Story time is a treasured ritual at our house. Not only is it a chance for me to find out what my kids are interested in, but it’s also a time when I share my old favorites. Even though my son is a proficient reader, we still enjoy family reading at bedtime. I’m eager to re-read the books I read at his age and to experience my children’s reactions to the stories and characters.
On our trips to the library, while my children choose their books, I scan the shelves looking for forgotten books from my childhood. Even when I don’t remember details, just looking at an illustration on a cover brings back floods of memories from times when I cozied up on the couch and lost myself in novels. I recently re-discovered Mary Stolz’ Cat in the Mirror and was instantly transported back to a day when I was nine and home sick with a sore throat. I remembered the shiny red nightgown I wore, the cherry cough drops I consumed one after the other, and the Nutterbutter cookies my mother brought me as a treat. But I couldn’t remember very many details about the book.
If the books from my childhood invoke strong memories in me, it’s no wonder my parents were also eager to pass on their favorites when I was a kid. My mother saved many of her old books, and my favorites were a series of biographies published by Bobbs Merrill: Clara Barton, Girl Nurse; Louisa May Alcott, Girl of Old Boston; and Harriet Beecher Stowe, Connecticut Girl. I also remember my father’s excitement the day I brought home an old copy of The Water Babies from the library. I’d chosen the book because it looked old and had beautiful color plates. Unfortunately, I found it so boring I couldn’t get through it, but I kept trying because my dad remembered it so fondly. He was also enthusiastic about Hugh Lofting’s Dr. Dolittle books, and he bought me a new Dr. Dolittle Penguin paperback every time we went to the store. But again, I remember very little about the Dr. Dolittle books, except that I enjoyed them.
So when I recently unpacked a box full of books from my childhood, I was happy to find my old Dr. Dolittle books. Just as my father did with me thirty-five years ago, I excitedly told my children about the books and suggested we start reading them together. I had a vague recollection of a discussion a few years ago about racist language in the Dr. Dolittle books, but I was sure that if I’d read anything too terrible I’d remember it. A few chapters into the first book, The Story of Dr. Dolittle, my children had become excited about the characters and laughed at the antics of Dab-Dab the duck and Gub-Gub the pig. Now, I’ve done a fair bit of on-the-fly editing with my kids over the years when I read aloud, and I could get away with it until my son learned to read over my shoulder. Mostly, I just re-worded scary bits or glossed over sad parts so that my kids wouldn’t have trouble sleeping. But I was shocked to come across huge sections of the Dr. Dolittle book that I couldn’t just skip over or edit my way through. The illustrations, language, plot, and attitudes towards the African people Dr. Dolittle encounters were so horribly racist that I had to stop and talk with the children about what we were reading. I felt betrayed and ashamed that I didn’t remember these sections. All the warm, fuzzy feelings I had about these books my father and I both loved fizzled. My copy of the book was worn — I’d clearly read it. How could I have forgotten these parts?
We decided to continue reading the books, stopping to talk every time I read something offensive. Although I showed my son the full text, I didn’t want to read every word. I don’t think my five-year-old daughter is ready to hear all of the language, but I discussed the general concepts with her. Her understanding is simple: it’s not nice to make fun of people because of their skin color or because they come from another country. She was able to identify sections as “not nice” before I stopped to discuss them with her, and she was baffled why one of the characters would want to change his skin color from brown to white. Yet both kids said they were enjoying the books and wanted to continue reading. I asked my son if he thought we were wrong to read the books, but he didn’t think so.
I don’t like the idea of censorship or banning books, and I’m glad there are a couple of Dr. Dolittle books at our local library. But what if my son had picked up the books to read on his own, just as I did following my dad’s recommendation. Does an eight-year-old have the maturity to know that not everything he reads has been carefully screened? Given our discussions around Dr. Dolittle I think my son, and even my daughter to some extent, do understand they can’t trust everything they read. I guess that’s why Dr. Dolittle is still on our reading list for now, to give my kids a sense that books’ messages and authors’ intentions can be complicated. We can still enjoy the fun parts of the story, but we have to have our eyes open and not be taken in by all we read. And if I censor and restrict my children’s reading too heavily we might be left with some of the insipid, conflict-free, mass-produced stories that seem to predominate school book fairs these days. But even if I don’t censor, I might make a point of previewing the next book I recommend. Does anyone remember anything offensive in Anne of Green Gables?