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Showing posts sorted by relevance for query farmer and clown. Sort by date Show all posts

Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Anthropomorphized Monkeys and Racist Stereotypes in Children's Books

Anyone who knows me or reads this blog knows that I LOVED LOVED LOVED The Farmer and the Clown by Marla Frazee from the minute it was published. I am a HUGE Marla Frazee fan and love all of her work. Walk On! and The Farmer and the Clown are definitely two of my favorite picture books.

So I was VERY excited to read that this wordless book, The Farmer and the Clown, was going to grow into a trilogy! What a treat!  I couldn't wait to get a copy.

Then, I saw the title of the second book and I worried: The Farmer and the Monkey.

I have only recently started to pay attention to monkeys in children's literature. Edith Campbell led a Highlights Foundation workshop that I attended last year where she shared the problems with anthropomorphized monkeys in children's literature. She writes a bit about it here. The idea was new to me then (which in itself is a problem I take full responsibility for) and although I still don't completely understand it to the extent that I should, I can now see it as a huge problem.

If this is something you need to learn more about, Elisa Gall at Reading While White also wrote about this over 2 years ago in the post Knowing Better, Doing Better.

I am still continuing to learn more about this, but as I do, I am looking at children's books with monkeys with a more critical lens. I've recently realized this is something I've been missing all these years. When I revisit and learn more about Five Little Monkeys Jumping on the Bed, Voices in the Park and others, I missed so much as I continued to share these books with children and teachers for so long.

So, back to The Farmer and the Monkey, the sequel to The Farmer and the Clown.

I ordered the book the day it came out. Even though I knew the issues with anthropomorphized monkeys in children's literature, I was hopeful.  Very hopeful. I trusted that maybe since this was about a circus, it would be okay. As I said, I LOVED The Farmer and the Clown and I really wanted to LOVE this one too.

My hope disappeared after reading just a few pages of this new book.  This adorable monkey caused trouble the minute he entered the farmer's house.  It was clear from the visuals early on that this monkey was a troublemaker and misbehaved often.  This thread of this character as "troublesome" and "behavior problem" works through the whole book.  When I thought about this as related to Edith Campbell's work, I couldn't help but see how this was a problem. The racist stereotype of Black children as troublemakers is something that this book amplifies. 

I was compelled to dig a bit more.  I went page by page in the book and here are some problematic things I noticed:

  • The monkey appears to me to be sneaky. Before he even enters the farmer's home, he is sneaking around, climbing on the roof, peeking in windows.
  • The monkey is only in the farmer's house for a few minutes before the farmer sends him away--kicks him out of the house in the dark night. Alone.
  • The monkey is left alone in the night and is buried in snow while the farmer presumably sleeps peacefully, not checking on the monkey through the night.
  • The next morning, the farmer sees the monkey in the snow, (seemingly waiting to be saved), feels sorry for the monkey and brings him in and cares for him. but the monkey still causes immense trouble on the farm and although the farmer doesn't seem to enjoy the monkey, he is more patient with him. 
  • The farmer sends the monkey off on his own to meet the train/his circus family, with a full picnic basket strapped to his back so that finally the farmer can rest peacefully on a haystack. The ending shows that the farmer's life is much better after he sends the monkey away.
Even after noticing these things, I was still a tiny bit hopeful. I remembered the clown in the first book being troublesome too, so I went back and compared the books, page by page, assuming I might see that the clown had been similar in character but that I forgot.  Here is what I noticed:

  • The clown visibly presents as a white child.
  • When the farmer sees the clown all alone, he immediately takes him in and cares for him, holding his hand as they walk to the farmer's house. The clown seems compliant and happy to have the farmer as a friend almost immediately. This is a huge contrast from the monkey, sneaking in and causing trouble immediately and the farmer becoming flustered.
  • In the home, the little clown is sweet and compliant. He does everything the farmer does.
  • The farmer is so loving toward the clown that the clown sleeps in the farmer's bed while the farmer stays awake making sure the clown is comfortable. In contrast, the farmer sleeps in his own bed while the monkey sleeps on the floor in a small picnic basket, or even stays awake at night while the farmer sleeps.
  • The clown was NEVER kicked out of the farmer's home. Instead the farmer did everything he could to help the clown feel welcome and to be comfortable.
  • The farmer works hard to entertain the clown and to make sure he is happy. The clown also appears to be VERY helpful with chores on the farm. 
  • In the first book, the farmer and the clown go on a fabulous picnic using a full picnic basket as they wait for the circus train. They eat together under a tree. When the train arrives, the farmer holds the clown's hand and waits until the family comes out and greets him. The farmer and the clown have an emotional goodbye that is filled with hugs and love. The farmer seems to keep the clown's hat to remember him.
  •  In contrast, the monkey is sent on his own, loaded down with a heavy picnic basket that they packed with food. Instead of hugs and love, the farmer shakes the monkey's hand and sends him off, without enjoying the meal together, never making sure he gets where he is going.
  • The farmer appears relieved when the monkey is gone as he rests on the haystack.

