Librarians Boycott Children’s Book They Claim Is Racist

By Anne Bridgman — May 04, 1983 10 min read
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A heated debate is taking place in libraries, publishing houses, and library journals across the country over the publicized decision of three major public-library systems not to purchase an allegedly racist children’s book written by an award-winning author-illustrator.

The debate has pitted the book’s publisher and others, who see the librarians’ decision as a particularly arbitrary instance of censorship, against supporters of the act, who contend that the essence of public librarianship involves making judgments about the acceptability of books to the community.

“Race and politics are, unfortunately, at the heart of one’s reaction to this work,” writes Denise M. Wilms, a children’s book reviewer for ala Booklist. “Its literary and artistic merits by themselves are unquestionable. Whether or not it is unintentionally racist will be a question librarians will have to decide for themselves.”

In addition to taking opposing positions on that question, the two sides are also accusing each other of unethical behavior: The publisher charges that the librarians violated the American Library Association’s (ala) own code of civil rights, and the librarians berate the publisher for attempting to exert undue influence on their professional procedures.

The librarians--from Chicago, San Francisco, and Milwaukee--decided last fall not to purchase for their general collections Margot Zemach’s Jake and Honeybunch Go to Heaven, the story of a black man and his mule and their journey to heaven.

Their decisions came to light after librarians at the Chicago Public Library forwarded to Farrar, Straus & Giroux Inc., the publisher, their complaints, which they included in a letter to the author, about the book’s racial stereotyping. Officials at Farrar, Straus publicized the letter on the grounds that it was an unprecedented gesture and indicated the impropriety of the librarians’ action.

Favorable Reviews

When Jake and Honeybunch Go to Heaven was published last summer, it received initially favorable reviews. The New York Times Book Review selected it as a “notable book of the year,” saying its “exuberant watercolors and words echo the soul and spirit of black folk tales.” Time magazine called it an “outstanding children’s book.” The Parents’ Choice Foundation in Waban, Mass., chose it for its Parents’ Choice Awards.

But despite this and other critical acclaim, the Chicago librarians wrote: “We are concerned that Jake and Honeybunch Go to Heaven exemplifies a ‘cabin in the sky’ mentality and does not strive to present an entirely dignified view of an otherwise rich, Black cultural heritage.”

“The group felt that the book’s interpretation of a Black heaven would offend many people and that it reinforced many stereotypes which are not offset by a wealth of children’s literature portraying the Black experience,” explained Elizabeth Huntoon, the library system’s coordinator of children’s services, in a cover letter to Stephen Roxburgh, editor-in-chief of children’s books at Farrar, Straus.

Instead of ordering the book for their general collection, Ms. Huntoon and the other librarians decided to restrict purchase to one central and two regional libraries that collect books for research. When reached for comment, Ms. Huntoon said she would prefer not to discuss the selection decision.

In San Francisco, Librarian John C. Frantz said the book “perpetuates overt and covert racism.”

According to a review by Helen Cannon of the San Francisco Library: ''The view of heaven depicted in the book harkens back to several movies of the 1930’s with the Black characters sitting around eating ribs and fried chicken and listening to music. ... While Ms. Zemach’s intentions may have been good, the book she’s produced is offensive and degrading. The book is wholly inappropriate for children whether they be Black or white.”

Although he did not purchase the book for the general collection, Mr. Frantz agreed to add a copy to the library’s historical collection because, he wrote in a letter to the publisher, “as time goes on it will become a curiouser and curiouser anachronism of the 1980’s.” When contacted for comment, Mr. Frantz said he has “stopped discussing that book.”

The Milwaukee public library did not order the book for its children’s collection, stating that the decision was not related to its literary or artistic merits but that it presented a “negative stereotype” that offended both black and white librarians in the Milwaukee system, according to Jane Botham, coordinator for children’s services. The library did purchase one copy for its historical collection. Ms. Botham said she did not have time to comment on the book.

In addition to the three library systems that sparked the controversy, other large systems have approached the book circumspectly.

Barbara F. Geyger, chief of the children’s division of the Washington, D.C., public library, said that although the children’s division did not receive a review copy of Ms. Zemach’s book, the staff decided not to purchase the book for its general collection after several librarians saw a copy of the book elsewhere.

They decided that “it was not a book we would want to put in the collection because of the kind of racial stereotyping” in it, Ms. Geyger explained. “It’s a question of sensitivity in a city like this.”

“I am concerned about censorship,” she said. "[But] you don’t necessarily censor a book by not putting it in” the collection, she said.

Because the book is by an award-winning illustrator and since it has been requested by several people who say they are interested in children’s literature, the library plans to order a copy for the “illustrator’s collection,” which houses a selection of books with exceptional artwork and is located in a locked room next to the children’s room.

Barbara Rollock, coordinator of children’s services at New York Public Library, recommended the book for her library’s children’s section. “Reviews were mixed during our selection process,” she wrote in the March issue of American Libraries. “Although the book can be considered on one level for its artwork, our reviewers did see controversial aspects to the book. We decided, however, that the book should be available for people to see.” The librarians placed copies in the largest of the library’s children’s rooms.

