Thursday, October 1, 2009

Reissuing a Classic... or Not

I had cause yesterday to recall a favorite book of mine as a child, and wondered if you were familiar with it. I was delighted to find the entire book was available (free) online, and was actually a creation of the same person responsible for "Little Black Sambo". I wonder what chance this classic tale might have in today's marketplace? http://www.sterlingtimes.org/kettlehead2.htm
I'm just one person with one opinion, so please take this as such: Not a chance in hell.

A story meant to scare children away from open fires? In which the little girl's head is burnt off. And then her head is replaced with a kettle. And then the kettle is replaced with a doll's head, through the timely intervention of Santa Claus. And then she lives happily ever after (though thereafter terrified by open fires, and probably in need of a lot of expensive therapy)?

I think that to most of today's consumers this story will seem one or more of the following:
  • pointless
  • terrifying
  • inexplicable
  • unnerving
  • draconian
  • batshit crazy
However, this is an opportunity to remember that children are not nearly as easy to horrify as many parents are.

And to remember that the stories adults are likely to think of as pointlessly wacky because the stories are so far out of our cultural norm are fascinating to children for the very same reason. Children know it when they're looking at a story that's different from others, and children are hard at work every day trying to figure out what rules and ideas the world is made of. They naturally know that the exceptions define the edges of the rules, so everything that's markedly different is a possible key to the shape of the world.

And, to return to your question, as with Little Black Sambo (which I am likewise not a fan of), if there are enough people who remember this story fondly from their childhoods, then it could perhaps be republished. Who knows?

45 comments:

Anonymous said...

The last line really sums it all up:

"And that is how her head has never been burned off again."

Imagine that in a query letter...!

Falen said...

that story was both charming and weird as hell...

working illustrator said...

Little Black Sambo was republished a couple of years ago by HarperCollins, with illustrations by the late, great Fred Marcellino under the title The Story of Little Babaji.

They made exactly one change from Helen Bannerman's original text: changing the names of the characters to reflect the story's original Indian setting (Bannerman was a British ex-pat in India).

At the time the Harper book was published, there were several articles on the long, tortured history of the original book, which - in its American editions through the 20th Century - accumulated all kinds of racist baggage in text, illustrations and cultural context not present in the original.

"Black," for Bannerman, meant, of course, "Indian" rather than "person of African descent." The text she wrote - brave hero outfoxes tigers, gets lots of pancakes in the end - doesn't have a spot of racial malice in it.

Marcellino and Harper, to the everlasting credit of both, reclaimed the book's delights for American audiences by jettisoning the name 'Sambo', which I think we can all agree is hopelessly stained by history.

The story, though, is a great one - Julius Lester and Jerry Pinkney did a version of it around the same time that Marcellino did (hard to beat that as an act of racial reclamation).

If I'm a little defensive of it, it's because I read the original as a kid and loved it, utterly blind to the racial aspects of it and of course, to its history.

I gave The Story of Little Babaji, to an Indian friend who had compained to me about the lack of Indian characters in US picture books. All five of her kids have loved it.

The Wikipedia articles on Bannerman and Little Black Sambo are, as usual, good points of overview.

Anonymous said...

Change Santa to a vampire, and that's pure gold!

working illustrator said...

OK, just went and read the Kettlehead book you linked to and yeah, it's crazy.

I would illustrate that text for free.

In a heartbeat.

God, please, someone send me a text that fun to work with!

But alas, indie comics are the only place left for imagination this anarchic. More's the pity.

The only question would be whether to leave in the racial aspect of the original illustrations... created today, would that be seen as rascism or commentary on the anxiety of racists?

PhilH said...

I'd buy it.

Khanh Ha said...

I hope like hell nobody will remember this story, much less considering it for a rerun!

I teach my child not to fool around with fires, inside or outside the home, with any simple show-and-tell way other than this tasteless showing of a simpleton as a child manipulated by a simple-minded author who wanted nothing but a shocking effect.

On a technical note: The doll's head could pass for Mary's head? Unless her parents are dumb or blind, then, well...

Anonymous said...