After learning from Edith Campbell and others, this is the first time that I have actually SEEN for myself -- without someone else pointing them out -- the racist stereotypes and the problems with anthropomorphized monkeys in a children's book. When I look at these two characters critically, I now see a sweet white child and a troublesome monkey. I see too many anti-Black messages in this book to look away. I am not the only one who has concerns about this book. Michelle Knott also mentioned her concerns in a recent blog post.

As I said earlier, this understanding about anthropomorphized monkeys in children's literature is new to me and I imagine it is new to many educators, authors, parents and publishers. I hope that we can all do better now that this information about the problems with anthropomorphized monkeys is readily available for us.

It is not my intent for this post to end up starting a conversation about this specific book, but instead for it to act as a call for all of us who work with children and children's books to commit to learning, understanding and critically analyzing books with monkeys and to understand the problematic history of these images.

I will continue to be a huge Marla Frazee fan even if I cannot be a supporter of this book.  I am hoping that that authors and publishers take this issue of monkeys in picture books more seriously in the future.

If you'd like to learn more, here are a few things I've read:

Edith Campbell reminds us in her post about Grumpy Monkey, "Regardless of the creator’s intent, there are social, cultural and political forces that shape the messages we find in books. Hundreds of years of equating blacks with simians cannot help but be seen in anthropomorphic pictures books"

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The Farmer and the Clown by Marla Frazee

I have had the release date for The Farmer and the Clown on my calendar for months. This was a book I was excited about and one that I wanted to make sure to get right away. Well, I received a review copy of the book last week and loved it even more than I thought I would!

The book (by the amazing Marla Frazee) tells the story of an unlikely friendship between a farmer and a clown.  And can I say that the clown is so adorable!  Happy and fun on every page.  I fell in love with this book on the first read and everyone I had it too squeals or "aw"s while reading.  This week, we read it twice in the classroom. I purchased the kindle edition so that we could read it on the screen. I am so glad I did this because the details in the illustrations, some that I missed during my first few reads, are critical and would have been so hard for kids to see without the projection.  This book is simple, but it leaves the reader with so much to think and talk about. And it leaves the reader with a feeling of joy.

I have said many times on this blog that I LOVE wordless books.  This is pretty new for me as I've learned to love them in the last 5-6 years.  This is by far, one of my favorites.  I love the characters and I am amazed at how well they are each developed in this wordless book. I like the story and the characters and the art.  I love Marla Frazee and have yet to read one of her books that I didn't fall in love with.  This one is definitely one of my Caldecott hopefuls.

Monday, August 10, 2015

#pb10for10--Books to Start Conversation about Kindness

Kindness is something that we talk about all year.  So many books invite conversations about what it means to Choose Kind.  And for young children, building understanding across time is key. I have always used books such as Each Kindness by Jacqueline Woodson to invite conversations about the importance of kindness.  This book is a powerful one that we read and reread several times during the year. But I want my students to see kindness play out in many ways.  I want them to see kindness played out in a variety of situations.  And I want them to see that it is always a choice. So I am keeping a list of books in which the characters Choose Kind (or not) in different ways. Some are more obvious than others but I think this list of books will be a great list to visit and revisit during the year. Some of the titles focus on being kind to family and friend,s while others focus on choosing to be kind to strangers. Some are big acts of kindness while others are small everyday situations.  Some are new books and some are older titles. These are the first 10 books on my list and I hope to grow it as the year goes on.

Bella and Bean by Rebecca Kai Dotlich

To the Sea by Cale Atkinson

Sidewalk Flowers by JonArno Lawson

The Farmer and the Clown by Marla Frazee

Otis and the Scarecrow by Loren Long

Hank Finds an Egg by Rebecca Dudley