Thursday, January 6, 2011

On My Soapbox

I love reading. From the moment my mom handed me her first edition Nancy Drew books, I was hooked. I love that reading a good story offers me the chance to escape into someone else's life, to see the world through their eyes. It doesn't matter if it's dark and unsettling or light and funny, a good story always teaches me something about the world and myself.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a good story (and yes, I've actually read the book, not just the Cliff Notes).

If you haven't heard, a publisher recently decided to print an updated version of the book with the racist and offensive language removed. I realize the n word is used a lot in that book - 219 times according to one of the articles I read. I know some parents and educators hear that number and are so disgusted by it or so afraid of it that their knee-jerk reaction is to decide its not a book that they want anywhere near kids. According to the publisher, they hoped that by removing the n word, more schools would put the book back on their recommended reading lists.
I'm sure some people think this is a great compromise that will give more kids access to a classic piece of literature. Personally, I don't think the book should have been taken off those reading lists in the first place and this new, more PC version bothers me for many reasons.

Number one, does sheltering kids from the language in this book actually accomplish anything? Does anyone believe that if they don't read it in a book or see it on tv, children are never going to hear derogatory terms or witness racism? Mark Twain did not create those words. Those words are in the book because they were part of his society...and are still part of ours. Removing them from the story and replacing them with kinder, gentler ones isn't going to change that.

Number two, how does presenting a watered-down version of events benefit anyone? How can we expect kids to make sense of the past if we don't give them all the facts? Even when that past is harsh - actually, especially when it's harsh - don't we owe kids the chance to understand history so they don't make the same mistakes? The world wasn't perfect then and its not perfect now. I don't understand how hiding or minimizing old injustices does anything to help solve current ones.

Number three, does anyone really believe that kids will assume offensive language is okay because they read it in a book? My preschoolers already know that just because someone else does something doesn't mean they should. Why do people believe that middle and high school aged kids aren't capable of understanding that characters in a story, even likable ones, say things they shouldn't? I think we need to have a little more faith in kids' intelligence.

I understand the instinct to protect our children's innocence and also our desire to raise them to be the kind of people to whom race doesn't matter. But the reality is racism is part of our past and still part of our present. Sugarcoating history isn't going to change that. The only way to change it is to face the truth head on. We shouldn't ban this book or edit its content. Instead, I think we should embrace it in its original form and use it as a starting point for some very honest, real discussions.


  1. Preach it, sister. I totally agree. If you talk with your kids, they will understand the difference between right and wrong. At 4, Isaac has no problem stopping an adult in mid-conversation to tell them that "stupid" is a mean word and they shouldn't say it.

  2. Absolutely agree.
    I think part of it is fear of litigation. Schools are terrified of doing anything wrong, out of fear that they will be sued. And sadly, parents "don't have time" to talk with their kids, as Elizabeth wisely suggested, about the difference between right and wrong; but they have ample time to throw together a lawsuit when someone's left pinky toe steps out of line. (Does that make any sense? I'm tired. It's Friday. I need a drink...)
    But seriously, it's so ridiculous that we're editing literature here. When you take out the author's language, no matter how offensive, it is no longer his or her story. And frankly, the uglier the historical mistake, the more likely it is to change, right? Why can't teachers and parents take the time to explain the language in books like this instead of dancing around topics that make them uncomfortable?
    Thanks for writing about this!

  3. You've got a loud "AMEN!" And "RIGHT ON!" coming from my couch as well... which is funny since I'd *never* really yell those things out.

    I could not agree more with you... this is just so, so, so ridiculous!

  4. I could not believe it when I heard that they were editing the book. Part of the reason Huck Finn makes such an impact is BECAUSE of the accurate portrayal of a very difficult time in history. Watering it down waters down the message as well.

    In our quest to be PC we are missing the point!

  5. I couldn't agree with you more. Very well said.