P.C. Alternatives to Your Childhood Faves
After re-reading The Westing Game with my son, I realized some of my favorite books hadn't aged well.
As a child, I was an avid reader. Sweet Valley High and Nancy Drew were my favorites, and I would often strike a deal with our town librarian to let me take out more books than was technically allowed.
Fast forward: I became a writer and a mother of three. Naturally, I was eager to share my favorite childhood books with my own crew. Rather smugly, I thought, “Who needs that Diary of a Wimpy Kid? My children will read the classics!” I didn’t even have the patience to wait for my oldest to reach double digits to share The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin with him. We started in the fall of his fourth-grade year.
Charlie and I sat down together on cozy beanbags and I began to read aloud the mysterious tale of a reclusive millionaire who bequeaths his fortune to whoever can solve the puzzle detailed in his will. I recalled with glee the clever directional clues in the character names: Sandy McSouthers, Barney Northrup, Julian Eastman and, of course, Samuel Westing. But, as I moved past the first chapter, I stumbled upon some lines in this Newberry Award winner from 1978 that have not improved with age:
Referring to a successful black woman: “Unless she’s one of those Black Panthers in disguise.”
Commenting on a Chinese woman: “It’s so hard to tell ages of people of the Oriental persuasion.”
On a mother with a deceased child: “She had a retarded daughter, Rosalie, a Mongoloid.”
Also, the word “cripple” is used at least five times, which is five times too many in my book. Unfortunately, Charlie was already hooked on the mystery so I did some very careful editing as I read aloud. I had a pit in my stomach remembering that I had sent this book to my nephew a few years earlier. Could that explain why I never got a thank you note? (J.K.)
So where can you get your fix of mystery fix for riddle and puzzle-loving kids?
If you loved The Westing Game, try The Mysterious Benedict Society by Travis Lee Stewart.
In this modernized tale, four brilliant children with diverse backgrounds are elected into an underground society and embark on a secret mission.
What about everyone’s favorite girl detective of yesteryear … Nancy Drew? The creation of author Carolyn Keene is clever. She’s nimble. She’s kind. And she’s … got to fix her hair? Yeah. That’s right. I was uber-pumped to read the 80th-anniversary edition of The Secret of the Old Clock with my eight-year-old daughter Lila. That is, until I came upon these lines:
“She gave a long, loud feminine scream.”
“Not many girls would have used their wits the way you did.”
“No man would make that racket.”
We quickly shut the book, and I was despondent. Detective Drew was my role model growing up. Where was I going to find a more current, wily sleuth for Lila?
If you loved Nancy Drew, try the Randi Rhodes Ninja Detective series by Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer.
Randi is a full-fledged ninja as well as a detective, and in these books she uses her smarts and physical skills to crack an art heist and find a missing time capsule. She’s tough, clever and has two boys as best friends and co-detectives. This is the update to dear Ms. Drew we needed. Plus, I couldn’t love the author more.
Or pick up the Cam Jansen series by David Adler.
Here’s what he said about why he made the wily protagonist a girl:
“Cam, as a girl, is curious and assertive, just as many girls really are. But that's not their stereotype. It's my hope that the current generation of readers will be open to treat people as individuals, whatever their gender, race, religion, or age.” Sold.
The biggest surprise came when my mother dropped off a box of books I used to “read” when I was very little. These were from our first house in Baltimore, which we moved away from when I was four, so I know that it was mostly just about looking at the pictures. There were at least ten Babar books in the pile and the moment I opened the first, Babar the Elephant, I was overcome with nostalgia. The illustrations are gorgeous. I remember simply loving elephants as a child – those grey, big-eared, tusked animals seem to be a perennial favorite of toddlers. So naturally, I was overjoyed to share these books with my youngest, Sam, who was about two at the time.
Sam was immediately drawn to Babar. But I got an icky feeling as I read the text and looked at the pictures again with a mature eye. The books are racist and imperialistic. Babar marries his cousin. He brings civilization to a group of elephants from the forest who are naked and waiting for enlightenment from the “big city.” Celeste doesn’t utter a word. Now obviously Sam wasn’t picking up on this. He was more into repeating “Baba” over and over. But I decided to look for a better option.
If you loved Babar, try Elephant and Piggie by Mo Willems.
It has all the delightfulness of our favorite chubby animal, but this time with neurosis instead of colonial goals, and a delightfully playful best friend that happens to be a scrappy pink pig.
And for an elephant tale that teaches kindness and inclusion above all else, check out Strictly No Elephants by Lisa Mantchev.
I don’t want to say there’s never a time and place to read this outdated literature with your children and have meaningful discussions about stereotypes, but I find that I’m not really up to the task at bedtime. With so many incredible, modern updates on our favorite childhood stories, is there really a need to revive the classics just to satisfy our own cravings for nostalgia?
Elyssa Friedland is the author of the newly released The Intermission and Love and Miss Communication (2015). She has contributed to the Washington Post, McSweeney’s, Bustle, POPSUGAR, Real Simple and more.