BBT: Eager Readers!!!


Many wonderful bloggers and writers have sent me their thoughts on Eager, but I decided to begin my Backwards Blog Tour with the fabulous  Mitali Perkins, (prolific author, friendly blogger, and organizer extraordinaire) because while she loves Eager, she also addresses an aspect of his work that I find, as an adult reader, problematic.

Mitali says:

I grew up loving Edward Eager. As a kid, I skipped over the strange ethnic stereotyping I now notice in some of his books. Maybe it’s because when it came to issues of race, Eager won my trust with “The Well-Wishers,” a story published in 1960 about a black family moving into an all-white town. The book could read like another “white people should welcome black people” didactic tale were it not for the twist Eager added of tough guy Dicky LeBaron’s mentoring of the new kid Hannibal. At age 11, I moved into an all-white town myself. When Dicky advises Hannibal, “Be yourself, dad, and like it,” I felt like he was talking to me, encouraging me, giving me permission to be brown. Read in 2009, “The Well-Wishers” can still inspire kids that to take a stand against injustice, thanks to Eager’s strong characters, deprecating humor, and good intentions, otherwise known as well-wishing.

I’m so glad that Mitali wrote this, because I had absolutely forgotten about Hannibal!  The Well Wishers and its partner-book Magic or Not? are less “magical” than Eager’s other books, and as such, I (a goofy magic-loving child) read them less often.  But in general, I think we need to talk more about this issue of race and historical context!

It’s something  I have trouble hammering out, for myself.  I heard the other day that several classics have recently been “updated” (is this true? does anyone know anything more about it? Mary Poppins? Really?!)  I had a violent reaction to the idea. But… I also find myself uncomfortable with leaving the books as they are…  Remember Achmed the A-rab in Half Magic?


And we can’t just censor the book, right?


What do you think?

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13 Responses to “BBT: Eager Readers!!!”

  1. Wendy Says:

    It’s always difficult for me to respond to discussion about racism in Edward Eager’s books without feeling (and probably sounding) like an apologist. I don’t mean to do so.

    I’m not going to say these books aren’t without problems. But let’s look at Achmed and how the children interact with him. (I haven’t got the book here, and the library is closed! I think I remember it well enough to respond, but please correct and forgive any textual errors.) Achmed appears as a stereotype, definitely, just as the desert setting is stereotyped–like all Eager’s fantasy settings, the kids find exactly what they expect to find; they’re always getting the “essence” of the desert or London or Arthurian England. Achmed’s portrayal is disturbing. But Eager also goes on to make him into a more complex character; someone beaten down by the world, who sees the kids as his last hope, but who really only wants the basic things anyone else wants of life–moderate prosperity, a wife and family. I love Achmed for including children in his heart’s desire.

    Some people mention that it’s offensive that Mark greets Achmed with “How”, the stereotypical and misinformed way many of us absorbed as the “American Indian greeting”. It’s clear to me (and was clear when I was a kid) that Eager probably chose that greeting to make Mark look stupid, not because he himself was ignorant. Eager is playing with race and stereotypes here in a way that I think was fairly rare in middle-grade books at the time (just as in The Well Wishers the kids’ response is “Is that all?” when they find out why people didn’t want the family to move in).

    The cannibal island in Magic By the Lake and The Time Garden is similarly problematic, but without the depth and redeeming features. I read it purely as fantasy, but that doesn’t necessarily excuse it. There is still the playing with stereotypes, though, when the islanders are perfectly familiar with safety matches. I remember that this made me think when I was a kid.

    As for Mary Poppins, Laurel–PL Travers did the editing herself. I can’t argue with that. As I’ve often said, if I’d written something so offensive and only realized it later, I would totally want to go and take it back.

    I don’t think there’s any point to re-editing Edward Eager’s books. If an editor was able to get the racism out, would s/he also be able to remove the sexism? And if so, who gets to decide what’s actually sexist and what’s anti-sexist? These things are deeply woven into the books. It’s not like in Mary Poppins, where changing one chapter doesn’t have much of an effect anywhere else. These books are period pieces, and I think it’s best to leave them as such. (I love to hear kids say things like “Can you believe what this author wrote in this book?”.)

  2. laurel Says:

    Wow!!! This is such a thoughtful and well-informed response. You’ve articulated this so much better than I’ve ever been able to do… THANK YOU!

  3. Mitali Perkins Says:

    Wendy, you’ve made things so clear that now we can all be unapologetic Eager fans, thanks to your apologetic skills. I love reading classic kids literature, unchanged as period pieces, and when I read them to my own kids, I appreciated how the stories generated conversation about history and changing mores.

  4. Heidi Estrin Says:

    Excellent opener from Mitali! Makes me realize how long it’s been since I read Eager, as I don’t remember these storylines. But the theme of older books unthinkingly spouting racism is a familiar theme, and the funny thing is how they often do so with the best of intentions and lots of wholesome messages. Just think of the power-of-positive-thinking message in The Secret Garden, which isn’t held back at all by the England-centric view that children can’t be healthy growing up in India and must come to the English moors if they are to blossom. There are kajillions of examples, that’s just the one that got to the front of my brain first. I think that revising should be a last resort. We’re better off providing context, either in an introduction or through annotations (sort of like a DVD director’s commentary). I think there is nothing wrong with helping kids realize that times and mores change and that this is reflected in the books people write.

  5. Amy Shropshire Says:

    I don’t like the idea of updating books when, I agree with Heidi, that many of them were unthinkingly reflecting the prevailing thought of the time. That’s not to say it was the right thinking, but I don’t think denying that racist thoughts were once thought to be acceptable, and hiding them is the best course of action. As someone who used to write curriculum for a youth program, I was constantly on the lookout for teachable moments in everything, and I think that the original messages of these books offers a great opportunity for dialogue with youth about stereotypes and their own feelings about people who are different from them.

