Tuesday, June 2, 2009


Back in Part One of this blog, we had some fun uncovering ways that old children's books tried to teach good moral values by distorting reality. First George Washington chopped down a cherry tree and got kudos for admitting it. False. Then came tales of white male heroes rescuing dim-witted damsels and dealing with evil or dim-witted minority groups. False too. And how about Dick and Jane and their exemplary perfect white family? False all over again. Finally there was the hilarious 1970's attempt to overcompensate for all past injustices. Unintended Consequences from each of these examples ran amok.

So what's the new game in town? These days, the very best adult books are as honest and even-handed about history as can be, and they regularly win big awards and top the best-seller lists. I'm delighted to report that there are plenty of first-rate history books on the market for kids too. But! Picture books still follow a politically correct agenda that discourages the inclusion of certain important stories from our past. Let's follow this thread.

In 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King said "I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character." We've come a long way since 1963 and so have the books we write for children like Dr. King's. I was thrilled to see barriers crumble when I voted for our new president and he won so overwhelmingly. But our nonfiction books don't always judge people by the content of their character, and the reason is not at all what you'd expect.

Sure, today's picture books are filled with positive tales about heroes and heroines of every color, and that's exactly as it should be. Stories relating the woes that women and minorities have overcome are lauded even more. More power to them...they deserve the accolades. But here's the rub.

The playing field still isn't level. If it ever flattens out, we'll be able to judge every single individual on his or her merits alone. But lots of picture book folks are so afraid to offend minorities and women or to alienate their audiences in any other way that they end up censoring important true stories from the past or leave them out altogether. After all, who wants to be accused of prejudice, especially when no prejudice is intended? This mindset causes two big fat Unintended Consequences:

1) Now don't shoot me, but one unintended consequence is that only white males can do foolish or terrible things in the world of picture books. The rest of us (including yours truly and my family) are still off limits. Nobody sought this result on purpose, but most picture books about history don't judge people of every race, religion, and gender by the content of their character--especially when their character is not picture perfect by today's standards (though as we know, definitions of morality change significantly over time and from place to place and culture to culture).

2) By omitting anything that's the least bit negative about non-white "minorities" and women, we simultaneously dumb things down for our children and distort their entire perception of history.

What might this politically correct mindset mean in practice? Let's use our national icon George Washington again as a protagonist to understand this fear of alienating anyone. Consider these inflammatory examples:

~In George Washington's Teeth, a funny picture book that tells how George lost his choppers, everyone gets the humor, and they don't think any less of our great first president either.

~ But if there were a book called, say, George Washington Carver's Teeth, no one would get the humor. Folks would think it was racist. We cannot laugh at ourselves as equals yet.

~It's perfectly legit to say in a picture book that George Washington had slaves. You can also show Super Fierce George fighting hard to conquer his enemies, and you can even paint pictures of his generals massacring innocent Indian women and children in their homes. George gets to show extreme anger and fatigue and every other human emotion, whether it's positive or not, just like any other human being. Every bit of this is a genuine part of history and people should know about it. Your book will get good reviews for its honesty.

~But check this out; in picture books, anyone who tries to say that Indians had slaves, or anyone who shows Super Fierce Indians fighting hard to conquer Europeans, or depicts Indians massacring women and children in their homes will be thrown from the parapets for such "negative" and "scary" portrayals, even though this is a genuine part of history too. Unlike George, Indians cannot show extreme anger or negative emotions in picture books about history, and explaining that their actions were provoked or were culturally legitimate is not enough to keep this very real part of history ensconced in school libraries and bookstores.
Indians are real people too, just like George. Yet the one and only portrayal of Indians that does not create a firestorm is as a romanticized ideal, which is yet another stereotype.

See? You're probably already mad that I've thrown such a politically incorrect football. Why stoke these fires when there are plenty of important, entertaining, and fabulously interesting-but-safe topics to write about? Besides, you could sell more books in the bargain. The current attempt to set only "good" historic examples for younger children sounds noble, I guess. But do we really need a bunch of scolds, moralizers, and hypocrites censoring history for kids? I think not. What we do need is to be aware of history in all its complexity so that we can handle the present with knowledge (and not malice) aforethought. Some day when prejudice becomes a distant memory, our history books and our sense of humor can finally become even-handed and honest about the content of people's character, whether it happens to be sterling or fatally flawed or just plain human.

