Little House, Big Problem: What To Do with “Classic” Books That Are Also Racist

Students have been reading To Kill a Mockingbird, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and the “Little House” series for generations, and having these “classics” available in school libraries is a given. Should that change?



Figuring out to how to handle classics that critics say haven’t aged well can be tough for librarians charged with putting together school collections. Students have been reading To Kill a Mockingbird, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and the “Little House” series for generations, and for many years, having these “classics” available in school libraries was a given. But today, some media specialists are questioning the proper place for these and other novels.

Just two years ago, the American Library Association (ALA) decided to drop Laura Ingalls Wilder’s name from its children’s literature award, citing her work’s “dated cultural attitudes toward Indigenous people and people of color.” The phrase “The only good Indian is a dead Indian” shows up multiple times in Little House on the Prairie. ALA was careful to note that renaming the award was not an attempt to “censor, limit, or deter access to Wilder’s books and materials.”

Andy Spinks didn’t consider it to be censorship when he weeded Wilder’s series out of his collection at Campbell High School in Smyrna, GA, a suburban school about 20 minutes outside of Atlanta with a student body that’s 20 percent white.

“These aren’t kids who are really going to be interested in rolling across the plains in a horse and buggy,” says Spinks, one of two library media specialists at the school.

Spinks stresses that he doesn’t support weeding to “intentionally circumvent” reconsideration policies but notes that “problematic books also often meet the criteria for weeding.”

He adds that it’s not hard to discard a book or a collection when it’s somehow problematic and also unpopular with your students.

But what about when a popular classic is also seen by some as problematic?

“Sometimes I think people don’t know what to do with those books,” says Meg B. Allison, a teacher librarian at U-32 Middle and High School in East Montpelier, VT.


The problem with Atticus Finch

Published in 1960, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird quickly became popular with readers throughout the country and around the world. The novel is set during the Great Depression and tells the story of Atticus Finch, a small-town Alabama lawyer who takes the case of Tom Robinson, a Black man falsely accused of raping a white woman. The story is told through the eyes of Finch’s young daughter, Scout. The Pulitzer Prize winner has never been out of print.

In 2018, PBS named it America’s favorite novel, following a national survey of nearly 4.3 million Americans.

“People love that book, but they ignore so many of the racist tropes and the depictions of people of color that are derogatory,” says Julia E. Torres, a teacher librarian who serves five schools through her job with Denver Public Schools.

Critics say the novel perpetuates stereotypes about African Americans and doesn’t give its Black characters any agency. But the book is still assigned reading for many students, and it remains on the shelves at most high schools.

“There’s a lot of area in between taking a book off the shelf and deemphasizing it,” says Spinks. “To Kill a Mockingbird used to be my favorite book, so I would recommend it all the time. Now I don’t do that.”

Instead, Spinks says he encourages students who read it to keep in mind that the book examines “racism from a white perspective.”

The novel has faced frequent challenges for its language. The N-word is used liberally in the book, and some parents have complained that reading the book aloud in class is inappropriate.

Fans of the book say it teaches tolerance and helps to awaken racial consciousness.

That’s a point that Torres questions. “If it were so successful at raising racial consciousness throughout the United States all these decades, why are people still forbidding their students from reading The Hate U Give or going to see the movie?” Torres asks. “Also, if it [is being read] in high school, that’s pretty far along in the game for people to be learning about racial injustice or racialized aspects of our justice system.”

Torres has taught the novel a few times in the past, but if a teacher asks for her help teaching it today, she usually suggests another book, like Samira Ahmed’s Internment, set in the near future, about a teen sent to a U.S. internment camp for Muslim American people. Or, she suggests they teach To Kill a Mockingbird using excerpts or through a critical consciousness lens, which would include lessons on white saviorism and the weaponization of white women’s tears.

Some librarians suggest using modern novels such as Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give to provide context to classics.

“The themes of To Kill a Mockingbird are about coming of age and agency and finding one’s voice as a youngster,” says Allison. “Well, Angie Thomas does that very, very well with The Hate U Give, and so they’ve been augmenting and supplementing curriculum with some more contemporary choices, especially written by #OwnVoices authors.”

In 2015, author Corinne Duyvis started the #OwnVoices movement on Twitter. The movement aimed to support kid lit that spotlighted diverse characters written by writers from the same background.

Sometimes authors backed by the movement face obstacles when it comes to getting their work in front of young readers in the classroom. The Hate U Give, which tells the story of Starr Carter, a Black high school student who witnesses the fatal shooting of her friend Khalil by a white police officer, has been challenged because of its language and its depiction of police.

Read: Kid Lit Authors (Re)Make History

Huck Finn and the N-word

Torres argues that many people who challenge these books ignore problematic classics such as Mockingbird and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Mark Twain’s novel, which follows a white boy and a runaway slave who make their way along the Mississippi River on a raft, includes the N-word hundreds of times. Torres notes that reading it can cause distress for Black students, particularly if they’re the only one in a class.

“A child of color sitting in the classroom listening to that word said over and over again with no discussion about it, which I know happens, that’s upsetting,” says Torres.

