Saturday, October 13, 2012

Surprises in Rereading Classic Children's Literature: Kipling's Just So Stories edition

Content warning: this post quotes a book using two extremely offensive racial slurs.

So I took Joseph (now at the ripe old age of 3 and 3/4, as he'll tell you if you ask) down to the Ithaca Booksale today (currently on its second weekend of three of its biannual sale).  We got a bunch of things, ranging from simple picture books to longer chapter-books, of a sort we're starting to read Joseph (and which he likes to listen to as audiobooks -- he's heard Alice in Wonderland (both abridged & full) and The Wind in the Willows (each chapter full but some omitted) that way, for instance).

One of the books I got was a nice hardback copy of Rudyard Kipling's Just So Stories.

Now, what I remembered from Kipling's Just So Stories were a general impression that most were about how various animals got various features -- "how the elephant got its trunk", for example, with the elephant's nose being pulled by something-or-other until it got long.  And I remembered the story "The Butterfly That Stamped" very well, because it was always my favorite, and because I had a recording of it that I listened to repeatedly.  And I remembered that it was incredibly iconic -- not only a classic children's book, but one that has entered our language as a phrase in other contexts.  But I remembered little else.

Now, returning to a children's book for the first time in not-quite-four-decades is always a particular experience, a Zebra-stripes experience of familiarity and surprise.  A lot of this is just about memory.  "How the Elephant Got Its Trunk", for example -- I would have sworn that was the title; and it was, in fact, the story; -- but it's actually called "The Elephant's Child".  I remembered the story, and what it explained, but not the title, nor the details (all that spanking! I'm pleased to say that the second time through Joseph interrupted me to ask, "What does 'spank' mean?")

One particular fashion in which (I've found) the stories differ from my memory is in quality -- in both directions.  The Winnie the Pooh stories are utterly fabulous -- far better than I remembered; so are the Frog and Toad stories.  On the other hand, Babar is much worse -- not just in the colonialist implications, but the actual plain writing.  Curious George is kind of eh.  (But -- as has been true almost since the day of his birth -- Joseph's taste is not mine: he loves Pooh and Frog and Toad, but he loves Babar and Curious George equally well.)

Just So Stories was both far better, and far worse, than I remembered.

The first story we read was the first in the book, "How the Whale Got His Throat".  And it was fabulous.  Fabulous in many dimensions: an exciting and fun story for Joseph; filled with over-his-head but fun wordplay for me (always an important element in kids' books that are going to be read aloud (but see above re: Joseph's taste is not mine)).  It has a lot of great passages for reading outloud, which surprisingly many children's books are mediocre or even poor at.  But read this description of what a man does when swallowed by a whale (and to get the full effect, you should read it outloud):
But as soon as the Mariner, who was a man of infinite-resource-and-sagacity, found himself truly inside the Whale's warm, dark, inside cup-boards, he stumped and he jumped and he thumped and he bumped, and he pranced and he danced, and he banged and he clanged, and he hit and he bit, and he leaped and he creeped, and he prowled and he howled, and he hopped and he dropped, and he cried and he sighed, and he crawled and he bawled, and he stepped and he lepped, and he danced hornpipes where he shouldn't, and the Whale felt most unhappy indeed. (Have you forgotten the suspenders?)
How fabulous is that?

Then there's the picture captions.  Kipling drew his own pictures, and writes his own captions, which not only tell what part of the story they're from, but which also tell what's in the picture, and tell what's left out, and complain about how much better they'd be if he were allowed to color them, although he isn't.  They include facts and details about the story which is not in the text.  They're quite simply wonderful.  Here, for example, is the caption to the picture above, which occurs right about the same point in the story as the above quote:
THIS is the picture of the Whale swallowing the Mariner with his infinite-resource-and-sagacity, and the raft and the jack-knife and his suspenders, which you must not forget. The buttony-things are the Mariner's suspenders, and you can see the knife close by them. He is sitting on the raft, but it has tilted up sideways, so you don't see much of it. The whity thing by the Mariner's left hand is a piece of wood that he was trying to row the raft with when the Whale came along. The piece of wood is called the jaws-of-a-gaff. The Mariner left it outside when he went in. The Whale's name was Smiler, and the Mariner was called Mr. Henry Albert Bivvens, A.B. The little 'Stute Fish is hiding under the Whale's tummy, or else I would have drawn him. The reason that the sea looks so ooshy-skooshy is because the Whale is sucking it all into his mouth so as to suck in Mr. Henry Albert Bivvens and the raft and the jack-knife and the suspenders. You must never forget the suspenders.
Note that the name, Mr. Henry Albert Bivvens, A.B. (fabulous!) is not otherwise given in the story, nor is the name Smiler.