  6. J. L. Bell Says:

    It’s no surprise that Eager reflected the biases of his time, especially the unexamined ones. Most authors do. The portrayal of Arabs wasn’t nearly as hot a topic fifty years ago as it is today. As The Well-Wishers shows, Eager was moderately progressive within the context of his time. His characterization of Eliza in Knight’s Castle also went against gender stereotypes of his time—which is not to say it would seem progressive if published today.

    In addition, because Eager was so clearly bouncing off of older literature in his stories, some of his characterizations are supposed to represent real individuals, others literary types, and still others literary types liberated to behave as if they were real people. His portraits of old European types are played for laughs just like his portraits of old non-European types.

    The real bias might appear in the fact that almost all of his child-protagonists and other “real,” sympathetic people are of European descent, showing the fictionality of the stereotypes, but there aren’t similar characters of non-European descent. Except, of course, in The Well-Wishers, a quite deliberate attempt to address just that issue.

  7. Bonnie Adamson Says:

    I have a set of the Doctor Dolittle books reissued by Dell Yearling in 1988, which were edited to remove the more egregious examples of racial stereotyping from the originals. The books all contain an afterword written by Hugh Lofting’s son, Christopher, explaining the thought process behind the edits. There was apparently a strong inclination not to tamper with the originals, especially since the author was no longer living. Christopher writes: “Book banning or censorship is not an American tradition!” But also wonders, “Is it appropriate to reissue the Doctor Dolittle books exactly as written and stand on principle at the expense of our obligation the respect the feelings of others?”

    Ultimately the decision was made to alter the books, the deciding factor being that “Hugh Lofting would have been appalled at the suggestion that any part of his work could give offense and would have been the first to have made the changes himself.”

    Of course, you can argue that the books are still offensive in their Anglo-centric depictions of other races, but I appreciate and understand the dilemma. I personally find this kind of alteration much less troublesome than the random “modernization” of classics such as Little Women. I liked it that the Nancy Drews I inherited from my mother referred to a character catching a ‘bus–the apostrophe signifying the shortening of the original term “omnibus.” That was as much a part of the delicious atmosphere of the books as Nancy’s little blue roadster, or the March girls’ excursion in the “charabanc.”

  8. Becky Levine Says:

    This is always a hard one for me. I grew up with even older books than Eager’s–books my mom had read while she was growing up in England–and I loved them all. But, yes, they made me uncomfortable. There is probably a book by each of these authors that I still own, but don’t read or read much less frequently, because of the taste in my mouth when I go to get it off the shelf. But…
    I also feel this way when I read some Dickens and when I saw Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice. I felt VERY uncomfortable buying a copy of Oliver Twist for my son, which I hadn’t read, when I flipped through and saw “the Jew” on almost every page and knew how, not just a negative portrayal, would be of this character, but how FLAT a portrayal it would be.

    But censoring? I can’t see it. I don’t think it has hurt me to be bothered by these things; I think it’s probably better that I AM bothered by them. And I don’t think it’s bad for my son to know that people saw things differently in the past, as long as we talk about/he knows that it’s not a way I want to see them now and I hope he doesn’t see them. If you “clean up” the racism in books, that’s–in it’s own way–a cleaning up of history, and if we ignore/forget history, well…you all know the end of that phrase.

    Interesting note. When I bought a copy of Doctor Doolittle in the past few years, there was a forward by the author’s son about this very question and about the son’s decision (with the editor’s) to do just such a clean-up. His basis for doing so, for changing his father’s text, was that his father would have been very upset to hear that people thought his writing was racist and, even more so, to look at it in the light of today and see it that way himself. The son felt that his father would have wanted those changes made. Again, I wasn’t sure whether I agreed with this, but I very much respected the thought the son put into his choice, and I respected his final choice.

  9. olugbemisola Says:

    Great discussion. I had no idea PL Travers had updated her work, and still remember how, as a child, I was stopped cold by Mary Poppins, and got rid of my books in the series. But I definitely gave (and give) other authors a ‘pass’, and kind of skimmed over the offensive parts when I loved the story/a character/the author, etc., though either way I still had the internal (sometimes external) dialogue about what was offensive to me.

    Learning to read critically is such a valuable thing; censorship or ‘whitewashing’ does not appeal to me. I do think it’s generally a positive thing when an author (or close representative, like Lofting’s son) has the opportunity to make those sorts of changes, and the chance to explain why…and it’s wonderful when readers have the opportunity examine these issues, changes or not. So I thank you for that!

  10. Deb Says:

    I was trained as an historian. All of these books are historical documents, as well as literary documents. We should read them as such, and learn from them. We should not attempt to brainwash our children into thinking that everything was then as it is now. The idea that societies grow and change, make progress and improve is an important one for them to internalize. If we don’t teach them that, than their natural conservative tendencies will predominate – “everything was perfect when I was a child, why can’t it stay that way.” In other words, politically correct bowdlerization is counterproductive.

  11. Inserting Modern Standards into Classic Literature — Cool? | The Wren's Nest Says:

    [...] Snyder, a local children’s author, has a great discussion on her blog about updating literature to correspond with our current views on racial stereotyping and [...]

  12. V.V. Ganeshananthan Says:

    Late to the party, Laurel—Mitali just directed me here! … What about more extreme examples? As a kid, I loved The Horse and His Boy because of the great relationship between, well, The Horse and His Boy. But the book is SO RACIST. All those swarthy people with their evil plots. Sigh…

  13. V.V. Ganeshananthan Says:

    (I do agree that stuff shouldn’t be bowdlerized. But is there a recommended age to start talking about this stuff?)

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