Historical Racism in Children’s Books–What do we do?

The website Reading While White dedicates itself to issues involving the dreaded “-isms” in children’s literature: racism, anti-Semitism, ableism, classism, sexism, and more.  A post called “Alongside, Not Despite: Talking about Race and Settler Colonialism in a Children’s Literature Graduate Course,” suggests to me another –ism they might want to take a look at:


That is, “uncritical adherence to present-day attitudes, especially the tendency to interpret past events in terms of modern values and concepts.”

The post describes an elective graduate course where students (mostly White women) express discomfort with rereading the classics of their childhood and coming across statements they glossed over uncritically when they were kids.  What to think about the way Indians are spoken of by upstanding settlers in the “Little House” books?  Or recognizing the protagonist of Maniac McGee as a “White savior” figure?  Or seeing indigenous people casually smeared as “cannibals” in Pippi Longstocking?  Is it enough to say we love these books in spite of their assumed racism?

The writer suggests the White students might think about that question another way: substitute “alongside” for “in spite of,” and rather than racism, propose another marginal group to which they may belong: “I love this book alongside its misogyny, its anti-Semitism, its Islamophobia, its homophobia . . .”

Okay, I’ll try it: I love The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn alongside its anti-Christian bias.

Does that change the way I feel about the book?  Not really.  I acknowledge that Huckleberry Finn, in its celebration of the natural man and his autonomy, and in its negative portraits of upstanding “Christian” citizens, is deeply anti-biblical—and it’s also a great book that I still enjoy reading.  Besides enjoyment, I’ve gained valuable insights from it about human nature and 19th century America.  Here’s another: I love The Once and Future King alongside its misogyny.  The author didn’t have much use for women (or people in general, actually); none of his female characters are especially sympathetic.  But the book still opened my eyes to characterization and the deep conflicts within us all.

Pa performs in a minstrel show during “The Madcap Days,” Little Town on the Prairie–is this a problem?

That doesn’t mean that expressions of racism in classic literature aren’t cringe-worthy or immune to criticism.  A few decades ago our family watched Holiday Inn, a classic feel-good movie from the 1950s.  It was great fun, until Lincoln’s birthday, which Bing Crosby celebrated by singing about emancipation—in blackface.  The segment was actually meant to be sympathetic, but we all felt like taking bathroom breaks at that point.

Thankfully, most Americans are beyond finding humor in cultural degradation (at least I hope they are).  That is at least partly due to shame about that part of our past.  Still, I’m wondering if racial and cultural sensitivity can end up working against itself.  It can certainly work against literature.

When the discussion of a book circles around its offensiveness, the book becomes an offender rather than a depiction of lives in context.  That’s what literature is supposed to be: a window into other places and times, hearts and minds.  Focusing on offensiveness also puts us in a moral bind: what to do?  Censor out all the disturbing material?  Censor the book?  And if censorship became the recommended practice, wouldn’t that mean locking ourselves into the present?  Even the most liberal-minded, forward-looking, admirable figures of the past held some attitudes we would deem offensive.  That doesn’t mean we can’t learn from them.

When evaluating classic literature, and history itself for that matter, there are a few things we should keep in mind:

  • People are people, in real life and in great literature.  We shouldn’t make a fictional character stand for an entire history of racial injustice, and a single story can’t reflect everything we’d like to say about a social issue .  Race, or racism, is one element of personality.  In some cases it’s the dominant one, but we’re all complex individuals with complex lives mixing happiness and misery.
  • Every age has its virtues and vices, and acquiring new virtues (and vices) often means letting go of others.  Without question, our white-settler forebears held racist attitudes and were often callous or cruel in their treatment of other cultures.  They were also courageous, resourceful, uncomplaining, determined, and ultimately successful in laying the foundations of a society where their great-great-great-grandchildren could sit in air-conditioned classrooms and denounce them.  We can criticize, but we also owe them.  A lot.
  • When comparing our age to the past, we very seldom give due consideration to our huge technological advantage.  For an entire population to live relatively free of hunger, hard labor, extreme temperatures, discomfort, and the continual threat of fatal disease, has only been a feature of the last eighty or so years.  We have no idea what it might be like to live at the mercy of nature, with little leisure time to explore the world beyond your own few acres of it.  Constant necessity keeps noses to grindstones and feet in familiar ruts.  There’s little time for thinking outside the box because it’s all you can do to survive within the box.  Every time- or muscle-saving innovation provided a little more leisure for thought and reflection as modern society gradually climbed out of subsistence mode.  (And we can’t overlook the importance of mass communication, too.)  That doesn’t mean that our ancestors never enjoyed life or had meaningful discussions, only that enlightenment comes once the blinders of necessity begin to open up.

