I couldn’t quite believe it when conducting research for this blog. Could it be true – were Noddy and rupert bear racist ? Writing this on the eve of World Book day, not just a chance for parents to play top trumps with costumes, but an opportunity to invoke a love of literature in our children. I always have been and always will be a book worm.
The books I used to read as a child and why they are problematic.
Now that I am a parent there is nothing more delightful than sharing some of my most favourite stories with Arlo. For me it’s a nostalgic trip down memory lane, and for children it’s about discovering new worlds for the very first time. However it has become startlingly apparent that there are issues when it comes to representation in childrens stories.
When our favourite stories create problems
There’s been some discussion around problematic language and representation in books by Dr Seuss on social media. This has led to some stories now being removed from sale. I think it’s very important to make sure that we strive for equality and not hold on to stories based on a nostalgic view of things we remember from childhood. Last year I wrote about some of our favourite children’s books for an online publication and whilst I was researching I discovered that some of my favourite stories had also been edited and/or withdrawn from circulation. This was a learning curve for me, the action that publishers have been taking in some instances is somewhat refreshing and reassuring.
Read on to find out more about how stories have been changed and to find some of my top picks for childrens books which get it right when it comes to representation.
We read together every evening before bed, and the stories we reach for most often are those which I still treasure from my childhood. I have so many books with little inscriptions from my mother written in the top corner of the covers – “happy 3rd Birthday Lavania – July 1990” – I can delve in to a world created by Shirley Hughes, which are full of relatable stories and poems. “Things I like” is probably the one I would recommend to anyone as an introduction, as it’s a collection full of things which a toddler will experience. Not all books from our childhood have been “cancelled” – if you still have old copies, and you can check the date of printing in most books, you can then compare newer versions and see if you can spot any changes.
At the end of a day
We can sit together and read a poem about splashing in puddles or about leaves on trees which then helps us discuss things we have experienced ourselves that day. It reinforces learning experiences and we sit and pore over the pages together looking at all the little details. I read the words and Arlo explores the pictures. We point out things from the illustrations and we discuss them – from the colour of wellies matching our real life boots, to spotting little birds and insects dotted around the pages. We can count flowers and work on colour recognition and have an immersive and interactive story time. There’s not a single detail which goes unnoticed by my three year old.
This is why it’s so important that the illustrations are representative.
Continuing down the nostalgic childhood path, I must mention Janet and Allan Ahlberg. There are so many books of theirs which I could mention, Peepo, Each Peach Pear Plum and Funnybones – but the most popular on our shelf has to be “The Jolly Christmas Postman” This is probably one of the most innovative childrens books of all time and the work gone in to designing this is incredible.
In a world before iPads were invented this book captured my imagination and kept me busy for hours – a simple story following a postmans journey delivering letters, with every other page featuring a real envelope containing surprise gifts for the reader to open and explore. The attention to detail is second to none and even now as an adult reading this book with Arlo I find things which I’ve never noticed before. It’s truly magical and one to put in the Christmas Eve box to treasure forever.
Books aid discussions
Another of my favourite books is by Nick Butterworth, and for a similar reason. His Percy the Park Keeper book has beautiful illustrations of animals and a series of fold out pages which open to reveal important story elements. This book is a firm favourite of Arlo’s right now because we spend so much time in parks and it’s so familiar to him. This book is a good one to aid discussions about changing of seasons and weather, not to mention all of the different woodland creatures.
