Colonialism & Kids’ Lit

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This weekend baby wanted to go to “boopthtoh” (bookstore) to buy some “boopth.” How could I say no? We started with the Rutland Auxiliary Thrift “Bookstore” and sat in the back for about half an hour, reading books. The next day we went to the Value Village “Bookstore” – and let me tell you, she wouldn’t let me forget the “book” part. We spent some good time leafing and reading, then grabbed a few to buy.

Once home we had the chance to read a Babar book and the original Curious George book. Goodness: I did not really truly realize the depths to which colonialism was expressed through children’s literature.

Let’s start with Babar Loses His Crown by De Brunhoff (1967; do you know? The French king elephant and his family?). In this book they travel to Paris with the kids, cousin Arthur and his friend the monkey. Babar loses his crown; they look for it around Paris (what lovely pictures! How nice to escape into a kid’s Paris of 50+ years ago!) and finally find it. Personally, I didn’t find anything particularly offensive in this book, though I would welcome commentators who can point out obvious racism I missed. What really struck me is how France’s colonial reach into Africa brought elephants and monkeys into a children’s series. The exotic was normalized and appropriated as part of France, therefore of course there’s a French elephant king at the opera.

Curious George, however … wow. The original, by H.A. Rey (1941) was to me a shocking and twisted parable for the slave trade and its manifestations in contemporary society. Let me hit a few highlights. The hero, the Man in the Yellow Hat, tricks, ties up and kidnaps George. Great opening!! First, not scary at all for a kids’ book. Second, the basis of their relationship is a tyrannical abuse of power. However, George’s perspective is presented as “sad but curious” – interesting interpretation of what someone might feel who’s been kidnapped.
Next, George is curious; does completely normal and understandable things for someone in his situation in a new society; and as a result is arrested and put in prison. Not just jail, but prison. To me this reads as classic hierarchical controlling overuse of power and lack of respect for alternative perspectives. I’m reminded of the disproportionate representation of non-Caucasians in prisons and am disturbed by the prescience of this image.
Finally: after assorted adventures, George is finally and happily installed in a zoo where he romps joyfully. Similar to the representation of his emotions after being kidnapped, I find this to be willful self-delusion on the part of the colonialists. Of course, why wouldn’t the monkey love being in the zoo? Complete inattention to its contrived and confining nature and ignoring the way in which the monkey is now on permanent display.

That book is going back. I found it hard to read to baby – once it was started, of course we had to finish flipping through. I ignored, substituted, flipped quickly and generally tried to create a positive tone for her to avoid completely traumatizing our sensitive baby (lest you think I exaggerate: she had a major crying session recently in a bookstore when reading a Llama Llama book. Can you imagine: the baby Llama had to go to bed by himself!!! She was not to be comforted).

What kids’ books do you find problematic?

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4 responses »

  1. You want to see problematic, read the Pinkalicious book series! The way the little girls talk to each other, and the way the little girl acts sometimes?!! But alas. Ask me how many of the books we have? The whole series. Riley loved them. Then she moved on to even more disturbing books – Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, etc. I just basically censored all of them – would literally read stuff that wasnt there:)

    • :). We’ve been able to avoid those thus far, fortunately. They had the play in town recently and just the PR I saw was quite disturbing to me. Anyhow! We try. We’re not perfect.

  2. I highly recommend “Should We Burn Babar” by Herbert Kohl, one of my favorite books in the world, essays exploring this stuff, so very well. The first Babar is crazy problematic, in a way the later books aren’t…same with Curious George. Somehow it’s easier to accept a status quo than to explore how it came to be.

    • Thank you! I will definitely look that up. We just read an almost-new Babar book (I guess the original author’s son took over the storyline) that includes texting, video chatting and a love story that’s … well, it’s okay but too mature for my 2 year old. Apparently the original story came from the current author’s mother. Can’t wait to read more and hear the connections!

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