Had such a good reception to the blogs about obscure toys that I’m going to try some more original pieces on a few of my other passions, and see if this leads anywhere.
The first series is going to be about children’s books, and I want to do a few posts going over some of the ones that I just find weird, or uncomfortable.
I found this really nice late 1960s edition of CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY at, of all places, an estate sale I spontaneously visited (everything was overpriced that was of interest, including a lovely collection of Beatrix Potter-inspired miniatures). It was one of the versions with the original illustrations by Joseph Schindelman, and I was infatuated with the cover, which combined the pen-and-ink artwork with this crazy colorful backdrop.
I couldn’t find a full version online (didn’t get that copy), but here’s the best pic I could Google:
Not Exactly the Tiny Orange Men of Legend, Eh?
The Oompa-Loompas appeared this way in the first version of CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY in 1964. By the early 1970s, they had prompted some complaint and were re-rendered like this (again, taken from the piece linked above):
I suppose that’s better.
The Oompa-Loompas were part of a major problem you had in a lot of 20th century children’s stories: They were racist as hell.
Black people were a major part of African society, but this was the height of “separate but equal,” remember. So when blacks were in movies/radio/etc., they usually talked like “Yes, massah.”
And when they were depicted in cartoons and illustrations…oh lordy. Big eyes, big lips, and more of the awful dialect.
This wasn’t just America — British children’s stories did this a lot, with a famous example being the Golliwog, who’s even appeared in THE LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN:
And then there was Doctor Dolittle.
As the piece linked earlier indicates, there were some AWFUL stereotyped depictions of Africans in the Dolittle books. The most infamous example is from the first book, THE STORY OF DOCTOR DOLITTLE, where the African prince Bumpo helps the doctor escape his tribe…after the doctor bleaches his face white, so he might seem appealing to a white woman he previously frightened.
It’s no surprise that almost every reprint of this book either cuts or alters this chapter (one version has the doctor help the prince look like a lion, which is only barely better). A major illustrator I speak with sometimes says he was offered a chance to illustrate a new edition of the book a few years back, but refused based on this content, even after the publisher said it would be cut.
I had a weird thing about the Dolittle censorship; when that awful Eddie Murphy movie came out, I was 18 and fondly remembered several Dolittle books from childhood and spent some time tracking down the ones I’d missed, including DOCTOR DOLITTLE IN THE MOON. I was irate at the prospect of censorship, particularly the idea that whole chapters had been cut out of some editions, along with non-racist but lovely illos included in the cut chapters.
Of course I wound up never finishing most of the books I tracked down, and also found that the problem with many of those books was that they were overlong and digressive, and probably needed to be cut. But I still have them; thought of selling them a few years ago, and Mom said not to, as she viewed them as a symbol of what I could achieve when I really focused on something. The adventure behind getting all of them is their legacy, for the most part.
Anyway, it is fascinating how many great books are marred by the presence of the institutionalized racism of the 20th century and before. And it’s many of the great masters as well! An early Tintin book has been under much fire for this reason, TINTIN IN THE CONGO, which was only recently ruled as not racist by a Belgian court.
Will Eisner, the great master of comics, long expressed his embarrassment for giving his character the Spirit an inarticulate, big-lipped black sidekick, Ebony White.
As a kid, I found this way of talking hilarious whenever I encountered it and occasionally did imitations that were shot down by my parents. It wasn’t that I found the characters stupid for being black; it was simply I thought the way of talking sounded funny in and of itself. Hell, I encountered something similar when Robert Downey Jr. did that character in TROPIC THUNDER a few years ago. It’s just easy to forget the real ugliness that comes from those kinds of depictions, and what they can encourage in small-minded people.
Rarely is there anything as misguided as the prince wanting a formula to turn himself white in the first Dooittle book, though…!
Weirdly, “Little Black Sambo” was not what I recalled as a racist story — I think the version I saw depicted Sambo as more Pacific Asian, and I think the “black” was made to refer to his black hair in the story. I could be wrong, though. Memory is like that.
The thing is, all the books and comics I named above are some of my favorite things from childhood. They’re groundbreaking works by groundbreaking writers and artists, and have many, many aspects that are still funny and touching and exciting and hold widespread appeal for kids today.
It’s just a very disheartening thing to realize that, as products of their eras, they reflect some of the ugliness and ignorance of those times as well.
I’ll do another post soon that will be a bit more upbeat and focus on some cool illustrators, and then I have an idea for one for books that are just WEIRD.