Reshelved: Can Children’s Classics Be Modernized?

by Joan Antony, March 15 2021

(Erin McCracken/Evansville Courier & Press via AP, File)

Moby Dick, The Cat in The Hat, Huckleberry Finn... and a number of other titles are the face of American children’s books, even in the 21st century. The public opinion on these books, and others, have not changed in the past few years. Despite modernizing trends that have swept through America, such as the “Cancel Culture” movement and the creation of “Banned Books Week,” many beloved classics remain on shelves across the country; a testament to their timeless messages and cherished meanings.

However, this may not be the case for all classics.

Sometimes, even industry giants in Children’s Books, such as Dr. Seuss Enterprises feel the need to evaluate the messages they sent to children. In the first quarter of 2021, the company collectively decided to take down a number of lesser known books from their collection; And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street as well as a few other titles (Gross, The New York Times). After his death in 1991, Dr. Seuss’ reputation as a beloved storyteller has been measured against modernist standards for children’s literature. The man, who is hailed as one of the greatest children’s books writers in American history, has come under fire posthumously for anti-Semitic and racist stereotypes depicted in his books. With the recent decisions made by Dr. Seuss Enterprises to discontinue If I Ran the Zoo, McElligot’s Pool and others, discourse has begun on the morality of allowing these particular children’s books to be shelved. The future of a child’s education in relation to the views and opinions they form from the media they consume, is an important conversation that has only just begun to be discussed. The author’s position should be discussed in academic settings, not hidden away in a new animated Grinch movie or saturated in merchandise. America should have an honest discourse on the impact Seuss’ works have had on children of different demographics throughout the decades. A children’s literature expert, Michelle H. Martins states:

“Seuss was not thinking about Black kids and Asian kids when he was writing these books. He was writing for white kids.”

(All Things Considered, NPR)

And it’s not only in America that this revival is in the works. In France, a beloved comic book series Lucky Luke, is adding to its own cast of characters. A Black man is featured in A Cowboy in High Cotton, standing alongside the main character Luke, with an equal and important role in progressing the story (Onishi, The New York Times). The hero, Luke, is usually defeating the bad guys and bringing peace to the countryside all on his own. This time, he is joined by a fellow sheriff, an employee of the plantation he owns. The moral of the story is not only to satisfy his own goals, but to win the trust of his employees, a task he commits to with gusto. This is definitely progressive, in terms of European standards for children’s books, where change has been deemed necessary. Even now, Tintin in The Congo continues to be published internationally without much change to the stereotypes within the covers (The New York Times).

(Mantovani for The New York Times)

While it may seem very sudden, the dismantling of children’s literature is not a new phenomenon. Recently, authors are more likely to receive feedback and criticism on their books’ in terms of appealing to political correctness and the general mood of society (Limbong, NPR). Plenty of authors have faced immense backlash from their audience, on social media platforms such as Twitter, a platform in which retweets and direct tweets can go viral in minutes. With the ease of finding authors, their viewpoints on topics are much more accessible. Long gone are the days when the only way to reach an author was to mail them a long list of complaints. In that case, readers could never be sure their frustrations were being heard or even acted upon. With social media, it’s become easier than ever to wage a personal attack, and cite specific instances of wrong-doing. While in some cases the attacks have gone too far, most times the ‘face-to-face’ interaction between readers and writers is more effective for improving the selection of children’s books available in the genre. Or, at least some are taken off the shelf.

Imagine writing a generation defining series about a youth uprisal that defeats a tyrannical monster motivated by the preservation of “pure blood” and looking at THIS time in the world and going “hmm…yep. I’m gonna invalidate trans people.” (@halsey, Twitter)

Of course, criticism from the opposite side is to be expected, opinions will clash on whether making these significant changes in the realm of children’s classics is necessary or progressive (Alter and Harris, The New York Times). Will the washing out of these depictions actually harm children’s learning? Without markers of how it ‘used to be,’ will children be able to correctly point out how it ‘should be’? Is there an alternative to erasing these harmful descriptions, without losing the meaningful story in the process?

A good example of the latter would be the Chronicles of Narnia series by C.S. Lewis, a beloved classic worldwide. Lewis has been heavily criticized for his imagery of the Calormenes, a city of people and culture that seems to ‘blend’ and typecast different cultures from the Middle-East, in addition to the sexist wording and imagery present throughout the series; as well as one incorrigible scene of cultural appropriation (Glumpuddle, NarniaWeb). The scene is one where three of the main characters in the last addition of the series, Last Battle, must get past the enemy Calormene’s soldiers. In order to so, they resort to rubbing oil over their faces, to ‘blend’ in with the soldiers, as well as donning ‘turbans’ as a disguise (Lewis, Last Battle). The scene is not further explained, and it is moved past quickly as a necessity in war time. For all these right reasons, the series falls on the spectrum of books that can be banned for one terrible scene alone. However in 2005, The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe directed by Andrew Adamson, was a roaring success, topping the box office and inspiring little kids around the world to pick up the books for the first time. How so? For one, the director made sure to piece together all the scenes from the book with a warm remembrance of how it was when he was a child. His memory veiled the terrible descriptions into altered scenes, or left them out entirely (Glumpuddle, NarniaWeb).

