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.