Swarthy and Villainous
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?