Rare Book Monthly

Book Catalogue Reviews - October - 2006 Issue

Six Hundred (almost) Children's Books from Aleph-Bet

Popeye takes on the savage white people.


Dick and Jane led to a revolution in reading. The Thomas Jefferson of this revolution was Dr. Seuss. He figured you could better teach children to read by making the books fun. In 1957 he published the classic The Cat in the Hat, labeled "for beginning readers." Seuss wrote using the minimal vocabulary the young would be able to read while making the story fun, that is, making the children want to read it. Within a few years, the Cat and his progeny would bury the insipid Dick and Jane and Spot too. They are not missed. Item 504 is a first edition of the "Cat." $8,500.

Here is another book for beginning readers, I Wish that I had Duck Feet, by Theo LeSieg. LeSieg? Who is this Frenchman? It's a trick. Do you see? Dr. Seuss' actual name was not Dr. Seuss. It was Theodore Geisel. Geisel. LeSieg. Now you get it. Theo LeSieg was really Dr. Seuss, who was really Theodore Geisel. And to think, all of this happened on Mulberry Street. Item 507. $1,500.

There is one aspect to children's books that is not so much fun, and yet it is a stark and realistic look at attitudes of the day. That is how minorities, and Blacks in particular, are portrayed. Some books are downright ugly. There is the 10 Little Negroes, a book with its title cleaned up, but with the pejorative still used throughout the text. This 1944 edition uses the ugliest of stereotypical drawings to portray the Black family. If you think this is strictly an American issue, be notified this book was published in London. Item 88. $500. Other versions of this tale don't even bother to cleanse the "N" word in their titles. A 1950 edition uses the "N" word in the title, yet it surprisingly uses normal, positive drawings to depict the black children, rather than ugly stereotypes. Item 90. $225.

Then there is the most notable of all, Helen Bannerman's Little Black Sambo. Bannerman lived in India, and Sambo was something of a clever child, not a negative characterization. Still, racial stereotypes infiltrate these books, creating an unhelpful image Ms. Bannerman probably never intended. Even Babar (no, not Babar!), the beloved French elephant engaged in some racial stereotyping in his Pique-Nique Chez Babar. Well, let's blame author Laurent de Brunhoff for that, not Babar. Finally, there are titles like Langston Hughes' The First Book of Negroes, or Emma Akin's A Booker T. Washington School, which attempted to help black children develop a positive self-image in a world throwing negative stereotypes their way.

Here is a surprising about-face from the usual stereotype. Blacks and Indians have long been portrayed as "savages" in western books. So give Popeye credit for balance in his 1934 book, Popeye Among the White Savages. Perhaps this isn't fair either, though in 1934, some of the worst savages ever known to man were coming to power in the white continent of Europe. Go get 'em, Popeye! Sadly, we must report that Popeye passed away recently from e coli poisoning. Item 437. $900.

Aleph-Bet Books may be found online at www.alephbet.com, phone number 914-764-7410.

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