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Classic books and diversity

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As I'm working on a second grade reading list for my oldest, I've had these ideas bouncing around in my head, I'm having a hard time making sense of it and finding someone IRL to really engage in the topic with.

 

I like the idea of classic books for kids - many lists I've seem have books from the late 1800's and early to mid-1900's. I like how many of these books are generally wholesome and sweet and times seem simpler, with one major exception: I cannot stand the ridicule of different people groups, and to a lesser degree a lack of diversity (white, Christian, able-bodied is the assumed default). 

 

I get that times were different, and I can handle kids doing things that we just wouldn't even dream of today in the US (carrying their pocket knives everywhere, going around large cities alone, among other things). And I get that it was near-universally accepted and scientifically supported that certain groups of people were just inferior, but the lack of respect for people different than oneself is one thing that I feel the need to point out as unacceptably wrong, no matter how common it was.

 

I think it's especially challenging with a young advanced reader - she easily handles chapter books and this is the point in reading ability where many of the classics would fit in. But many of the ones that I've read to potentially add to our reading list, I just don't think are appropriate (I'm looking at you, Mark Twain and Hugh Lofting). 

 

I'm not for banning or censoring books at all, but I'd rather wait until my kids are older and have more background information and a stronger moral compass, to maintain a sense of outrage over the injustice, and not become desensitized to it. With my oldest being 6, I'm saying, "Maybe when she's 9 or 10," but part of me wonders if once she hits 9 or 10, I'll be saying, "Maybe when she's 12 or 13"?

 

It seems like the issue is compounded by modern books that reflect our global diversity being decried as "pushing a liberal agenda." I don't really identify with either major political group (conservative or liberal), and do think that there are plenty of modern books that introduce topics for children inappropriately early. But I find dehumanization of other people to be equally offensive as four letter words and explicit adult content in books for young adults (or older children). Plus, I'd like to think that respect for all people is not limited to one political party. 

 

It seems like the best I can hope for from many of the classics is that they simply don't mention minority groups? Maybe I'm reading the wrong books?

 

I'd really love to hear others' thoughts on this and also book recommendations for a second grader with an advanced reading level. 

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I've noticed the same things.  I think it would be too limiting to eliminate all books which have the assumption that the world is white and mostly problem-free.   If a book isn't like that, it will be more likely to be added to my read-list.   There were some picture books that were good, but I haven't run across any at this reading level.  

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As an aside, if you believe Mark Twain's writing was racist then... you're due for a re-read.  I don't think Mark Twain is appropriate for second grade necessarily, but he is probably *the* best "classic" author to read to discuss these issues.  

 

Back to the main point...

 

There are lots of classics to cherry pick to avoid these issues.  There are lots of classics to pick where the issue is minor enough that a short discussion could clear up differences in thinking between now and then.  And there are some, like Voyages of Dr. Doolittle, where you'll have to decide if the fun of the story is worth the portrayal of the various indigenous populations Dr. Doolittle comes across.  

 

To be honest, I don't worry about this stuff... like AT ALL.  My 4th and 2nd grader know what racism is, they know that slavery was (is) a terrible part of human history... etc.  We are surrounded by minorities and/or mixed-race families, including all of my kids' cousins and second cousins.  

 

I wouldn't expose a kid to older literature if you do not already have an open discussion running on racism, cultural diversity, etc.  And there are a LOT of more modern middle-school level literature to round things out when your child is ready for that.  

 

But I'm also in the crowd here that does not believe Curious George will teach children to poach and smoke pipes, so YMMV.

 

 

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Mark Twain was actually ground-breaking in his stance that African-Americans are people (100% human) deserving of equal rights. Huck's journey to learn this truth and fully embrace it as morally right powerfully cuts right to the heart of racism. Twain did not simply use those terms because it was common; he wrote a story to obliterate the racist notions about African-Americans being sub-human. Fabulous high school reading.

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Just wanted to say that this reminded me about a book list that Read Aloud Revival put out several months back. If I remember correctly, her goal in this list was to include diverse picture books about every day average-Joe kind of people. I really appreciated that emphasis. Anyway, here's the link...

 

https://amongstlovelythings.com/diverse-picture-books/

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I agree so much with this.  It was actually a brilliant way to get that message to people who did believe that black slaves were sub-human.  He starts with a stereotype of a black slave and over the book breaks down that stereotype...maybe not as much as someone today would, but in a way that would have humanized slaves to those who didn't see them as fully human.  But I agree...thats harder to expose a child to, and that first initial stereotype and the racists words are offputting at first.  We learned about it in high school...I think sharing this with someone  in Junior High would be fine too, but I wouldn't start Huck Finn with a young child. 

 

 

Mark Twain was actually ground-breaking in his stance that African-Americans are people (100% human) deserving of equal rights. Huck's journey to learn this truth and fully embrace it as morally right powerfully cuts right to the heart of racism. Twain did not simply use those terms because it was common; he wrote a story to obliterate the racist notions about African-Americans being sub-human. Fabulous high school reading.

 

 

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While I very much agree with the assessment of Mark Twain, for my second grader it's not an appropriate choice yet. He is fortunate enough to not quite understand racism or even sexism yet because it doesn't reflect the society he knows. Denying people based on an illogical qualification doesn't compute. We are working up to that slowly but I don't see him grasping historical prejudice fully just yet - no matter which side is portrayed.

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As another lover of classic books, this bothers me too. Also, the way that most popular chapter books series for this age seem to have overwhelmingly white antagonists. (Magic Treehouse, A-Z mysteries, Ivy and Bean, it goes on and on.)

 

Your best bet for challenging reads that handle these topics in an age appropriate and ethical way might be the picture book section on the library actually. Books that are intended for adults to read them out loud to kids your kids age.

