Posts Tagged ‘mitali perkins’

Nothing like a Classic…

Monday, June 8th, 2009

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?”.)

BBT: Eager Readers!!!

Sunday, June 7th, 2009


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?