Okay. Confession time. I LOVED Little Black Sambo as a child. A tiger who'll eat you unless you stip? Horrifying. But pancakes with tiger butter? Heck yes. Such a satisfying ending, and of course, I wanted to eat them so so badly.

That said, I never read it to my kiddos, and I know I'd never buy it.

Wendy Sparrow said...

I'm not one for profanity, but I think batshit crazy is the only one to truly sum up my feelings. I'm trying to take into consideration the year it was published... and its "folk-tale" style, but I'm going to go all Lorax and speak for the trees. Some books are a waste of resources. For those that enjoyed the book, yay... it's available online.

I think that many of today's children's book are more watered down than the past, but I often appreciate that. I was reading a book to my children last night. It was a picture book and there was a cook in it who wanted to eat the MCs... who happened to be various talking animals. They called him a cannibal. I had to explain the concept of cannibalism to my children last night because some stupid book thought a human eating anything talking (ie. a chicken, pig, and something else) constituted cannibalism. (I just can't figure out how no editor said "Uhh... none of these animals are human, and they're all frequently eaten." )

Although... it did leave me thinking that if chickens and pigs could talk... would we be able to eat them? I think not. Since they can't talk... that gives us license to eat them. Hah! (I need more sleep.)

Anonymous said...

When I worked in children's books, we published Julius Lester's SAM AND THE TIGERS, a PC version of the Little Black Sambo story. As I recall, another one came out at the same time.

Stephanie, PQW said...

I have got to say that I agree with you on so many levels that there is no reason to reissue this one. Some things are better left in the past. I'm not surprised that a story like this came from the author of LBS whose title is so offensive I can't type it out.

It is understandable why as a parent and a grandparent I wouldn't have an appreciation for this book (totally understated). However, as a psychologist with a specialty in children I'd have to say this story and thoughts of reissuing it are batshit crazy and I have the credentials to say so.

Anonymous said...

And then she got lead poisoning from the doll's head. And then, the Easter Bunny happened to be passing, and he had a chocolate egg just the right size. And then she became Little Egghead. And then forever after she had to be dragged past the neighborhood children...

PhilH said...

I should probably add that while I loved this post's description of it, I couldn't read the actual story as for some reason that page made Firefox crash.

I don't believe for one second that the story could possibly live up to the description here.

emay said...

Oh, EA, I think you were punked. That letter has to be a joke.

ae said...

I loved it too.

And my mother (a kindergarten teacher/music teacher) got so pissed off over the whole thing.

As a child, I never felt any "racial differences"
between myself and the protagonist. (I am white.)
I just thought it was a sweet, simple story.

Thanks for the explanation Working Illustrator!

Ginger*:) said...

I hate to admit this but at an unnamed school I once taught in in the south... the book "little black sambo" had been renamed and redone as "little GREEN sambo." It was in the 60s during a time of great unrest in the deep south.

As for Kettlehead.... does anyone remember reading the Tales of Hans Christian Andersen or the Grimm Brothers tales. Some of those were horrific.

Anonymous said...

I never read the story as a child, but I do recall eating at a restaurant called Sambo's when we took summer road trips:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sambo's

Sam Hranac said...

I hope someone grabs the graphic novel rights to this one. It could be a hoot!

Emily Blackapple said...

What I remember about LBS is that he had some really amazing shoes in our version (crimson with crimson lining?)
At 4 or 5, I selected purple keds so I could be like him.
And then, kind of forgot about it til' I went to college, and, like Working Illustrator, learned it was such an infamous story with a terrible history. My childhood shoe idol - rife with controversy!

Also: Kettlehead sounds amazing, and exactly like something my favorite 4 and 6 year old pals would make up.
WI: you've got some serious competition for the illos on that one.
;)

Anonymous said...

I'd buy it, too.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Working Illustrator about the text of the story itself not being racist. That's all baggage that's been attached (fairly or unfairly) to the story through the years. The story itself is a fun story about a little boy who outwits a group of tigers; nothing more.

I've enjoyed the story in its varous retellings - with original pictures, Babaji, and Sam and the Tigers. The pictures in this one are especially beautiful. I haven't read it, but this retelling looks like fun.

