Wednesday, June 18, 2008

The Controversy of Skippyjon Jones

So I went to my Creating Picture Books class, which is held in an art studio (kind of neat). The class is pretty fascinating. Our teacher is Ashley Wolff, who is most known for the series of books featuring Miss Bindergarten. She brings her border collie with her to class, and it's a very fun environment. I had a little trouble creating things in class because I didn't have all my materials with me, but I hope that I will get comfortable enough to work on cue. I did try to do too much with my first project, but I let go of my determination to DO IT MYSELF and asked for some help. She really is pretty insightful.

Within that same class, we got into a lot of discussions about the politics of children's book illustration. We had all brought some of our favorites (I brought the Lorax, I Love You Stinky Face and the Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales). Someone brought Skippyjon Jones. Now I love that book. I have given it to both of my nephews, and I usually give it to people when I attend their baby showers. So imagine my surprise when one of my classmates said it is racist. Huh?

The premise of the book is that Skippyjon, a Siamese cat, wants to become a chihuahua. Not just a little dog but a dog bandit who likes to sing in English words with -o's attached to them so it sounds almost like Spanish. The whole book, to me, is about an imaginative kitty who mimics a Zorro-like character. I love the way the language rolls of the tongue and the humor that is sprinkled throughout the text.

I can see, now that it has been brought to my attention, that some Hispanic readers might be irritated with the stereotypes of Spanish bandits (played by the real chihuahuas) and the over simplification of Spanish words. Kind of like those Taco Bell commercials with the chihuahuas, Skippyjon just hits too close to home for some people. But this book, much like those little fast food dogs, is incredibly popular and has won many awards including the E.B. White Award for Best Read Aloud Book. On, 112 people gave it 5 stars and 12 gave it 1 star (mostly for the reason stated above). There is now a whole series of books about Skippyjon. I am usually one of those people who is very aware of how certain pieces of literature might affect people but this one definitely slipped past my attention.

And now, post discussion, I still can't say I feel differently about the book. I can see how it might offend some people, but it's kind of like leprechauns. I'm sure that there is still a minority of Irish people who find them offensive, but I would like to think that human beings today do not actually associate such creatures with real people from Ireland. Same thing for bandits who like tacos. I would hope that young children would not think that a small Siamese cat's fantasies have anything to do with a real person who lives in Mexico. These issues are so challenging because I am not a part of the culture that might be offended by Skippyjon, so how can I really say whether it is offensive? One of my classmates mentioned The Story of Little Black Sambo as a book that was popular in its time but is now seen as offensive. She suggested that someday, despite its numerous awards, Skippyjon might face the same fate. I am open to anyone's thoughts on this issue because I really am perplexed. Are there any other current and popular children's books that could also be seen as racist?


Jenny said...

While I think you should educate yourself, I find sometimes it's exhausting to get all riled up about something being racist. Even Bugs Bunny could be considered a racist- should we boycott his cartoons or anything else done by those particular Warner Bros creators?

I've read SkippyJon Jones and the books are a lot of fun. Phoenix's favorite book for the past 8 months has been "Look, this is my body", but occasionally I can convince him to listen to another book for longer than 10 seconds. Anyways, SJJ happens to be one of my personal favorites- if we really want to get started on Spanish/Mexican stereotypes in different mediums, we might have to wipe out half of our entertainment for the past 100 years.

You know what I think the problem is- there aren't enough white stereotypes out there to make fun of. Let's celebrate those so people can stop worrying about all the other races- let's jump on the "rednecks are funny because" wagon and just even out the playing field a bit. Maybe then people can start enjoying their books instead of looking for the racist undertones.

OmahaDad said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
OmahaDad said...

It's interesting that we become so sensitive to perceived slights that we can't simply enjoy a fun children's book (and by "we", I mean "I" wife has been reading these books to my daugher, and my PC radar immediately went into overdrive, which is how I ended up here). In the final analysis, I agree with your's fun, it's absurd, and my daughter loves these books. Like the "controversy" over Speedy Gonzolez, the problem is more with those offended, than those who simply view the books as amusing.

I do disagree that "white" stereotypes aren't provided for our amusement. Seen "O Brother, Where Art Thou"? It's hardly an isolated example.

theresa said...

After seeing your post and the other comments, I am actually more convinced that these books are racist. This is how racist stereotypes are taught to young children - by presenting them as funny. It's sad because these books are fun and different and I would rather read an imaginative story than some of the drivel that is out there. But we need to support writers that can write great children's books without trivializing the people that our country has oppressed.

Frog and Toad said...

The characters in "O Brother Where Art Thou" aren't funny BECAUSE they're white.

This book sucks. I'm white, and I don't want my kid thinking Mexicans run around putting "-o" on the end of English words. It is also terribly written on the level of plot; the plot makes NO sense.

Nancy said...