Allison says that’s where a good teacher should step in and provide information about when the book was written and some of the factors that might have gone into Twain’s choice to use that word.

“You have to understand that time period and what language was doing at the time and compare it to what we’re doing now and not just let students read that book in a classroom setting without some sort of context and support,” says Allison.

Kimberly N. Parker, assistant director of Shady Hill Teacher Training Center in Cambridge, MA, says that type of support is important when teaching texts such as Huckleberry Finn.

Parker, who holds a doctorate in curriculum and instruction, spent nearly 20 years in the classroom before taking on her current role and often taught the novel, which was required.

“The problem is that we can do so much damage and harm,” says Parker. “We do harm if we don’t teach that text in ways that are antiracist, if they are not culturally sensitive, and also if that’s the only time that children have to see themselves reflected in text. I’m really convinced that we can do better.”



Curation vs. censorship

Sometimes that impetus to do better comes from parents and other members of the community.

Miranda Doyle, district librarian for the Lake Oswego (OR) School District, where she oversees 10 schools, says it’s not unusual for the district to receive informal requests to reconsider a book.

“If it’s one of our assigned curriculum books, then I think it would be worth looking at whether that’s something we want to continue to teach, whereas if it’s in the library, I would advise leaving it on the shelf as long as it’s something that is currently within the guidelines of what we have in the library,” says Doyle, who also serves as the intellectual freedom chair for the Oregon Association of School Libraries. For many librarians like Doyle, the answer is to add more contemporary books to the collection through careful curation. “Making sure when we’re promoting books, when we’re putting up displays, when we’re doing reading programs and we’re adding to the curriculum that we are choosing books that are not problematic and are, in fact, diverse and respectful and from a wide variety of authors,” says Doyle.

That’s also the approach favored by Allison, who says she worries about librarians who pull books simply because they find them personally offensive.

“That’s a slippery slope, because for some people an LGBTQ character might be offensive,” says Allison. “I firmly believe in the freedom to read statement by the American Library Association that even books that are offensive to some people need to be available to students, so from the standpoint of my librarianship and my role in the library, I’m not removing texts, but I certainly may not promote them or display them.”

She cited her decision not to display the work of Sherman Alexie last year during Native American History Month.

“I put [out] Tommy Orange,” says Allison, referring to Orange’s novel There There, about 12 Native American characters convening at the Big Oakland (CA) powwow. “I put other authors out, especially #OwnVoices authors, and try to be as inclusive as possible to have texts that are by authors from diverse perspectives, but I’m not removing Sherman Alexie’s books from my library shelves because he’s somebody that’s been implicated in the MeToo movement.”

The author of several novels including the Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian has faced allegations of sexual harassment in recent years and issued a statement in 2018 acknowledging “there are women telling the truth about my behavior.”

Still, librarians note that they’re trying to strike a delicate balance. “Trying not to censor and not to further oppression at the same time is challenging,” says Spinks.

Torres, who says she would never tell another educator not to teach a certain book, is not in favor of pulling texts from the shelves. “I believe in a child’s right to read what they want,” she says.

But, she says, it’s important to allow the canon to grow and evolve.

“I do think teachers need to work together with their students to figure out what do we value as a community, what do we want to learn about, what are we curious about?” she says. “What texts can we bring into our community that will help us grow?”

Freelance journalist Marva Hinton is a contributing editor to Edutopia and the host of the “ReadMore” podcast, an interview show that primarily features authors of color.

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Mary Marod

I do not think that these classic novels should be removed. I do think that there should be serious discussion of the book and how it relates to todays issues on racial injustice and discrimination after being read. Children on not born racist, they learn by what they are told and see by their mentors. That is why a serious discussion of the books read in English and Literature classes should be discussed in a school setting or in a home environment if not school related. These novels should not be removed from our libraries, they are a part of history. They need to be read so that this travesty does not continue to be accepted as right. Time to live up to the constitution that says "ALL MEN are created equal and deserve to be treated with respect.

Posted : Oct 15, 2020 01:51

John Heideman

All you are trying to do is censor books. Who are you to decide what people read.! You are part ot the new cancel culture that wants to re write American History. If we take out every book that is objectionable for one reason or another we will have no books in our collection.

Posted : Aug 04, 2020 03:56

Mary Sumpter

This is hogwssh. Good literature teachers put things in historical perspective as to when they were. Written we can't change history cause someone's feelings might be "hurt"

Posted : Jul 29, 2020 09:30

Mary Sumpter

What a load of hogwash to remove these classics because someone might find them offensive! All books have something to offer including classic values and yes maybe racism. But a good literature teacher can point these things out and show the book in historical concept.
I'm a literature teacher and don't plan to try and dismiss history because someone's feelings might be hurt
Thank you

Posted : Jul 26, 2020 05:11

Carol Burke

I think That is important for children to see what was so acceptable in our society at one time. Maybe they were even better than us because it was out in the open. We criticize other countries for their civil rights, or lack of. Let’s take a good look at ourselves which is what I think this whole situation is bringing attention to.