Literaticat said...

I love that story, and I would buy it in a HOT SECOND if it was reissued.

Ed, I am ashamed of you for having such prosaic taste.

Richard Lewis said...

One of my favorite childhood books was the bloody Struwwelpeter Suck-a-thumb, about a prancing man with scissors who cut the thumbs off little thumb-sucking children. Below is the verse (which came complete with pictures):

The Story of Little Suck-a-Thumb

One day, Mamma said “Conrad dear,
I must go out now and leave you here.
But mind now, Conrad, what I say,
Don’t suck your thumb while I’m away.
The great tall tailor always comes
To little boys that suck their thumbs;
And ere they dream what he’s about,
He takes his great sharp scissors out
And cuts their thumbs clean off, and then
You know, they never grow again.”

Mamma had scarcely turned her back,
The thumb was in, Alack! Alack!
The door flew open, in he ran,
The great, long, red-legg’d scissor-man.
Oh! children, see! the tailor’s come
And caught out little Suck-a-Thumb.
Snip! Snap! Snip! the scissors go;
And Conrad cries out - Oh! Oh! Oh!
Snip! Snap! Snip! They go so fast,
That both his thumbs are off at last.

Mamma comes home: there Conrad stands,
And looks quite sad, and shows his hands;
“Ah! said Mamma, “I knew he’d come
To naughty little Suck-a-Thumb.”

Anonymous said...

To Working Illustrator and Emily Blackapple:

After you illustrate Kettlehead, how about "The New Mother" by Lucy Lane Clifford - from 1882:

http://www.geocities.com/orwellus/newmother.htm

Rose Green said...

Then there's always the classic Struwwelpeter (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Struwwelpeter and http://www.fln.vcu.edu/struwwel/struwwel.html), still sold in every single bookstore in Germany...

We own it for the gag gift nature of it--but out kids find it rather terrifying. As well they should.

HANNAH'S DAD said...

> Little Black Sambo was republished a couple of years ago by HarperCollins, with illustrations by the late, great Fred Marcellino under the title The Story of Little Babaji.

Ah - thanks. I hadn't realised the link between them was so very direct, nor the Indian origins of Little Black Sambo.

Little Babaji is one of the most drop dead gorgeous children's books I know, and a firm favourite in our household.

Many's the time I've turned to look thoughfuly at my daughter, and in my deepest voice said "Very well - I won't eat you *this* time..."

HANNAH'S DAD said...

> I hate to admit this but at an unnamed school I once taught in in the south... the book "little black sambo" had been renamed and redone as "little GREEN sambo."

Long ago - mid '80s - I worked in the computer games industry. We had finished a fighting game destined for the early Nintendo consoles, but Nintendo were vetoing its release on the grounds that when the players character died, he slumped down into a pool of red blood, which was considered excessively violent.

We changed the blood colour to green, Nintendo rescinded its veto, and the game was released.

The moral of the story: It's ok to beat up Martians.

working illustrator said...

Anonymous 10:07 pm said: To Working Illustrator and Emily Blackapple: After you illustrate Kettlehead, how about "The New Mother" by Lucy Lane Clifford - from 1882.

That one's also sort of been redone, too: Neil Gaiman has identified it as one of the sources of Coraline.

Anonymous said...

"working illustrator said...

That one's also sort of been redone, too: Neil Gaiman has identified it as one of the sources of Coraline."

I know - Coraline is great, but it would be crazy to see "The New Mother" illustrated as is, not just used as an inspiration to a modern tale. The fake mother in that one has a glass eyes AND a dragging wooden tail!! And there is not even a shred of happy ending - it ends with such pure horror it makes Kettlehead look uplifting.

- anon again

myimaginaryblog said...

It's kind of weird to me that someone brought up Struwwelpeter when I'd just been researching it a week or two ago, for an entirely different reason. (I'd been reminiscing about a shop in Berkeley CA whose owner was of German origin, which used to have signs saying "Don't Touch" with an image of a child's hand with its fingers chopped off. My mom claimed that the illustration came from Struwwelpeter, which sent both of us off on internet searches.)