“When I set out to do this, I said very early on that I don’t want to make the book so much, as I want to make my memory of the book. […][C.S. Lewis] planted seeds and let them grow in your imagination.”

NarniaWeb, Director Andrew Adamson circa 2005

From this telling line, it may be easier to decide the final say on books by one important factor: the children themselves. The kids who read these books are the kids who will grow up with these books. Children’s literature is a revered genre because of its versatility, for its importance of ‘growing’ with the child, as they mature and learn important values and connotations for real life.

Keeping this in mind, it is apt to conclude that there is no set right or wrong way to decide on ‘reshelving’ every book; it is a choice based on every individual classic, on the background of the author, and most importantly, how the primary audience will react to the appearance or disappearance of this particular book. Is it worth banning? Or does it just need a different adaption to help derive the meaning better?


Works Cited

Alter, Alexandra, and Elizabeth A. Harris. “Dr. Seuss Books Are Pulled, and a ‘Cancel Culture’ Controversy Erupts.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 4 Mar. 2021, http://www.nytimes.com/2021/03/04/books/dr-seuss-books.html.

“Are The Chronicles of Narnia Sexist and Racist?” NarniaWeb, 20 July 2009, http://www.narniaweb.com/resources-links/are-the-chronicles-of-narnia-sexist-and-racist/.

“Dr Seuss going? No, just old stereotypes.” Age [Melbourne, Australia], 5 Mar. 2021, p. 31. Gale In Context: Opposing Viewpoints, link.gale.com/apps/doc/A653763351/OVIC?u=sunysb&sid=OVIC&xid=6cf46853. Accessed 6 Mar. 2021.

Glumpuddle. “Andrew Adamson Went From Shrek to Narnia.” NarniaWeb, 9 Feb. 2020, http://www.narniaweb.com/2020/02/andrew-adamson-went-from-shrek-to-narnia/.

Gross, Jenny. “6 Dr. Seuss Books Will No Longer Be Published Over Offensive Images.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 2 Mar. 2021, http://www.nytimes.com/2021/03/02/books/dr-seuss-mulberry-street.html.

“Imagine Writing a Generation Defining Series about a Youth Uprisal That Defeats a Tyrannical Monster Motivated by the Preservation of ‘Pure Blood’ and Looking at THIS Time in the World and Going ‘Hmm…yep. I’m Gonna Invalidate Trans People.”.” Twitter, Twitter, 7 June 2020, twitter.com/halsey/status/1269436246759112704.

Lewis, C. S. The Last Battle. HarperCollins Children’s Books, 2014.

Limbong, Andrew. “Why Author J.K. Rowling Is Facing Backlash From LGBTQ Activists.” NPR, NPR, 20 Dec. 2019, http://www.npr.org/2019/12/20/790319846/why-author-j-k-rowling-is-facing-backlash-from-lgbtq-activists.

“Looking Again At A Doctor’s Old Rhymes, Seuss Works Haven’t Kept Up With The Times.” All Things Considered, 2 Mar. 2021. Gale In Context: Opposing Viewpoints, link.gale.com/apps/doc/A653816567/OVIC?u=sunysb&sid=OVIC&xid=fa6d8174. Accessed 6 Mar. 2021.

Onishi, Norimitsu. “Lucky Luke, the Comic Book Cowboy, Discovers Race, Belatedly.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 22 Feb. 2021, http://www.nytimes.com/2021/02/22/world/europe/lucky-luke-comic-france.html.

Pratt, Mark. “6 Dr. Seuss Books Will Stop Being Published Because of Racist Imagery.” PBS, Public Broadcasting Service, 2 Mar. 2021, http://www.pbs.org/newshour/arts/6-dr-seuss-books-will-stop-being-published-because-of-racist-imagery.

Telford, Taylor. “Some Dr. Seuss books with racist imagery will go out of print.” Washington Post, 2 Mar. 2021. Gale In Context: Opposing Viewpoints, link.gale.com/apps/doc/A653519393/OVIC?u=sunysb&sid=OVIC&xid=5710bddc. Accessed 6 Mar. 2021.

The New York Times. “A Tintin Controversy.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 18 July 2007, http://www.nytimes.com/2007/07/18/arts/18arts-ATINTINCONTR_BRF.html.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s