Okay folks, I can admit when I need help. And here I am, asking for it.
As you know, I am a parent who happens to really, really, really dig kids books. Recently I started reading “The Secret Garden” by Frances Hodgson Burnett to my two eldest (seven & five years old). I loved this book as a child but couldn’t remember too many of the finer details, just that there was a beautiful, hidden garden, a boy that could communicate with animals and a whole lot of mystery and wonder. Okay, I mostly liked the garden. I was excited to find a new version that had been illustrated by Lauren Child because, well, I am besotted with her. The kids immediately loved the protagonist, Mary, and the drama right from the get-go, with Mary’s parents dying of cholera in India. It was all going pretty swimmingly until…. well… it all got – quite quickly – racist. I’m not all that keen on repeating some of the content in the book but it is blatantly, upsettingly, alarmingly racist and I gaped and couldn’t read it out loud. I was puzzled and shocked because I couldn’t recall those parts from when I was a child. The kids were already transfixed by the story and I needed to make a call. I’m a quick reader so I could read ahead and omit any racist terms, remarks and sections altogether; which is what I decided to do. Here’s probably the worst example, to help you understand what I am talking about…
[May I reiterate – I DO NOT condone the language or sentiment in this excerpt]
“Eh! I can see [India is] different,” [Martha] answered almost sympathetically. “I dare say it’s because there’s such a lot o’ blacks there instead o’ respectable white people. When I heard you was comin’ from India I thought you was a black too.”
Mary sat up in bed furious.
“What!” she said. “What! You thought I was a native. You—you daughter of a pig!”
Martha stared and looked hot.
“Who are you callin’ names?” she said. “You needn’t be so vexed. That’s not th’ way for a young lady to talk. I’ve nothin’ against th’ blacks. When you read about ’em in tracts they’re always very religious. You always read as a black’s a man an’ a brother. I’ve never seen a black an’ I was fair pleased to think I was goin’ to see one close. When I come in to light your fire this mornin’ I crep’ up to your bed an’ pulled th’ cover back careful to look at you. An’ there you was,” disappointedly, “no more black than me—for all you’re so yeller.”
Mary did not even try to control her rage and humiliation. “You thought I was a native! You dared! You don’t know anything about natives! They are not people—they’re servants who must salaam to you. You know nothing about India. You know nothing about anything!”
So, in the face of this and other similarly racist references – what should I have done? What would you do? What have you done?
This problem is not uncommon with classic literature – it’s old and our attitudes have shifted (hopefully). But, naively, I didn’t suspect one of my nostalgic childhood favourites to be harbouring such stuff. Thankfully, I’m not the only one who has had this alarming experience. Another great article, by writer Leigh Anderson, warns against buying nostalgic books (including The Secret Garden) from your own childhood and exploring new, more diverse children’s books to read with your kids. Where to find those kinds of books? Here’s a good place to start and here’s a good place to go after that.
In nutting out this problem I’ve certainly have discovered great resources for selecting better, more diverse and respectful books going forward, but right now I am still stuck in the garden with Mary, Dickon and the robin. What should I do? I’m going to confess – I’d like to keep reading the book because the kids are so interested but I’m just not so sure. Do you have any helpful experiences to share?
This parenting business is tricky business isn’t it? Raising a young human to be a good human? I’m going to take some comfort from this quote, taken from the pages of another children’s book:
“You must never feel badly about making mistakes … as long as you take the trouble to learn from them. For you often learn more by being wrong for the right reasons than you do by being right for the wrong reasons.”
—The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster
I also loved secret garden and have no memory of it being racist. True though of many child hood books and nursery rhymes. It’s almost like we didn’t absorb the full message.
I found myself saying “it’s like flogging a dead horse” the other day. What an awful saying! It was an automatic comment and I was horrified when I realized what I’d actually just said (something I grew up hearing). It’s a good thing that we question the content but there’s so much additional pressure on us now to ensure we’re not taunting or kids minds.
This is real conundrum. I remember so many great memories of books my mother grew up with, that she read to us. Some of them were atrociously racist and sexist. But there were still great things about those books. They had charm and a sense of history (whatever that means to any one person…) and they meant something to my family, you know? But how much is our nostalgia worth? I do feel torn between the urge to share that nostalgia with my kids and also wanting to forge new paths into classics that have only just been published. While I don’t want my kids to miss out on the literary canon that has paved the way for the great works of today, part of me thinks they need to be older, with a sense of context about the time. It’s a hard one!
