Because Books Don’t Go Away: Racism in Historical Kid Lit
Several months ago, at a used-book sale at my local library, I happened upon The Mystery at Lilac Inn, by Carolyn Keene. I scooped up the dark blue volume, with its orange silhouette of the famed “girl detective,” and paged through it. I realized my good luck on the copyright page: I had scored a first edition! But after that first page… it wasn’t the story I remembered from middle school. And more than once, it made me cringe.
This was 1930s Nancy Drew, created by a syndicate of ghostwriters. In the late 1950s, she was remade by a new syndicate of ghostwriters. (And in recent decades, she’s been remade by other syndicates of ghostwriters.) 1930s Nancy, I discovered as I read the first edition, was bold and sassy—with mortifying drips of racism clinging to her like a vestigial tail.
1950s Nancy, the one I knew as the “classic,” was rewritten to be more ladylike and naturally good at literally everything. And the manifest racism was gone… if only because any characters of color were erased and replaced with white ones.
What’s to be done with books like these—books with racism stitched into their bindings?
Some say we should consign such books to a literary dustbin: that classics like To Kill A Mockingbird and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn are fundamentally flawed and should be replaced, especially in schools, with works by marginalized authors. Others argue that removing historical books with racist content is tantamount to censorship, a slippery academic slope.
As a writer, I’m fundamentally concerned with how my work will be consumed by present and future young readers. As author Malcolm Jones puts it, “the troublesome thing about books is that they never completely go away. And a lot of the books with offensive material are in fact classics, so the whole [children’s publishing] industry is saddled with an ugly past that keeps breaking in on the present.” To build a better literary landscape for the future, then, I think we can and must learn from the past.
Examples of racism in children’s literature persist on bookstore shelves and in classrooms. Some, such as the Nancy Drew series and Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, have been updated for modern young audiences (the latter by eliminating the original description of Willy Wonka’s Oompa-Loompas as black cannibals).
Others—including Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird, and Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series—have retained their original material. Huckleberry Finn, viewed as anti-racist satire, is still taught in schools despite its controversial, frequent use of the “n-word.” To Kill A Mockingbird’s perennial place on school book lists has also been challenged, given its “white gaze” perspective on racism, especially as marginalized voices are now gaining long-overdue traction in children’s publishing. And the widely beloved Little House series bluntly presents Ma’s hatred of Indians and Pa’s participation in a blackface minstrel show.
Examples like these run deeper than the Nancy Drews and Willy Wonkas. They reflect the times in which they were written, racist warts and all. To eliminate them completely from classroom discussions does a disservice to students. Critical thought and understanding of historical facts are indeed critical elements in our country’s education of its children.
Attempting to sanitize books of their racism is often seen as an alternative to vetoing those books outright. Sometimes, as in the Nancy Drew series and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, this kind of “updating” can be done without impact to the larger story. But for books like Huckleberry Finn—where racism is a load-bearing wall—editing out supremacist ugliness amounts to whitewashing, an erasure of important historical lessons. In the words of African-American literature scholar Fatima Shaik, “Our kids need our protection but also our honesty. So books that describe a racist society as a racist society are not bad. They are necessary.”
So, how should we handle these complicated, not-going-away classics?
In a word: responsibly.
Educators who include historical books with racist content have a responsibility to their students: to provide context and the opportunity to process these works through an honest, modern lens. Conversations about racism are often difficult for students—for adults, too—but such conversations will never get easier if they are not constructively guided early on.
Parents who share beloved classic books with their children are responsible for helping them recognize outdated, offensive content. Newbery medalist Grace Lin compares books such as the Little House series to out-of-touch relatives: “You can still love that relative, and you can still let them be a part of your child’s life. But because you know they might say something you don’t like, don’t you try to keep an extra ear open, in case they say something in front of your child? And then, don’t you explain afterwards?”
Then, there are writers like me who hope to reach hordes of young readers. We have responsibilities as well, both to our own stories and to promoting the stories of writers whose words have been harder to hear in a system that was built to exclude them. Especially as a reader and writer who has never struggled to find representation, characters who are essentially like me, I need to write characters of different backgrounds respectfully and responsibly.
I also may need to engage the valuable services of sensitivity readers—as author Anna Hecker aptly calls them, “diversity editors.” For my work-in-progress, a fairytale retelling that features a diverse cast and a white supremacist antagonist, I know I’ll need to check my privilege and ask for help (more than once) to make this story complete and genuine.
In short, writers are responsible for producing and supporting the most authentic, fulfilling content we can for present and future readers. If we can do that, then maybe someday next-generation readers will scoop up first-edition copies of our books at library sales.
And maybe, hopefully, we won’t make them cringe.
Joy Givens resides in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, with her fantastic husband, their two remarkable sons, and an impossibly lovable dog. Joy primarily writes “fresh, fantastic, fierce” young adult fiction. Her novel UGLY STICK, short story collection APRIL’S ROOTS, and nonfiction guide THE NEW SAT HANDBOOK are available on Amazon.com. Joy’s short fiction has also been published by WOW! Women on Writing and Cat & Mouse Press (BEACH LIFE anthology, 2017). In addition to her writing, Joy is the owner and lead tutor of Givens Academic and Preparatory Tutoring, a company serving the greater Pittsburgh area. She enjoys singing and listening to most genres of music, cooking for family and friends, and curling up with a good book and good coffee