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Some Thoughts on “Correcting” (Children’s) Books

6 Comments

This week, the biggest German weekly, DIE ZEIT, published an interview with Germany’s Family Minister, Kristina Schröder. The interview isn’t on-line yet, but once it’s available, I will link it here. Update: You can read it here. If you must know, I’m not a huge fan of the woman who introduced (or rather, was unable to stop conservative hacks from introducing) a monthly payment for women who choose  families where one parent chooses to stay at home after having a baby.* I’m all for choice, but this cements an archaic role model Germany is struggling to get rid of even without monetary support in its favour.

This time, however, Ms Schröder “erred” on the “liberal” side: the aforementioned conservative hacks in her party, the Christian Democratic Union, are up in arms over her suggestion to teach children that God is gender neutral. Personally, I’m not too fussed. In German, with its funny custom of having three gender-specific articles, many nouns aren’t the gender they “really are”. The word for girl (Mädchen) is gender-neutral, for instance. I know this to be something foreigners can’t wrap their heads around to save their lives; it’s completely illogical, but… well, it’s the way it is. Similarly, all cats are female, all dogs are male, and so on. So personally, as an atheist feminist, I can live with God being “male”.

She also, however, made some remarks about books and fairy tales, and this being a book blog, I’m going to do some open-ended thinking about her thoughts here. Ms Schröder spoke out in favour of modifying some stories and books that come with sexism or terms that are considered politically incorrect nowadays. Her examples: the brothers Grimm’s fairy tales (sexism) and Pippi Longstocking (political incorrectness). Her argument is a familiar one: children shouldn’t grow up with stories that reinforce outdated gender patterns, and they shouldn’t grow up with Pippi’s father being a “negro king” (the German translation says “Negerkönig”). A similar argument is made by those who favour a politically correct version of Huckleberry Finn.

Here’s where the open-ended part of the discussion comes in: I’m not sure whether I agree with her or not. My tendency is towards disagreement, and here’s why. In my view, the brothers Grimm’s fairy tales, in their original versions, are not for young children in the first place. They’re extremely gruesome and I think a five year-old can do without nightmares about their grandmother being eaten by a wolf. If you wait with the stories until the kids are able to process them, they will also be old enough for you to explain that these stories are old, and silly people in the olden days thought women were weak and there to be saved by men. You can play with the stories, why not let the kids make up stories where the princess rescues the prince for a change? Likewise, a child old enough to read Pippi Longstocking is old enough to hear about why we don’t say “negro” any more. I happen to think that the language in Huckleberry Finn, in its original version, makes for great teaching material, especially in the classroom. It’s perfect to illustrate racial inequality and explain to children why certain things have changed and certain language is offensive. If the kids are old enough, a discussion on the evolution of language and its subtext can be really fruitful – of course, you need to have it in terms they will understand.

Of course, a problem arises when these stories are dumped on children without an explanation or an erroneous one. This is the glaring flaw of the above view, because of course, this sort of language or storyline in the hands of – even subconsciously – racist, sexist, or incompetent educators (parents or teachers) can do a lot of damage. Even the absence of an explanation is problematic in such cases, or an explanation that’s unsuitable for children depending on their developmental stage.

To me, it seems that “censoring” children’s books and fairy tales does several things. It deprives educators of being able to discuss the story and use its outdatedness as teaching material. Children who are made to engage with arguments against sexism and racism will be a lot stronger in defending themselves against it in real life. Secondly, “censoring” to some degree presumes that children are stupid. I think that kids who are educated in an open-minded environment that teaches them to criticise prejudices and critically review attitudes on a daily basis will probably be able to spot sexism or racism when they see it, and react to it. They may ask what a “negro king” is, or why the word “negro” is being used in the book. Or they might ask why Little Red Riding Hood is too silly to recognise that her granny isn’t her granny. That’s your teaching opportunities right there. Reading the original stories will hone their skills.

I haven’t completely made up my mind, and I’d like to know what all you well-read and reflected individuals out there think. Should children’s “classics” be revised to make the language more adequate to our times? Or should they be used in the original version to use them as a platform for teaching children to spot racism or sexism when they see it? Does that work? Or does it instill subconscious prejudice in little heads that makes working against such patterns more difficult?

*The Government makes it explicit that stay-at-home dads will also get the money. But the fact that this will reinforce traditional family models where daddy works and mummy stays home is so glaringly obvious it feels like we’ve been catapulted back into the 1950s.

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Author: bettinathenomad

Nomadic fan of books, food, the outdoors, and water. International Relations geek. Chlorine is my perfume.

6 thoughts on “Some Thoughts on “Correcting” (Children’s) Books

  1. I don’t really know how I feel about this issue exactly. I’d like to make two notes though, which I think might contribute to reflection (hopefully?)

    First, the Swedish version of Pippi Longstocking which I own but don’t have with me at the moment includes a general note at the beginning which states that the novel was written at a different time and that what is stated might be offensive to us now.
    On the one hand, I think this contributes to just the kind of discussion you suggest having. On the other, these “times were different back then” arguments can also be read as a defence that leaves very little room for discussion (this is what you encounter when you mention colonial language in the first half of the twentieth century: people become defensive “that’s just the way things were like back then”. This “defense” is in part true, but it also leaves very little room for discussion. So I guess I would be for such a note, perhaps, as long as it leaves room for discussion, because that is what would make it “work”.

