How does a piece of literature become a “classic?” How is the “very best” of any culture determined, and, by whom? Is there a checklist? Who creates that checklist? What values are inherently connected with any kind of “best” lists? And what is “quality?”
The story of American and Western literature is a story about historical absence, invisibility or marginalization for women, LGBTQ individuals, and people of color. This is also the case with children’s literature and no better demonstrated than in the piece posted by one of the most liberal political and social U.S. news venues. Amanda Scherker’s February 2014 “9 Life Lessons Everyone Can Learn From These Beloved Classic Children’s Books” (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/02/03/lessons-childrens-books_n_4690258.html) teaches its own lesson about invisibility relative to authors and characters of color. Scherker offers her list to show how children’s books give “us” valuable lessons about living and life: “Some of our most cherished storybook characters are so real and palpable in our memory that it feels as if we were introduced to them yesterday. Beyond being gloriously entertaining though, the very best children’s books also helped us understand the world around us. Over the years, they shaped our imaginations, our aspirations and our sense of right and wrong” (my emphasis added). Hers is a valuable exercise, identifying a few of Scherker’s favorite books. However, her strategy of identifying the books is random, lumping together these picture books and young adult fiction: Maurice Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are,” Dr. Seuss’ “Horton Hears A Who!,” Judith Viorst’s “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day,” Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s “The Little Prince,” Lois Lowry’s “The Giver,” E.B. White’s “Charlotte’s Web,” Frances Hodgson’s “The Secret Garden,” Roald Dahl’s “Matilda,” and Norton Juster’s “The Phantom Tollbooth.” There’s nothing inherently “wrong” with this list, and undoubtedly each person is likely to have a different list for a number of reasons; however, the sense that this is some kind of “universal” list with which all can or should identify is indeed problematic.
Additionally, four of the six illustrations of humans that accompany the piece and represent the stories she celebrates are white characters. The other two illustrations are of animals or imaginative non-humans. While these books may be “classics,” they are not without problems when it comes to messages of inclusivity and when those offering these as “the best that ‘our’ culture has to offer” uphold white privilege and clearly value some messages, representations, and “life lessons” over others. With Scherker’s commentary receiving 33,000 Facebook “Likes,” 9,354 Facebook “Shares,” 940 Tweets, and 512 forwarded emails at this writing, clearly folks agree with this listing of these “beloved library books.” Scherker concludes: “It’s impossible to underplay the importance of the lessons they taught us, helping shape our morality, our passions and our sense of the world around us.”
Aside from trying to figure out who the “our,” “us,” and “everyone” are in Scherker’s piece — language that itself excludes, assumes, and presumes — examining multiple and more diverse texts that offer life lessons across cultures would be more useful commentary. Instead, Scherker relies on lessons that are alleged “universals” in a real world where there probably are no real universals. In her view, these mystical lessons transcend difference, but she is short-sighted not to consider other kinds of life lessons that other children had to learn. Even those popular children’s books that presented characters of color negatively — Helen Bannerman’s “Little Black Sambo” (1899), Sara Cone Bryant’s “Epaminondas and His Auntie” (1907), or E.W. Kemble’s “The Coon Alphabet” (1898) — teach important lessons that are less than flattering to brown children. Such problematic texts teach lessons about unattractive brown bodies, abused brown bodies for entertainment, and lessons about the silliness of black children’s behaviors. Cannot valuable life lessons be derived from Mary Hoffman’s “Amazing Grace” (1991), where a little African American girl challenges the notion that she cannot play Peter Pan in her elementary school play because she’s black and female? Might The Brownies’ Book, a magazine for children published monthly for two years (January 1920-December 1921) with contributions by famed adult authors Jessie Redmon Fauset, Langston Hughes, and WEB DuBois, be added to this list of classics because of the important life lessons they impart for children across multiple cultures? At a moment when U.S. Americans are still addressing the reality pointed out by Ellen Creager in the 1990s that “Children of Color are Minor Characters in the Book World” 1990s — that “traditional Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys and Laura Ingalls Wilder books are all white. But new series books are just as segregated: ‘The Baby-sitters Club,’ ‘Sweet Valley High,’ ‘Choose Your Own Adventure,’ ‘Aiden All Stars,’ and ‘The Saddle Club.’” The 1930s through 1970s early reader world of “Father,” “Mother,” “Dick and Jane” that shaped the culture of alphabet literacy in the U.S. was not racially or ethnically integrated until the 1970s when Pam and her family moved into that world, and that brown assimilationist family was “just like Dick and Jane’s family.” Yet this world taught us not only how to make sense of letters put together on a page, readers also received implicit and explicit lessons about family, about gender relations, about race, about sexual identity, and about class.
Why are “we” so continually and so deliberately drawn to “classics” that perpetuate invisibility and marginalization? If “we” are to construct lists like Scherker’s, why not create multiple lists that represent multiple cultural experiences rather than assuming that “our” lives match experiences across the board? They do not. In fact, let us not assume that there is anything that “everyone” learns as lessons Scherker puts forth as absolutes. Perhaps we might include Bill Cosby’s “Little Bill” series, which offers life lessons but are more inclusive in character representations, the HBO “Happily Ever After; Fairy Tales for Every Child” series, Toni Morrison’s “The Book of Mean People,” about dealing with everyday meanness and mean people constructively and imaginatively to keep our spirits intact, Carolivia Herron’s “Nappy Hair,” about self-acceptance when the world tells us that we are not OK as we are, and any children’s books by poets Maya Angelo and Nikki Giovanni. Indeed, let’s expand our efforts to include these recommendations: http://ccbc.education.wisc.edu/books/detailListBooks.asp?idBookLists=42 up to age 12, and http://ccbc.education.wisc.edu/books/detailListBooks.asp?idBookLists=253 for young adults.
To be clear, I am not in the least suggesting that readers across cultures can only connect with stories about them and their experiences. Humans have the capacity to empathize, to imagine, and to understand experiences that are not always our lived experience; that’s the human factor. Nevertheless, with highly popular lists of “best,” “greatest,” “sexiest,” and “most beautiful,” critical observers will be challenged to explore the who, why, and the how of these assessments and proclamations. Alleged “universals” are colorized as “whiteness,” and “whiteness is, for most, the presumed and often unquestioned norm of experience, of language, of beauty and of excellence. Good stories resonate when readers invest of themselves in the process of reading and experiencing. Nevertheless, allegedly “great stories” continue to center some while making others invisible or marginal.
• Neal A. Lester, PhD, is a foundation professor of English and director of Project Humanities at Arizona State University.