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Little House, Big Problem: What To Do with “Classic” Books That Are Also Racist

Students have been reading To Kill a Mockingbird, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and the “Little House” series for generations, and having these “classics” available in school libraries is a given. Should that change?

 

 

Figuring out to how to handle classics that critics say haven’t aged well can be tough for librarians charged with putting together school collections. Students have been reading To Kill a Mockingbird, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and the “Little House” series for generations, and for many years, having these “classics” available in school libraries was a given. But today, some media specialists are questioning the proper place for these and other novels.

Just two years ago, the American Library Association (ALA) decided to drop Laura Ingalls Wilder’s name from its children’s literature award, citing her work’s “dated cultural attitudes toward Indigenous people and people of color.” The phrase “The only good Indian is a dead Indian” shows up multiple times in Little House on the Prairie. ALA was careful to note that renaming the award was not an attempt to “censor, limit, or deter access to Wilder’s books and materials.”

Andy Spinks didn’t consider it to be censorship when he weeded Wilder’s series out of his collection at Campbell High School in Smyrna, GA, a suburban school about 20 minutes outside of Atlanta with a student body that’s 20 percent white.

“These aren’t kids who are really going to be interested in rolling across the plains in a horse and buggy,” says Spinks, one of two library media specialists at the school.

Spinks stresses that he doesn’t support weeding to “intentionally circumvent” reconsideration policies but notes that “problematic books also often meet the criteria for weeding.”

He adds that it’s not hard to discard a book or a collection when it’s somehow problematic and also unpopular with your students.

But what about when a popular classic is also seen by some as problematic?

“Sometimes I think people don’t know what to do with those books,” says Meg B. Allison, a teacher librarian at U-32 Middle and High School in East Montpelier, VT.

 

The problem with Atticus Finch

Published in 1960, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird quickly became popular with readers throughout the country and around the world. The novel is set during the Great Depression and tells the story of Atticus Finch, a small-town Alabama lawyer who takes the case of Tom Robinson, a Black man falsely accused of raping a white woman. The story is told through the eyes of Finch’s young daughter, Scout. The Pulitzer Prize winner has never been out of print.

In 2018, PBS named it America’s favorite novel, following a national survey of nearly 4.3 million Americans.

“People love that book, but they ignore so many of the racist tropes and the depictions of people of color that are derogatory,” says Julia E. Torres, a teacher librarian who serves five schools through her job with Denver Public Schools.

Critics say the novel perpetuates stereotypes about African Americans and doesn’t give its Black characters any agency. But the book is still assigned reading for many students, and it remains on the shelves at most high schools.

“There’s a lot of area in between taking a book off the shelf and deemphasizing it,” says Spinks. “To Kill a Mockingbird used to be my favorite book, so I would recommend it all the time. Now I don’t do that.”

Instead, Spinks says he encourages students who read it to keep in mind that the book examines “racism from a white perspective.”

The novel has faced frequent challenges for its language. The N-word is used liberally in the book, and some parents have complained that reading the book aloud in class is inappropriate.

Fans of the book say it teaches tolerance and helps to awaken racial consciousness.

That’s a point that Torres questions. “If it were so successful at raising racial consciousness throughout the United States all these decades, why are people still forbidding their students from reading The Hate U Give or going to see the movie?” Torres asks. “Also, if it [is being read] in high school, that’s pretty far along in the game for people to be learning about racial injustice or racialized aspects of our justice system.”

Torres has taught the novel a few times in the past, but if a teacher asks for her help teaching it today, she usually suggests another book, like Samira Ahmed’s Internment, set in the near future, about a teen sent to a U.S. internment camp for Muslim American people. Or, she suggests they teach To Kill a Mockingbird using excerpts or through a critical consciousness lens, which would include lessons on white saviorism and the weaponization of white women’s tears.

Some librarians suggest using modern novels such as Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give to provide context to classics.

“The themes of To Kill a Mockingbird are about coming of age and agency and finding one’s voice as a youngster,” says Allison. “Well, Angie Thomas does that very, very well with The Hate U Give, and so they’ve been augmenting and supplementing curriculum with some more contemporary choices, especially written by #OwnVoices authors.”

In 2015, author Corinne Duyvis started the #OwnVoices movement on Twitter. The movement aimed to support kid lit that spotlighted diverse characters written by writers from the same background.