We love books which have rhythm and rhyme, you’re probably all familiar with Michael Rosen and “We’re going on a bear Hunt” this is like a rite of passage for all children and it is super easy to get kids motivated on the last stretch of an outdoor walk when their little legs are tired by chanting the rhyme – a great first introduction to this wonderfully eccentric poet is ‘freckly feet and itchy knees’ – it is a lovely little book and another one to help inspire interaction between parents and babies. I pulled this one out of the shelf recently and noticed that different skin colours were represented. The only problem with this book is it might be a bit too energetic before bedtime, at least it is when we read it out loud together and act it all out – It’s interesting that as I was researching for this blog I found a tweet by Michael Rosen:
The Anti-Semitic Works of Dickens and Shakespeare
A very interesting point for discussion, Charles Dickens is celebrated as an author, and a genius – but it is well documented that he expressed attitudes which were problematic – anti Semitic and racist – the most obvious example to reference is his portrayal of Fagin in Oliver Twist. “The novel refers to Fagin 257 times in the first 38 chapters as “the Jew”, while the ethnicity or religion of the other characters is rarely mentioned.” In revised editions Charles Dickens toned down his portrayal but the debate rages on long after his death as the character has often been been portrayed as a caricature / stereotype in film. Just like the character Shylock created by Shakespeare in the Merchant of Venice.
We can’t possibly “cancel” Dickens and Shakespeare (although some publishers have removed this play from anthologies for younger children). These books and stories exist as a social commentary of the time in which they were written. These writers are considered to be literary geniuses. To pretend they never existed in an attempt to erase the past rather than confront the reality, however uncomfortable that may be would be ridding us all of the opportunity to grow and learn through discussion. We don’t know much about Shakespeare and his mysterious life but we do know that Dickens was strongly opposed to slavery but does this absolve his problematic works? We need to talk about this.
This isn’t just about words – illustrations alongside text in childrens books are designed to help encourage independent reading. It takes a special skill to create a book for children, who without knowing it can sit and listen to a story being read out loud by their parents and follow the story by pouring over the pictures and when they get a little older, by following text with their fingers. Good children’s books for toddlers have simple sentences and repetitive sounds, as a grown up now I have a repertoire of voices and sounds which I didn’t know I was capable of creating – it’s so much fun for Arlo he doesn’t even realise he is learning. This is why it’s so important for the books we read to be representative. Children absorb so much, so it’s important that we analyse the images and content of stories to see if there’s anything problematic. This isn’t about cancel culture or jumping on a social media bandwagon, but about discussion.
A picture speaks a thousand words
I must mention Rupert Bear, which was originally a comic strip – my mum had the annuals every year as a Christmas gift when she was a child and we have kept up the tradition here. I’ve noticed with these books how they offer something to children of different ages. Each comic strip is accompanied by a rhyming couplet which perfectly represents the story, and so I can read these with Arlo and flick through the pictures to tell the story, but on the same page there’s also a full descriptive paragraph for each scene – these books provide different experiences to readers of different ages. A great example of how to engage children and teach them to love stories. However there are problems.
Rupert however was originally a brown bear. Created by Mary Tourtel in 1920 to be published in the Daily Express. It was however apparently cheaper to print a white bear, so this much loved character has also been a victim of whitewashing. Does this mean Rupert bear is racist? There have been two Rupert Annuals from 1946/47 which are considered too racially insensitive to be republished. The language in several stories has since been edited – for example words like “coon” have had to be removed. The portrayal of the character Koko in the above example is just not acceptable.
I think Hamish McColls Paddington is probably the more popular bear about town these days, (perhaps because he’s been bought to life by Hollywood?) Rupert Bear stories have that “quintessentially British” feel about them and are just as delightful to read. There’s something wonderful about following a protagonist which is an animal, and children often find comfort in having soft toys which they recognise from their most loved books but have you ever paused to consider that Paddington is an illegal immigrant? Arriving from “darkest Peru” without an identity or a recognisable past. Michael Bond’s books (written in the fifties at a time when Britain was beginning to become more diverse) teach us to “please look after this bear” – it’s interesting to think about what things were like back when these stories were originally published in the fifties and what the subliminal messaging behind the apparently simple story is when we put this in to context. No wonder Paddington has a royal seal off approval and drinks tea with the queen.