Posted : May 31, 2020 10:42

Beth Gutwein

I have loved the books in this article for most of my 60+ years. To Kill a Mockingbird is still my favorite classic. I feel it is a horrible mistake to ignore truth. You cannot rewrite history by weeding out what you feel is offensive. Sanitizing our history is akin to book burning and brain washing! How in the world will we learn anything? We must bravely look at where we came from, see the good, the bad, the ugly. Trust yourself and those who teach us to recognize the unacceptable "normals" of the past. Be strong enough to talk about those very wrong beliefs. Talk about how things are getting better. Discuss without fear or shaming one another, ways we can continue to grow as human beings.
There were also a lot of good things in the books this article says are not worthy; family values, neighborly love and support, willingness to see a better way.
Even as a young girl, I saw the wrongness of certain practices and beliefs of those long past days. And teachers and mentors also guided my understanding.
It would be so oppressive to our youngsters' minds and spirits to forbid them a chance to see ALL of who we are, and were, and do the critical thinking for themselves.

Posted : May 31, 2020 09:05

Josephine Mitchem

Leave the books were they are. That is a part of history. Leave so always rem. So it don't happen again. Need to always rem. All need to go back to the Lord and Iove oneanother.

Posted : May 30, 2020 05:04

James Spears

I appreciate what the author has said about these classics being racist according to the viewpoint of different minority groups of children. What if the Muslim books recommended by these experts are consider racist by people who lost loved ones in terroristic attacks by extremist Muslim groups. How will that be resolved? Racism has different viewpoints at different times in America's History. This must be considered when reading books. You must consider all viewpoints otherwise you are teaching censorship and the ability to have open mind.

Posted : May 30, 2020 04:09

Valentina Zamudio

To whom it may concern, How you can hold Authors accountible for books that were written may years ago. Come on people get over it. That was history. All thoses books that were written are totally fine leave them alone and quit bashing the Authors that are all mostly dead. What about the Authors of today that is way worse. Get off your high horse we know all your doing is to make more money. And if not shame on you.

Posted : May 29, 2020 06:31

Jane Cox

As a voracious reader from the time I was a young child, I would like to make two observations:
1) Individuals should not make public comments about books they have not read. It is obvious to many when that is the case. Even members of the ALA (really the ALSC) who voted to remove Wilder’s name from their award had not read her books. To me that is unethical.
2) In 2019, reading skills of students in the eighth grade declined in 31 states and many high schools were assigning reading material at the fifth grade level. The average reading level of a college freshman is about the seventh grade. It may be that the classics mentioned, full of nuance and character development, are simply too difficult for current children to comprehend. However, if students only read about characters like themselves, in circumstances like their own, living in contemporary times as they do, how can they learn empathy for others or how to use their imaginations?
I applaud the many outstanding teachers who guided me and the teachers like them who make the effort to challenge and inspire.

Posted : May 29, 2020 06:18

Jane Cox

As someone who has been a voracious reader since I first learned how to read, I have two comments:

1) No one should make a public comment about the quality or theme of a book unless that individual has actually read that book. It is so very obvious to many when that is the case. Even members of the ALA (actually the ALSC) who voted to remove Wilder’s name from its award had not read the actual books condemned. This is unethical.

2) With reading comprehension scores declining (in eighth grade reading thirty-one states saw a decline in 2019) and with many high schools assigning books at the fifth grade level, it is obvious that the books mentioned in the article as classics are just too difficult for current children to comprehend. They are filled with nuance and character development that require thought; but if challenging material is not taught or if students only read books that reflect their personal life experience, how does learning and empathy for those not like themselves take place?

I applaud the great teachers in my life and the ethical and brave teachers of the present.

Posted : May 29, 2020 03:56

Sarah Moore

I've read the complaint numerous times about the phrase 'the only good Indian is a dead Indian' that appears in the Little House books. While I agree that's a problematic statement, it's hardly a thesis of the books. I mean I always pegged Ma for a narrow-minded bigot, but the impression I got was that Laura and Pa emphatically did not agree with Ma's sentiments about native Americans. Of course I read those books as a child and loved them so I know I'm biased. But every time I read this criticism of the books I just cringe. Which, I suppose if I were a Native American reading the books I would probably cringe when I read the problematic phrase and probably in other descriptions as well. And life goes on in the world continues to turn. Times change, and new books have been written, and it's only natural to move on.

These kinds of distinctions however are important. If you care about books and literature, I don't think you should mischaracterize them to bolster your arguments. In my humble opinion it weakens them.

Posted : May 29, 2020 09:09

Carol Gibson

I agree that libraries cannot remove books from shelves because someone finds them offensive, especially when the offense results from 20-20 hindsight. The burden lies with teachers of literature to teach that character analysis is an important part of reading. Further, character analysis includes understanding where and when the person exists, The social mores of the time and place as well as a whole range of variables including family influences.

One possible approach is to retire old copies and replace them with newer editions that include critical analysis or questions for discussion. Then, when the book is checked out encourage the student to take a look at that. Obviously, this is an argument for schools to hire licensed librarians who are knowledgeable of such matters. Perhaps other ways may be found to alert students. Creative librarians can avoid censorship.

Posted : May 29, 2020 01:34



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