Children's Literature, Racism, and Censorship

Student thesis: Master's Thesis


There is a current tendency to edit older works of children’s literature if they can be experienced as offensive by contemporary standards, racist for example, by using words such as “nigger” or “neger” or by applying stereotypical representations of black characters. These acts of editing are, however, controversial; they are frequently cause to heated discussions about the author’s copyright and a text’s autonomy, and they are often met with accusations of censoring the past or reality. But there is not a generally accepted understanding of censorship, and the word censorship is used in an extensive way. My thesis will examine if editing original works of children’s literature is censorship, or if it is exercising due diligence to avoid racist offence by contemporary standards. In this thesis I will argue that text editing (and thereby restriction of the author’s copyright) can be a legitimate strategy in regards to children’s literature under certain circumstances. 

The primary sources examined in this thesis – Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Astrid Lindgren’s Pippi Långstrump, Halfdan Rasmussen’s nursery rhymes, and Hergé’s TinTin au Congo – are chosen because they are all to some degree read as children’s literature, and because each of them represents different versions of controversies with black characters that have caused them to be banned or edited due to contemporary standards, both in regards to diction and visual representation.

The examination of the primary children’s texts is framed by a cultural historic method in order to examine the conceptions of racism of the texts’ own time and today. Throughout I will examine overt as well as covert racism within the works, and I will place emphasis on the child reader’s susceptibility to influence of children’s culture. The acquisition of racist ideas is to a large degree an unconscious process, and it comes about in a thousand different ways through the structural racism embedded in our culture. By being conscious of this undesirable presence of hidden racism in children’s literature, it can be opposed, i.e., by editing children’s books.

While instances when the n-word appears in children’s literature can be an exceptional teaching opportunity, there are many other situations (e.g., a child’s bed time or a music lesson which aim is musical and not cultural historic and social lessons) where the n-word would hinder a work’s entertainment value as well as general use. Because it is a fact that adults, who to a high degree function as gatekeepers by choosing which children’s books children actually read, may deselect texts that include the n-word, either to avoid offence or to avoid having to explain complex historic and social issues. Therefore editing can be a legitimate strategy in saving classic works of children’s literature from oblivion under certain circumstances. In regards to children’s literature, it is important to pave the way for having editions both suitable for children’s’ use (edited versions adapted to the social situation) as well as historic (preserved original) editions: a usage edition and a classic edition, respectively. With this approach of having usage editions suitable for the actual reading situation, two highly relevant aims can be met: primarily, that the children’s books are actually being read (and thus not deselected due to the contaminated n-word), and secondly, that they are being read by the intended age groups.
Date of Award31 Jul 2019
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Aarhus University
SupervisorLis Norup (Supervisor)

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