by

March 6, 2011


One of my favourite books when I was learning to read was about a little boy that lived in a jungle. The storyline itself is a bit of a blur, but I clearly remember the two best parts of the book: 1. when several tigers ran so fast in a circle that they turned into tiger butter [note: no relation to tiger blood] and 2. a giant stack of pancakes that were created as a direct result of 1. The name of this book is Little Black Sambo, and any reading you do about it now will include the fact that it has a controversial history, mostly due to the word sambo, which is considered a racial slur.

I thought about this book when I came across a photo set comparing the original, 1963 edition of Richard Scarry's The Best Word Book Ever -- those over-sized picture books that explain the world through illustrations and animal people -- with its 1991 iteration.

Key changes include:

  • a dad rabbit appears in the kitchen doing something with a frying pan, where before there was only a mom rabbit
  • the "handsome pilot" is now just "pilot", and the "pretty stewardess" now "flight attendant"
  • the rodent paddling the canoe is no longer wearing a feather headdress
  • "scientist" has been added to the list of viable career options, and "cowboy" visibly downgraded (and perhaps eradicated altogether)

I support the initiative to update language and facts that no longer reflect societal values, especially if the books are tools that introduce concepts to children. As for Little Black Sambo, originally published in 1899, it has been renamed and reinvented several times in recent history. You may know it as The Story of Little Babaji or The Boy and His Tigers. The text, as far as I can gather, remains for the most part unchanged. I'm just surprised that health watchdogs aren't protesting the content of this book as well. If, in the next version, the tigers turn into a pile of local, organic butter that's low in saturated fat, and the boy's mom makes whole-grain, gluten-free flax pancakes, I'm going to be seriously upset.

View the Richard Scarry comparison flickr set here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/kokogiak/sets/1425737/

by

March 6, 2011

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