Sunday, October 08, 2006

Swarthy and Villainous

I just read RedheadDread's delicious book-review post, and it reminded me of something that's been bugging me.

I've been listening to Anthony Horowitz's kid/YA thriller Stormbreaker on CD on the way to work, and it's pretty good in an escapist kind of way. But I can't get around the fact that the villain is a clever, devious, swarthy Arab. It sets my teeth on edge. I mean, okay, obviously one must have villains in a spy thriller, and, V. I Warshawski aside, they can't always be clean-cut white business moguls, but this is set up in such a retro, blatantly racist way, it's hard for me to just get into the book.

There's lots of racism in kids' books, especially those written more than 20 or 30 years ago, and, true to my civil-libertarian training, I'm generally for making the books available, rather than just letting novels that are 90% enjoyable fall into oblivion because of the misconceptions and attitudes of the times in which they were written. I'm talking about novels like Pippi in the South Seas, Caddie Woodlawn, and the Little House series, where the racism seems to me to be thoughtless rather than deliberately vitriolic. (I have more trouble with the Indian in the Cupboard series, where the fake-Indianness is at the very center of the narrative. But lots of people love it, it's got a great story, and I know of teachers who choose to read it aloud and accompany the books with class discussions about the issues of real Native Americans and stereotypes.)

Even some of my very favorites have chapters that make me cringe. The very first wish-granting episode in Half-Magic features a comically villainous Arab, and in Randy's first Saturday adventure in The Saturdays, the elderly yet groovy Mrs. Oliphant tells her about being stolen by Gypsies as a girl. My guess is that these authors, even in the 40's and 50's, were trying to be careful and senstive and not write stereotypically about African-Americans or Jews or other obvious minorities, and that Arabs and gypsies seemed not quite real to them and therefore safe to cast as villains.

Whole books have been written about racism and children's literature (Should we Burn Babar? by Herbert Kohl is one thought-provoking collection of essays; there's also lots written--including a thoughtful article by Michael Dorris-- about Native American stereotypes in the Little House books alone), and I'm not really trying to add anything groundbreaking here. I tend to be kinda wishy-washy on the topic, honestly: I've read more than one of these books to Mermaid Girl-- with commentary about how the authors didn't know that this isn't how Native Americans/Arabs/people on tropical islands really are, this was just their made-up version--and I do recommend them to kids at my job, without the political caveats, while also exposing them to other perspectives via read-alouds and recommendations.

But Stormbreaker really brought me up short. I'm surprised it hasn't been more controversial, especially since it was written so recently, and I know of very few positive portrayals of Arabs in kid's fiction that could balance it. What gives? Are Arabs the last okay group to trash?

11 Comments:

Blogger Phantom Scribbler said...

I give a pass (with explanations and more conversations about power and white skin) to books that are more than 30 or 40 years old. But I have no patience whatsoever for this sort of thing in contemporary kids' literature. Ignorance at this point is deliberate, and not excusable.

The Indian in the Cupboard books shocked me, honestly.

6:46 AM  
Blogger Pamelamama said...

*wave*
added you to my bloglines!

7:41 PM  
Blogger liz said...

What Phantom said.

8:34 PM  
Blogger elswhere said...

Phantom & Liz-- Thank you. For some reason--not sure why, considering who reads here--I was convinced that I was going to get at least one comment along the lines of "stop being so PC, for godsake, it's just a book!"

I realized, reading Phantom's comment, that when the book was written makes a HUGE difference to me, and also helps me excuse them to MG: "Back when this was written, not so many people thought about..." But I can't make that excuse for a recently-written book, not to her or to myself.

And I have to admit that I don't know why I said the Indian in the Cupboard Books have a great story since the truth is that I have never been able to bring myself to read them. What came over me, writing this? But lots of people do love them. Maybe one day I'll read one and will understand why. But probably not.

Pam--*waving back atcha!*

8:51 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You haven't READ the Indian in the Cupboard books??? Good grief, I can't believe it. I guess this will have to be the comment you were expecting above! Read them all the way through before you remark.

They're about little toy people coming to life. What kid can't relate to that, whether it be lead soldiers, plastic Indians, Barbie, GI Joe, or Polly Pocket??? How magical is that?

I haven't read them in several years (since my boys were small, 10-15 years ago) and so I'm not going to go to the wall to say they're not racist, but I can certainly say they didn't offend me then and I was pretty PC then. I vaguely recall that they gave me the impression of quite a bit of historical research worked into a "lite" child-friendly version. There was a World War I nurse and other characters from assorted historic periods ... and I think I recall the Indian/aboriginal/First Nations (whatEVER) people were not generic stereotypes but quite specifically Iroquois and clearly fit into detailed historical events.
Now I have to climb the nasty fold-down stair/ladder into the attic and find them, to compare my recollection with the reality. Darn you and your curiosity-provoking post, anyway.
-- Frances

6:26 PM  
Blogger elswhere said...

Hi Frances; thanks for commenting. I'm glad to have inspired someone to reread a childhood favorite, whatever the politics.

"Little people coming to life" is indeed a wonderful, magical topic, and Lynne Reid Banks is a terrific writer. But I take issue with the idea of reducing a person from another culture-especially a culture that's been so devestated and co-opted-- to a cutesy toy.

It's true, I haven't read the books. But I've read enough about them to decide they aren't worth my personal time. Several of the critiques I've read cite specific instances in which Banks clearly did *not* do her research in reference to Native Americans, and that's enough to put them on my "don't bother reading, don't promote to kids" list. They're on my library shelves, and they'll stay there, but I don't feel the need to read them or recommend them.

9:23 PM  
Blogger Psycho Kitty said...

Oh, I hate that part of Half Magic, too, but I will pretty much forgive Half Magic anything.

7:10 PM  
Anonymous badgermama said...

I'm up against Dr. Dolittle and Bumpo. And the Ragged-Eared Bagjagerdags. Ugh!

Bumpo is a very cool guy, and yet... I fall back, like you do, on the "back then" explanation, which is a bit lame and untrue...

At least Caddie Woodlawn sort of makes a stab at talking about prejudice and racism. Someday someone will rewrite a chapter from Gussie's point of view (wasn't that the name of one of the "half-breed" kids? That she buys the handkerchiefs and combs for?)

11:02 PM  
Anonymous Liza said...

And don't lets even start on gender stereotyping....

8:10 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have resently read Lynne Reid Banks books and I do not like them at all. I am not yet an adult and I say PLEASE dont recomend them.I'm not the only kid who doesn't like them

11:11 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ugh Francis are you crazy? those books were so stupid and boring i had trouble finishing them. plus the lady had no right to say the rude things she did i personally hate her books and not just because im a full blood native americanwe find them very offensive and it is horrible liturature for kids i would think i should know being ten

2:52 PM  

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