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As an aside, if you believe Mark Twain's writing was racist then... you're due for a re-read.  I don't think Mark Twain is appropriate for second grade necessarily, but he is probably *the* best "classic" author to read to discuss these issues.  

 

 

 

Mark Twain was actually ground-breaking in his stance that African-Americans are people (100% human) deserving of equal rights. Huck's journey to learn this truth and fully embrace it as morally right powerfully cuts right to the heart of racism. Twain did not simply use those terms because it was common; he wrote a story to obliterate the racist notions about African-Americans being sub-human. Fabulous high school reading.

 

 

I agree so much with this.  It was actually a brilliant way to get that message to people who did believe that black slaves were sub-human.  He starts with a stereotype of a black slave and over the book breaks down that stereotype...maybe not as much as someone today would, but in a way that would have humanized slaves to those who didn't see them as fully human.  But I agree...thats harder to expose a child to, and that first initial stereotype and the racists words are offputting at first.  We learned about it in high school...I think sharing this with someone  in Junior High would be fine too, but I wouldn't start Huck Finn with a young child. 

 

So apparently I am due for a re-read. That sounds like it would be a great read and discussion for junior high or high school.

 

Just wanted to say that this reminded me about a book list that Read Aloud Revival put out several months back. If I remember correctly, her goal in this list was to include diverse picture books about every day average-Joe kind of people. I really appreciated that emphasis. Anyway, here's the link...

 

https://amongstlovelythings.com/diverse-picture-books/

 

 

I've noticed the same things.  I think it would be too limiting to eliminate all books which have the assumption that the world is white and mostly problem-free.   If a book isn't like that, it will be more likely to be added to my read-list.   There were some picture books that were good, but I haven't run across any at this reading level.  

 

Yes - I like that list from Read Aloud Revival, and we get 10 to 15 picture books from the library each week. I agree that there are a lot of good picture books. Where is the unicorn list of Diverse Chapter Books and Novels that are Appropriate for a 7 Year Old?  :confused1:

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I think sometimes we treat diversity too narrowly - like its all about portraying various ethnicities or cultures, rather than different ways of thinking. 

 

Part of the reason for reading classic books is to include diversity in time or worldview.  Modern reading lists may have a lot of different cultures represented but sometimes they seem to represent a very pointed set of ideas about what is important.

 

I've never found the issue of cultural diversity to be that significant, TBH - my kids don't read only classic books, but even if they did, they aren't all from the same cultural and religious groups or depicting the same peoples or places.  And while there are people who are sometimes treated poorly, I don't know that I find that is less so in the works of other non-western cultures.  No doubt in 100 years some of our modern books will be thought to have retrograde attitudes, as well. 

 

There can be a tendency at the moment in literature to appreciate the exotic over the domestic, even when the story is the same.  (Like the controversy with The Rosemary Tree.)  A story set in an English Village is seen as parochial whereas the same story in India is lauded.  There is something a little unsavoury about that tendency and unlike out of fashion ways of speaking or thinking, it can be invisible to us as we are so close to it.

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Williams6039, I share your exact concerns. My kids are a bit younger than yours and we enjoy some classics, but I also want to keep diversity in mind when picking books. We have lots of picture books featuring characters of color and I am now on the hunt for diverse read aloud chapter books. I haven't read them all yet, but I just added to our collection 4 of the Atinuke's Anna Hibiscus series, Louise Erdrich's Birchbark house series, Grace Lin's Where the mountains meets the moon, and am using this list for inspiration:http://www.pragmaticmom.com/booklists/multicultural-books-for-children/

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So apparently I am due for a re-read. That sounds like it would be a great read and discussion for junior high or high school.

 

 

 

 

Yes - I like that list from Read Aloud Revival, and we get 10 to 15 picture books from the library each week. I agree that there are a lot of good picture books. Where is the unicorn list of Diverse Chapter Books and Novels that are Appropriate for a 7 Year Old?  :confused1:

 

All-of-a-Kind Family is a series about a Jewish family.

 

Maybe the Animorphs series?

 

Gregor the Overlander. Though maybe that gets too scary for 2nd grade

Edited by vonfirmath
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All-of-a-Kind Family is a series about a Jewish family.

 

And 100% appropriate. I love that series. 

 

I'd also recommend The People Could Fly, and if you can find the audiobook narrated by James Earl Jones and Virginia Hamilton, even better. If she is very sensitive, you may wish to read this selectively. 

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Geronomino Stilton is an Early Reader Chapter Book series that is actually translated from Italian.

 

There is a accompanying series about his sister Thea Stilton.

 

The "people" are all mice though.

 

 

Edited by vonfirmath

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Maybe Julie of the Wolves?

 

Folktales are great, though, in general, and often many are available at the library.

 

Some version of the Arabian Nights might be a good fit.

 

If you are looking at classic lit, think aout what counts as classic in different cultures.

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Yes - I like that list from Read Aloud Revival, and we get 10 to 15 picture books from the library each week. I agree that there are a lot of good picture books. Where is the unicorn list of Diverse Chapter Books and Novels that are Appropriate for a 7 Year Old?  :confused1:

 

#weneeddiversebooks

http://weneeddiversebooks.org/where-to-find-diverse-books/

 

That one links a lot of good blogs and lists. The lists are out there if you look, really.

 

For a 7 year old, some of my favorites would be...