I loved LBS too. I hated a lot of Hans Christian Anderson and the Grimm brothers, though. Y'all realize that the original Little Mermaid gets turned into seafoam, right? And my daughter recently read with dismay about the poor tin soldier who melts in the fire. And I think there's a Christmas tree that dreams of happiness but then gets burned. Anderson was quite the ray of sunshine.

A few years ago my mom was reading a story out of The Junior Classic to my daughter who was then about four years old, and has always loved animals. The story was about a cat and a mouse, and my mom was startled when at the end of the story, the cat ate the mouse. My mom said, "And now that little mouse is in heaven," and my daughter said, cheerfully, "No, he's like this," throwing her head back, closing her eyes, and letting her tongue loll. It's really hard to predict what might upset kids or delight them.

Ieva said...

OMG this is absolutely marvellous book :))) My kids would love it.

Deirdre Mundy said...

Wendy-- does that mean we can eat babies before they develop verbal skills? What about the 'deaf and dumb'? Or mutes?

OR, on the other hand..... What about Parrots? They talk, but if I was stranded on a desert island, the parrot would be going into the stew pot!

Also, the sort of cannibals who eat people from other tribes do it because they DON'T view the others as 'people'--they have a more limited view of what constitutes a person.....

For instance, during civil wars in the Congo, the pygmies often get eaten. Because the people eating them think that pygmies are too short to be 'human.'

OK. Really need my morning coffee. It's just we argue about cannibalism a lot around here. (No, we're not raising little hannibal lectors-- It's just that it, even more than slavery, raises such interesting questions about what constitutes 'family' and what constitutes 'other'...... )

In terms of cannabilism in kids books: I recently discovered the incredibly AWESOME "I, Crocodile". My kids loved it, so I checked it out on Amazon. (Only available in paperback. Pffft.) One of the reviews complained because the Crocodile 'practices cannibalism'--- meaning, he eats a person at the end..... !?!?! (Same review complained b/c he eats birds and fish, too....)

OK.... off to coffee so I can be less ADHD! ;)

Maria said...

The kettlehead also reminds me of L. Frank Baum's original Wizard of Oz, where the tin man is made of tin because he kept having body parts chopped off (I think he was a wood cutter? Not a very good one, I guess . . .). At any rate, each part was replaced with tin until he was entirely made of tin. EA, you are right about how things that seem gory and outlandish to adults can be fascinating in a relatively innocent way to kids. My 8 year old daughter loves the Baum novels (she is also a fan of Roald Dahl, who is another master of the bizarre).

Anonymous said...

My favorite part is that the leftover head of the mutilated baby doll has *real* eyelashes.

shelley said...

"Gee, Santa. Thanks for the replacement head" Oy

Julie_c said...

Man - that is a LOVELY paragraph about how children decipher stories to shape their world. I'm printing that up and putting it on my board.
(And I'm not just trying to kiss ass.)

Anonymous said...

Off Topic: What do you think of this... are some YA writers too "big" for editors? They are using Steph Meyer as an example. Or are some editors not into editing, and more into this-author-is-gonna-sell-anyway-so-why-bother?

http://editorunleashed.com/2009/07/09/is-editing-worth-it/

Sarah Heacox said...

The above-mentioned "Struwwelpeter" is full of children meeting horrific demises and was just reprinted in 2006 with new illustrations: http://www.amazon.com/Struwwelpeter-Other-Disturbing-Tales-Beings/dp/1560977027/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1254513144&sr=1-3 and Amazon puts it in the children's category.

kittypye said...

When I was a kid, one of my favorite stories (in My Book House, if I remember correctly) had an evil stepmother who says, "I cannot part your hair with a comb; bring me an axe.) My daughter seems to have inherited my warped sensibility. She has a collection of Hans Christian Anderson tales and her favorite is a bizarre and violent tale called "Little Claus and Big Claus." Does Little Kettlehead have a chance in today's market? Not a chance -- but my daughter's gonna love it!

Anonymous said...