‘Buck the Publishing Establishment’

“It’s been a long time in coming when librarians buck the publishing establishment in terms of applying criteria to the content of books,’' commented Bradford Chambers, director of the Council on Interracial Books for Children, a nonprofit group that monitors the field.

“It’s very much a selection issue,” he continued. “Children’s books reflect and perpetuate the biases of society. Until we start selecting books in terms of criteria that will check out biases, they will just continue to perpetuate.”

But the book’s publisher disagrees. “The issue is the discrepancy between the ala’s bill of rights and the interpretation thereof, and the position of the librarians, which seems to be that they’re excluding the book for racist reasons, which contradicts the bill of rights,” Mr. Roxburgh said.

Section 1 of the Library Bill of Rights states: “Books and other library resources should be provided for the interest, information, and enlightenment of all people of the community the library serves. Materials should not be excluded because of the origin, background, or views of those contributing to their creation.”

Book-selection decisions are made for every book that comes across a librarian’s desk, according to Judith Krug of the ala’s office for intellectual freedom. “The basic policy at the ala is that each individual library is responsible for selecting its own collection that will serve the needs of its own constituency.”

“The thing that bothered me about the nonselection in some instances of the Zemach book,” Ms. Krug explained, “is the fact that librarians began to comment about why they did or did not purchase it,” to inject their personal values into the book-selection decision.

“It is very apparent to me that there are some librarians who do not select materials objectively and neutrally, and that is very detrimental to the librarians--who are by far the vast majority--who really do swallow a lot in order to make sure all points of view are represented in the collection,” she added.

Reacting to the librarians’ decisions, Ms. Zemach asked her publisher to send them copies of some of the source material she consulted in writing the book, including “American Negro Folktales,” “A Treasury of Southern Folklore,” and “A Treasury of Afro-American Folklore.” She said she hoped that once the librarians saw similar portrayals of black history in black American folklore, they would support her book. But none of the three systems reversed its decision.

Read to ‘Thousands of Children’

Ms. Zemach said she wrote her book, which sells for $13.95, after researching black American folklore for eight months at the University of California. Once Jake and Honeybunch was written, she read it to “thousands of children” to gauge their reactions. The children loved it, she said. “If these children can understand it, we might ask ourselves what is wrong with these librarians.”

Ms. Zemach, of Berkeley, Calif., contends that she wrote the book to fill a void. “There are very few good books with black children in them,” she said. “There is no black folklore around. I started reading black folklore. ... I thought that somebody would do it, and I thought that I would try, despite being white. It did worry me,” she said of the possibility that she would be criticized for being a white woman writing about black history.

“I won’t say [the controversy] wasn’t painful,” said Ms. Zemach, who has won the Caldecott Medal and two Caldecott Honor Medals and was nominated for the 1980 Hans Christian Andersen Award for past books. “I really had expected that if I did it well enough and was true enough to the subject and it was celebratory and handsome ..., it would be a book for children to enjoy.”

Ms. Zemach’s is not the first children’s book to have been excluded from a library because it is thought to be discriminatory. In 1969, William Steig’s Caldecott-winning book, Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, was the subject of nationwide protest by police groups and others because it featured two pigs as policemen, according to John Donovan, executive director of The Children’s Book Council Inc. And several other children’s books have been examined and attacked by special-interest groups as racist or sexist, he said.

“Children’s books are the most difficult field because of the feeling that one should be educating the young,” said Norma Klein, author of books for young adults, including Mom, the Wolf Man and Me and Naomi in the Middle. “It’s just a simplistic attitude toward literature, I think.”

Several of Ms. Klein’s books have been banned from libraries in recent years because they contain sexual scenes. “I think the concept behind it is appalling,” she said of such action. “It’s contradictory to the whole con-cept of fiction, which is to tell the truth about human beings.”

‘Foolish’ Behavior

Other publishers of children’s books also have strong reactions to the way the case has been handled.

George Nicholson, editor-in-chief of children’s books at Dell Publishing Co. Inc., said he would have treated the situation differently. “I think the publisher has behaved foolishly and the librarians have behaved foolishly,” Mr. Nicholson said. “I would simply have ignored it. ... I feel [the publisher] misjudged the situation. ... You have to be very judicious about what you choose to battle, and I think [the librarians’ decision] is a matter of taste,” he said, not censorship.

“I feel very firmly that any publisher has the right to publish any book that they want to publish and that it shouldn’t be banned from libraries,” said Janet Schulman, editor-in-chief of children’s books at Random House.

Ms. Schulman said she thinks the librarians’ decision to exclude the book on the grounds that it is racist is dangerous, but she added that “self-censorship ... is probably a reality.”

“I’m personally sorry for the children’s book industry,” Ms. Schulman said. “It’s an unfortunate example in a time when there is so much serious censorship going on. ... This Jake and Honeybunch book is to me a little dimple on the problem of censorship in this country.”

A version of this article appeared in the May 04, 1983 edition of Education Week as Librarians Boycott Children’s Book They Claim Is Racist


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