Just because something is funny, or is perceived as funny by some people, does not make it okay (and I don't mean only White people, because various Latino/Mexican kids and parents like these books as well). In the US, we have a long history of explicit racism which has left its legacy to this day. This is why jokes based on racial and ethnic group differences from the perspective of the White dominant culture is not appropriate. For example, the idea of putting "o's" and "ito's" at the end of English words is making fun of Spanish from the perspective of English-speaking monolinguals.

Saying that making fun of White stereotypes would make this all better is misguided because in the end, Whites are in positions of power in basically every arena of this country, White students don't experience "stereotype threat" the way Latino students do, White people do not get racial profiled, White people have generally had access to real estate and other wealth building opportunities from the founding of this country, as compared to people of color and indigenous people, etc.

The storyline of this book belittles the complex and rich culture of Mexico and the Spanish language. As a Mexican American, I do agree that "sometimes it's exhausting to get all riled up about something being racist," (because I can point to several examples every day), but I also believe that it's BECAUSE we haven't been riled up that ethnic and racial groups continue to be made as less than in the US, to the point that many people believe this is okay because it's been the status quo. As a Kindergarten teacher, I know that the series could easily be cute and provide fun language opportunities for children WITHOUT perpetuating negative stereotypes of Latinos.

You don't need to know said...

The books aren't racist, they just suck! This book series reeks of suburban mom target audience trying to "expose" their kids to Spanish using ridiculous and absurd word play that that falls beneath the intelligence level of even small children. It doesn't even insult me on racist level. It insults me on an intellectual level...I feel like I just got my kid stoned after reading it. There's very little coherence or relevance to the story line, just one-liner 40 year old method-"dy-no-mite" humor that should have died with that era.

Jordan Munroe said...

This is what is called a caricature. It is a superficial portrayal of a culture. It is a stereotype. It's not racist because Mexican is not a race. Honestly, the prejudiced undertones in this book don't offend Mexicans as much as it makes the author seem a bit dumb?

Jordan Munroe said...

It gives the impression that the author wants to engage a culture but doesn't find it worth actually understanding that culture. It is effectively saying, "I don't really want to understand you, I'm just going to sit here and play with my shallow beliefs about you."

Also, there are plenty of stereotypes flying around about white people; its just that when one's culture is the majority, one doesn't take as much notice.

Andrew Ovenden said...

First, I think we need to lay off the word "racist." Does the book play on stereotypes, perhaps, but stereotypes are not, in and of themselves, racist. It's what you *do* with a stereotype that makes something racist (in a college course I used to teach, we discussed the progression from stereotyping to prejudice to racism (or xenophobia). These books are not, by definition, "racist."

My second point was about a previous comment about there being not enough "white" stereotypes. As an Englishman, I've become used to Americans constantly saying "chip, chip, cheerio" as if all English people sound like Dick Van Dyke's character in Mary Poppins (terrible accent, by the way). Not that it matters, but do we need to list all the white stereotypic cartoon and book characters out there?

All that being said, I read Skippyjon Jones to my 3-year old daughter and we both loved it. But, I did find myself surreptitiously wondering if I "should" love it. But then, I also have a Chihuahua, so I'm not about to stop reading the books.

Jordan Munroe said...

One has to understand, and I believe in ways you do, that to be a minority is a lot more than just being in a smaller group. All I think anyone is asking for here is a little bit of understanding. And the biggest problem is the assumptions. In my experience, most Latino Americans are more American than Latino (specifically those that were born here) and have absolutely know idea how to make quesadillas.

I would love to understand your theory on the progression from stereotypes to racism. And I can't believe people still say "Chip, chip, cheerio". That's sad.

Carlo said...

There is a common thread I see connecting most of the comments here...
We have an enormous capacity to sense something may be insulting, and we have an enormous capacity to dismiss any potential guilt for a variety of reasons.

In life, most people seem to require very real injury to their own physical/emotional state before they feel compelled to change the cause of that injury. And therein lies one of the root causes why stereotypes pervade broadly enough to lead to prejudice and racism; because in our society, there isn't enough real injury to the body or feelings of the majority to prompt change. And not only are the injuries to a minority distant enough on a daily basis to ignore, but even by the sheer fact that they are mostly experienced by a minority, the terms of repair usually end up being dictated by the majority—sort of a beggars shouldn't be choosers mindset.

It's just sad that we haven't learned enough from history to just outright change out default approach to these situations by now. Especially when our children our involved.

Carlo said...

Another component that often gets overlooked, that I only became aware of when I became a parent, is just because our own children may only see the "fun" in something, doesn't mean there isn't a very really insult still happening for older children or adults as bystanders.

I've noticed many stereotypes and prejudices that are baked into our society can come flying at me unexpectedly, unwittingly and indirectly through the words or actions of my own child who is just being an innocent mirror of the world she experiences. In some ways it's a deeper more painful way to experience insults that I otherwise would've avoided or turned away from when uttered by another adult or peer.