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 Amazon.com, 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?