Sunday, March 21, 2021

Sharing Our Stories: Reading books and addressing racism in the stories and real life

How to Read Books from Different Eras
A guest post by Roseanna M. White

As a writer, I believe in the power of story. But before I was a writer, I was a reader who loved nothing more than being taken to a different time or place through the pages of a book. Books are powerful things—they have an amazing ability to create empathy in the heart of the reader, helping us to see things from new perspectives. Throughout history, books have moved culture and helped create change that we still see the effects of today.

Here’s the thing though—even books that were cutting edge for their time, that changed the world, are going to appear dated or even awful when we read them today. Why? Because the change has already happened. We’ve progressed, society as a whole has come to conclusions and taught those conclusions to the next generations. These are things that may not have happened if not for particular books…but the growth continued.

This is as it should be. But sometimes readers pick up a book written 20, 50, 80, 100+ years ago, and instead of seeing how this moved the culture, we simple gasp and are horrified. Sometimes people cry out against these books. Or sometimes they do the opposite—they say that because this book was world-changing, nothing within it could possibly be objectionable.

But how should we be reading these titles?

I believe this is a question worth asking. But more, we also have to judge not only the words on the page, but the intention of the writer. Mark Twain, for example, is famous for writing satirical passages that show the reader one thing, and then state another through the eyes of the main character, in such a way that the reader has little choice but to recognize the racism so common to a time period. I’m thinking specifically of the end of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, where Huck recognizes within Jim something far more than what he was taught a Black man should have. He doesn’t know how to reconcile his experience with what had been hammered into his head—but his struggle to do that invites the reader to examine his or her own biases and question what we’ve been taught. On the other hand, there are books like those written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in a similar time period, in England rather than America, where the narrator simply assumes that people with darker complexions must have darker hearts—an assumption never challenged within the pages. Ugliness equates with evil in these literary pages too.

Readers today obviously know this isn’t so—but we also choose not to toss out the entirety of Conan Doyle’s works, because we recognize good things within them too. This, my friends, is the beauty of the human mind and the beauty of literature. We can evaluate. We can argue. We can defend. We don’t need to censor—because we can think for ourselves and decide what is right and what is wrong. I’d argue that, in fact, we should and must do this with every book.

We stand on the shoulders of those who came before. I believe it’s critical to understand what that means, what they believed, where they were right, and where they were wrong. This is how we grow, and how our understanding grows with us.

But there are exceptions, and those exceptions are for when the reader does not have the ability to discern and judge for themselves. I’m speaking especially of children and children’s literature. I homeschool my kids, and we read primarily classics that have won Newbury Awards throughout the years. Stellar literature, to be sure—but even in these pages one can see evidence of prejudice, stereotyping, and racism. A fine example is Caddie Woodlawn by Carol Ryrie Brink. 

It’s a wonderful book, and it’s a book in which the title character actually goes out of her way and risks her life to protect the American Indians in her area. She’s battling the assumptions of her entire family and settlement in that moment—this is worth reading about. Even so, the author chooses phrases that we today would never choose. She makes assumptions about the nature of the indigenous people that we shake our head over. Should we still read this? Yes…if. If we also engage our kids in conversations about it. If we talk about the beliefs of the time and how we’ve grown. If we show how loving, fair-minded Caddie still had room for growth, and how we do today too.

Then there are books aimed at kids too young to even participate in a conversation like that—picture books. Picture books are, in my opinion, a category all their own when it comes to what care we should take. Because these are the books that shape our worldview and show our kids visually what is normal, what is acceptable, what is fun, what is serious. The images in those pages are going to help form their minds, one way or another. And those minds aren’t capable of reason yet. You can’t show your kids racist images on the page and then just say, “But…” and explain it away.

A great example of this is with Dr. Seuss’s books—a major hot topic conversation as of the writing of this. Dr. Seuss was a pretty amazing man. He was writing political cartoons that called for racial equality even before WW2, at a time when it was far from fashionable or accepted to do so. Even so, he gave in to fear when Pearl Harbor was bombed and drew cartoons impugning Japanese Americans…which he came to regret. After the war, he traveled to Japan, made friends, and wrote Horton Hears a Who as a result of his journey. His ideas, like all of our ideas, grew and changed over the course of his life. He came to new understandings as the years went by. And he is quoted by his relatives as deeply regretting the work he did that was racist in his earlier days. So it’s not surprising that the foundation that runs his estate conducted a study in 2019 to evaluate each of his books. They came to the conclusion that six of his sixty works contained offensive imagery or language. So after much consideration, they announced in March 2021 that they were pulling those six books from publication.

The media on both sides went crazy. You probably saw some of the fallout. Each side began looking for a villain to blame. Some people wanted to censor all Seuss. Other people wanted to go buy every Seuss book they could get their hands on and accused the left of “banning” Seuss when it was really his estate that made the call. But it seems to me both sides were missing the point—that the estate recognized, as Seuss did himself, that each work, each image matters. They made a decision to keep in print only those titles that wouldn’t risk teaching young children that one person is worth any less than another—a lesson many of Seuss’s stories teach so beautifully. They did what we all do when we’re reading for ourselves, and what we as parents or grandparents must do when reading to our kids: they asked questions, they evaluated, they used their discernment, and they made a judgment call.

Too often we get so entrenched in our ideas that we either throw out the good with the bad, or refuse to entertain the notion that there could be any bad in what we’ve called good. But nothing in life or in literature is so simple. And so, I invite you to read widely…but also to read deeply. 

Read with a willingness to learn but also to question. Read knowing that your perspective comes from standing on the shoulders of those who came before, those who wrote before…and know that your journey isn’t over, and neither is literature’s.

Keep reading. Keep talking about what you read. And keep encouraging others to evaluate the words and pictures in the pages thoughtfully. Let’s not just read and judge—let’s engage.

Author Bio:

Roseanna M. White is a bestselling, Christy Award nominated author who has long claimed that words are the air she breathes.

When not writing fiction, she’s homeschooling her two kids, editing for WhiteFire Publishing, designing book covers, and pretending her house will clean itself.

Roseanna is the author of a slew of historical novels that span several continents and thousands of years. Spies and war and mayhem always seem to find their way into her books … to offset her real life, which is blessedly ordinary.

You can learn more about her and her stories at

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