 

For independent reading:

Anna Hibiscus

No. 1 Car Spotter

The Stories Julian Tells

Alvin Ho

El Deafo

 

Read alouds or for an advanced reader:

A Single Shard

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon

The Birchbark House

Sylvia and Aki

 

There has been a HUGE proliferation in chapter books with diverse protagonists, but I haven't personally read any of them since my kids are now way past this stage. So, Clubhouse Mysteries, Zoey and Sassafras, Dyamonde Daniel, Ruby, those ballet shoes books... there are a *bunch* of them that I keep turning up whenever I look at the chapter book offerings now. And some of them have great authors like Nikki Grimes. So this is one arena where the WNDB movement has really made a difference in the last couple of years.

 

And once your daughter gets just a little older, there are a LOT more offerings that are good for, say, 3rd or 4th grade and up... One Crazy Summer, Bud Not Buddy... so many good books coming. But at this age, we often read aloud these lovely old classics and - as you're pointing out - those are not very diverse. I think the best thing you could do would be to keep getting diverse independent reads and picture books, do you best with the read alouds (if you haven't done Where the Mountain Meets the Moon yet, you really must, for example), point out when there are otherwise good classics with troubling passages (so, for example, we love The Great Brain here, but the depiction of First Nations peoples isn't so hot - but nor does it dominate the books - so we talked about it and enjoyed the books for what they were), and then continue to up the diversity as your dd gets older.

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As an aside, if you believe Mark Twain's writing was racist then... you're due for a re-read.  I don't think Mark Twain is appropriate for second grade necessarily, but he is probably *the* best "classic" author to read to discuss these issues.  

 

Um... Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, Zora Neale Hurston... I am absolutely not throwing shade on Twain, who was an important part of the conversation about race in this country and whose books are definitely worth reading. But we really need to stop thinking of two white authors (Twain and Harper Lee) as having written the most important books about race in this country.

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Maybe Julie of the Wolves?

 

I'd be cautious w/that one and a young child. At least preread. Scene between her and daniel is pretty rapey, although it might fly over a kid's head. 

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Check out this thread for some long lists of books.

 

http://forums.welltrainedmind.com/topic/581874-diversity-in-childrens-books/

 

My oldest is 6 as well, and an advanced reader. I really don't worry about this issue at all with her. If we come across words or attitudes while we are reading that are inappropriate or inaccurate then I talk about it in a matter of fact way. I'll say something like "People used to use that word for (fill in the blank ethnicity), but it's not nice to use that word anymore." I don't make a big deal about it. I honestly don't think my 6 year old is going to pick up on any racism in literature or in real life at this age. Or at least she's not going to recognize it as racism. She's going to see it as "being mean" or "that person wasn't very nice to that person". She's going to see it that way regardless of the race of either person, and that's what I prefer she recognize at this age.

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As a PP mentioned, Arabian Nights is a classic that you could check out. And there are fairy tales and folktales from MANY cultures around the world. Those might be a good place to start for a young reader.

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This issue is why, on the whole, my girls have not read all that many "classic" kid's books.

 

And you know what? We don't really miss them either. Many of those classics are "classic" because they were the only game going for a while, and because people have fond memories of their favorite auntie or teacher or grandma reading the book to them. Of those which really are well-written - well, some of them we've read, some of them we've read with caveats, but all of them have equally good alternatives which were written in the present-day.

 

Booklists tend to promote older books for a few reasons:

 

1. There is a general perception that older means better quality of writing. This is not really borne out by the facts, but people do believe it.

2. There is a general perception that older means "more wholesome", and thus the parents don't have to pre-read. Frankly, I don't think racism is wholesome. Period.

3. People generally recommend books they themselves read and enjoyed as children, especially those which were suggested to them by people they love. This is a self-perpetuating cycle.

3a. Many adults do not read children's books, and are not familiar with books published after their own childhood.

4. Older books are in the public domain, and can be found for free or very cheap.

5. People tend to react to criticisms of their beloved classics by claiming that the critics "have an agenda", without acknowledging that these books also have an agenda. That agenda is generally not compatible with modern norms.

5a. Or they say "we can't judge a book by our modern values", which is fair if we're just looking at literary quality, but not reasonable when we're giving a book to a modern child to read.

 

There are many booklists of diverse books suitable for a child your age. I can dig some up for you, if you like, or I can make my own recommendations... but that can be chancy. I always mean well, but ultimately I either drown people in suggestions or forget about it until a month later and then feel guilty.

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Um... Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, Zora Neale Hurston... I am absolutely not throwing shade on Twain, who was an important part of the conversation about race in this country and whose books are definitely worth reading. But we really need to stop thinking of two white authors (Twain and Harper Lee) as having written the most important books about race in this country.

 

 

Very true. I know and love the authors you have mentioned. Their Eyes Were Watching God is one of my favorite books, and I have taught it numerous times. Langston Hughes wrote the most gorgeous poetry--insightful, lyrical.I shared "Black Like Me" on my FB wall for National Poetry Day. 

 

I was responding to the OP's assertions about Twain and racism.

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I use classic books as an opportunity for discussion about history/context/how society has evolved. For instance, we read all 9 of the Little House books earlier this year, and there are many racist scenes throughout the series. (For example, there's a scene in which Pa literally participates in a minstrel show wearing black face! It's pretty horrifying to read through our contemporary lens; it was really quite shocking to me the way Laura's character portrays the show as utterly hilarious and entertaining. Ma is also openly racist toward native people, etc.) But there is so much goodness in the books that I couldn't dream of leaving them out; they are still worthy of reading. I just spent lots and lots of time in discussion with my children about how the Ingalls family and others like them viewed the world and how evolved people view things differently now. So, I think of the issues in classic books as opportunities to learn; we use the racism and other problems in classic texts as springboards for discussion. 

 

But lack of diversity is one of my problems with classical education in general. There is so much of the classical method we embrace, but...there are so, so many white males, lol. So, when it comes to literature especially, I really aim to incorporate new authors and diverse perspectives alongside the classics. For us, it's not either/or, it's always both. 