So after the first story, I was utterly delighted, and ready to keep reading more.

"How the Camel Got His Hump" was fine -- a bit dominationist in how it thought animals related to humans, but whatever.  A fine story, although not quite as good as "How the Whale Got His Throat" in my opinion (Joseph didn't differentiate, that I could see).  "How the Rhinoceros Got His Skin" had the rather unfortunate phrase describing a hat as something "from which the rays of the sun were always reflected in more-than-oriental splendour".  The phrase is repeated, too -- one of the wonderful things about the Just So Stories, and one of the things that make them particularly good for reading outloud, are the long repeated phrases, a technique of oral storytelling famous from Homer if not before, but one oddly underused in children's books.  Well, I wasn't thrilled about that, but this was Kipling after all, to say nothing of 110 years ago.  And frankly I doubted Joseph would pick up on it, or get that there was a questionable connotation (it's not even negative -- just orientalist).  So I plunged on to story four, "How the Leopard Got His Spots".

Oh, dear.

At first it seems ok -- animals with different looks, and a just-so story about how they're going to change looks.  Fine.  Then Kipling introduces a character referred to as "an Ethiopian" -- one who, incidentally, does not seem to be actually a person from the country of Ethiopian, but simply someone who is black.  And I got Worried.  Unfortunately by then I was already into the story -- not far in, but too far for Joseph to tolerate my stopping.  So with fear & trembling I explained to Joseph that an Ethiopian is a person from Ethiopia (true, of course, although somewhat disingenuous in this context: but then to children, my wife's rule has always been to tell the truth but not necessarily the whole truth, so I did). and I pressed on.

The story itself is questionable: the Ethiopian changes his skin, to fit in with a changed habitat, but then again so does the Giraffe, the Zebra and the Leopard.  You could debate how to take that -- making the Ethiopian into an animal?  Or implying that skin is ultimately changeable or unimportant?  It's hard to say.  Again, it's not something that I am thrilled about, but on the other hand I doubt it will do much harm, if part of a mixed and diverse literary diet.

And then -- in the midst of reading outloud -- I see this exchange:
'But if I'm all this,' said the Leopard, 'why didn't you go spotty too?'
'Oh, plain black's best for a nigger,' said the Ethiopian.
Oh, God.  I've already begun the sentence by the time I hit that phrase.  Improvising, I read "plain black's best for me", and continue.  Then one of Kipling's picture captions -- which I've been reading, because heretofore they've been marvelous -- includes the sentence "The Ethiopian was really a negro, and so his name was Sambo."  For that caption I simply stop before getting to that sentence.

Mixed with my general delight in the book, the overall effect is that of finding a dead cockroach in an otherwise excellent bowl of soup.  I felt rather nauseous.

Or perhaps I'm a hypocrite, because if I find a cockroach in a bowl of soup I wouldn't eat another bite (nor anything else from that restaurant, if I were eating at a restaurant); I certainly wouldn't pluck the thing out, throw it away, and keep eating.  But in this case I think I'm going to do that.  In fact, I did: I finished the story, after all.

Now the above-quoted phrase -- with the N word -- is sometimes simply edited out, even from otherwise unabridged editions.  (So if you have the book at home, you might not see it.)  Here, for example, is a copy of the text that seems otherwise unedited which ends the sentence with the word "best".  But the one we now have -- and a very nice edition it is too, especially for a used book bought for $1.75 -- has it.

My wife suggested we take a pen and simply black it out -- make it unreadable since (as she noted) Joseph will learn to read soon enough, and might stumble upon it.  I'll do the same for the sentence with "Sambo" in it, too.

Now, I'm against censorship in grown-up books, and queasy about the idea in kids books.  On the other hand, racial slurs need to be put in complex historical context -- the kind that a three-year-old, or even a vastly older child like a three-and-three-quarters-year-old, wouldn't understand.  I'm not sure a ten-year old would either, for that matter.  And of course the book doesn't have any such context.  And we don't want him, say, reading that and using it not knowing its actual history, meaning, and (especially) connotations.

