What makes Good Literature?

I remember hearing from a librarian a few years ago that Tom Sawyer was a banned book. I was shocked. How could such a classic of literature be banned? The librarian said it was considered racist. I had to go read it again to find out why. I didn’t believe Twain was racist; so how could his book be considered so?

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Racism in Tom Sawyer

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer: Original IllustrationsIf you’ve read Tom Sawyer, you will remember Injun Joe. That perhaps is explanation enough for the racism. Injun Joe is a drunk, thieving, murdering Indian—the only Indian in the book, portrayed stereotypically and negatively. Okay, that’s racist. I’ll agree with that. I won’t agree with banning the book.

I didn’t assume, the first time I read it as a child, that Mark Twain’s portrayal of Injun Joe meant that all Indians are like that. If anything, Injun Joe is a great way to bring up discussion about stereotypes, historical and cultural influences on literature, and the portrayal of character in literature.

I recently listened to Tom Sawyer again with my daughters. I knew they wouldn’t pick it up to read on their own, so I borrowed the audiobook from the library for a family read-aloud. The girls were soon enthralled by Tom’s antics, and I found myself appreciated Twain’s use of language. It’s easy to talk with my kids about the issues that the book raises around race than it is to find other books that have such a wide and interesting vocabulary.

Indians in Little House on the Prairie

The Little House (9 Volumes Set)Recently I came across a website condemning Laura Ingalls Wilder’s book Little House on the Prairie for improperly portraying Indians. The readers’ comments to me seemed more biased than the book. The writer was Aboriginal and took offense to Wilder’s brief mentions of Indians. I wondered if, as a child observing the circumstances, Wilder knew enough about them to give them the full details this person seemed to think she should have included.

Little House on the Prairie is another book that I’ve read aloud to my kids. Sunshine has since read the series several times over by herself. Again, as a homeschool mom, I see this as an opportunity to discuss the book and to dive into it deeper. Kids are pretty good at seeing things that aren’t fair and noticing when someone is being mistreated or misrepresented.

History and Culture of a Book

Perhaps all of this comes from my perspective as a book-lover. I see no reason that good literature should be banned or condemned merely because it is now no longer politically correct. Books reflect the history and the culture in which they were written.

Most readers, I think, are smart enough to understand that times change and we no longer refer to Native Americans as “injun.” I don’t believe that such references detract anything from the literature, however; they merely provide the discerning and questioning reader with further material for thought. Instead of banning books like Tom Sawyer and Little House on the Prairie, we should use these books to teach readers how to read critically and thoughtfully.

Good literature is worth reading again and again, because it raises questions and thoughts and makes the reader think rather than merely entertaining them. Good literature is deep, something that we can dive into as a child and as a teen and then again as an adult, and enjoy it more and learn something different from it each time we do.

If racism has come up with your kids, I highly recommend Everyone Belongs, a picture book from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. This short story about a boy and his best friend tackles the topic of racism for kids, with lessons about how God loves and created everyone, regardless of skin colour.

I’d also recommend looking for books written by authors from other countries and cultures. Passing by Samaria was one of the first books that I read by a non-white author. Take a look at the books on your shelf and ask yourself where the authors are from. Maybe it’s time to try a new author!

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