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I can't help but be curious Tanaqui...if you don't mind sharing...which 'classics' do you think are worth the trouble despite the racism as read alouds for elementary kids (in other words, not primarily as higher level discussion spring boards for high schoolers)?  

 

And not to derail the OP's point, but I also have similar issues with sexism...

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Island of the Blue Dolphins is a classic book featuring a Native American women...written by a white person but supposedly based on a true story...on the main character's own telling of her story (but that's a little uncertain, because she never learned to speak any language besides her own well, and she was the last of her tribe, so it's not certain how much actually came from her and what the author added).  I loved it as a child...though it's sad (her brother dies...and in the end, she finds that the boat that took the rest of her village off the Island they were on sunk and she is the last of her tribe). 

 

In 10th grade I read Don Quixote and there is a version written for children (says age 8-14), so that would bring in some Spanish Literature:  https://www.amazon.com/Adventures-Quixote-Childrens-Thrift-Classics/dp/0486407918

 

I can think of more things once they hit Junior high that might considered classic (though written in 50s, 60s....not 1900s)

The Cay (sad though)

Light in the Forest (again sad...and I don't remember liking it much as a kid)

Summer of my German Soldier (incredibly sad, featuring a  American Jewish girl abused who hides a german soldier who gets killed and she goes to Juvenile Detention for hiding him.  In spite of all that I still loved that story as a pre-teen)

Diary of Anne Frank (once again, tragic)

...yeah, you see the pattern (what is it with sad Junior High lit?).   But at least theres more diversity.

 

Sheesh...I am trying really hard to think of diverse classic lit that is not depressing...and not getting far. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Edited by goldenecho

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I can't help but be curious Tanaqui...if you don't mind sharing...which 'classics' do you think are worth the trouble despite the racism as read alouds for elementary kids (in other words, not primarily as higher level discussion spring boards for high schoolers)?  

 

And not to derail the OP's point, but I also have similar issues with sexism...

 

Not Tanaqui...but, I hope you don't mind if I chime in.   While A Little Princess and Secret Garden probably has some things that on a second reading I might find a few instances of Victorian stereotyping of Indians (Indians from India...not Native Americans), I think they are just excellent tales of resilience and have beautiful messages.   Those few instances could easily be discussed.

 

Oh, and if you've not read them, and have only seen the Shirley Temple movie...forget everything you've seen there because the book is nothing like that. 

Edited by goldenecho
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Too many to reply to - but I really appreciate all of the thoughts and book suggestions. I have occasionally run into my library's 25 book hold limit, and it seems like I'm about to do that quite a bit more ...

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I can't help but be curious Tanaqui...if you don't mind sharing...which 'classics' do you think are worth the trouble despite the racism as read alouds for elementary kids (in other words, not primarily as higher level discussion spring boards for high schoolers)?  

 

And not to derail the OP's point, but I also have similar issues with sexism...

 

I can't speak for her... but for me, the racism had to be not part of the main plotline or integral to the story. Something where there's literally a couple of mentions of Native Americans in a negative light... fine. I'm willing to talk about that or even just leave it out if I'm reading aloud. Something with a recurring character who is heavily stereotyped... no. Either it's something to be saved for later when we can discuss it better or it's something not worth the trouble. So, The Secret Garden is a good example of one we did... Mary has some pretty messed up things to say about the people of India... but it's easy to see that she's a pretty messed up kid who is wrong about the world in general and she doesn't espouse those ideas over and over - just a few times at the start and then you practically forget where she came from in the first place.

 

Most of the classic books we read simply didn't address race much at all. At the OP's dd's age, we went through a lot of classics - Wizard of Oz, Moomintroll, Half Magic, The Saturdays, The Borrowers, Gone Away Lake, Alice in Wonderland... But, of course, that creates another problem altogether if it's all you read because it creates the impression that white is the default.

 

I personally was okay with reading those classics... and then additionally being sure to read other books that showed more diversity. And, even at this age, I would point out that the books weren't very diverse or didn't show the whole picture. I mean, I think I said to the kids more than once that the Melendys certainly weren't what life was like for every kid during WWII.

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Williams6039, I share your exact concerns. My kids are a bit younger than yours and we enjoy some classics, but I also want to keep diversity in mind when picking books. We have lots of picture books featuring characters of color and I am now on the hunt for diverse read aloud chapter books. I haven't read them all yet, but I just added to our collection 4 of the Atinuke's Anna Hibiscus series, Louise Erdrich's Birchbark house series, Grace Lin's Where the mountains meets the moon, and am using this list for inspiration:http://www.pragmaticmom.com/booklists/multicultural-books-for-children/

We just discovered Grace Lin. I love her work for both the cultural exposure and the character development and messages of the story.

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I was just looking up _Out of My Mind_ and found a few more

 

Easy Chapter Book level:

Jaden Toussaint, the Greatest Episode 1: The Quest for Screen Time (Volume 1) by Marti Dumas

 

For a little bit older, there is the Clubhouse Mysteries series (by Sharon Draper, the author behind _Out of my mind_)

 

There is also a Keena Ford Series by Melissa Thomson for the early chapter book level, though I'm having problems figuring out which is the first book

 

 

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Farrar very much summed up my thoughts here.

 

However, to answer your question clearly, the classic author that is worth reading even if you have to wade through some racism and a sad amount of anti-semitism is Nesbit.

 

It is safe to say that without E. Nesbit, English children's literature would be wildly different. We would not have any of the other classic children's authors that came after her - no Lewis, no Edward Eager, no Dahl. Or if they still wrote, their books would be very different. Nesbit had a knack for writing realistic children and realistic dialog, and her work is still strong today.