We can be critical without being judgmental, and we can appreciate the virtues of the colonialist, racist, Ingalls family (and others like them) without condoning their vices.   We can do better than that, even—we can love those books for the windows they open to an experience that’s now totally alien to us.

But maybe that’s easy for me to say because I’m white.  What about the Black, Hispanic, or Asian reader who is slapped in the face by dehumanizing stereotypes encountered in classic literature?  I’m still thinking about that one—come back next week.

P.S.: The presentation of slavery is a big issue in children’s books published today, too; see “Tempest in a Mixing Bowl” and “One Sad Birthday.”

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Janie is the VERY senior staff writer for Redeemed Reader, as well as a long-time contributor to WORLD Magazine and an author of nine books for children. The rest of the time she's long-distance smooching on her four grandchildren (not an easy task). She lives with her equally senior husband of almost-fifty years in the Ozarks of Missouri.


  1. Alyssa on May 10, 2017 at 2:30 pm

    I have to admit, I am having difficulty reading the Little House series with my daughter due to the same issues you mentioned. I am Native American and Hispanic, so it is important to me to make it clear that there was racism against the Native Americans in these books that still resonates today, but also to find the redeeming qualities in this classic series. It’s tricky.

    • Betsy on May 11, 2017 at 3:09 pm

      Alyssa, thanks for your comment! It IS tricky to find the balance between appreciating literary excellence in some areas while pointing out issues (such as racism) that stand out to us today. One of the ways I approach this with my own children is to note the instances as they come up (sometimes, just a casual, “remember, we don’t talk about people in this way” suffices, and other times, we spend more time discussing the issues in more depth). But I also try to provide a nicely varied reading diet. My daughter read The Birchbark House this past year–it’s a good complement to the Little House books because it’s set in the same general time period, but from the perspective of a Native American girl instead of a white girl. In that book, instead of racism issues, we talked about the religious beliefs. We want to set a good example of reading all literature discerningly (classic OR contemporary) and discussing the good/bad aspects of everything we read instead of reading something uncritically just because it’s on all the “best of…” lists.

    • Janie on May 11, 2017 at 4:36 pm

      Thanks for chiming in! I would love to hear your perspective about how to discuss these issues with your children. I’ll be back next week with a follow-up article on practical tips, so if you have any ideas, please email me or reply in the comments.

  2. Katie on November 1, 2017 at 9:40 am

    I have to say I disagree that Huck Finn is anti-Christian. Huck is highlighting the hypocrisy of Christian support for slavery by saying “All right then, I’ll go to hell” but also demonstrating a true Christian love of neighbor by his love for Jim. All in all, I’d say Huck has an anti-hypocrisy bias not an anti-Christian one.

    • Janie on November 3, 2017 at 7:23 am

      Katie–you’re absolutely correct that Huck calls out the hypocrisy of the prevailing Christian culture, but I think he’s doing the right thing for the wrong reason. He has no frame of reference for protecting Jim except his own warm feelings for the man, but elsewhere he lies with impunity as though shaping reality to conform to his own needs and wants. He has plenty of reason to, given his low-down father and his simpering guardian, and he’s right to reject Tom Sawyer’s brand of reality-forging. But at the end Huck rejects all conscience but his own, as he “lights out for the territories.” I agree that his love for Jim is genuine, sacrificial, and much more “christian” than he realizes, but he removes himself from its source, and that can’t end well.

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