Nothing like a Classic…

Okay, so I’m holding off on posting a new Eager Reader post because this conversation is so GOOD!  Please, go over to Mitali’s blog and vote in her poll about whether we should “update” classic books that are politically problematic today.

And also, I encourage everyone to read the comments thread in her post below.  People have put some real time into addressing the issue here, and they’re worth a read. Here’s one from Wendy, for a taste of the conversation!

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?”.)

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