A Product of their Time

As both a parent and an avid reader I hear about controversies involving children’s writers quite frequently. In case you’ve missed it we are having a reckoning in our society and world at large. Certain things that were once tolerated no matter are and even minor or micro instances of racism are being singled out. Why they may not seem big to us they do to the people they insult or attack, and it is important for us parents to ensure that our children grow up to be better people than we were.

We are the stewards of the future generation. As Marshall McLuhan said, “There are no passengers on starship Earth. Only crew.” We don’t get to take a passive role when it comes to guiding and shaping future generations. It is our duty as global citizens.

So it was no surprise to me when I saw the controversy surrounding Enid Blyton. I admit I had to Google her to find out what she had written and even then I had no idea. Our kids have watched Noddy but the 1990’s Dreamworks version of her books isn’t what is at question. The controversy exists because a parents group that rates children’s books for instances of racism and other things put warnings on a couple of her books.

People were quick to come to her defense saying she was a product of her time, and that we shouldn’t impose modern morals on figures of the past. I do not buy these excuses. Enid Blyton was at her height between 1949-1959. Think about that time frame for a second, and think about what was happening in the world.

While Blyton was British she certainly would have been aware of the turmoil in America around this time. This was the era of Brown v The Board of Education, Jackie Robinson, Selma, and much much more. Consider for a second that Harriet Beecher Stowe was born one year before Enid Blyton, Frederick Douglas died a year prior to that, and James Baldwin published Native Son in 1955 at the height of Blyton’s popularity. To say a writer at their height between 1949-1959 didn’t know what racism was is as ignorant as racism itself.

There are thoughts and ideas that are of time periods that do not translate to future times, but when Charles Dickens excoriated the unfairness of British society one hundred years prior to a writers height then we cannot use the excuse that they are ignorant of these facts and a product of their time. When I hear people making excuses for racists I hear them making excuses for racism and attempting to justify their own behavior.

It’s like the song says, “My heroes and legends have fallen to idols of clay.” That is how time works. That is how the literary canon works. Writers come and go. Some have staying power and others don’t. Some are forgotten by one age and resurrected by another. It is important that we do try and pass on the best of ourselves to our children. I am all for the classics and classic children’s stories, but there are landmines out there, and walking into them is not something I wish to do.

I constantly have to remind myself that my experience, my growing up, is not anyone else’s. We all want to be the main characters of our story, but we aren’t in our story. We aren’t in anyone’s story. This is an ensemble cast. We have to listen to other people if we are going to figure out what is best, and while your experience, your upbringing, isn’t offended by what’s in the writings of Enid Blyton other people are.

Think of it this way. You’ve been eating chicken with your hands most of your life. You find yourself in a nice restaurant and order chicken on the bone. It comes out and you start to pick it up, and as you do so everyone is staring at you. You realize you were about to be rude. Do you continue to eat with your hands and tell the waitstaff, your table mates, the chef, and the owner of the restaurant that they are a bunch of easily offended snowflakes or do you decide not to be rude and use a knife and fork?

If we can adjust our behavior so easily in situations like the one above how come we can’t do it when it comes to writers of the past? Let them go. Your heroes and legends are nothing but idols of clay. No one is stopping you from enjoying the work of Enid Blyton or from reading it to your children. A group has simply added a warning label on their website so parents that are concerned about exposing their children to racism can avoid certain works by the author.

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