 

(Though it really is a pity about the anti-semitism. I choose to believe she was trying to target capitalists and just hit the Jews by mistake.)

 

I might also consider Astrid Lindgreen as a classic author you have GOT to be familiar with. There's a few more, but it's a shifting list - I don't think that it's necessary for every child to read all the same books anyway.

 

From Farrar's list, I'll say that if your child is really into "family" books, it's worth it to read the Melendy quartet (or anything by Streatfeild, yes that is the correct spelling), if they like history you should read The Secret Garden (if you can handle the dialect), and if they like fantasy you should definitely find room for The Borrowers and the Wizard of Oz.

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Although now that I think on it, Secret Garden is really problematic from a disability perspective.

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Although now that I think on it, Secret Garden is really problematic from a disability perspective.

 

I like the anti-'cult-of-the-expert' flavour myself.

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I can't speak for her... but for me, the racism had to be not part of the main plotline or integral to the story. Something where there's literally a couple of mentions of Native Americans in a negative light... fine. I'm willing to talk about that or even just leave it out if I'm reading aloud. Something with a recurring character who is heavily stereotyped... no. Either it's something to be saved for later when we can discuss it better or it's something not worth the trouble. So, The Secret Garden is a good example of one we did... Mary has some pretty messed up things to say about the people of India... but it's easy to see that she's a pretty messed up kid who is wrong about the world in general and she doesn't espouse those ideas over and over - just a few times at the start and then you practically forget where she came from in the first place.

 

Most of the classic books we read simply didn't address race much at all. At the OP's dd's age, we went through a lot of classics - Wizard of Oz, Moomintroll, Half Magic, The Saturdays, The Borrowers, Gone Away Lake, Alice in Wonderland... But, of course, that creates another problem altogether if it's all you read because it creates the impression that white is the default.

 

I personally was okay with reading those classics... and then additionally being sure to read other books that showed more diversity. And, even at this age, I would point out that the books weren't very diverse or didn't show the whole picture. I mean, I think I said to the kids more than once that the Melendys certainly weren't what life was like for every kid during WWII.

 

I don't know though that we should find it odd or worrying that in some "classic" settings, everyone is white.  There are large parts of the English-speaking world where until travel became more common, most people were white. My grandmother never saw a black or Asian person until she was an adult, for example, and traveled to London.

 

Older books written from the perspective of other cultures aren't all that common, and I've wondered sometimes if they should be.  It might be a little weird if FHB wrote a story from the perspective of an Indian child rather than an English one - would she really be in a position to do so?  To hear a story from that perspective, we'd need an Indian writing children's stories in, or translated into, English.  I'm not sure India even had a tradition of stories for children at that time.

 

Even many stories we have now set in other cultures and times are kind of second-hand. The author is imagining what it would be like to live in that time and place. I remember reading a book set in a middle eastern setting when I was in jr high that I really enjoyed.  It was a well written interesting book, and probably fit the libraries desire to offer diverse settings and heroines in books.  But, I wonder now what that is worth - in hindsight it pretty clearly was from a late 20th century western perspective, with a heroine that appealed to young women from a very different kind of place than what was being depicted.  How would that compare to something we might get from FHB or even Kipling where a person from their own background is the focus and they look at the other culture more from the outside.

 

Ones from the present tend to be more diverse, at least in part, because many places in the west really are more ethnically mixed than they used to be.  So you have authors from many different backgrounds writing children's lit. Modern settings reflect the real local make-up and authors may choose to write from the perspective of their own historic culture.  Though I think there is an element of artificiality from any book set in the past, even that of your own people. 

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From Farrar's list, I'll say that if your child is really into "family" books, it's worth it to read the Melendy quartet (or anything by Streatfeild, yes that is the correct spelling), if they like history you should read The Secret Garden (if you can handle the dialect), and if they like fantasy you should definitely find room for The Borrowers and the Wizard of Oz.

 

Family books. I love that.

 

I didn't even know it was a category. But that is exactly what I loved growing up. I made a desperate search of the Houston (aldine?) Library System growing up for every "Shoes" book I could find. And the Half-Magic books. And All-of-a-Kind Family. And Betsy, Tacy, and Tib. Little Women. Five Little Peppers and How they Grew. Cheaper by the Dozen. I'm not sure if I've read the Melendy or not.  Wrinkle in Time led to the L'Engle Family series as well. The So You Wnat to be a Wizard books. And Wizard of Oz (though I don't really think those can go into family)

 

Edited by vonfirmath
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Although now that I think on it, Secret Garden is really problematic from a disability perspective.

 

I've wondered about this - it reminds me a bit of Heidi, with a rich child who seems to regain a lot of health after being exposed to the outdoors and such.  And I've seen a similar theme elsewhere as well.

 

I suspect it's partly a Romantic influence, and in the case of TSG it's clearly also about psychology, but I've wondered if it wasn't a real thing to some extent caused by what was seen as good medical practice. 

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Family books. I love that.

 

I didn't even know it was a category. But that is exactly what I loved growing up. I made a desperate search of the Houston (aldine?) Library System growing up for every "Shoes" book I could find. And the Half-Magic books. And All-of-a-Kind Family. And Betsy, Tacy, and Tib. Little Women. Five Little Peppers and How they Grew. Cheaper by the Dozen. I'm not sure if I've read the Melendy or not.  Wrinkle in Time led to the L'Engle Family series as well. The So You Wnat to be a Wizard books. And Wizard of Oz (though I don't really think those can go into family)

 

The Austin books might fit that type as well.

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I suspect it's partly a Romantic influence, and in the case of TSG it's clearly also about psychology, but I've wondered if it wasn't a real thing to some extent caused by what was seen as good medical practice. 

