Thursday, July 7, 2011


Here's my Summer Rerun from days of yore. I think the unintended consequences are still in play almost 2 years later, although things seem to be a bit less politically correct and a lot more polarized than they used to be:

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 pretenses 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 a black man for 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 still cannot yet laugh at ourselves as equals.

~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 do you think out there, people? Fire away--it's your turn.


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