8 books I read as a kid that hurt me now
By Emma Yee
Literature teaches us how to understand the world around us. Many of these books were essential to my learning and growing as a child, and so reviewing them now is a bit of a double-edged sword. On one hand, the problematic nature of these books should definitely be explored, and not just presented to children as okay, or normal. On the other hand, these books still hold a special place in my heart, and I believe that I can both acknowledge the wrong doings while also acknowledging what I liked about these books in the first place.
1. The Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss
While Dr. Seuss is known for books that deal with issues such as war, environmentalism, and fascism, it must be acknowledged that one of his most famous characters is a strange mix of stereotypes and real people. The character of the Cat in the Hat is inspired by blackface performance and the tradition of minstrel shows, as well as actual African American people Seuss met, and racist imagery. Further, the implication of the Cat in the Hat as a black character perpetuates stereotypes of the “magical POC” who is there to guide the white protagonists without having any character development of their own. If you’re interested in the topic, check out Philip Nel’s Was the Cat in the Hat Black?: Exploring Dr. Seuss’s Racial Imagination.
2. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl
The Oompa Loompas have always absolutely terrified me. Although the racist ties have been somewhat eradicated, with current publications describing them with “golden-brown hair” and “rosy-white” skin, it cannot be ignored that the Oompa Loompas were originally a tribe of African pygmies, happy to be enslaved by Willy Wonka. This is significant, because even though the text was changed in 1985, and acknowledged by Roald Dahl, the racist origins are still prevalent in recent adaptations. The 2005 film adaptation shows Willy Wonka travelling to “Loompaland”-- a jungle where the Oompa Loompas are shown in a tribal manner: eating bugs, communicating with strange noises and actions, and praying to cocoa beans, which leads to their happy enslavement by Willy Wonka. Additionally, the actor playing the Oompa Loompas is the only person of colour in the main cast, in contrast to the very white Willy Wonka and children, further perpetuating ties to British colonialism and slavery throughout the world.
3. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
Ah, Jane Eyre...for a pretentious, romcom obsessed preteen this was definitely in the category of right up my alley. Mystery, drama, romance...if only it wasn’t quite so ableist. Spoiler alert (for a book that was written in 1847…) the titular character of Jane falls in love with the mysterious Mr. Rochester. He proposes marriage to her, but during the wedding ceremony it is revealed that Mr. Rochester is already married. Is this really the man we’re supposed to be rooting for? Anyways, Mr. Rochester’s wife is done a great disservice by the text. She is described as descending into congenital madness, or having a birth defect out of her control that affects her mentally. However, instead of some sympathy for this character, she is treated like a villain and an obstacle. Mr. Rochester says that his father tricked him into marrying her for money, and locks her away in the attic with only a nurse to look after her. Her ending is one that continues to simply regard her as a dangerous, insane, problem, as she meets her unfair end by setting fire to the house and committing suicide. All in all, this provides a very prejudiced and cruel view of mental illness, particularly pertaining to women.
4. Gone With The Wind by Margaret Mitchell
For this one, I’m going to talk about both the film adaptation and the original novel together, as the film doesn’t really deviate from the book. Beautiful hoop-skirts, Southern belle romances...and the romanticization of the Old South and plantations. In addition to romanticization of a time period where slavery was very much prevalent and served to benefit the wealthy white protagonists of the story, the portrayal of those slaves is also dangerous. The “mammy” stereotype: a black woman who takes care of white children and seems content and docile with continuing to be a slave, is one that is prevalent throughout films and literature of this era. This character also acts only to support the white protagonists. Gone With The Wind takes this literally, with a character who is exactly this stereotype, and known only as “Mammy”. Additionally, Hattie McDaniel, who played “Mammy” in the film, became the first African American to win an Oscar, despite being seated at a segregated table at the Oscars, and being unable to attend the whites-only premiere in Atlanta, and the whites-only Oscars afterparty.