 

Especially without modern medical technology/physical therapy, it seems very reasonable that someone who had originally had an injury to something like a back might have been an invalid (especially with refusal to even attempt to participate in physical therapy) after the original injury had healed. I'd always assumed that Colin's main issue was that even after his injury had healed, his refusal to attempt any exercises + weakened muscles from a long confinement to bed had continued his illness. 

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The Austin books might fit that type as well.

 

Yes. That's what I meant by the family books by L'Engle. Could not remember the name (The wrinkle in time books have a family. But the other series focuses more on the family I think)

 

Though I guess there is an O'Keefe family set too. Not sure how those are connected

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I don't know though that we should find it odd or worrying that in some "classic" settings, everyone is white.  There are large parts of the English-speaking world where until travel became more common, most people were white. My grandmother never saw a black or Asian person until she was an adult, for example, and traveled to London.

 

Older books written from the perspective of other cultures aren't all that common, and I've wondered sometimes if they should be.  It might be a little weird if FHB wrote a story from the perspective of an Indian child rather than an English one - would she really be in a position to do so?  To hear a story from that perspective, we'd need an Indian writing children's stories in, or translated into, English.  I'm not sure India even had a tradition of stories for children at that time.

 

Even many stories we have now set in other cultures and times are kind of second-hand. The author is imagining what it would be like to live in that time and place. I remember reading a book set in a middle eastern setting when I was in jr high that I really enjoyed.  It was a well written interesting book, and probably fit the libraries desire to offer diverse settings and heroines in books.  But, I wonder now what that is worth - in hindsight it pretty clearly was from a late 20th century western perspective, with a heroine that appealed to young women from a very different kind of place than what was being depicted.  How would that compare to something we might get from FHB or even Kipling where a person from their own background is the focus and they look at the other culture more from the outside.

 

Ones from the present tend to be more diverse, at least in part, because many places in the west really are more ethnically mixed than they used to be.  So you have authors from many different backgrounds writing children's lit. Modern settings reflect the real local make-up and authors may choose to write from the perspective of their own historic culture.  Though I think there is an element of artificiality from any book set in the past, even that of your own people. 

 

I'm not saying it's "worrying" or "odd" that classic books are all white. It makes total sense. But it makes total sense to me as an adult who understands history and context. To a child, if that's all you read and you never talk about why it is, it creates a sense that white = default people. And I don't think that's a positive. As you can see, it hasn't stopped us from reading those books. Many of them are lovely, wonderful books that I think all children should have a chance to read. We just talked about that and I made sure to also read plenty of other books from other perspectives.

 

I don't necessarily disagree with the other points you're making here... but I don't see them as connected either. They're like non-sequitors. Classic books are mostly white because reasons that make lots of sense historically. You can't bring in other culture's children's literature because the British *invented* children's literature and it's still a great British and American export - most other traditions are just getting started. Lots of books in general are by people who are writing about experiences they never had - which is pretty much the whole definition of fiction. As for historical fiction, I didn't think of this conversation as being about that in particular. It's certainly something that has been endlessly debated on this board though. If you don't want to read historical fiction, then don't. The narrow window of time that covers children's books set contemporaneously that we would now consider historical is only like a century long so this is really only a problem about a tiny fraction of time periods for which we have children's literature about white children in the 1930's or 1950's or whatever but almost no literature about children of other backgrounds. I think that's not the end of the world if you're making the effort to read other current perspective. If you want to read nonfiction about the whole sweep of history instead and read literature that's only about the time period in which its written give or take a few years, then do that and point out the issues involved to your kids. I personally *like* historical fiction, but it really is a different conversation than this IMO.

 

It feels like you're getting into a belief that I do disagree with - which is "all fiction is filtered through different individual and time period's beliefs and what we believe now is just another belief therefore literature from any time is as good as from now and I should read anything I like and not worry about the perspective because they're all equally problematic and biased." Except, I don't buy that in part because it's always used to justify reading a narrow set of perspectives and excluding another set. Sure, Christopher Paul Curtis is just as biased as G.A. Hardy in his own way. But that doesn't mean that their works are both fine to read and equally good/bad. Because I'm not a total moral relativist.

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I'm not saying it's "worrying" or "odd" that classic books are all white. It makes total sense. But it makes total sense to me as an adult who understands history and context. To a child, if that's all you read and you never talk about why it is, it creates a sense that white = default people. And I don't think that's a positive. As you can see, it hasn't stopped us from reading those books. Many of them are lovely, wonderful books that I think all children should have a chance to read. We just talked about that and I made sure to also read plenty of other books from other perspectives.

 

I don't necessarily disagree with the other points you're making here... but I don't see them as connected either. They're like non-sequitors. Classic books are mostly white because reasons that make lots of sense historically. You can't bring in other culture's children's literature because the British *invented* children's literature and it's still a great British and American export - most other traditions are just getting started. Lots of books in general are by people who are writing about experiences they never had - which is pretty much the whole definition of fiction. As for historical fiction, I didn't think of this conversation as being about that in particular. It's certainly something that has been endlessly debated on this board though. If you don't want to read historical fiction, then don't. The narrow window of time that covers children's books set contemporaneously that we would now consider historical is only like a century long so this is really only a problem about a tiny fraction of time periods for which we have children's literature about white children in the 1930's or 1950's or whatever but almost no literature about children of other backgrounds. I think that's not the end of the world if you're making the effort to read other current perspective. If you want to read nonfiction about the whole sweep of history instead and read literature that's only about the time period in which its written give or take a few years, then do that and point out the issues involved to your kids. I personally *like* historical fiction, but it really is a different conversation than this IMO.

