Reprise: Should We Bowdlerize Classic Children's Books For Racism?

When classic children's books strike us as racist today, Philip Nel raises an interesting question. Even if we amend them to tone down the racism, do we "simply dress up racial and colonial ideologies in different costumes?"

Nel says that if we answer affirmatively, we face a choice:
(1) Discourage children from reading them.
(2) Permit children to read only the bowdlerized versions.
(3) Allow children to read any version, original or bowdlerized.
I took a poll about this issue last summer, so I thought I'd re-post my findings given the resurgence of this issue, raised today by Nel and by Monica Edinger.

I asked visitors to the Fire Escape when, if ever, it would be okay to update a classic children's book to reflect changing mores about race. The results (152 votes) were almost equally split between those who thought some changes might be in order, while the rest arguing that a book must stand as is.
Slightly more than half of you (83 votes, or 54%) said never.

Among those who felt it might be worth it to change a classic book, we see a strong belief that an author alone retains the right to change the story. Fifty-nine voters (38%) thought it would be appropriate to update if the author were still alive and wanted the changes.

Twenty-eight (18%) thought it would be permissible to revise a classic children's book if the publisher included a note in the re-issue explaining the reasoning behind the change.

Fifteen of you (9%) thought it would be okay to update if the changes made were incidental rather than integral to the plot, and fifteen (9%) more were amenable if the copyright holder (a descendant) were still alive and authorized the changes.
Where do I weigh in? I was in the "let the author do it" camp until this discussion, because I made changes to one of my own books. But I'm surprised to find myself shifting into the "never" camp, albeit cautiously.

It's worth a read through the comments to understand the "never" camp's arguments. Part is aimed at those of us who write, because all authorial cheeks burn while re-reading our earlier work. Do we have the guts to let mistakes stand, own them, and even discuss them publicly as part of our call to mentor the next generation of storytellers? Maybe a "what I wish I could change" or "using my book as discussion" section should be a standard feature of an author's website (featuring those books out of print, for those earning our rice from writing.) No matter how much an author wants to retain control over a story, once it begins the dialectical dance with a reader, it's out of our hands. Our primary job is to focus on telling the next story while we have breath.

The remaining bits of the "never" argument boil down to a call to shepherd a child through books from the past so that she can enjoy and learn from them. That's what I attempted as teacher and parent. But did I succeed? I'm not sure. No matter how large or small an adult gatekeeper looms in the background, ultimately the meaning and message stays between a particular child and that story.

Here's where the caution comes in. Keeping my eye on the margins, I have to re-post the video "A Girl Like Me," a 7-minute exploration of girls and skin color written and directed by a sixteen-year-old filmmaker, Kiri Davis, and produced by Media Matters. As you watch, remember that the children choosing the dolls aren't much older than six or seven. They live in supportive communities in Los Angeles, California. How did they already internalize the message "dark skin = bad" and "light skin = good?"

Creators and packagers of children's stories, whether in film or in print, must strive to be aware of the messages we're endorsing consciously and subconsciously. Nobody wants to be didactic these days, but all stories are laced with values. It's the nature of the beast.

(Postcript about Babar: In Alison Lurie's December 16, 2004 article in The New York Review of Books, The Royal Family, she wrote that "Laurent de Brunhoff has regretted his early drawings of African 'savages'; he decided years ago that Babar's Picnic will never be reprinted.")