It’s not just about racism
I have to pause here and give mention to Richard Scarry here, ‘Mr Frumble’s worst day ever’ was given to me when my little sister was born so that I didn’t feel left out and the story follows Mr Frumble (another anthropomorphic animal – this time a pig) and a day of misfortunate escapades. It’s a really funny book and again there is a lot going on in all of the illustrations to create talking points for discussion. I have older editions of these books, which aren’t quite so politically correct these days but it’s reassuring to know that many of these books have been edited to reflect social changes so that the stories and illustrations are still relevant for children today. Alan Taylor put together this image which shows some progressive changes which have been made so that outdated gender stereotypes are not perpetuated through the books we use to educate our children. Women don’t exist just to cook breakfast and push babies in prams.”
Let’s talk about Enid
As I got older I delved in to the world of Enid Blyton and began reading independently, the Famous Five and Mallory Towers captured my imagination, in fact I was determined to follow in the steps of Darrell Rivers – I always wanted to go to an all girls school and be a prefect. My favourite was always The Magic Far Away Tree- a group of children discover an array of different worlds which appear as they climb a tall tree. It’s actually quite odd trying to explain it in words, the land of Topsy Turvy is a place the children discover where everyone walks on their hands, and then there’s the land of ‘do as you please’- each story has some sort of moral lesson, the children get in to trouble and have to help each other to make everything right.
The problem is that in some stories the “baddies” perpetuate racial stereotypes, Noddy being the most prolific example and for all of the female empowerment in the Mallory Towers series, there’s a constant gender issues when it comes to the Famous Five series where our favourite tomboy character George is often “mansplained” by her male cousins and Anne is constantly being treated as a doormat by them too. When I read these books I thought George was an inspiration. Girls can do anything and be just as good as boys.
Many of Blyton’s books were written over eighty years ago and have attracted critical backlash for various reasons over the years. As an adult I can read back some of these books and see why, but as a child I was blissfully unaware of the controversy, and I think I took more positives than negatives away from the stories – thankfully there have been many updates to Enid Blytons work to make the stories more appropriate for a modern audience. I feel really strongly about utilising books as resources to introduce discussions about racism, classism and gender stereotypes.
I grew up
As I grew older and went to secondary school I actually volunteered to help in the library and used to take home new books every evening. I used to have a torch to continue reading after lights were turned off to get to the end of a story, I slept with so many books under my pillow I had a crick in my neck. I would take the books from the reading list and read them over and over again.
My thirst for new texts meant that my teachers would recommend their own childhood favourites to me, Mr Jones lent me his copy of Cider with Rosie by Laurie Lee and Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery which were challenging for me at the time, but are two books I always remember being fascinated by, and then along came Lord of the Flies by William Golding. I would have so many questions and found it fascinating that people could have different interpretations to the same story.
Our English teachers (by the time we got to our GCSE’s) would help explain the context stories were written in, both historically and politically and suddenly things would have eye opening different meanings when you’re learning to navigate the world as a teenager. We spent a term pouring over To kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee and I think this is one of the most important books for anyone to read, and more relevant than ever even now.
Books are important.
Whenever I read a new book I write my name in the cover and then when I’m finished I leave them for someone new to find. Arlo and I have also done the same and have hidden his books in the park and participated in book exchanges to share our love of literature.
I could talk about the time I went to a book store at midnight when I was a student to buy the last ever Harry Potter book as soon as it was released, and how disappointed I was to see JK Rowling apparently support a transphobic tweet, but that would require another thousand words, and I haven’t got time for that because I do still need to make a costume for tomorrow.
I’ll finish with a quote from one favourite book of mine which I think explains exactly how I feel about reading – there is nothing more important than inspiring a love of books with your children. Being able to read means that children can then open their minds, enhance language skills and express thoughts and ideas better. I’m pleased to see Dr. Seuss are committed to action when it comes to representation. None of us ever stop learning and growing.
“The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more you learn, the more places you’ll go.” Dr. Seuss, I Can Read With My Eyes Shut!