The Dark Side Of Beloved Children’s Books And Their Authors
By Elisabeth Sherman
Published May 31, 2016
Updated August 9, 2018
Remember the first time you discovered the magical worlds within the pages of a Roald Dahl book? What about the first time your parents put you to sleep with The Cat in the Hat?
While we associate many of these books with fond memories of childhood, nostalgia can dull — even distort — the darker aspects of these books and their authors. In an epoch shaped by colonialism, overt racism and misogyny, the children’s authors below very much shared these pernicious belief systems:
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Before he became known as Dr. Suess, Theodor Seuss Geisel drew political cartoons. And during World War II, he drew anti-Japanese propaganda.
But this wasn't the only timed Seuss' work played on racism. In this 1929 illustration for Judge magazine, Seuss depicts black caricatures being sold to a white man below a banner emblazoned with a racial slur.
Nate D. Sanders Auctions; World Telegram & Sun photo by Al Ravenna
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Lewis Carroll was obsessed with young girls. In fact, the inspiration for Alice's Adventures in Wonderland was Alice Liddell, the ten-year-old daughter of the dean of Christ Church college at Oxford, where Carroll lived and worked.
Carroll took risque photographs of Liddell, and she wasn't the only one: Carroll had many other muses, like Beatrice Hatch, who he photographed and painted nude many times, starting when she was five.
Some scholars have recently argued that in the Victorian era, nudes of children were common, and a celebration of their innocence, not their sexuality.
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The BFG author has a record of anti-Semitism. In 1983, he told a newspaper, "There is a trait in the Jewish character that does provoke animosity, maybe it’s a kind of lack of generosity toward non-Jews...Even a stinker like Hitler didn't just pick on them for no reason.""
Other racist sentiments made it into the pages of his children's books. In the first edition of Charlie and The Chocolate Factory, the Oompa-Loompas were a band of African pygmies. A revised edition was not released until the 1970s.
Wikimedia Commons; Everett Collection
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J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan debuted more than 100 years ago, which is sadly reflective of his treatment of Native Americans. In his book-length adaptation of the story, Peter is "the great white father." Tiger Lily can communicate in complete sentences.
Almost every adaptation of Peter Pan has had trouble navigating the stereotypes inherent in the story's depictions of indigenous peoples. To Barrie's credit, however, he left Peter Pan's copyright to Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children in London, which still receives royalties from the play.
Wikimedia Commons; Walt Disney Pictures
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In one bizarre episode from Hugh Lofting's Dr. Dolittle series, Bumpo, an African prince, wants to be white so he can marry a princess. In the original edition, the doctor bleaches the prince's skin.
In later editions of The Story of Dr. Dolittle, any mention of Bumpo is completely erased from the text.
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Enid Blyton's "Golliwog"
In 1895, Florence Kate Upton created the golliwog, a mischievous character featured in many children's stories including Enid Blyton's Noddy series.
The golliwogs' large lips, frizzy hair, and white rimmed eyes bear disturbing resemblance to a minstrel. In 2009, a new Noddy book written by Blyton's granddaughter Sophie Smallwood omitted the golliwogs altogether.
1951, Sampson Low, illustrations by Harmsen Van der Beek; 1990 edition with alterations by Mary Cooper
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Daniel Handler, better known by his pen name, Lemony Snicket, disappointed legions of fans when he cracked a racist joke (which won't be repeated here) about writer Jacqueline Woodson's watermelon allergy.
Handler, who was hosting the National Book Awards, had just presented Woodson with the prize for young people's literature. He later apologized, and donated $110,000 to the We Need Diverse Books campaign.
Robin Marchant/Getty Images
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Famed Belgian cartoonist Hergé published Tintin In The Congo in 1930. Since then, his cartoons have been accused of containing "hideous racial prejudice" against African peoples.
One scholar said of Hergé, "When it was fashionable to be a colonial racist, that's what he was."