressing surprise at their pale skins. There is nothing particularly original about this flight of fantasy: there are precedents for it in hundreds of books. But the latterday Bowdlers and Trimmers quiver with horror at what Professor Schwarz terms ‘grotesque stereotyping’: he is particularly incensed by the offer of water-melon, by the African mother’s happy laughter, and by the white boy wishing to race an Indian boy. Mary Poppins is, indeed, full of stereotypes: there is a stereotype admiral, cook, gardener, mother and father, a stereotype old lady. One might even say that Mary Poppins herself is the only character of any substance. The Naval and Military Club, the Mothers’ Union or Help the Aged could just as reasonably object to these as a travesty of the truth, calculated to implant frightful prejudice in the infant mind.

To be accused of stereotyping is now as damning as being called a revisionist in other circles. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is a crude piece of work which delights most children. It is about Mr Willy Wonka (white), proprietor of the chocolate factory, who hires a tribe of pygmies called Oompa-Loompas (colour unspecified since 1973, though originally they were said to be African) as factory hands in his efforts to find workers who will not steal his trade secrets. They are delightful, spirited creatures, but they affront Lois Kalb Bouchard. ‘Although the black characters are treated in an approving manner, whereas several of the white characters are treated harshly, racism persists in the time-dishonoured stereotypes, in the childishness and the dependency upon whites of the black characters.’ She sees in their size a symbol of their implied inadequacies, their name is offensive because ‘it tries to make fun of African language sounds’ (no mention of Mr Wonka’s own curious name), and Mr Wonka’s remark that the factory must be kept going for the sake of the Oompa-Loompas gives the whole game away to the triumphant Ms Bouchard: ‘paternalism towards the black workers’.

This is the level of most of the essays in this collection. It is sad to read such stuff; sad not only because of the feebleness of the contributions, but because of the damage that their authors are doing to their own cause. You are not going to redress the wrongs of the Third World or of women by combing books for possible denigration or by imagining insults. One is reminded of the Victorians who shrouded piano legs lest they should arouse lewd thoughts, thereby revealing their own deep unease, and rivetting attention on the matter they hoped to suppress. Nor does it seem to occur to the writers who resent implication of black dependence on white that, by consistently assuming that whites can defend themselves but that all other races are so pitifully inadequate that white rescuers must rush to their aid, they themselves are assuming a paternalism of the most patronising kind.

There is also the effect that the emotive protests of a shrill minority can have upon writers. Several of the books discussed in these essays have, it seems, been altered in response to pressure from these quarters, and publishers are getting nervous. Because children are not on the whole responsible for choosing their own books, but are mostly dependent upon librarians and teachers to make a first selection, children’s books are affected by educational and sociological fads and theories, and publishers and authors have to fall in with these. The Fifties and Sixties were remarkably free from restriction, and there were probably more good novels for children written during those two decades than at any other time. Now authors are hemmed in with prohibitions and taboos – not to be élitist, middle-class, racist or chauvinist – and the flow of good writing for the older child is dwindling to a trickle. Some soldier on and try to produce books that will please the lobby, but essays in Racism and Sexism show how dangerous this is, and how they have failed: ‘white readers who empathise with the misery of the black experience can feel virtuous. To feel virtuous is to feel superior’ is the comment on a novel whose author did her darnedest to show the cruelty of the slave trade. And Astrid Lindgren’s Pippi Longstocking (though in 1944 the author wasn’t concerned to placate feminists) comes under attack for hidden sexism. Pippi the omnipotent, the Herculean nine-year-old, is not a proper girl, she acts too much like a man, and, therefore, is insulting to the female sex:

Even when dealing with Pippi’s absent mother and father, the writer manages a nice bit of sexism. The mother is whisked off to heaven, where she is now an angel, watching over Pippi, while the father, formerly the terror of the seas [is] now Cannibal King. What can be more passive and spiritless than an angel? What more fascinating and awe-inspiring than a father who is a terror?

At the end the editor appends her guidelines on how the faithful may detect racism and sexism: they must beware of happy Black Sambos, of whites taking the lead, shun the norm of white middle-class suburbia, suspect the black family where the mother is dominant, eliminate books where the boys perform brave deeds, watch for words like ‘savage’, ‘primitive’, ‘inscrutable’, ‘forefathers’, ‘brotherhood’ and ‘backward’. Most chilling of all is the instruction to look for the copyright date. Only since the mid-1970s has there been any concern about feminism or a multiracial society, we are told; books published before that date are suspect, and Bowdlers and Trimmers must be on their guard.

But what are they to do? Should they allow the children in their charge to read only post-1970 books? Carefully blue-pencil all published before? Issue Little Women and Huckleberry Finn with suitable commentaries? Or press publishers for predigested pap in which all elements offensive to any person, race, religion or ethic have been removed? In his lectures on University Education Newman discussed whether such a literature could be produced (he was concerned with a Christian literature), and pointed out that it was impossible. ‘It is a contradiction in terms to attempt a sinless literature of sinful man. You may gather together something very great and very high; and when you have done so, you will find that it is not Literature at all.’ And children would not read it.

After the illiberality of those who would no doubt consider themselves liberated, and their negative and destructive attitude towards books, Dorothy Butler’s Babies need books comes as marvellous relief. Her theme is that nobody is too young for books, that parents can create a close relationship with their babies from the start of their lives, and lay the foundations of lasting delight. She lists the books she has used with her own children and grandchildren, and all the advice that she gives is based on experience and sound, practical good sense. Her enthusiasm is infectious; she loves books and she wants everybody to share her enjoyment. She also understands the predicament of parents who are not used to bookshops or even libraries. She is never condescending, never doctrinaire, nor superior. Her comments on sexism are worth quoting:

Shouldn’t we reject all books which show girls pursuing traditional girls’ roles, boys doing all the exciting, extending things? Thousands of successful parents through the ages have taken no such drastic precautions, and have, nevertheless, raised vigorous, independent and self-accepting daughters – and sons. If books are good books, they engender true thought and feeling and so allow children to think clearly, to feel deeply. These children will make necessary changes in their own lives and, ultimately, in the wider world.