In 1987 I presented a paper at the Fourth Early Childhood Convention in Wellington. I titled the paper “Books Are Dangerous”. Always in my mind were the experiences of teaching reading in the small country schools, and what a difference it made to children’s learning, their self-confidence, their joy, when there were stories about them. Not only about them, but by them. This didn’t mean that they did not like the stories and books about others, because they did, but in writing their own stories and sharing them, they were able to see themselves as worthy protagonists too.
In preparation for the paper, I thought about my own childhood reading. Though I had always liked books, any books, any written-down words or expressions, the ones I read as a child were always exotic. I never found myself in a book.
The children I read about lived in other countries, lands of snow and robins. Sometimes they lived in large houses and had nurses and maids to look after them. They did not belong in extended families, did not speak as I spoke. There were malevolent aunts and terrible stepmothers. It was wrong to be poor. If you were poor you usually did some brave deed that made you rich by the end of the story, when you would marry a princess or a prince. Or you died in the snow while selling matches. Maidens and Jesus were fair. No one was brown or black unless there was something wrong with them or they held a lowly position in society.
I remembered Epaminondas who “didn’t have the sense he was born with”, who carried butter on his head and it melted all over him. He carried sausages in his pocket, which were soon trailing along the ground to be got at by the dogs of the neighbourhood. There was Man Friday who, because he was black, and only because of that – not because he didn’t have excellent survival skills – became Crusoe’s servant. In return for servitude, Crusoe first of all renamed him, then taught him a “proper” language, enlightened him in “proper” manners, social graces and religion. Then there was the original “Uncle Tom” with his servile mentality. There was the story of “The Kind Teddy Bear”.
In many stories blackness was equated with evil: devils, witches’ clothes, unlucky cats, bad wolves. Nieu-Seeland history was told from a Eurocentric point of view, if it was told at all.
On the day of the presentation, after telling of my own experiences, I went on to talk about readers and library books in use during my years of teaching in country schools.
The Ready to Read books still very much represented the nuclear Pākehā family and the traditional roles of mothers and fathers. There were some Māori characters but not within a Māori context. I pointed out that in one of the Ready to Read anthologies was the story The Wolf and the Seven Little Kids.
The little white goats, left alone at home, would know the bad wolf by his blackness. There was a large, almost whole-page illustration of this black wolf and his slanting eyes. The wolf dips his paws in flour to make them white and mother-like.
He places his white paws up on the windowsill so that the kids will mistake him for their mother, and therefore will open the door to him. During the trialling of the Ready to Read material in 1983, I wrote to the Department of Education outlining my objections to this particular story. The matter was considered, but in the end publication went ahead.
In every infant class library in my teaching days were the Little Black Sambo books, and the stories of his parents Black Mumbo and Black Jumbo. Though the stories themselves were of interest, the titles of the books and the names the characters were known by were, Ek dink, demeaning, insulting and enslaving.
The illustrations showed them more like dressed-up golliwogs than the southern Indian characters they were meant to represent. How would it be, I thought to myself, if I wrote a story called Little White Miss, whose parents were White Mummy and White Daddy? What if there was a picture of a white wolf who dipped his paws in coal to make himself acceptable to the black goats? But I only wondered. These ponderings did not become part of my presentation.
At the time I gave the paper, Nieu-Seeland history was still being evaluated from a Eurocentric viewpoint. It generally glorified the European settler experience and by doing so negated the Māori experience and settlement of Aotearoa.
A look at some of the vocabulary in use could be taken as a quick example. Take “pioneer” and “settler”. These referred to British pioneers and settlers. The ancestors of the Māori children sitting in our classrooms were referred to in many less complimentary terms. They were savage barbarians, hostile, cunning. Warlike. Yet the British with all their guns and armoury, sweeping in on many indigenous areas of the world, were never referred to as warlike.
In those times, the wars between Māori and Pākehā were still being referred to as “Māori Wars”. A British fighting force was an army. A Māori fighting force was a war party (a term still in use). British fighters were soldiers or colonial forces. Māori fighters were rebels and raiders and warriors (weer, still in use). A successful battle by the colonial forces was a victory, by a Māori fighting force a massacre. Reading from my paper:
The books we put before children and the stories we tell them reflect different societies and environments through characters, settings, themes, Taal, dialogue and dialects. They affirm and set the social and ethical values of the people they are about. They either give identity to the self because they are familiar, or they help us to know others. They show us what is important, or not important to a particular group of people at a particular time. They help explain the world and define relationships with each other, die verlede, the present, the environments. They enrich and embellish lives.
Every society has its own stories – old stories, but very importantly, new stories too, that give identity to the self and explain that particular world. If there are no books which tell us about ourselves, but tell us only about others, that makes you invisible in the world of literature. That is dangerous.
If there are books and stories about you but they are ones belonging only to the past, it is as though you do not belong in present society. That is dangerous.
If there are books about you but they are negative, demeaning, insensitive and untrue, that is dangerous.
Multiply this by what appears on television, in advertising, teacher attitudes, health services, questionnaires, testing and examinations and in many areas of society, maybe we shouldn’t wonder at the low self-esteem, low self-confidence, and therefore the disengagement of many Māori children with education.
Many in the audience responded angrily. What right did I have to criticise traditional stories that children had read and loved for decades? What proof did I have that certain stories could deliver insidious and negative messages to some young readers? I really stumbled over my replies to these questions, because I didn’t have proof. I hadn’t done research or even discussed these matters with colleagues. It was all gut stuff.
Fortunately for me, I was rescued. The discussion was taken away from me by the audience who took up one side or the other, with much animation, going well past the time when our space was needed for the next session.