Reading into Racism: Bias in Children's Literature and Learning Materials

By Gillian Klein | Go to book overview

Chapter 4

Issues in fiction

We have already considered the potential power of fiction to shape children’s views and attitudes. We need also to keep in mind that fiction is not just that story that 3b is ‘doing’ or that is being read by teachers to the reception class. It is also the imaginative journey taken by the solitary child with her head in a book—in which she is guided by the author, and the author alone, and follows where the book leads. And it is the phrases and images that are left behind, either when that voyage has ended, or when the reader has opted out along the way because the book failed to hold her interest, which we cannot afford to ignore.

The history of prejudicial print in children’s books is as old as the first children’s book. It has been traced by Dorothy Kuya (Prieswerk 1980) right from the seventeenth-century: one of the first books for children was The Adventure of Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe. She analyses how the ‘social and cultural destruction’ of the black man is based on the assumption of his inferiority. He is given a ‘better’ name, language and religion, his nakedness and cannibalism are corrected, and he is, appropriately for Defoe and his readers, so deeply grateful that he offers to his white ‘master’ his service and ultimately his life.


Subjugation of black characters

Certainly Defoe set a pattern for the portrayal of blacks in children’s literature. If they were ‘savage’ or ‘primitive’ they were bad; if they served a white ‘master’ and accepted his definition of ‘civilization’, then they were ‘good’—but still inferior. And, generally, helping white heroes of the ilk of Captain Biggles or James

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