Uncomfortable Reading

I didn’t totally agree with the perspective in the New York Times Magazine article “How to Read a Racist Book to Your Kids.”  For one thing, I actually really love Helen Bannerman’s classic story, but only if it’s in this version.  Taste in picture books aside, the article raised some good questions.  What do you refuse to read?  What do you quietly skip over or subtly change?  What do you meet head on and discuss?

For various books, I’ve taken all those approaches at different times.  Just in the last couple of weeks, when reading aloud one of the Great Brain books, I did some minor editing in the language about Native Americans.  It wasn’t a major plot point, just a passing reference.  We’d dealt with it by discussing it earlier in the series, a couple of times I believe.  I swapped a couple of words and moved on.  But a few days later, in the middle of reading And Then There Were Five by Elizabeth Enright, I paused to talk about the term “Japs” being used before moving on and reading it.

As the article points out, the toughest questions come when you deal with fantasy characters that represent stereotypes.  The article talks about Star Wars, but I immediately thought of those pesky Telmarines in Narnia.  Racist Middle Eastern stereotypes incarnate.  The article ponders, “The conundrum is how to explain to your kids that Jar Jar and Watto are stereotypes without first introducing the stereotypes that you are hoping to negate.”

However, I thought of something that seems like a reply.  In the book Nurture Shock, the authors discuss how white parents felt uncomfortable talking about race with their children and instead hoped to raise colorblind kids who didn’t see race.  It didn’t work.  Instead, the children whose families discussed race more explicitly and pointed out the issues were the children who were more likely to have better attitudes about race.  This is an article that talks more clearly about some of the research presented in the book.  While fictional characters who live with talking horses or who happen to fly and live on alien planets are clearly not what the authors of Nurture Shock had in mind, the parallel seems obvious.  In other words, as uncomfortable as it makes us to explain that C.S. Lewis was anti-Muslim, we probably should do it anyway.

4 thoughts on “Uncomfortable Reading

  1. Huh, I grew up on Little Black Sambo, and didn’t think anything of it. It wasn’t till I was older and realized the true origins of the story, that I appreciated the re-do. And, I do like the second version better. (There used to be a pancake house chain that had the story of Little Black Sambo up on it’s menu boards. . .)

  2. I don’t know if simplifying C. S. Lewis’ views on Islam to saying he was “anti-Islam” really does justice. He saw Islam as a threat to the West. Explaining how and why he saw it as a threat would be better IMO than resorting to “anti.” Anti- to me implies a blanket hatred or dismissal of something. Does Lewis have concerns or reasons for his characterizations? What was going on in the world? Why did the (I forget the name) Telmarine receive eternal salvation from Aslan if Lewsis was “anti-Muslim?” That’s the problem I run into with history in the grammar stage and to a lessor extent, the middle grades all the time. How does one simplify history (so that you can continue moving forward and finish the book, LOL) without giving false impressions? Still working on that one! 🙂

    1. I think seeing Islam as a threat to the west is anti-Islam. I personally find Lewis’s position on this issue pretty indefensible, despite how much I like his works, both for children and adults, otherwise.

  3. I suppose that would be a topic better studied in high school: It is an interesting topic for discussion and study: Must Islam and the West clash? I don’t know how to adequately deal with that in grammar stage though before the child can think through and offer reasons for either side. Years of studying the history of Islam and the West’s interactions in the grammar and logic stages is the best foundation I can see. Another grammar school problem: I want my children to be open minded and free from whatever prejudices I have that I may be blind to, but as a parent it is my job to point out what is just and what is unjust. If I said someone was anti-West (as if the West were homogenous) or anti-Islam (not quite homogenous either) how much detail or facts should I give a grammar or early logic-stage child to avoid passing on my own prejudice that I may be unaware? Or maybe I am just over-thinking it? 😉

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