Sometimes authors backed by the movement face obstacles when it comes to getting their work in front of young readers in the classroom. The Hate U Give, which tells the story of Starr Carter, a Black high school student who witnesses the fatal shooting of her friend Khalil by a white police officer, has been challenged because of its language and its depiction of police.

Read: Kid Lit Authors (Re)Make History

Huck Finn and the N-word

Torres argues that many people who challenge these books ignore problematic classics such as Mockingbird and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Mark Twain’s novel, which follows a white boy and a runaway slave who make their way along the Mississippi River on a raft, includes the N-word hundreds of times. Torres notes that reading it can cause distress for Black students, particularly if they’re the only one in a class.

“A child of color sitting in the classroom listening to that word said over and over again with no discussion about it, which I know happens, that’s upsetting,” says Torres.

Allison says that’s where a good teacher should step in and provide information about when the book was written and some of the factors that might have gone into Twain’s choice to use that word.

“You have to understand that time period and what language was doing at the time and compare it to what we’re doing now and not just let students read that book in a classroom setting without some sort of context and support,” says Allison.

Kimberly N. Parker, assistant director of Shady Hill Teacher Training Center in Cambridge, MA, says that type of support is important when teaching texts such as Huckleberry Finn.

Parker, who holds a doctorate in curriculum and instruction, spent nearly 20 years in the classroom before taking on her current role and often taught the novel, which was required.

“The problem is that we can do so much damage and harm,” says Parker. “We do harm if we don’t teach that text in ways that are antiracist, if they are not culturally sensitive, and also if that’s the only time that children have to see themselves reflected in text. I’m really convinced that we can do better.”

 

 

Curation vs. censorship

Sometimes that impetus to do better comes from parents and other members of the community.

Miranda Doyle, district librarian for the Lake Oswego (OR) School District, where she oversees 10 schools, says it’s not unusual for the district to receive informal requests to reconsider a book.

“If it’s one of our assigned curriculum books, then I think it would be worth looking at whether that’s something we want to continue to teach, whereas if it’s in the library, I would advise leaving it on the shelf as long as it’s something that is currently within the guidelines of what we have in the library,” says Doyle, who also serves as the intellectual freedom chair for the Oregon Association of School Libraries. For many librarians like Doyle, the answer is to add more contemporary books to the collection through careful curation. “Making sure when we’re promoting books, when we’re putting up displays, when we’re doing reading programs and we’re adding to the curriculum that we are choosing books that are not problematic and are, in fact, diverse and respectful and from a wide variety of authors,” says Doyle.

That’s also the approach favored by Allison, who says she worries about librarians who pull books simply because they find them personally offensive.

“That’s a slippery slope, because for some people an LGBTQ character might be offensive,” says Allison. “I firmly believe in the freedom to read statement by the American Library Association that even books that are offensive to some people need to be available to students, so from the standpoint of my librarianship and my role in the library, I’m not removing texts, but I certainly may not promote them or display them.”

She cited her decision not to display the work of Sherman Alexie last year during Native American History Month.

“I put [out] Tommy Orange,” says Allison, referring to Orange’s novel There There, about 12 Native American characters convening at the Big Oakland (CA) powwow. “I put other authors out, especially #OwnVoices authors, and try to be as inclusive as possible to have texts that are by authors from diverse perspectives, but I’m not removing Sherman Alexie’s books from my library shelves because he’s somebody that’s been implicated in the MeToo movement.”

The author of several novels including the Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian has faced allegations of sexual harassment in recent years and issued a statement in 2018 acknowledging “there are women telling the truth about my behavior.”

Still, librarians note that they’re trying to strike a delicate balance. “Trying not to censor and not to further oppression at the same time is challenging,” says Spinks.

Torres, who says she would never tell another educator not to teach a certain book, is not in favor of pulling texts from the shelves. “I believe in a child’s right to read what they want,” she says.

But, she says, it’s important to allow the canon to grow and evolve.

“I do think teachers need to work together with their students to figure out what do we value as a community, what do we want to learn about, what are we curious about?” she says. “What texts can we bring into our community that will help us grow?”


Freelance journalist Marva Hinton is a contributing editor to Edutopia and the host of the “ReadMore” podcast, an interview show that primarily features authors of color.

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