5. The Help by Kathryn Stockett
White people’s favourite African American movie...again this one will be looking at both the film and original novel together. Although this text attempts to speak out against the mistreatment of African American maids by their white employers, stereotype and framing still act to discredit this effort. Many of the black women in this film are once again, some version of the mammy stereotype, endlessly caring about the white children that they care for as if they are their own, and happy to continue serving that role. Additionally, this text reads like a white saviour trope, which is when a white character rescues non-white characters in some sort of inspirational way. While this seems like allyship, a lot of the time it just pats the white protagonist on the back for being a decent human being while writing out the POC voices actually involved in the conflict or issue. In the story, publishing The Help is not primarily thought of by the maids, but instead by the wealthy, white, Skeeter, who seeks to attempt to empower the maids through writing, although it could be dangerous for the maids who do not have the same privilege that Skeeter does.
6. A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett
British culture around this time period had a strange relationship with colonialism. This is visible right from the onset of the book, with Sara moving away from India to England, because India is too hot for British children, a statement that cements the idea of India as dangerous. Additionally, it is clear that Sara’s father makes his money from the British colonialism of India. All of the POC characters in the story also act solely as support for the white protagonist of Sara. There’s her Indian “amma,” who tells her magical stories and is an example of the “magical POC” stereotype, who comes to the aid of a white protagonist. This stereotype is further perpetuated by the Indian character Ram Dass, who comes to the aid of two different white characters. He is the assistant to Mr. Carrisford, and magically aids Sara, transforming her bare room with gifts of luxury and food. Also, the only black character is Becky, the maid of the boarding school who Sara becomes a bit of a white saviour to, as the only one who treats her with any sort of kindness, finally rescuing her from the boarding school to come live with her and...happily be her personal maid? Yikes.
7. Little House on the Prairie (series) by Laura Ingalls Wilder
This book series, as well as the television show that accompanied it was a staple in my childhood. Additionally, the fact that the series is semi-autobiographical makes it feel difficult, as it isn’t simply critiquing fiction, but someone’s memories and experiences. Instead, could the problematic treatment of Indigenous peoples be seen as a child’s introduction to American colonialism? Maybe. Although it seems that the “Pa” character is somewhat sympathetic to “Indians” (Native Americans), even trading with them, he still believes that they should move on, and the land now belongs to the white Americans settling there. In the titular third book, the family is settling on Osage land, and believes that they will get their pick of Osage Native American land, and that the Natives will be forced to move west. Pa’s colonialist ideology is never questioned, and simply taken as an explanation to our child point of view character. It is also clear that Natives are never seen as as valid as white Americans, especially with the line “The only good Indian is a dead Indian.” The problems in this series provide insight to the time period, but should be re-examined and reframed if it is going to continue to be read by children.
8. The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
I really don’t want to continue to rag on Frances Hodgson Burnett books, and I definitely enjoyed them as a kid, but since I did call out Laura Ingalls Wilder’s entire series I think going through two books by Burnett is fine. What is it about this time period and British children being sent from India to England because India is bad for your health? Anyways, for this one I’m actually going to talk about ableism. In The Secret Garden, Colin is a sickly boy who has spinal issues and requires a wheelchair. However, when he enters the garden, and is called a cripple, out of spite and the power of the garden (I know it sounds ridiculous and I also understand that it’s a metaphor for Mary and Colin’s emotional growth but it’s still ridiculous) he stands and realizes he has control of his legs. Yep, that’s right, going outside allows Colin’s spinal issues to disappear and he can walk. It perpetuates the trope that the only happy ending for disabled people is to be cured, which isn’t reality, and is quite disappointing. It makes a disability into a problem that needs to be solved, possibly a disability that’s only in that person’s head.
So, big surprise, old (and some not so old) literature is absolutely terrible at not being racist, ableist, and sexist. What do we do with that? Do we ruminate on the guilt and shame we feel for loving these books? I don’t think so. I think that these books can continue to exist in the children’s literary canon, as long as they’re properly contextualized and analyzed. That’s not to say that new literature that doesn’t have all of these problems shouldn’t also be explored, but I believe there’s room for both. We simply need to recognize what was wrong with what we’ve read and identified with, and why.