 

It feels like you're getting into a belief that I do disagree with - which is "all fiction is filtered through different individual and time period's beliefs and what we believe now is just another belief therefore literature from any time is as good as from now and I should read anything I like and not worry about the perspective because they're all equally problematic and biased." Except, I don't buy that in part because it's always used to justify reading a narrow set of perspectives and excluding another set. Sure, Christopher Paul Curtis is just as biased as G.A. Hardy in his own way. But that doesn't mean that their works are both fine to read and equally good/bad. Because I'm not a total moral relativist.

 

I don't have a problem with historical fiction, but I don't think it should be confused with reading books from different times.  In the same way that reading a book about some other place or culture written by people in our own culture is not the same as reading something from that other culture.  Yes, it might all be fiction, but we read fiction for its truth.  A book by a 21st century Canadian about a 12th century Chinese person probably says more about the author and his audience than the medieval Chinese.  To really see things through those eyes requires a different approach.

 

To me, this is a major reason we read old books - it provides an important way of transcending our own narrow viewpoints. 

 

I think what I find a little - unbalanced - is the focus on one kind of diversity (ethnic) as really important to make sure kids aren't parochial in their outlook, but in many cases lack of consideration or even outright rejecting another kind of diversity (historic I guess you'd call it, maybe chronomatic?) as unimportant or even dangerous. 

Edited by Bluegoat
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Yes. That's what I meant by the family books by L'Engle. Could not remember the name (The wrinkle in time books have a family. But the other series focuses more on the family I think)

 

Though I guess there is an O'Keefe family set too. Not sure how those are connected

 

The WRinkle In Time books are the O'Keefes and the Murrays.  The Austin books are The Austins. But in some of the later books, there is cross-over.

 

The Pendewicks are another "family" type book.

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I don't have a problem with historical fiction, but I don't think it should be confused with reading books from different times.  In the same way that reading a book about some other place or culture written by people in our own culture is not the same as reading something from that other culture.  Yes, it might all be fiction, but we read fiction for its truth.  A book by a 21st century Canadian about a 12th century Chinese person probably says more about the author and his audience than the medieval Chinese.  To really see things through those eyes requires a different approach.

 

To me, this is a major reason we read old books - it provides an important way of transcending our own narrow viewpoints. 

 

I think what I find a little - unbalanced - is the focus on one kind of diversity (ethnic) as really important to make sure kids aren't parochial in their outlook, but in many cases lack of consideration or even outright rejecting another kind of diversity (historic I guess you'd call it, maybe chromatic?) as unimportant or even dangerous. 

 

Diversity has to be intersectional. And if you're talking about books, sure, that means historically too. But also, reading books about rich, poor, and differently abled white kids all in the 1950's, is pretty narrow. I agree with this... but I have also seen it used as an excuse a lot - not just with reading lists but with things like hiring or the like. Getting diversity in one way, doesn't excuse us from needing it in a variety of ways.

 

In terms of historical fiction... sure... but we're talking about children's books! And, in this case, for a 2nd grader! There's only so much out there in the first place. As I pointed out, children's literature is a really new invention. And most 2nd graders don't need to read The Dream of the Red Chamber to get a sense of life in Asia. They're probably better off with A Single Shard. And we have to recognize the limitations of what's realistically available as well.

 

And, just generally, not get absurdly ahead of ourselves. Sometimes I get frustrated by these conversations on this board - not because things like this don't matter, but because we're talking about a seven year old. And there is such a thing as massively overthinking it. I think too many people are grappling with this stuff at the wrong age. It's like, oh no, am I reading exactly the right book for my kindergartener and exactly the right history perspectives and so forth. And then over on the high school board, everyone's just going forth reading the Western canon. I mean, obviously that's an exaggeration, but it does look that way to me sometimes here... and that seems radically skewed to me. I mean, read what you can at a young age, seek out a variety of kinds of diversity, be critical of books that portray stereotypes... but then just let it go. On the other hand, when they get older, then there's so much more available. Then you can actually choose more diverse readings as kids reach the age when they're into primary sources and can read, say, Dream of the Red Chamber.

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Well, this is an interesting discussion.

 

I think you've raised a point that many adults don't want to think about-- that the cherished memories we have of "wholesome" or "sweet" times past actually conceal a lot of violence and bigotry. (And that people who notice that, or who question it, are often accused of being rude or political or destroying something beautiful that really did exist until we interfered.)

 

For truly great, worthwhile classic books, I have no problem with editing out/cleaning up some of the "product of its time" text for modern editions. This is why I prefer some authors and books as read-alouds, with me changing a word or editing out a paragraph here or there. Rather than taking away from the text as a whole, it allows us all to enjoy it without unduly emphasizing a part that really IS just incidental. For instance, I think The Secret Garden is one of the most wonderful read-alouds there is (especially if one likes doing the accents), but my 4 and 6 year olds really did not need to be subject to a discussion of racial prejudice as a means of justifying British colonialism. What would have stuck with them is that they are Indian and here is a BOOK that is saying Indian people are inferior, and Mommy is READING it to them...

 

I'm enjoying seeing the book lists here...I think your question is a struggle that comes up often here-- what to do with an advanced reader who isn't ready for mature themes and topics? How to find books aimed at the maturity of a 7 year old, but with more complex grammar and vocabulary? Is there a list somewhere?

 

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This thread has been so helpful - ideas for books that I just didn't even know about, getting me to reconsider things I thought I already knew, examining how realistic my expectations were (classics that feature artificial diversity? modern historical fiction that's an accurate reflection of the past?), and bigger thoughts about my kids' lifelong learning careers. I'm not sure how long we'll be homeschooling, and I've been hit with the thought several times that we're going to miss things; that's just reality. Instead of stressing about what we're missing, I'd rather focus on what are the priorities. And of course their learning won't end when they're done with high school (or college, if they go that route). Lots of thoughts bouncing around ...