So what to you think out there, people? Fire away--it's your turn.


Anonymous said...

Good post--and you are brave to bring this up. I agree with you. I have edited many books on American Indians, and actually worked with representatives from current tribes as consultants. One in particular told me I should never refer to them as "warlike". It was admittedly a bad word choice (that got edited out) and could have benefited from better description, but the fact is, that particular tribe DID fight a lot of wars against other tribes, over land, hunting grounds, etc. I think we underestimate what kids can understand, especially when children's cartoons and movies address some of these topics with fictional characters.

Eva M said...

Excellent post - thank you! Much to ponder...

Gretchen Woelfle said...

Loved your post!
I agree that we've got a long way to go before kids gets a balanced sense of history and biography. As for printing falsehoods, a fairly recent picture book biography claimed that Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation declared "all slaves free." We grownups know that it freed only slaves in the Confederacy, effectively freeing NO slaves. But there it was, misinforming our children. I wrote to the publishers for an explanation, and got a reply saying the book expressed the sense of Lincoln and the times, or some such waffle.
As for hot topics, we now know all about the Kennedy brothers' promiscuity, but virtually nothing about the same propensity of Martin Luther King. Who would dare to go there? (Not me.)
And who else but Sherman Alexie would dare to write a book like The Abolsutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian? I'm so glad he did!

Unknown said...

Marie Curie was widowed at age 39. She had a scandalous affair with Paul Langevin, a married (but separated) physicist in her early forties. When her daughter Eve wrote her initial biography this part of Marie's life was omitted. One of my most recent sources (adult biography) included every last tabloid article. I had to decide whether or not to include a discussion of "L'affair" in my biography for DK Books. Today's kids know about this sort of thing so I put it in, but without most of the sordid tabloid stuff that sold newspapers back then and now. The scandal almost cost Curie the Nobel Prize and she had to defend herself to the committee by reminding them that her personal life had nothing to do with her science and that a man would not be questioned. I also included that part. Times change and Marie Curie's little fling only made me and I hope my readers, see her as a full human being. Personally I wanted to say, "You go, girl!"

Rosalyn Schanzer said...

Thanks to everyone for these fascinating responses. This is a subject I've often thought about as I try to write about history in the most accurate way possible, but I've never really discussed the pitfalls with anyone. I think it's so important that our readers can see everything with a clear eye, and I'm excited that other people have tried to present all sides of a story too.

Wendie O said...

Encellent post, Roz. And I know your books reflect your determination to to be even-handed with everybody. (who else would have thought to write a book about the TWO Georges!) -wendieO

Marfe Ferguson Delano said...

I missed this the first time around. Great post--so glad you ran it again, Roz!

Myra Zarnowski said...

This is an important topic to keep before us. Here's the scoop from the classroom. Kids need balanced, honest history, not lies or lessons in fake morality. They know when stuff is too good to be true and that's why they don't like it. It can be trusted. So, authors need to tell it like it is or was.

PL said...

"As for printing falsehoods, a fairly recent picture book biography claimed that Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation declared "all slaves free." We grownups know that it freed only slaves in the Confederacy, effectively freeing NO slaves. But there it was, misinforming our children."

Is this more a question of semantics than actual misinformation? I just looked up the EP online, and gave it a quick read. Unless I missed something (always a possibility), it does seem to declare all slaves free.

Of course, "as we grownups know", declaring a thing to be a certain way does not, in and of itself, make that thing so. It takes subsequent actions to accomplish that… and in this case, those actions (including a couple more years of a bloody Civil War) were, in fact, taken. But the "declaring" part was easier, and more quickly done. I'm not saying it was easy… just easier. -- PL

PL said...

That you express even a slight hint of trepidation ("Now don't shoot me, but…") in bringing up this eminently fair and important concept just goes to show how sad and stupid things can get in this regard, when "political correctness" gets taken too far. Thank you for eloquently pointing out what SHOULD be obvious. -- PL