Search This Blog

Thursday, July 05, 2018

Of Awards And Changes

In the last few days there has been a lot of discussion on Twitter and elsewhere about the changed name of the former Laura Ingalls Wilder Award For children’s literature, which the  Association for Library Service To Children Board has renamed the Children’s Literature Legacy Award. This was discussed and voted on at the American Library Association conference. Check out the link for the page, which has links to the thinking behind the decision. 

It was not a decision taken lightly. This is a highly regarded author whose work has been loved by generations of kids and it’s awarded to someone whose work, published in the US, has made a “significant and lasting contribution to children’s literature.” 

But her autobiographical books, over the series, showed racist attitudes. Not just a few lines in one book, such as the one that said there were no people in that area, apart from the settlers when there were plenty of Native Americans(“Terra nullius”, anyone?), a line for which she apologised and which she rewrote in the 1950s, but over the series. 

I will admit here that I haven’t read her books. I have read a couple of the Dr Dolittle books, which are considered huge children's classics and are also racist. An African prince is shown as stupid and lazy, insulted even by Dr Dolittle’s parrot and I am fairly sure I recall the n word being used. But if there is a Hugh Lofting Award, I haven’t heard of it. If there was and it was voted to change that name, I wouldn’t object. However, I wouldn’t stop my students or family members from reading them either, and I would buy them on request. I'd like to say the attitudes in Dr Dolittle are dated, but we know that isn't true. I would certainly discuss them with my young readers if they borrowed the books, but I wouldn't prevent them. Given how multicultural my school is, a regular United Nations, there would be plenty to discuss.

I don't believe it's censorship merely to remove a name that is not considered appropriate any more for an award that affects children now and that applies to any award, not just this one. This is my opinion, it may not be yours. Yet the word has been used of the decision, along with “political correctness run amok” - you know the routine, and some even nastier things have been said on Twitter - and along with those who merely said, “What a shame, I loved those books as a child!” there were plenty more,”Lefty! PC madness, etc.” by people I’m betting haven’t read the books any more than I have, and whose profiles are downright scary. One of them popped up with "What about Huckleberry Finn?" which, yes, has been banned for being racist and using the n word, but I doubt that person had read the book either, they just wanted to make a point(not sure what it was, since the book has been banned). I have read it and as far as I'm concerned, anyone who has read it and still thinks it's racist has completely missed Mark Twain's point. And there was an actor I was following and have admired since my teens because of a character he played in a show I loved, who - well, let's just say, after one comment he made I unfollowed him and after another I muted him. I am disappointed enough in him without having him spoil my viewings of the show, which I still adore. 

The ALA, which is connected with this, does an annual list of books that have been banned or challenged and urges people to do virtual readouts on line to protest censorship. I believe that Little House On The Prairie has been banned in some classrooms, so since it’s certainly on the ALA list they will be urging you to do a readout of it! That’s the point. Nobody is telling us not to read it - this is a bunch of librarians, for heaven’s sake! It just wasn’t thought appropriate to keep the name of the award, which has been changed to something more general, which won’t have to be changed again.

I will probably go off and read at least a couple of the books now, so I won't have been expressing my opinion too much about a series I haven't read. I just wanted to argue that it's not censorship.

I'll finish off with a mention of another two name changes in Victorian electorate. There have been some name changes here recently. One of them, which has been Melbourne Ports for a very long time, is now going to be Macnamara. While I'm fond of the name Melbourne Ports - it's my own electorate - which, let's face it, is fairly accurate - I'm kind of chuffed that it will now be named for Dame Annie Jean Macnamara, one of the heroines of Potions To Pulsars: Women Doing Science. my book on women in  science. I think they're changing the boundaries again, so that may be why.

The other change is more controversial, because there are no doubt already whinges of "Political correctness gone mad/run amok, etc." The electorate was called Batman, not after Bob Kane's Dark Knight, but after John Batman, the founder of Melbourne. I remember when I was growing up, we were taught to admire him. He said, "This will be the place for a village!" and lo, here we were in a magnificent city! How wonderful!