I also don’t remember the racist parts of The Secret Garden but wonder how much those perspectives fog the lens a child uses to make meaning of the world. At the same time, the book is so great in other ways. I can appreciate how difficult these situations are for parents to navigate.
Thanks Sue, Ria and Aimee! So worth having a discussion about, don’t you think? I can so relate to those antiquated sayings and books / stories / poems that seemed so charming but often had a deeper, less charming element. At this stage I am thinking of pursuing the book (still omitting any objectionable stuff) and then fold in NEW books that discuss these issues at any age-appropriate level / language AND ensure the rest of my library is a bit more diverse. Thanks guys, I really think it’s worth considering and evaluating. ❤️
Hi Hannah, This is a really interesting (and timely) post for me, as I’m currently working through Enid Blyton’s ‘Adventure’ series with my 7 year old son, where the girls are usually depicted as much weaker characters than the boys. I confess that I LOVE Enid Blyton, and enjoy the nostalgia of reading familiar stories which I myself adored as a child – despite the fact that they contain plenty of outdated gender and racist stereotypes!! I hope that my children aren’t racist or intolerant because of their exposure to classic children’s books, and wonder if we underestimate the capacity of children to comprehend the “socially unacceptable”. After spotting any awkward/inappropriate text or stereotypes – I try to explain to my kids why this just isn’t acceptable anymore, and it’s easy to explain even to young kids that times have changed since these books were written. Your post was a great thought-provoker – thank you!! And have a look at this article, which I’ve just come across whilst delving into more of this topic:
Ah yes, Karen, I’m in the same boat as I loved Enid Blyton too! How do your kids respond to the explanations? Do they absorb them? Perhaps we ought to share and promote the wonderful books which dispel stereotypes. Would anyone else be interested in a list of personal faves? Do you have any you would add? H x
Okay, here we go. I would have done exactly what you did…or pretend to have a bathroom emergency….that’s a great distraction for kids! Is there a way to continue with editing and warn them never to read this book to their kids! I think I’d finish up the book quickly to avoid undue stress to yourself. When my Kate was little, we found a lot of the older books were no longer relevant, had lost their magic and we’re somewhat boring. I liked new books with new lessons that could teach the things I maybe wasn’t so good at teaching! Lots of diversity and multicultural were my favorites since we are of different races. After writing this and thinking more, I think I’d just confront it. Put down the book and explain that the message is old and wrong and why it is wrong, then take them to the nearest bookstore and let them pick out a beautiful new book about a garden. There you go! ❤️
Great advice, Ann; it takes some mulling over, doesn’t it? Because I can omit stuff but then maybe I should simply read something else! To that end – I’d really love to know some of your favourites that you read with your daughter! Can you share with us? H x
Oh Hannah, I’m bummed. We haven’t read that one yet, but have bought a copy (with a different illustrator) as a gift, not so happy about that choice now!), and was so looking forward to finding a lovely copy to buy, treasure and read to Ru, and I actually don’t think I will now. I absolutely loved this book as a child, it inspired me to write and illustrate many a homemade tale. Unlike yourself, I am not a fast reader, so too much risk of tripping myself up in reading it aloud to Ru I think, and enough pain and craziness to try and explain to her about the current world we live in, let alone the past at this point. Exploring the concept of racism has been something I have talked quite a bit about with O but he is much older as you know. Enid Blyton’s Famous Five was the first series I ever sunk my teeth into as a child, I was innamid of her writing but haven’t so far shared these with my two knowing the stereotypes of race and sex they portray. Shame they didn’t do a little re- write on The Secret Garden while they were at it. I love Lauren Child too! Would love some ideas for awesomely impowering books for girls, with the same mystery and style that was captured in The Secret Garden. A list would be great. My addition to the list would be a series of wonderful books by my dear friend Alison Nancye from Sydney ( now central Coast). Check these out on line. I can give you contact dets for her publisher (also in Aust) if needed (as the distributor is in the US and a bit xie to post from there. Anyway, lovely books, 4 in the series last time checked, one main character per Book, each from a different country, with I different set of skills, talents and problems to solve. Alison and 2 friends started working on these books when they couldn’t find them out there in the market for their own girls, so a great place to start. Would love some more ideas too!
Hi Sarah! Its such a quagmire, isn’t it? I’m now leaning in the direction of having those conversations, whilst reading, though there may be better books to do it with. On the path of getting you a great list! Or two… I will absolutely look up your friend Alison and her books, thank you for the tip. Big hugs to you and Ru and O (and J, lol) x x x