    As for “correcting” classics. On the one hand, yes, I do not want my children (if I ever have any) indoctrinated that to be a princess and to catch a man is what life is all about, or anything like that.. (but as you say, you might play with stories, select counter stories, discuss them, which seems to me perhaps the more preferable solution). I think to “correct” these tales is at the same time to deny part of the problematic history, which is scary when you think about it in that manner. And I think it is important to learn about the problematic parts of history and life, even at a young age.

    • Thanks for your thoughts, Iris! I agree with you on the point you make regarding the “times were different” argument. If a note saying “this may be offensive because it was written a while ago” is where the explaining and discussing stops, then this is a problem. Maybe this is where a lot of today’s misguided criticism of “too much” political correctness comes from: a lack of knowledge of why we use this kind of language. People just know we do, and they find it cumbersome, but they haven’t really learned about or reflected on the reasons behind it.

      And I also tend to agree with you that a simple “correction” of fairy tales isn’t the way forward. It seems to me that they’re such integral parts of our history and culture that we should try to preserve them, even with their very problematic aspects. At the same time, we need to problematise these aspects and teach children to view the stories presented to them critically.

  2. I’ve always fallen on the side of opposition to censoring of books, perhaps in part because I’ve seen people want to censor or ban books that they haven’t even read and which may not in fact be offensive. (I can recall distinctly an elementary classmate’s parent being upset by a book available in the classroom library that had “witch” in the title–but the only “witch” in the book was a gentle, kind woman who was Quaker rather than Puritan and so ostracized by the community.) I had a discussion with my dad in high school about the idea of book banning and his thoughts on limiting what I could read and his idea was basically that some books are more worthwhile than others, but he wasn’t going to dictate to me which I could or couldn’t read. Which made/makes it a lot easier, incidentally, to discuss books with my dad that may have questionable things in them. That said, there’s something to be said for the importance of limiting children’s exposure to things they aren’t ready for yet and/or being unjudgmentally available to discuss or explain. My dad read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to my brother and I when we were in 1st and 4th grade respectively, and rather than risk that we would repeat the offensive word, he was careful to replace all instances with sanitized versions. (When we studied it high school it, the teacher did spend a whole lesson on discussion of the language and use and changes over time. Especially important as it was a mixed-ethnicity classroom.)

    The idea of limiting children’s exposure to the sexism of past works (with or without explanation or defense of “that’s the way it was”) is something I’d have to think about. I spent one summer in elementary school reading every single of Andrew Lang’s “Color” books of fairy tales, but I don’t feel that it made me any more likely to believe in the narrative of the damsel in distress and the necessity for a handsome prince. I can’t remember if there were also stories of plucky or resourceful heroines in those stories as well? I know I’ve read stories like that, but they may have been modern adaptations. Regardless, I never felt the handsome prince a requirement for happiness in life. Unfortunately, I think that we continue to display the myth of the prince and princess in our media, not just in children’s stories, but in the movies and stories for grown women. I’ve been watching a lot of made-for-TV Christmas movies lately, and besides noting that there are only about two or three plot variations, it appears to be necessary that all of these movies end with the woman getting her man (back). So we may need some serious discussion, but I’m not sure that reflexive censoring or revisionism of children’s books is necessarily the place to start.

  3. Thank you, Amanda! Your comment got me thinking about the children’s developmental “readiness” for certain kinds of books. At a stage where having kids is still a vague point on my personal lifelong to-do-list (for sure at some point, but not right now), the discussion I’m trying to have remains really theoretical to myself. Mainly because I have no idea when children are “ready” to be exposed to certain things – this probably also depends a lot on each individual child.
    It may also be worth re-visiting certain stories. Perhaps for a firstgrader, it’s too early to have a discussion about racism and language, so you might replace certain offensive words. But a few years later, they may be ready for that sort of discussion, perhaps when they’re old enough to read the book on their own (rather than having it read to them).

    I fully agree regarding what you say about certain gender role models still being pervasive in society. This is one of the reasons that makes me think I may come round to the idea of revising some stories: in a world where they’re still exposed to such myths on a daily basis, they might need specific stories that show them how the world can or should be.

    On the whole though, like you, a “reflexive” censoring or revision of stories/books doesn’t solve the problem. It may even be a “lazy” way out for parents who don’t feel like launching into long explanations or discussions, and then it seems very wrong. This is perhaps a really important point, actually, because both ways of handling the problematic go awry at the point where educators fail to pick these things up and have a discussion/explain the issue at hand to children. A failure to discuss or explain is always bad, whichever way you choose to go concerning the “correcting” question.

  4. I kind of fall in with Amanda. There are times when children are too young. However, I have no idea when that is and school administrators tend to be so cautious that the children seem to be only ready once they have left their school. I’m more familiar with Huckleberry Finn, and the attempts to ban it in American high schools is just laziness or too much caution. It can be a difficult book to teach, but it should be taught in its original form.

    • Thanks for your comment, Paul. I wonder if children who are too young to have those kinds of discussions – or at least understand a really simple explanation – are maybe too young for the story in the first place? Since I don’t have kids and hence have no idea when they wise up to that kind of things, I have no idea what the “appropriate” age would be in that case… hm.

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