Honestly, I should have known.  The story is based on a phrase "can the leopard change his spots?", which is the basis for the novel The Leopard's Spots by Thomas Dixon, one of the two Dixon novels which served as the basis for The Birth of a Nation, a film whose hero is the Klu Klux Klan -- as I should know, since I taught the film in one of my classes not three weeks ago.*  Actually, Kipling alludes directly to the phrase in the final paragraph of his story:
Oh, now and then you will hear grown-ups say, 'Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the Leopard his spots?' I don't think even grown-ups would keep on saying such a silly thing if the Leopard and the Ethiopian hadn't done it once--do you? But they will never do it again, Best Beloved. They are quite contented as they are.
...and of course Kipling uses the longer, explicitly racist version of the phrase, whose existence, I'm ashamed to admit, I had forgotten until getting to it in this story.  I can't decide if the story supports or undermines the sentiment, although I think it's the latter -- and I certainly can't decide whether the fact that Kipling undermines it (if he does) in any way mitigates its use in the story.  (I'm not at all sure it does.)

Honestly, if I'd pre-reread the stories, I would have been sorely tempted to skip this one.  But I read it, and it's part of the book now -- if I try to skip it, Joseph will notice and ask for it.  (We read Joseph the first Babar book similarly without any memories more recent than our own childhoods, and came unprepared on the infamous page four where Babar's mother is shot and killed.  The next time we read it, we tried to skip that part, and Joseph noted that we skipped it and ordered it put back in.  It doesn't actually seem to bother him.)

And it is a very lovely story about "How the Whale Got His Throat", and so is (we skipped ahead to reread my favorite) "The Butterfly that Stamped".  I'm not quite willing to "loose" the book.  But (once it is no longer in the room where he's sleeping, and when he's not looking) I shall edit it.

Now, I can imagine some people criticizing me for reading the book at all (there are questionable implications in that story even aside from the offensive language).  I can imagine others criticizing me for bowdlerization.  But in dealing with the reality of great, flawed texts, and the reality of morally terrible pasts and how to explain them, any action is a compromise.  I think this is the right one.  At least for us, at least for now.


Links discovered while poking around on this topic:
* It's not the only place where Kipling's racism crosses a topic I raised in the class: his other racial slur, "sambo", comes out of Minstrel Shows (Sambo was a minstrel show character who became a racial slur -- nor was it the only one to do so), which was the first topic in my class on the history of American culture.  What can I say?  American culture is, among other things, racist; nor is ours the only one, as Kipling demonstrates.


Anonymous said...

Very interesting & informative - thanks. I remember JSS fondly from my childhood, 1950s - but hesitated before getting a copy for my grandson. I'll look for a 'corrected' version, hopefully with the original b&w drawings.

Joan Rozelle said...

Thanks for your post, very well written and informative. My 5 year old son brought home "The Elephant's Child" a few days ago, and his music teacher wants the class to perform the "play" with songs for their spring concert. It struck me how racist and negative the story is....the elephant child is being punished (spanked) for his curiosity? What's the message to the 5 year old. I have mentioned this to the school and hope they will change the play. Thanks again.

Ben said...

I enjoyed your post, and found it not only well written, but also balanced and introspective. My arrival at the post was spurred by a search for Kipling's Just So Stories, as my daughter and I enjoy an illustrated edition just the story How the Leopard Got His Spots. When looking, I saw "edited to remove racist language" and was interested to know to what depths this editing went. It is interesting to me the different perspectives readers can bring to a book... when I read (and discuss) the final paragraphs of How the Leopard Got His Spots, I describe them as an affirmation of making choices, choosing who you want to be and being satisfied with yourself - no matter the feelings of others. I don't say this to argue for or against the notion that Kipling's last statement mitigates his earlier (unedited) transgressions, but rather to affirm my belief that our own ideas, perspectives and values will ultimately trump those of the books we are reading to our children.

Anonymous said...

Yes but . . . How the Leopard Got His Spots is one of the funniest pieces that I have ever read. My son and I were laughing so hard that we had to stop. It truly is time to go find "Mister One, Two, Three; Where's Your Breakfast."

Jenn said...

Kipling was from a different time, hard to put too much blame on him. And the name Sambo isn't racist. I've read plenty of stories with 'Sambo' and there was nothing racist about it. Maybe I've just missed the stories that were. I've also known a white guy named that. So... When you said that I was confused. Perhaps kipling's use was innocent here? Also, when he said "can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard change his spots" he was quoting from Jesus, a very well-known bible verse.