Friday, January 24, 2014
AMHERST — I was one among a group of parents who recently petitioned the Amherst public library to move the “Adventures of Tintin” series from the children’s section to the young adult or adult section of the library. We argued that the books, written by the Belgian cartoonist Hergé in the 1930s and often reliant on ugly, regressive racial stereotypes as vehicles for their humor, were misclassified as children’s literature.
In the worst of the series, “Tintin in the Congo,” the black Congolese characters are presented as childlike imbeciles who worship white people and look like monkeys. Similarly derogatory portrayals of Asians, Jews, and other groups appear in the books as well. Better, we thought, to place such books in a location where young children, like my 5-year-old daughter, are less likely to pluck them from a shelf. Placing them in the young adult area would leave Tintin readily available to kids while underscoring the need for parents to supervise their engagement with the books. Public libraries in Ashby, Greenfield, Heath, Monson, and Southbridge, among others, do exactly that.
The director of the library and, later, its board of trustees, refused to make the move. They countered that the series was intended for children and that relocating the books would be tantamount to censorship. The fact that the library already practices such “censorship” through its use of age-appropriate book sections made little impression on these caretakers. Nor did the fact that ‘Tintin’ is indeed a young adult book according to the one firm criterion for age- appropriateness the director provided — namely, the age of its lead character. Tintin’s creator, Hergé, identified him as a 14- to 19-year-old boy.
So why are the “Adventures of Tintin” often regarded as children’s books? I suspect it’s because, 80 years ago, a Belgian newspaper commissioned them for its children’s supplement. Some people have followed suit ever since. Happily, times have changed and cultural mores with them. Is it reasonable to ask the public library to apply clear criteria that reflect 21st century U.S.
sensibilities to its decisions about age-appropriateness, rather than cling to a judgment made in a very different place and time? I think so.
Make no mistake: As long as we distinguish between children’s, young adult and adult materials, someone will decide which is which. The key questions before us are: Who will make the decision, on the basis of what criteria, and with what degree of transparency?
I entered the meeting with the library trustees hoping together we might identify a way forward that resolved the tension between a principled support for the “freedom to read” and a commonsense agreement that little kids are not the first, best audience for ‘Tintin.’ In that, I was disappointed. However, I did walk away with renewed appreciation for the value of diversity among decision-makers, especially in our public institutions.
In our meeting, the library was represented, to all appearances, by six white trustees and four white staff members. They said the issue we raised was a serious one and thanked us for bringing it to their attention. They took their charge seriously. However, I believe a board that included people of color might well have reached a different conclusion.
Why? Because for nonwhite board members, the victims of a doctrinaire “freedom to read” stance might well have been their children, nieces, nephews or grandchildren. A nonwhite board member might have imagined her child taking in demeaning depictions of people who look like him. The inclusion of those voices at the board table might have generated a richer discussion, one that didn’t sidestep the real harm such books can do to children with facile references to “teachable moments.” It is not coincidental that those of us who spoke to the board all have kids of color. Do we care about censorship? Yes! We also care for the welfare of our children.
Of course, white adults, like those who represented the library that day, can love children who are not white or not their own. But most white parents have children who will identify with Tintin, whereas most non-white parents have children more likely to identify with the people of color the book depicts so unfavorably. It is not merely reasonable that decision-makers in public life reflect their constituents’ perspectives and sensibilities.
My adventures with Tintin suggest that fairness requires no less.
Andrew Grant-Thomas lives in Amherst.