Depicting animals as people (or human-like) goes back almost as far as children’s literature itself. The werewolves of early versions of Red Riding Hood become the nattily dressed talking wolves of more modern versions. Butterflies and grasshoppers get together for a feast and ball in William Roscoe’s poem of 1802. And somebody killed Cock Robin even further back in history. Probably the most famous creator of human-like animals is Beatrix Potter, who at the turn of the twentieth century created animals such as Peter Rabbit and Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle, who dressed, shopped, talked and cooked like humans. Wind in the Willows’ Mr. Toad, Babar, and Paddington all followed. Children’s literature critics have argued that anthropomorphic animals help children become more empathetic, build relationships with the natural world, and learn skills by which to recognize good and bad character traits. All well and good when the animal in question mirrors the humans that surround you.
But what happens when the animal characters are stand-ins for racial groups? Can children’s books with such characters be encouraging empathy? Or are they teaching racism?
An early example of the troubling use of animals as racial groups is in Jean and Laurent de Brunhoff’s Babar books, which have of course been discussed at length by writers such as Herbert Kohl, in Should We Burn Babar? (1995), and Ariel Dorfman, in The Empire’s Old Clothes (1983). The depiction of the central story of Babar, an elephant who comes from Africa and is taught to be humanlike by a rich old lady who introduces him to civilization through capitalism, as an allegory for French (and other) colonialism is not new.
Nor is the criticism of the Disney Corporation and its various sins of racial omission and commission revelatory. Simply enter “Disney and racism” into your search engine and see how many thousands (or millions) of sites come up. Disney is in fact an easy target because some of their past depictions of talking animals as racial stereotypes have been so blatant. The Siamese cat as depicting Asian stereotypes, for example, has been used and re-used in Disney films, most famously in “Lady and the Tramp” (1955), where the cats Si and Am speak in poor English, have “slanted” eyes, and are sneaky and malicious. It is also found in Disney’s “Aristocats” (1970) where one of the cats is a buck-toothed Siamese (à la World War II-era depictions of the Japanese in American propaganda) who plays the piano with chopsticks. As late as 1989, Disney was still using this stereotype; in “Chip ‘n Dale Rescue Rangers”, two of the villains are the Siamese Twins, who own a laundromat and speak in poor English.
The reason that I bring up Disney is A) its proliferation in the lives of children and B) the somewhat self-satisfied smugness of some children’s literature authors and scholars that children’s BOOKS are better than that. I am not so sure I agree. As much as I would like to think that racism has been exhausted from recent children’s books, I still find some cause for concern—or at least for a wider discussion.
Take the popular Rosemary Wells books about a cute kitten named Yoko, the first of which appeared in 1998 from Hyperion Books (Hyperion is now owned, by the way, by the Disney Corporation). It must be made clear straightaway that Yoko is not a Siamese cat; she seems to be a gray tabby, if anything. However, she is represented as a Japanese cat throughout the series, and the listing of subjects in the publication information includes “Japanese-Americans—Fiction.” Yoko’s Japanese heritage is often the source of conflict, most particularly in the first book, Yoko (1998). In the story, Yoko is made fun of because of her “unusual” lunch; while the other animals are eating “normal” lunches of things like “squeeze cheese on white” (n.p.), Yoko has a bento box filled with sushi. The other animals make fun of her, and Yoko is devastated.
I am not going to quibble with Wells’s depiction of childhood reaction to difference; I know that many would argue (and do, in the reviews of the book) that this is a “normal” reaction and that Wells is portraying a “realistic” view of childhood life, despite the children being “clothed” as animals. I will only say that this is an acceptably normal reaction for children if the adults in their lives let it be so, and in Yoko it is the teacher, Mrs. Jenkins, that I find problematic. When Yoko complains to Mrs. Jenkins that the children are making fun of her, the teacher tells her, “They’ll forget about it by snack time”. The children, uncensored, do not forget about it, and make fun of Yoko’s snack as well. Again, Mrs. Jenkins is less than helpful; she changes from playing the snack time song to playing the friendly song, hoping that changing the subject away from Yoko’s ethnicity will make it go away. Surprisingly, it doesn’t! Yoko remains “weird” and ethnic in the eyes of her schoolmates. Mrs. Jenkins next solution is interesting; she suggests an International Food Day where everyone must bring a dish from a “foreign” country.
The solution, in other words, continues to make Yoko “other” than American.
There is no admonition that the children should bring in food from their own cultural heritage (indeed, no one appears to have a cultural heritage except Yoko; even though the characters are animals, as in many children’s books, the white middle-class character is depicted as “normal”), and the food brought in includes “Brazil nuts” and “Boston franks and beans” (which may be meant as jokes or wordplay, but which in fact confuse the issues of “culture” and “foreignness”). Despite Mrs. Jenkins’ attempt at normalizing Yoko’s strangeness, no one eats her sushi (although all the other food is consumed). Mrs. Jenkins had made the rule initially that “Everyone must try a bite of everything” but she does not enforce this rule, and Yoko is left sad until Timothy, still hungry, decides he will eat anything—even sushi. He becomes Yoko’s friend, but there is no mention of the other children. The lasting message of Wells’s book is that it is acceptable to ostracize others based on their ethnic background, because the adults accept that otherness is “foreign,” and would rather the problem went away than got solved. Unfortunately, racism will not just go away, especially when the acceptable version of normal is based on “squeeze cheese on white.”