Thursday, October 2, 2008

BB Review #2: Little Black Sambo by Helen Bannerman

That's right. #2. I'm so proud of myself.

When I was in college, I took a children's literature course. And, sorry, Professor Whose Name I've Forgotten, but all I remember about that class were 2 books: Little Black Sambo and Love You Forever. And the only reason I remember those two is that I did a presentation on them: why LBS should not have been banned and why LYF should be.

First for a re-cap of LBS.

Helen Bannerman wrote this book in 1899. She was a Scot who lived in India for 30 years. The Preface of the edition I have--dubbed as "The Only Authorized American Edition" and without a copyright page--says, "Once upon a time there was an English lady in India, where black children abound and tigers are everyday affairs . . ." Let me interrupt the author right there. Black children abound. That's the first controversial line, in my opinion, of the book. Two sentences in and we hit it. Bannerman wasn't referring to African children, to our modern-day association of black with people of African descent. She was referring to the dark-skinned Southern Indian children. Is the terminology offensive? If so, why?

And, wow, just so much could be said and speculated about at this point concerning what her own prejudices may (or may not) have been. Then we could move from that topic to that of what our own sensitivities are and/or what they should be. Is the offense in the writing or in our 21st century interpretation of the writing? Can we separate this book from its historical context, and does leaving it IN that context make the book any more acceptable? Was "Sambo" a derogatory term before the book was written or only after (opinions vary)? Does it matter? If it's derogatory and inflammatory--whether in 1899 or 2008--is this a book suitable for our children? Will they understand, believe, think it's okay to use "Sambo" when you're telling a 19th-century story but not a modern one?

I suppose we could talk animal cruelty as well. Tigers may very well have been an everyday affair, but the British pasttime of hunting Tigers for sport at that moment of history certainly has to take some credit for the fact that tigers today are an endangered species. Sure, it took another 100 years to put them on that list, but does it matter whether you kill the first 1,000 or the last 1,000? Gone is gone, regardless of the order in which they disappeared.

I enjoy the story, but I admit the controversy makes me uncomfortable.

Speaking of discomfort: my favorite book to hate, Love You Forever. Robert Munsch, it's not personal. I loved Paperback Princess and Alligator Baby and Good Families Don't. But I have to admit I would be quite happy to see LYF disappear from shelves permanently. I'm not advocating banning it or burning it, but hiding it whenever I walk into your house would be greatly appreciated.

I was at a neighbor's yard sale two weekends ago and she was selling the paperback version of this book. My first thought was, "Ew. Put it away." My second was, "Well at least she knows enough to get it out of her house."

Sure, it's a popular book and Munsch has sold more copies of it to more weeping mothers than I could ever hope to sell of anything I ever write. I stopped counting the number of times women in tears would come to the counter of my father's bookstore, several copies in their hand, and say, "Have you read this? Isn't it the sweetest book you've ever read?" No. That was always my honest answer. No.

It makes me uncomfortable. It makes me squirm. It makes me want to scream at the mother climbing the ladder into her son's bedroom AFTER HE IS GROWN AND MARRIED, "Stop! Climb back down! Go home and get some therapy! It's time to let go!" And then when her son goes to her in her old age and holds her on HIS lap? My urge to keck (look it up) is so great that I can hardly even write about it without ruining my keyboard. There's a reason I'm not repeating the popular verse from that book here. I can't. It is physically impossible for me to convince my brain to convince my fingers to punch the letters in the particular order that would land them here on this blog page.

Someone said to me, "You'll understand when you have children of your own." Well, I have four children now, 3 of them boys, all of whom I love and adore and stare at while they're sleeping. But I promise you and my husband and them that I will NOT creep them out by sneaking into their bedrooms when they're in bed with their spouses so I can cuddle with them and rock them to sleep again on my varicose-veined, support-hosed legs. I won't. And if they dare try to put me on their laps when I am too old and senile to care? Oooooh, buddy. Amityville will have nothing on the kind of haunting I'll visit on them after I die.

I'm not the only one out there who feels so strongly about this book, right? Right?

1 comment:

Shankar said...

I've never read LYF, but I'm tempted to do so now...if only because I'll have the image of an indignant you while I'm doing so.