What do you do when your kid’s book is just a little bit racist?
‘Mog and the Granny’ started off innocent enough. Mog the cat’s family went on holiday to America, so she went to stay with a granny and her cat Tibbles. Mog missed her family and reluctantly played with Tibbles. It was all pretty standard Mog stuff until the granny had a party with some other grannies.
“The granny told them about Mog’s people,” the book said. “She said, ‘They’ve been all over America and now they’re ending up at a special Red Indian show'”,
Oh shit, I thought.
The next page showed the family surrounded by people in feathered headdresses dancing around teepees.
As far as racist stuff goes, it could have been worse. It’s not like the granny said the n-word or anything. Plus this book was written over 20 years ago, when people were less aware that many American Indians find the whole feathered headdress/teepee stereotype pretty offensive. The Washington Redskins controversy wouldn’t really kick off for another 18 years, and it would be 2016 before the picture of Hillary Duff and her boyfriend dressed as sexy pilgrim and an Indian chief would cause a social media shitstorm. Still, as a socially-aware adult reading this book in 2017, the whole thing made me a bit uncomfortable.
Of course, the Popple can’t read yet, so I could have resolved the whole issue the first time I read her the book. It would have been easy to change the words to something like, “The Thomas family visited a American Indian reservation, where they learned about the tribe’s rich cultural heritage, which definitely involved way more than just feathers and teepees.” But I didn’t, and she’s practically memorised the book by now, so it’s too late to change it. Or I could have just skipped the offending pages all together, but the whole Red Indian thing is a pretty integral part of the plot.
(Yeah, this book has a plot. It hinges on Mog having a telepathic connection with Debbie, the little girl in the family. It’s a bit of a lazy plot device if you ask me, but Judith Kerr has sold millions of books, so she probably doesn’t need my writing advice.)
Could I just ditch the book all together? Yeah, but the Popple loves it. The fact that it has two cats is the real draw, not the culturally insensitive stuff. I know this because whenever we read it, she yells, “Two cats!” a lot. If she starts yelling, “Red Indians!” all the time, we’ll probably have to chuck ‘Mog and the Granny’ in the bin. But until then – or until she gets bored with it – I’ll probably continue to read it a dozen times a day.
This isn’t the first time a children’s book has given me pause. Another firm favorite, ‘Working’ by Helen Oxenbury (1981), has a picture of a baby drinking what appears to be fruit juice out of a bottle. The book has no words, so I just skim over that fact when I read the story to the Popple, saying something like, “The baby was so thirsty that he had a bottle and he drank the whole thing!”
That seems to do the trick, but part of me wonders if I should say something like, “The baby drank a big bottle of juice, because it was the 1980s and his mummy didn’t know that giving your baby juice in a bottle can cause tooth decay. She had no idea that fruit juice is pretty much pure sugar. No one cared about sugar back then. Everyone was afraid of fat. Now fat is good again, apparently. Anyway, let’s hope this baby didn’t struggle with childhood obesity because of his excessive juice drinking.”
Times change. Books don’t. Sometimes older books give us a quaint glimpse into what life was like in simpler times, and sometimes they just make us cringe and say, “Yikes. I forgot that used to be thing.”