John Batman. State Library of Victoria

I learned more about him when I was researching my children's book Crime Time: Australians Behaving Badly. For starters, he was a bounty hunter, the Boba Fett of his time. One of his captures was Matthew Brady, the "gentleman bushranger", in Tasmania, who was not very violent, had a lot of fans and was sent gifts and flowers when he was in prison. But hey, he was a bushranger and John Batman had a living to make. 

But that wasn't why the electorate name was changed. We all know already that he "bought" the site of Melbourne from the traditional owners for a few trinkets(as if the locals could sell their traditional land anyway, that's not how it works). What isn't widely known and certainly wasn't taught to us when I was in primary school was that he was involved in massacres of indigenous Australians in Tasmania. Ugh! What a creep! The new name for the electorate is Cooper, after William Cooper, an Aboriginal activist of the Yorta Yorta nation. 

Still, I guess there are a lot of famous people in history we wouldn't want to move next door to us. 

What do you think? Do you agree that sometimes you need to change names, or is it "political correctness run amok"? 


Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Sue - I spotted this 'discussion/discourse' but really didn't pay any attention - however we may think .. life goes on. Lots of oddities if we really want to nit-pic ... but they were of that age. It's good you're interacting with your kids though - Cheers Hilary

Sue Bursztynski said...

Hi Hilary! As a school librarian it’s all important to me, so I do pay attention. I don’t think it’s nit-picking, really, because a lot of kids would be hurt by it now, and something like this is probably being taught in schools as a national classic. It’s certainly true that there is a lot of it around - look at the sexual sm, classism and other isms in Enid Blyton, who is regularly rewritten in the US. But Enid Blyton’s characters don’t say,”The only good whoever is a dead whoever.” LIW’s characters do, and while you can’t go banning it all, an award in that author’s name is really not necessary.

Sarah Johnson said...

I agree with you on the Wilder award. I don't think it's censorship or "erasing history" as some are claiming - instead, it's acknowledging history and recognizing that the standards of excellence for children's books have changed from what they were in the past. I think ALSC made the right decision. It'a also better for the award to have a more general name.

I grew up reading all of LIW's novels, and while I enjoyed many aspects of them, they do have racist representations of Native Americans as well as black Americans. There are some racist illustrations, too, depicting scenes from the book, and they don't help much, either.

Sometimes you do need to change names. The change to Cooper sounds like a very good example.

AJ Blythe said...

I love the Little House on the Prairie books. I know there are lines that are now considered racist, but there are also some which offer the flip side. The thing I understood when I read the books is that I know the era from which it was written. We can't rewrite history, but we can use it to learn from for the future.

Sue Bursztynski said...

Thanks for the lovely comments, Sarah and AJ! AJ, nobody is saying you can’t read them or discuss them. It’s about the name of an award. As the recipient of two Mary Grant Bruce Awards for children’s writing, I’m cringing now, having taken a look at her books and seen her praise the work being done on an island where Indigenous Australians were kept imprisoned. They can’t change that name, because she paid for the award. I judged it one year, and I remember being told I had to give a prize to someone in Gippsland no matter how awful the entries, because it was one of the conditions of her will. :-( (There was one entry that year, truly awful, and someone in Gippsland who thinks they can write for kids...)

Catherine said...

Oh dear re: Mary Grant Bruce awards! Sometimes the grant rules are ugh. I agree with the name change. It isn't PC in itself I think - it is more to do with broadening the Wilder award. Changing things is a bandage I think - excessive changes deny history and by not denying history, we learn how awful we were in the past. You could say it is self improvement in a way!

BTW I was cheering at the Batman name change - some people do not deserve to be nationally recognised by the naming honour.

Sue Bursztynski said...

Very true! I’m not sorry to see John Batman no longer honoured.