9 Clues to Racism and Sexism in Children’s Books: a perspective from 42 years ago

Taking into account the current debate on identity politics, and in particular the climate of ‘ wokeness’ regarding racism and sexism, it is interesting to read one of the earliest texts on this subject, Racism and Sexism in Childrens’ Books( Writers’ and Reader’ Publishing Cooperative, 1979). In it Judith Stinton, who edited the book, drew up a list entitled ‘ How to Look for Racism and Sexism in Childrens’ Books: a guideline.

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These points seem to have been discussed ever since, often inducing a polarisation of views according to various agendas and prejudices. As the publisher Nicholas Parsons observed in 1985


The Central Committee of Teachers Against Racism complained that ‘black people’ are shown as greedy in Bannerman’s The Story of Little Black Sambo (1899) because Sambo eats 169 pancakes. Right-wing letters to the Times, on the other hand, produced arguments of varying implausibility liberally laced with self-righteousness, to demonstrate the impossible that : The Story of Little Black Sambo does not purvey a view of black people that is at best patronising in the extreme, and at worst unpleasantly racist.’


Who was this would-be censor? The only Judith Stinton we could find online was someone who is currently curating exhibitions on literature for museums. From her photograph she looks too young to be the person responsible for the groundbreaking booklet, but she may have produced it when in her very early twenties.


Today, Enid Blyton divides opinion. Your Jotter was brought up on The Famous Five and The Secret Seven, but these were books written in the 1940s, and reflect the mores and prejudices of the time. Today we are more tolerant. The crimes levelled at Blyton were sexism, racism, xenophobia and homophobia. The first three charges seem justifiable, but one doesn’t recall any anti-gay remarks in any of her books. The BBC refused to broadcast any of her work on the grounds that it was of poor ’literary quality’, but as David Baddiel has remarked, the books of someone who has sold 600 million copies of them worldwide could hardly be said to have lacked ‘literary quality ‘.


Taking their cue from Stinton one can find today examples of librarians removing books from their shelves because parents have found them offensive on ‘ racist, blasphemous, and violent ‘grounds. Most of these books were very popular with children, precisely because of their offensiveness. Here are some of the culprits:-


Roald Dahl, Revolting Rhymes( singled out due to coarse language).

Tintin in the Congo and Babar’s Travels( offensive stereotypes of Africans).

Terry Deary’s Rotten Rulers( glorifying violence)

Nick Arnold, Painful Poison( encouraging dangerous experiments).

David McKee’s Tusk Tusk( racist)

Jeanne Willis and Tony Ross, Flabby Cat and Slobby Dog( gave a negative message about obesity)


So when the obesity rate in the UK is going through the roof, what is the positive message about obesity ?


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