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Diversity has to be intersectional. And if you're talking about books, sure, that means historically too. But also, reading books about rich, poor, and differently abled white kids all in the 1950's, is pretty narrow. I agree with this... but I have also seen it used as an excuse a lot - not just with reading lists but with things like hiring or the like. Getting diversity in one way, doesn't excuse us from needing it in a variety of ways.

 

In terms of historical fiction... sure... but we're talking about children's books! And, in this case, for a 2nd grader! There's only so much out there in the first place. As I pointed out, children's literature is a really new invention. And most 2nd graders don't need to read The Dream of the Red Chamber to get a sense of life in Asia. They're probably better off with A Single Shard. And we have to recognize the limitations of what's realistically available as well.

 

And, just generally, not get absurdly ahead of ourselves. Sometimes I get frustrated by these conversations on this board - not because things like this don't matter, but because we're talking about a seven year old. And there is such a thing as massively overthinking it. I think too many people are grappling with this stuff at the wrong age. It's like, oh no, am I reading exactly the right book for my kindergartener and exactly the right history perspectives and so forth. And then over on the high school board, everyone's just going forth reading the Western canon. I mean, obviously that's an exaggeration, but it does look that way to me sometimes here... and that seems radically skewed to me. I mean, read what you can at a young age, seek out a variety of kinds of diversity, be critical of books that portray stereotypes... but then just let it go. On the other hand, when they get older, then there's so much more available. Then you can actually choose more diverse readings as kids reach the age when they're into primary sources and can read, say, Dream of the Red Chamber.

 

Yeah, I think my point is that really, it isn't necessary to think so much about it.  If you try and read the best of what's available that's at the right level for the child, you'll do fine.  It isn't like their whole life is defined by the books they read.  Or what they happen to encounter in life as an 8 year old.

 

I'm not entirely sure about the western canon aspect.  I think there is good reason, as westerners, that being educated means giving it a kind of priority for a period - maybe a year, or a few.  It's part of coming to understand our own intellectual composition and baggage as well.  In the same way, I'd expect someone who was Indian or South African to come out of school primarily with a good grasp of their own literary tradition and then delve into other traditions.  That being said, I'm not sure that many kids in grade 9 and 10 are really ready to take it on in the way that would be most useful, and I sometimes think it isn't time well spent.  I suspect many parents know their kids may never touch it again after high school so are hoping to give them the basics, and that will take more time at that age.

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To the OP's question:

First issue--where do you start?  If you start with 'In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, no more 'male and female'', and 'Love is the fulfilling of the law', then you have established the values that your family sustains; the lens through which you all look at things like this.

 

Then you go on with "The Sneetches", which awesomely mocks prejudice in the most logical of terms, and with "All of the Colors of the Earth", which portrays beauty in all skin and hair tones.  "The Braids Girl" teaches kindness and generosity without condescension.

 

Then as kids run across racist stuff, they reject it themselves.  Just like I remember getting so angry at the racism in the Bobbsie Twins books when I was little.

 

Re. your specific examples, I have heard that the newer editions of Dr. Doolittle have removed the racist content.  I have not personally checked this out however.  And in our house, Mark Twain was a middle school level read, even with DD being an advanced reader, because of the sarcasm/snark in Tom Sawyer, which DD was very susceptible to.  I wanted to us to study Huck Finn for her 8th grade year, but could not bring myself to either say the n word or censor it out, so I skipped it.  There are a ton of great books out there, and although I know many on this board disagree with this I don't feel that HF is the Great American Novel.

 

Regarding older books in general, my direct and extensive observation is that those that have stood the test of time tend to have good grammar and more complex vocabularies and sentence structure than more contemporary books for younger kids.  But there are transitional time period books that have some of the good characteristics of both.  For example, The Egypt Game has diversity (racial and social), complex story line, good sentence structure, and a fairly extensive vocabulary.  It has some very scary aspects, but for what you are looking for it's pretty good.  Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and me, Elizabeth ditto (and not particuarly scary.)

 

I have often wished I could remember the name of a book I read around 4th or 5th grade that dealt with class issues.  I think it was set in England.  A working class girl and a middle or upper class girl are sort of forced to cooperate/get to know each other/work together, and become friends--the plot involves a fragment of the sword in the stone, which can only be withdrawn if they are both working together.  My recollection is that that was a book that would have been great to talk about with a younger child, but alas, I never could find it.

 

Here are some more older books that have diverse subjects treated well: 

 

My Book House, though Western Civ oriented, does include excerpts from the Vedic epics and I believe some Asian folk tales.

 

"The Sea of Gold, and other tales from Japan" is an excellent intro to Japanese fairy tales and culture.

 

"Perrine" is a great introduction to child exploitation and child labor issues in a French context.

 

The Ramona books were good overall, and dealt with class/unemployment issues really well, reasonable for an advanced second grade or so reader.  For slightly more advanced kids, "The Majesty of Grace" similarly deals well with unemployment and pulling together as a family.  For late grammar or early middle school kids, "An Old Fashioned Girl" deals a lot with class issues, and early feminism (pre-19th amendment), and with dealing with business reversals.  I absolutely love that book, more every time I read it.  It's childish at the start though, very slow starting.  I think it was originally written as a novel and a sequel, and that the first half could be read by a younger kid.

 

One thing I appreciate about older books is that morals and deciding actions based on them is modeled more so than in newer books.  I think that introducing that way of thought as normal and expected is a good thing.  

 

Edited by Carol in Cal.
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