Sunday, March 7, 2010

Discussion: Children's Books That Age Well and Those That Don't

Z and I read two older chapter books recently, one from 1960 and the other from 1965, and I have been faced with the realization that some children's books age far better than others.

The book from 1960 (here if you're curious) is a Newbery Honor Book and an ALA Notable Book.  And yet, I found myself cringing in parts as I read it out loud to Z.  The racially-stereotyped language and emotions for the various characters (Chinese and Italian mostly) were so discomforting that I found myself changing words as I went along.  There were no "pronunciation" spellings but the grammar was terrible (for the "Chinaman") and the vocabulary was skewed (for the Italian mama).  I didn't want these stereotypes to be incorporated into Z's world view.  I believe they belong to a different era -- one where Mickey Rooney can put in some fake teeth, yellow his face, use bad grammar and pass as Japanese.

The book from 1965 (this one), on the other hand, didn't use any sixties slang or stereotypes.  There were only two things I had to change or explain as I read.  The first was the word "aspirin" because Z just hears name brands now.  So I just told him it was medicine like Motrin and moved on.  The second was "zwieback" -- something I haven't heard mentioned since the seventies.  I just started saying "crackers" instead because I couldn't quite remember what it was!  Besides these product references, the characters all spoke in normal ways and we had no problems getting through the story.

Sidenote: Strangely, both books refer to facial tissue as Kleenex -- which my mom (a child of the 60's) has never called anything else but Kleenex.  It took years for me to realize it was a name brand!

So, readers, what do you think?  Should all children's books remain on the shelves forever as representatives of their times?  Does an award nomination or win make a book valuable forever?  Or should some books be "retired" to archival status once their messages are far enough from what we want our children learning?

Do you have any examples of children's books that you think have aged especially well or somewhat poorly?

Finding the balance between sentiment and value,


  1. Zwieback! Of course I know what that is being in Germany. They are great to make french toast with.

    And I think any book with a lot of pop culture references isn't going to stand the test of time. Many seem dated even by the time they are published.

  2. You raise a good question--I think there are fair too many excellent childrens books to continue pushing old favorites that perpetrate stereotypes that are best buried. For example, I loved Gone With the Wind when I was a teenager--but in college, I came to understand how skewed it was and how damaging it was to take at face value. I reread it about 10 years ago, I decided that I wasn't going to encourage my kids to read it until they were able to read it as an artifact of its time.

  3. Such a good question. I imagine there are books that age well and those that don't and there are some that are timeless no matter what. I think picture books probably hold up better than chapter books though. I can't wait to explore these books with my son. Glad to hear book 2 is holding up ... we'll probably start with that then!

  4. I think the Anne books have aged well, except that everyone's white. But I think that's a problem in a lot of children's lit.

    I definitely don't think that children's books with racist viewpoints should be justified by saying 'it's just the time.' With adult books, especially classics, I sometimes have to overlook some racism (or at least acknowledge it, inwardly rant, and move on), but I'm old enough to process it. With kids, even though I don't sell them short at all, I just don't think that's what we want to be portraying, unless we have the time to have discussions about racism, both past and present.

    Like Jane, I loved Gone With the Wind as a middle schooler, and now I wince when I think about how horribly racist it is. The Klu Klux Klan is portrayed as heroic!!! Ugh. I still have it on my shelves, but I'm thinking of getting rid of it, because I blush to think how much I loved it.

  5. Lenore - Funny about the zwieback! I read that they stopped making in the states 2 years ago. And yes, pop culture references just don't work. The best stories are about life not objects.

    Jane - I agree. I was sad to do it (because I bought a nice hardcover of it based on my memories of it being a "good" book) but I put the disagreeable children's book in the "sell" pile here at home. I just don't want that story around to seep into young minds. As for a book appropriate for young adults or older, I think it's definitely a different thing because you can detach yourself and analyze something at that point. I think that's why I still keep GWTW around the house.

    Jenners - Yes, we have been through MANY picture books and only had a small handful that I cringed at for one reason or another. Children's chapter books from the past seem so much more apt to include racism and violence among children. It's disturbing!

    Eva - No, I don't think books should be justified by their times but I think they can be explained away by that ... and I mean AWAY. Kids definitely don't have the historical context to understand why some viewpoints are no longer commonly held and why we're in a better place socially now. As for GWTW, I think it can be read with the inherent racism in mind and be a valuable historical novel. I think the problem comes if readers embrace the book as an example of the "wonderful old days". There were too many things that were not wonderful about those times -- and beautiful dresses don't make up for it.

  6. I still say kleenex, but have never heard of zweiback

    My mom read Cricket in Time Square to me as a kid...probably about 20 years ago. I can't recall it especially, but I do think I remember the things about the "Chinaman".

  7. JT - I didn't remember anything about the book when I picked it up again. I think I just read it once in elementary school. I was a bit disappointed in the stereotypes but also a bit glad that it didn't stick with me!

  8. This is a very interesting point! I was reading The Mouse and the Motorcycle with my son, but he just didn't get into it! He didn't want me to finish it!! I was a little disappointed, but still holding out hope that he will go back someday!!