Sunday, February 11, 2007

When Books Fall Out of Fashion - Part 1

I was planning for a workshop recently and was packing a box of books to bring along. Since this was a workshop for PLT, I included lots of books about trees and habitats. One that I always bring along is the Caldecott Medal winner from 1957, A Tree is Nice written by Janice May Udry and illustrated by Marc Simont. It's a lovely little book that very simply describes the pleasures provided by trees. One of my co-presenters was a forestry employee who, while looking through the book, found that it contains a scene where leaves are burned. I was told immediately that this was a dated book and not appropriate to use, since leaf burning was no longer condoned.

Hmmmm . . . So here's my dilemma. Instead of merely tossing a book because it's outdated, why can't we take the opportunity to turn this into a teachable moment and explain WHY we no longer burn leaves? This isn't just about the Udry book for me. I've been thinking about these "out of fashion" books for a while. Some may view them as politically incorrect, others insensitive, and some just plain inaccurate. Take for example the The Sign of the Beaver, a 1984 Newbery honor book written by Elizabeth George Speare. When I discussed this with a few professors of children's literature about my use of it in my methods class, they suggested that this was not an appropriate work because of its poor treatment of Native Americans. They recommended the 1995 Newbery Medal winner Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech as an appropriate substitute. I stuck with The Sign of the Beaver, only because I thought there was much to be learned about the attitudes described in and portrayed by the book. In fact, the Hudson Museum at the University of Maine has a curriculum page devoted to the book where they highlight areas for discussion. They describe the derogatory use of the word squaw and caution teachers about the negative stereotypes that exist in the book.

I suppose we all have favorite books from childhood that when examined today, might not hold up to scrutiny. But the question still remains, is there no instructional value left because they don't meet current standards? Surely many have a deep affection in their hearts for the Laura Ingalls Wilder books, but they are terribly stereotypical in their portrayal of Native Americans. Should we dismiss these classics simply for this reason? I'm afraid that if we excise these books from the curriculum because they offend, we lose the opportunity to examine why such stereotypes and perspectives were/are wrong, and do little in the way of teaching our students to appreciate the diversity that every person brings to the community. And what of confronting directly the very ugly nature of much of this nation's history?

I don't have answers to these questions, but I still continue to grapple with them. Over at educating alice, you can read a post with similar thoughts, entitled Changing Communities, Changing Controversies.

*Just Added - It appears I still have much to think about. Denise Johnson at Joy of Children's Literature sent me this link to a critical review of Walk Two Moons. In further searches I found reviews critical of The Sign of the Beaver and, you guessed it, Little House on the Prairie. Once you read the review, follow the link to Little House on the Osage Prairie.


  1. Interestingly, Walk Two Moons is also "not recommended" for children. See:

  2. Hi Densie,
    Thanks for writing. I did read this review. It made me wonder what kind of review The Sign of the Beaver would get.

  3. I remember burning leaves when I was young. The scent of the smoke was so evocative of the fall season for me. I think it's a fine idea to use A TREE IS NICE to show children how we must change certain human practices as we learn about their negative effects on the environment.

    If you're looking for a good historical novel about Native Americans, I recommend Joseph Bruchac's THE WINTER PEOPLE. Bruchac, who is part Abenaki, researches his historical fiction thoroughly. This book has an extensive Author's Note. The story is set in 1759 and is based, in part, on an actual event--Captain
    Robert Rogers burning of the Abenaki village of Odanak, which was once known as St. Francis.

  4. good point, T. also, it's good to go back and make students find valuable aspects in outdated books -- in other words, it's easier to chuck a book based on a few obvious faults than it is to appreciate the perhaps more subtle good things that the author is doing, you know (for the time period)? But I guess that's more high-school-ish... (or, me in my thesis having to come to terms with George MacDonald instead of immaturely throwing him out the window for his romantic conception of femininity!)

  5. Tricia,

    There's a short Perspectives essay written by Myra Zarnowski entitled "Multicultural Literature as Curriculum" on the Children's Book Council website. Zarnowski touches on some of the same ground that you have in this post.

  6. Thanks, I'd also like to include a link to this article. in my lesson hotlist. Please let me know.

    I'm in agreement with you on recognizing that people who lived in other times spoke and thought in different ways, yet they may not have thought of themselves as being derogatory or biased.

    I explain that books that we're reading today may end up in those same category in the future...especially as it relates to the bias against the great number of sentient non-human beings.

    I'd like to include this in my hot link list. I plan to use "Paddle to the Sea". The science, economic life, and geography of these various peoples of Canada and the voyage of a drop of water.

    Hollings does use the word "Injun", yet the people who find "Paddle to the Sea" continue to send the little canoe and its indigenous occupant on its way to the "sea".

    I'll cite your blog article in the same frame of mind for teachers and parents to make their own decisions about discussing how literature differs within the context of the people of that time.

    If you're agreeable, I'd like to share the link for this blog article in my lesson hotlist intended mostly for teachers, but also for parents.

    1. Hi Sam. This post was written when my blog was very young and my opinions on this issue have changed greatly since then. I highly recommend checking out Debbie Reese's blog American Indians in Children's Literature, particularly this post: