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Tintin for the 21st century

Whether it’s the recent Harry Potter series or the older hugely popular Tintin comics and Enid Blyton adventure stories, children’s literature continues to be criticised as racial or controversial.

But who is to decide what’s right and what’s not for you, the reader of children’s books?

This might surprise you, but Christian conservatives in some parts of the US were up in arms against J K Rowling’s Harry Potter series. They wanted the stories removed from schools and libraries because they believe the book contains occult, even satanic, messages.

Tintin, the energetic boy reporter in Hergé’s Tintin comic series, would not in his wildest dreams have imagined that his trip to the Congo, in central Africa, would rake up a controversy today, more than 70 years after first being published in 1931.

For those of you who haven’t heard of Tintin, The Adventures of Tintin is a comic book series (translated into English) by Belgian artist Georges Remi (1907-1983) known by his pen name Hergé.

Tintin in the Congo has repeatedly come under the critics’ axe for presenting Africans as ignorant and primitive, fanning racial prejudice among children.

Those defending the comic series say that though Hergé does depict Africans according to the stereotype,  the book merely reflects the colonial attitudes of the time. In fact Hergé admitted this, later in life, when he said: “I portrayed Africans according to this purely paternalistic spirit of the time.”

Enid Blyton, author of the popular Famous Five and Secret Seven children’s series, published in the 1940s, wasn’t spared either. Her black-faced golliwog, in the hugely popular Noddy books for early readers, was banished from the Noddy series for representing a racial stereotype that discriminates against blacks.

The Three Golliwogs, another of Blyton’s creations, in which golliwogs are the heroes, is a reference to the class system practised in Britain in the 1950s. Many believe that the series accurately presents conditions of the time but others feel Blyton’s books popularise negative images about gender, race and class.

In an attempt to appease the critics, the publishers, while reprinting The Three Golliwogs, replaced the golliwogs with teddy bears or goblins. This decision drew more criticism from those who saw the move as tampering with an important piece of history in children’s literature.

Another popular, yet controversial, example I came across on www.wikipedia.org, while researching this article, is Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn that features the despised word ‘nigger’ liberally. Many people feel the word’s racist and discriminatory connotations make it unacceptable for use anywhere, particularly in a book aimed at children. Others, however, claim that to call the book racist because the word ‘nigger’ is used is to miss the whole point of the book.

“Huckleberry Finn was, after all, one of the first American books in which a black character is portrayed as someone to be emulated, in this case serving as the voice of reason for a cast-off urchin and a middle class white boy,” says Peter Hollindale, the educationist and literary critic who calls the book one of the greatest anti-racist texts of all time.

While the debate on the ‘appropriateness’ of some popular children’s literature rages on, it’s left to you and me to understand the context in which some of these classics were written, and to form our own opinions about them.
Meanwhile, consider these facts:

  • Overall, the number of  books ‘challenged’ in 2006 jumped to 546, more than 30% more than the previous year’s total of 405, although the figure is still low compared to the mid-1990s, when the number of challenges topped 750.

  • Enid Blyton books enjoy popular success in many parts of the world, and have sold over 400 million copies. Blyton is the fifth most popular author worldwide: over 3,400 translations of her books are available in 2007, according to UNESCO’s Index Translationum (an international bibliography of translations). Blyton is behind Lenin, but ahead of Shakespeare.

  • Hergé created 23 Adventures of Tintin stories that have been translated into 51 languages. More than 200 million books have been sold, two full-length movies made, and a number of animated video episodes have exposed The Adventures of Tintin to children and adults across the world.

  • As of April 2007, the first six books in the Harry Potter series had sold over 325 million copies and have been translated into more than 64 languages. The success of the novels has made Rowling the highest earning novelist in history.

-- Durga Chandran

InfoChange News & Features, October 2007

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