Tuesday, June 19, 2012

My Dirty Little Reading Secret

I have wanted to admit this for a long time, but since this book is so taboo, so beyond banning, I haven't.  But, since very few people read this blog yet, I'm coming clean.  My favorite book as a child was:
My mom bought the Little Golden Book version of Little Black Sambo on a rummage sale at some point, or maybe we got it from a cousin, but at any rate this was my favorite book and I would ask for it over and over again.  And my mom didn't want to read it to me because she thought it would make me a racist.  True story.

Here's why I loved this book.  

1.  Tigers.  I love tigers, and the year that I was 17 the only thing I wanted for Christmas was a tiger-striped fleece blanket which I still have to this day.  Anyway, I loved these huge talking, ferocious tigers that took Little Black Sambo's things and walked away saying "Now I'm the finest tiger in the jungle"

2.  Pancakes.  Every book I remember from childhood had food in it.  There was  Bugs Bunny camping book where they eat wild onions and a Strawberry Shortcake book where they have a picnic.  And at the end of LBS, our hero eats 169 pancakes "because he was so hungry"!  I'm quoting these lines from memory, by the way.  I don't have the book with me right now.

3.  Tiger striped pancakes.  Does it get better?!  The tigers all meet up and get in a fight about who's the finest in the jungle and they take off all of their finery and grab tails and run round and round the tree where our hero hides and they run so fast that they melt into butter.  Then Little Black Sambo's dad scoops up the butter into a large brass pot that he bought at the bazaar and takes it home for mom to make pancakes.  But since it's tiger butter, it makes tiger pancakes.  Wow!  

To me, as a child, the word Sambo was a name, not some loaded historically hateful term.  I'd never heard it before.  Also, I loved the imagery and world in LBS.  The boy was so adorable to me, and yes, he ends up naked at the end, but kids love naked heinies in books, that's still true!  I loved that the father went to the bazaar and brought back presents for Sambo and that he took off into the jungle and outsmarted those tigers.  I loved how silly the tiger looked with purple shoes with crimson soles and crimson linings stuck to his ears.  I just liked the book for reasons that had nothing to do with race.

The major sticking point for everyone, for good reason, is the portrayal of the characters as negative stereotypes.  The original by Helen Bannerman was extremely offensive, and the version that I read as a child illustrated by Gustaf Tenggren is also problematic.  The term Sambo is also offensive, and it often changed for other versions of the story, but the controversial history of the book lingers no matter the version and this is a story that has been vilified. 

I still have my Little Golden Book version of Little Black Sambo, and honestly, I'll read it to my kids.  But I have a lot of books on my shelf, plus a library close by, so I have no doubt that my future littlies will have plenty of access to other books, and this one will likely not be their favorite.  Also, as kids get older, this book would make a great talking point about banned books, race, story retellings and the like.  So, I would never force this book on other children, but it was just a big part of my reading experience that I will certainly share it with my kids.

Please, no hate mail.  This is just my opinion.

Happy Reading!


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