I'm so glad so many people mentioned Der Struwwelpeter! I grew up fascinated and horrified by that book. We had it in the original German. It was my mother's childhood book. I couldn't read the text but the pictures freaked me out. I remember asking my mom to translate the stories for me even though they scared me. In addition to the thumbsucking story, there was the one about the girl who played with matches and burned to ashes right in front of her weeping cats. And there was the boy who refused to eat his dinner until he wasted away to nothing (you get to see the stages of his anorexic glory) and died. The "beauty" of the Der Struwwelpeter tales was in their simplicity. This Kettlehead story just rambles on getting crazier and crazier.

I can't see there being a market for this kind of "don't-do-this-or-else!" story today, except, as a previous poster said, as a graphic novel. It would fit perfectly in that genre!

ae said...

Struwwelpeter, and Max and Moritz (you haven't lived till you've read these beauties) and the real German Grimm WERE the books I was read/or I read myself as a six and seven year old in Munich (our home).

If we are supposed to remember our childhoods and write with that, then these said authors must have had horrible ones.

But they did not make me a disturbed child.

What they did do was make me not feel anything towards them except that they were sadistic, humorless, cruel and heartless. It was kinda hard to warm up to and like the characters.

If there was a point to made it in them it was lost on me.

I still have Struwwelpeter somewhere but feel no real need to dig it up...as it were.

And Max and Moritz never made it back to the States.

Ms Baroque said...

Well, I can understand why "the market" is based on other factors - of course - but I'm old-fashioned, I think there is still such a thing as literary merit. "Batshit crazy" looks cute at the end of that bullet-point list, but as a value? And yet there are people here using it as a serious value judgement. Hm.

And I simply cannot believe that someone finds the title "Little Black Sambo" too offensive to type out! When I was little I thought Little Black Sambo was a story about how SMART this little boy was! I couldn't believe it when I grew up and heard it was supposed to be racist. Sambo was the kid no one else thought would get anywhere and yet he did this amazing thing - made tiger butter! I thought it was a book about how stupid tigers were. For years I thought tigers were not very bright animals who quite probably (though I was too embarrassed to ask outright) melted into butter.

Oh, the disappointment when I was finally told. (But somehow I got over it.)

Mrs Psychologist Lady might like to consider that kids NEED weirdness, they need some form given to their secret fears and monsters. Sendak realised this. Anything to do with eating is right up their street. Even the kettle story works on a child level, because kids are trying to work out what being alive means. We always used to ask, could I live without... my hand? My legs? My stomach? Can you live without a stomach? What about your neck, could you live without a neck? (Pace, like Maria says the Tin Man.)

Or do they really just have to be little mini-adults, seeing everything in empirical, economic and politically correct terms? Don't forget - politically correct means we have censored them before we start. Why NOT tell them about cannibalism? And then read them Treasure Island? My kids had that for bedtime at age 5. Yes, the real one. Not some stupid expurgated kids' version.

Sorry - rant rant! But please, let's distinguish between market and psychology and normal child development and literature! Even the market is as it is only because of people. It can change. I live near the cemetery where Daniel Defoe is buried. His monument was put up by the Victorians, with money raised by subscription through a children's magazine! CHILDREN paid for Daniel Defoe's monument!

Think about it.

Victoria Neely said...

I enjoyed certain "batshit" stories when I was little. Ever read the original Pinocchio? "Jiminy" gets squished, Pinocchio bites off a cat's paw, he nearly chokes to death after being hung, he's sent into hysterics because he thinks the blue fairy died...

I loved that story BECAUSE it was so weird and horrible. Same with a lot of the more grim fairy tales, such as when the cat eats the mouse, or when the wicked stepmother is forced to wear hot iron shoes and dance at Snow White's wedding until she drops dead.

London Mabel said...

OMG that was awesome!

Uma Krishnaswami said...

There's a terrific article by Jan Susina about Sambo and his heirs in the book, Voices of the Other: children's Literature and the Postcolonial Context. I am not a fan of the so-called Indian Babaji version, which really replaces one set of stereotypes with another. Not a spot of malice, agreed, but the notion of a carnivore like a tiger turning into ghee which is a sacrament in the Hindu tradition, is more than a trifle off-putting.