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The Hidden Racism of Children's Literature, and the Need for Diverse Books

by Philip Nel

Pub Date: Aug. 1st, 2017
ISBN: 978-0-19-063507-7
Publisher: Oxford Univ.

An acclaimed children’s literature scholar picks up the mantle of Walter Dean Myers, Nancy Larrick, and others by exploring the ways in which the lack of diversity in children’s literature negatively affects American culture as a whole.

Working off of the premise that America has entered a new era of civil rights, Nel (English/Kansas State Univ.; Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children's Literature, 2012, etc.) asserts that the “cultures of childhood play a prominent role in replicating prejudice” and that stereotypes within literature are maintained and replicated through a combination of nostalgia, structural racism, fervent belief in the myth of American exceptionalism, and lack of exposure to varied minority life experiences. Referencing politics, popular culture, and his personal history, each of the author’s five chapters draws a different correlation between the power of visual culture—of which children’s books are an integral part—and fraught events such as the killing of Trayvon Martin and the recent presidential election. While Nel does not believe that the publishing industry deliberately perpetuates stereotypes, the enduring popular books that he references are his proof that doing so normalizes racial caricature for children, as beloved characters become so embedded in culture that their racial origins become invisible to successive generations of readers. In each chapter, the author demonstrates why he is considered a master in his field, as he faultlessly blends history and anecdote with insightful criticism. The second chapter, which discusses attempts to sanitize books such as Huckleberry Finn, is particularly enlightening. Directly addressing Alan Gribben’s edition of the book, which removes the “N-Word,” Nel adeptly points out that removing it not only misses the point of Twain’s work, but also makes the book’s racism more covert and therefore more insidious. Occasionally the author’s political leanings become apparent, which may turn away nonliberal readers.

A fascinating and necessary critical work.