Montano urges a rigorous critical examination of children’s literature for racism, linguicism, sexism, and bias. The importance of critical examination is to empower teachers, students, and parents to recognize the root causes of bias, prejudice, and stereotype. The function is not simply to point out obvious instances of racism, linguicism, sexism, and other biases. Moreover, it is not enough to include literature written from multicultural perspectives in classroom syllabi. As Gonzalez & Montano (2008) point out, it is important to recognize bias in all its forms: “The mere inclusion of multicultural literature is not enough to disrupt privilege or injustice. Nor is it enough to ask teachers to deconstruct stereotypes in texts and images if teachers are unaware of the subtle biases that exist therein,” (p. 77). Montano calls the process of analysis critical literacy.
The process by which critical literacy can be attained varies but Montano provides a detailed and organized method of analysis. An analysis of the following four books highlights the ways children’s literature can become a vehicle for more extensive media literacy as the child grows. As children’s literature sets the foundation for value construction, norm building, and worldview creation, parents and teachers cannot underestimate the importance of critical literacy in childhood.
1. L. Frank Baum’s Wonderful Wizard of Oz. 1900.
Baum’s book might have become more popular in its film format, but the 1939 movie does not completely overshadow its printed counterpart. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz remains a mainstay on children’s literature shelves at homes and in school and public libraries. Therefore, a critical reading is crucial. The book details the magical journey of Dorothy Gale, simple farm girl from Kansas. Dorothy has been orphaned, and is raised by Auntie Em and Uncle Henry. After a brutal tornado hits Kansas, Dorothy and her faithful dog Toto are transported to an alternative universe in Oz. The bulk of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz takes place in Oz, where Dororthy amasses a band of friends including the Tin Man, the Scarecrow, and the Cowardly Lion. Along with Toto, the four friends seek the titular wizard so that they can all ask for a special gift. Dorothy’s wish is to be taken home to Kansas.
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz remains relatively clean even of tinges of bias. There are certainly no overt references to racism, sexism, or linguicism. In fact, Dorothy’s character presents young female readers with a strong and independent role model — and one that comes from an alternative household. The Wicked Witch — Dorothy’s main foil and the book’s primary antagonist — is green. She bears no resemblance to any real-life human ethnic group. As a female foil, she also highlights the multifaceted means by which human power is obtained and maintained without reference to gender hierarchies. Even though the wizard is male, he bears none of the stereotypes of masculinity. In fact, gender stereotypes are near-absent in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, in spite of its being written nearly a century ago. Therefore, Baum’s book remains a cornerstone of enlightened children’s literature.
2. Herge, Tin in the Congo, 1930
Another classic of children’s literature is nearly the opposite of Baum’s book in its overt racist undertones and complete ignorance of the impact of colonialism. The Tin series recently came under fire when the cultural director of Stockholm’s Culture House participated in a high profile media event in which the entire series was shifted from the children’s section to the adult shelves in a Swedish bookstore. The reshelving was controversial because it stank of censorship, and yet the move drew close attention to the importance of critical literacy. In Tin in the Congo, the hero travels to Africa with his uber-white dog named Snowy. Already, the tint of race permeates the book. When Tin hires a local black boy named Coco (an overt reference to his chocolate-colored skin) as a helper, the social stratification and racial hierarchies that were promoted actively during the age of colonialism surface with a vengeance. Tin in the Congo is one of the more overtly racist of childhood classics; such a book would not be published today in any serious publishing house. The book plays up stereotypes of African culture without revealing the diversity of the continent, and generally supports the practices and worldviews of colonialism. Gender issues are also apparent, mainly in the complete absence of any female characters. Similarly, linguicism is evident in the ways African phrases are repeated as if they are only magical incantations. Tin in the Congo certainly deserves to be studied from an adult’s standpoint, rather than be read to children as an example of reality.
3. Riorden, Rick. The Titan’s Curse. 2007
Part of the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series, The Titan’s Curse is the third installment. The series builds on themes extant in Greek mythology, enhancing those themes with modern scenarios and characters. Although the book is about a standard European mythos, Riorden’s series does not bear any sign of racial or ethnic superiority. It is not as if the author is suggesting that Greek mythology is the only mythology worth studying, as it has been presented in many school curricula. Rather, the author is writing what he knows best and it comes across as being ironically multicultural. The series could even become a stepping stone for discussing the role and impact of Greek mythology on the development of Western cultural identity. Furthermore, there are several half-breed characters that draw attention to the relevance of bi-racialism in the United States. The novels have strong female characters, rendering them relatively free of gender-bias. Even though the main characters are male, the female characters do not fall pray to stereotypes. Generally, Riorden’s series show that it is not enough to include non-European cultural references in a reading curricula and that even books on traditional European subjects can be enlightening for young readers.
4. Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. 2003.
J.K. Rowling seems consciously aware of gender, race, and linguistic bias; writing to shatter each of them. Her title character is a studious type, as gender neutral as some of the other characters in the book. In, fact, some of the antagonistic male characters in Harry Potter series are depicted as “jock” types. The author makes a strong statement against gender stereotype and bias. In The Order of the Phoenix, Potter and his friends encounter many of the same types of challenges that are presented in the other installments in the series. Race, gender, and language issues are not central to the book, which can be enjoyed without being picked apart too eagerly. Rowling makes sure to include students at the school that are non-white, in approximately the proportion they might be encountered in modern English boarding schools. Yet herein is a problem: Rowling does not necessarily want to address socio-economic class issues plaguing England, or the race-class interface that should not be ignored in novels that are aimed at older readers. Because Rowling does not choose to address these issues in any meaningful way, the Harry Potter series in general, and Order of the Phoenix in particular, should be used as a springboard for discussion. It is an example of ways issues of race, class, gender, language, and other biases are conveniently ignored.
Baum, F. (1900). The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.
Gonzalez, R. & Montano, T. (2008) “Critical analysis of Chicana/o children’s literature: Moving from cultural differences to sociopolitical realities,” Journal of Praxis in Multicultural Education: Vol. 3: Iss. 1, Article 6. DOI: 10.9741/2161-2978. Available at: http://digitalscholarship.unlv.edu/jpme/vol3/iss1/6
Herge. (1930). Tin in the Congo.
Riorden, R. (2007). The Titan’s Curse.
Rowling, J.K. (2003). Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Bloomsbury.
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