Innocence Lost in the Children's Library
By Robert Schroeder
Okay, maybe one can't tell a good book by its cover. But the cover is a pretty good place to start when checking for racist or sexist overtones in children's stories, says National Louis University's Toby Rajput.
Rajput's article, "Questioning Your Collection," is a guide for teachers and school librarians to examine their collections for books and stories that often implicitly advance stereotypical storylines. Even the most well-meaning parent of teacher may find a cherished book from their own childhood fails to pass the smell test today, Rajput said.
"There's a book called 'The Five Chinese Brothers,' written in 1938 and on the shelves in Chicago Public Schools and in the NLU Library," said Rajput, assistant professor in the University Library. "As I was looking through books at home to start this article, my son, who is now an adult, saw 'The Five Chinese Brothers' on the table and said, 'Oh, I love that book!'
"When I told him I'm looking at books that have racist images, he took one look at the cover and he immediately understood."
That's because the book's cover features five identical Chinese figures with yellow skin and pigtails. For children enrolled in non-diverse schools, Rajput says, stereotypical images of outsiders can become reality.
Rajput's article expands upon the Council on Interracial Books for Children's "10 Quick Ways to Analyze Children's Books for Racism and Sexism." The ten steps include:
-Check the illustrations
-Check the storyline
-Look at the lifestyles
-Weigh the relationships between people
-Note the heroes
-Consider the effect on a child's self image
-Consider the author or illustrator's background
-Check out the author's perspective
-Watch for loaded words
-Look at the copyright date.
Rajput recommends a technique she dubs "reading against the grain," meaning looking at a text and asking questions about the text. Noting whose voices are represented in the text, contrasted with voices that are not supported, provides context of the author's direction and intent. Noting that librarians are wont to censor books, Rajput says this critical reading technique can be a valuable tool to empower student readers. Rather than viewing stereotypical books as a negative, Rajput says educators should frame the texts as an opportunity.
"Maybe this is a book I don't want to give my kids, but what is our responsibility as teachers and librarians to have books to balance those stereotypes," Rajput said. "I think it absolutely needs to be a part of reading curriculum, and not just about images in books, but the whole idea of evaluating information and questioning the messages we are getting."
The issue of what books should or should not be included in a school library has been a prototypical American debate issue for decades. Rajput notes that parents often show heightened sensitivity to texts their children are exposed to in school, while freely exposing their children to many of the same controversial messages in video games and movies. Regardless, the demands of the public are a very real and sensible concern in the public school environment, meaning the burden of culling and cultivating collections falls onto the shoulders of teachers, a group Rajput says is often ill-equipped to handle the task.
"I think teachers don't have the time or maybe the experience, energy or money to make such careful selections," Rajput said. "It's my recommendation they work with their librarians, who are professionally trained to make these kinds of selections."
Rajput stresses not to judge a book with fear; her perspective is to use every book as a learning opportunity. The school library may seem like an innocuous setting, but the critical thinking skills children can learn through balanced exposure to literature can be a key part of cognitive development.
"It's critical that children learn to look at the messages they are getting and understand there are messages there not to absorb if they don't agree with them," Rajput said. "If we do this, we never need to be afraid of any of the books on our shelves."