While helping my 4-year-old son learn to read, I checked out the audiobook of J.M. Barrie’s “Peter Pan” from our library. With its legendary battles against Captain Hook and his malevolent pirates, I thought it would be perfect for my superhero-obsessed son, who loves to be the good guy.
About a quarter of the way through the book, Tinkerbell calls Peter an “ass.” I chalked the author’s unfortunate word choice in a children’s book up to how language evolves over time. Besides, my son wasn’t entirely paying attention.
I remarked, “Oooooh, Tinkerbell just said a very bad word,” and shook my head in feigned grave disappointment.
His interest was immediately re-piqued.
“Was it ‘What the help?’ ” he asked, offering up the only bad words he thinks he knows.
I shook my head. “I guess you’ll have to listen closer,” I said. “And ‘What the help’ is something only bad guys say. It’s not something you say.”
Yet when, about halfway through the book, Tiger Lily’s tribe is referred to by a racial slur, I didn’t have a quick-witted reaction, or an admonishment to listen more closely at the ready. I didn’t know what to do.
I was too taken aback to say anything, and again, my son hadn’t been really listening. I was unsure whether to call his attention to the words and give them power, or to put the conversation aside for another day — when he was older and better able to understand, even though research suggests these conversations should start when children are very young.
And it troubled me that I couldn’t easily explain the racial slur against Native Americans in “Peter Pan” as a bad word simply because a bad guy said it. It’s used repeatedly: by the narrator, the Lost Boys and by Peter himself.
I began to question whether we should finish the book.
Many classic children’s tales have been rightly reexamined as our society progresses. Laura Ingalls Wilder’s portrayals of Native Americans in her “Little House on the Prairie” series and Mark Twain’s inclusion of racial slurs in “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” are two that have generated heated controversy, and many parents have struggled with how (or whether) to read these books.
But I was caught off guard by “Peter Pan,” and in letting the words drift by, I knew I had let a teachable moment pass. I wondered, though, whether using these problematic classics to talk about the history of racism and discrimination — and what has and hasn’t changed — was the right way to teach children that sometimes, people you think of as the ‘good guys’ do or say something that is wrong.
I spoke to several experts for their thoughts.
Debbie Reese, publisher of American Indians in Children’s Literature and a tribally enrolled member of the Nambé Pueblo nation, recommends against reading problematic classics with children as a way to teach about racism.
"There are an extraordinary number of books that do not denigrate Native or People of Color or women. I have plenty of choices. So do parents. We definitely need to teach children about bias and racism and stereotyping, but doing that through a much-loved (by some) classic is not the way to go,” Reese writes in an email. “In a work of literature or storytelling, we want children to enjoy the story. Books that achieve ‘classic’ status have been enjoyed by enough people to gain that distinction. There are qualities to them that inspire warmth and joy. For a teacher or parent to stop the reading to say ‘oh this part is racist’ interrupts the warmth or joy that the child is feeling. It strikes me as cruel.”
Reese draws a distinction between using the books as a teaching tool for children about racism vs. studying the literature’s biases and problems. “Books with problematic content can be studied at some point,” Reese writes, and in fact she includes “Little House on the Prairie” in her classes and workshops.
For parents who do choose to read the problematic classics with their families, Reese advises reading critical writings about them, to create an informed space where you can talk to your child about the problems they present.
“There is a strong argument to be made for simply not reading racist books to your kids. They do damage to children, whether the child is a member of the targeted group or not. They inflict harm on young readers, and that’s no small thing,” says Philip Nel, author of “Was the Cat in the Hat Black?: The Hidden Racism of Children’s Literature, and the Need for Diverse Books.” Nel supports parents who choose not to read those books at all, though he also argues that ignoring the symptoms of racism, in the form of the literature, doesn’t cure the disease.
“You have to begin anti-racist education and anti-discrimination education as soon as you can,” he says. “Racist classics of children’s literature — read in context — can provide an opportunity for education.”
Nel also advises meeting the material head-on. “If you are going to read the problematic books, don’t read the cleaned-up version. Read the book, and talk about what’s wrong with it. Children need to learn that it’s okay to argue with a book, or even get angry at a book,” he says.
It’s also important to point out who in the story is expressing the harmful beliefs and how those statements may have affected the targeted groups.
“Tell a child that some people will argue that a book is okay because ‘that’s what they thought back then,’ ” Reese writes. “You (the parent or teacher) can ask a questions like ‘Who thought that? Did everyone think that? Did the people who were shown that way think that way about themselves?’ Having a discussion using those questions helps children learn about perspective and point of view and bias and . . . power.”
Libraries can be an excellent place to find critical responses to themes and language in classic literature, or guidance on how to present the information to your child. The Association for Library Service to Children, a division of the American Library Association, offers a guide on how to talk with young children about race and how books can be used to show positive images of different people.
Whether parents choose to read problematic classics or not, experts agree that reading diversely with children is important, particularly books that show positive representations across cultures, genders and races.
And that should include books written by a diverse group of authors. Reese, who has curated a list of best books by and about Native Americans on her site, further emphasizes the idea of #OwnVoices.
“It is the current term for the idea that someone who is of a particular group is most likely able to put forth accurate/authentic depictions of that group,” she writes. “Years ago, someone asked me if a man could write a book that did a good job of describing what it is like to give birth. I said yes. The follow up question was if I’d prefer one written by a woman who had given birth. I said yes. Is it possible for an ‘outsider’ to write a good book? Yes. Would I rather read one from an insider? Absolutely.”
We did finish “Peter Pan” — without further incident. But the next time something like this comes up in a book we are reading, or a movie we are watching, or on the street in front of us, I hope I’ve practiced and prepared myself enough to act, instead of letting the moment pass me by.