Diversity in Libraries
A blog for exploring and discussing the topics of diversity and multiculturalism in libraries.

Do books that promote stereotypes belong in libraries?

By Margaret Rainwater

In her article on “Questioning Your Collection,” Toby Rajput discusses The Council on Interracial Books for Children’s (CIBC) “10 Quick Ways to Analyze Children’s Books for Racism and Sexism” originally published in 1974 and offers a set of questions for school media specialists and youth librarians to consider when evaluating their collections. The CIBC’s recommendations are listed below.

10 Quick Ways to Analyze Children’s Books for Racism and Sexism

1. Check the illustrations.
2. Check the storyline.
3. Look at the lifestyles.
4. Weigh the relationships between people.
5. Note the heroes.
6. Consider the effect on a child’s self image.
7. Consider the author or illustrator’s background.
8. Check out the author’s perspective.
9. Watch for loaded words.
10. Look at the copyright date.

Recently, for a children’s literature class I am taking, my professor assigned two book reviews on children’s books with stereotypes using the CIBC recommendations as a guide. This turned out to be quite a difficult task. When I asked the youth librarians at my library for some recommendations of stereotypical books, they told me that they had already removed many of the blatantly stereotypical books from their shelves. (In particular, I was looking for a controversial book called The Story of Little Black Sambo by Helen Bannerman.) To find this book and other ones containing stereotypes I had to go another larger library and even then the librarians had a hard time coming up with titles for me.

The Story of Little Black Sambo

I have since learned that stereotypes exist in all books to some degree. Take for instance the stereotypes of women wearing an apron or of female librarians with reading glasses. These stereotypes may not warrant pulling a book off the shelves, but what about The Story of Little Black Sambo, which has been called racist due its portrayal of Africans?

I would argue that they do belong in libraries both school and public for two reasons. First, these books have historical significance and are useful in looking at how children’s books have evolved over the years. Second, despite the stereotypical nature of a book, the story or information itself may make a book worth keeping. Toby Rajput, argues that the best way to use these types of books is as vehicles for teaching children to be critical readers. (2009, p. 68) I wholeheartedly agree. Let’s not get rid of the books, but teach children how to recognize the stereotypes in them. As Rajput says, “If all children learn to critically evaluate the books the read, we need never fear any book on our library shelves.” (2009, p. 68)

Discussion Questions:

1) Does your library have The Story of Little Black Sambo (1924 version or earlier)? Have you read it? (If not, I highly recommend it. It’s actually a very cute story minus the stereotypical references.)

2) Do blatantly stereotypical books belong in libraries?

Rajput, T. (2009) Questioning Your Collection. Knowledge Quest. 38 (1), 62-69.


6 Responses to “Do books that promote stereotypes belong in libraries?”

  1. I think you make a very valid point. If we can show students how to think critically but also to evaluate critically then we have created more discerning readers. It all begins at an early age.

  2. Almost all books promote stereotypes. The ones in Little Black Sambo are fairly obvious. There have been numerous retellings of this story in children’s picture books as authors reclaim the story: Pancakes for Supper, Pequeno Zambo, The Story of Little Babaji.

    My question is, how do you make sure that a child’s first encounter with a story like this is in a lesson on critical thinking? How do you know a child won’t find it on an open shelf? Or how do you know that your child’s teacher will be qualified to teach the book critically?

    I am also unsure about how qualified people of privilege are to answer this question in the affirmative. It is very different to be on the stereotyped end of things, particularly when that stereotype has a negative correlation with status and access in our culture (i.e., unlike the stereotype that men won’t ask for directions when lost). These stereotypes signify and affirm in people of privilege that the current–and grossly inequitable–social arrangement is acceptable. This social arrangement isn’t about hurt feelings–(as in boo hoo, someone stereotyped me!)–but actually about real health, wealth, and education outcomes. For people of color in the US, this is about whether you are allowed to own a house or send your kids to college or avoid prison. For LGBTQI folks, it’s about whether you are allowed to keep your teaching job or if whether you are safe walking by yourself at night.

    If the original telling of Little Black Sambo is acceptable, where will you draw the line? In the end, I think Sambo is a sort of token book. Its racism is so exaggerated that no one now would mistake it for merely a cute picture book. But many recent books have stereotypes that are subtle and pervasive, and as difficult for us to recognize as problematic as it was for Sambo’s first readers to see or understand that the illustrations perpetuated an unjust system of colonialism and racial imperialism. By the way, you should know that Sambo is set in India. Knowing the book’s history is absolutely requisite to being able to teach it critically.

  3. In the case of Dred Scott v. Sandford 60 U.S. 393 (1856), writing for the majority, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney wrote the following:

    “They had for more than a century before been regarded as beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations; and so far inferior, that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect; and that the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit. He was bought and sold, and treated as an ordinary article of merchandise and traffic, whenever a profit could be made by it. This opinion was at that time fixed and universal in the civilized portion of the white race. It was regarded as an axiom in morals as well as in politics, which no one thought of disputing, or supposed to be open to dispute; and men in every grade and position in society daily and habitually acted upon it in their private pursuits, as well as in matters of public concern, without doubting for a moment the correctness of this opinion.”

    Relax, I understand that nobody in LIS 6010 owned any slaves and this isn’t about trying to make anyone feel guilty. It is an accident of birth that we are who we are. That said, I submit that America was founded on white Christian racism and that too is an important part of our shared history. Thanksgiving, Sambo, Huckleberry Finn, Amos and Andy, hip hop videos, etc. is all part of the conversation that as a nation we are still reluctant to have.

    These books should be our teaching moment for a much larger conversation. The land now called America was already inhabited when it was allegedly “discovered.” As America wrestles with its racism on what to do with those who have Muslim sounding names, we can use these books to help move the conversation beyond the Rush Limbaugh’s, Palinisms and they hate us for our freedom’s mentality.

  4. Thanks to everyone for responding. I have enjoyed reading your comments and I hope others will continue to join in the discussion.

    One thing that I thought of after reading arc’s comments about the qualification of patrons or teachers checking out stereotypical items was that if we try to limit access to these materials to only “qualified” individuals are we not inhibiting intellectual freedom? How are we to know who is qualified and who is not? Isn’t that always going to be the fear…that certain materials get into the wrong hands?

    As much as I do NOT want to promote stereotypes, are we not called as librarians to promote access to all information? Again, l feel the focus needs to be on teaching readers to question what they read and recognize stereotypes, rather than on denying access to materials.

  5. I’m always looking for brandnew informations in the world wide web about this subject. Thankz!

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