Edi Campbell: Two Reviews
title: My Best Friend
author and illustrator: Rob Hodgson
date: Frances Lincoln Children’s Books; 2020
title: Cannonball Coralie and the Lion
author and illustrator: Grace Easton
date: Frances Lincoln Children’s Books; 2020
Toni Morrison once said that literary discourse should transform “from the racial object to the racial subject; from the described and imagined to the describers and imaginers; from the serving to the served.” That encourages me to critique beyond literary devices and provide a review based in critical literary analysis. I think this helps readers realize how a particular text situates a reader while continuing to reveal children’s publishing’s role in systems of oppression.
Coralie in Cannonball Coralie and the Lion is a plump, white-presenting young girl who lives alone in the woods. She has a strong sense of agency because she doesn’t have to follow rules. She can stand on her head, juggle squirrels, and be as funny, brave, and as silly as she chooses. But one day, a little band of performers marches through the woods. It’s headed by a white-appearing adult male in a uniform of sorts. Clearly, he’s in charge of all those who follow him.
I’m perplexed at the presence of both the brown monkey and dog. Unlike other animals in the scene (except the yellow cat who could also have a racialized interpretation), they’re humanized by being fully dressed and walking on their hind legs. While the author/illustrator may not have been aware of the racist ideology embedded in these images, someone responsible for creating this book should have called it out. (If you’re not aware of the problem with monkeys, read this.) I think as long as black people are equated with simians, publishers should exhibit greater responsibility in putting them in children’s books. Monkeys in their natural habitat do what monkeys do can exist simply as monkeys. But, put a suit on it? We’ve got something different.
Coralie wants to join the circus because she is attracted to the lion’s power (ah, wild girl and her bad boy!) but, she must go through “the man in the big hat”. (Is that not reminiscent?) He decides that because she is short and round, she should be a human cannonball if she wants to follow the group. Does the girl get her lion? Will the “man in the hat” maintain his power? Will the monkey speak? More important, at what cost to people of color do young readers learn that a white woman can disrupt a white man’s power?
Anthropomorphic monkeys are just one example of how anti-Blackness is expressed in youth literature. Colorism is another. Black and brown people living in lands that have been colonized by Europeans came to experience this practice when lighter-skinned people were shown preference in employment, marriage, education, and politics. While neighbors, relatives, and teachers have perpetuated this practice, so has mass media where black is a negative, evil and frightening presence and white is good, kind and pure. This anti-blackness is so ingrained in our culture that we sometimes have to pause to realize that the message that all the black things in books and movies are bad is also applied to Black people.
Here’s what I mean.
My Best Friend by Rob Hodgson tells such a cute story! In the book, this little white mouse describes its friendship with an owl and I bet you have already questioned how a mouse and an owl could be friends. It’s a very tongue in cheek story that endears us to the mouse because of its innocence while we develop a disdain for the owl. Oh, the owl is black with a dark purple abdomen and eyebrows. The mouse is polite, playful, happy and oblivious to the owl’s intentions. The owl, with its furrowed brow seems mean and a bit grumpy. It’s something to be feared. While we want to recognize the big owl as the one who maintains power in the story, through its guilelessness, the little white mouse is self-empowered.
If you don’t think this story is racialized, let’s imagine a black mouse that is captured by a white owl with a tuft of tan feathers on its belly. The black mouse is innocent of the white owl’s plan to do it harm. Consider those dynamics.
In reviewing these books in traditional ways, we fail to address their racial subject. The intended message of My Best Friend would not be altered were we to change the colors of the mouse and the owl from black and white to almost anything else no more than it would change Coralie’s message were we to rid the book of its anthropomorphic monkey and dog. Considering the imaginers, I cannot recommend these books.
Filed under: Guest Posts
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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