They read us tons of picture books in school: books about Johnny Appleseed, Jackie Robinson, Paul Bunyan, apple-picking, and a menagerie of animals. We would sit cross-legged in a circle on braided rugs, watching the teacher hold the book out so we could see the pictures.
We read fairy tales, my favorite: Cinderella, Snow White, Rapunzel, Sleeping Beauty, Rumpelstiltskin, Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid, and others.
We read histories and historical fiction: books about the American Revolution and Civil War, Underground Railroad, pioneers, World Wars, and astronauts.
I read on my own, too: I still love the Hutchinson Treasury of Children’s Literature and got a copy for our library. I also bought a Treasury of Children’s Literature anthology and a Beauty and the Beast picture book by Max Eilenberg, illustrated by Angela Barrett. The magic of these illustrations overwhelmed me; I would sit for unnecessary lengths of time, studying the luminous colors and fantastic scenes. They opened a world of beauty, mystery, magic, and adventure I yearned to enter.
Illustrations from top left moving clockwise: “Snow White,” retold by Josephine Poole, illustrated by Angela Barrett; Beauty and the Beast, retold by Max Eilenberg, also illustrated by Angela Barrett; The Thorn Rose by the Brothers Grimm, illustrated by Errol Le Cain.
The fairy tale illustrations I loved had one particular characteristic: as tales from the United Kingdom and Europe, they usually featured, well, white people. I remember a fair amount of gorgeous tales with Chinese, Japanese, Indian, and other Asian characters, but most of the picture book illustrations I remember that featured people of African heritage were historical or realistic fiction about dark times in American history: slavery, the Jim Crow laws, and the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s.
Illustrations from top left moving clockwise: “Prayer at Valley Forge” by Arnold Friberg; A Picture Book of Jackie Robinson by David A. Adler, illustrated by Robert Casilla; Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder, illustrated by Renée Graef; “The Underground Railroad in Indiana.”
Illustrations shape our visual imaginations. I began to separate in my imagination the fairy-tale world of golden palaces and enchanted forests, inhabited by magical creatures and white people, from the real world of plantation fields, brick buildings, gray cities, cruelty, and injustice inhabited by white and black people.
I read lots of chapter books, too. The Dr. Dolittle books are funny, and sweet, and adventurous, but the first one has a peculiar scene: Dr. Dolittle and his animal friends have gone to Africa to help with a terrible sickness among the monkeys. While there, the crew is chased around by the local inhabitants, the Jolliginki. Prince Bumpo, the heir of this kingdom, strikes a deal with Dr. Dolittle: he will let Dr. Dolittle and his crew out of prison and get them a ship back to England if Dr. Dolittle can make him white. He describes why:
“White Man, I am an unhappy prince. Years ago I went in search of The Sleeping Beauty, whom I had read of in a book. And having traveled through the world many days, I at last found her and kissed the lady very gently to awaken her—as the book said I should. ’Tis true indeed that she awoke. But when she saw my face she cried out, ‘Oh, he’s black!’ And she ran away and wouldn’t marry me—but went to sleep again somewhere else. So I came back, full of sadness, to my father’s kingdom. Now I hear that you are a wonderful magician and have many powerful potions. So I come to you for help. If you will turn me white, so that I may go back to The Sleeping Beauty, I will give you half my kingdom and anything besides you ask.”
Dr. Dolittle agrees, and creates a mixture from his medical bag that transforms Prince Bumpo from a man with dark skin and brown eyes to a man with skin “white as snow” and eyes that are a “manly gray.” Prince Bumpo is thrilled and fulfills his end of the bargain.
Remembering and rereading this fills me with sadness – and shame. I remember that I didn’t question this scene at all when I first read it, though I knew racism was wrong. As a kid, I could not picture a black person living in the fairy-tale world of silver castles and green mountains, defeating dragons or rescuing princesses.
(Note: In the The Voyages of Dr. Dolittle, Prince Bumpo returns. The mixture has worn off, and he has resumed his original appearance. He is a friend and companion in this book, though his characterization and the descriptions and dialogue surrounding him are horribly racist.)
My division between a mythical land of white people and a real world where minorities faced cruelties and injustice was, of course, wrong. Imagination and wonder are a divine gift to all humans. The Kingdom I ached for – a land of beauty, mystery, wonder, and adventure – is real, and it is the heritage of Christ-followers from every tongue, tribe, and nation:
Isaiah 2:2 (ESV): It shall come to pass in the latter days
that the mountain of the house of the LORD
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be lifted up above the hills;
and all the nations shall flow to it . . .
Revelation 7:9-10 (ESV): After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”
Isaiah and Revelation remind me: Elohim, the Creator-God who made all people, is our Judge. Our genetic differences are glorious signs of His imagination and creativity. We are accountable to Him for how we treat each other.
How does this influence this Summer of Faerie project, an exploration of the meaning and magic of fairy tales? For one thing, every tongue, tribe, and nation has legends and stories of wonder and mystery; this investigation will be infinitely richer if it is global. I also found some more recently-published retellings of some of my old favorites with diverse characters. The illustrations are, frankly, adorable:
We need good, beautiful stories that are true; that shape our imaginations and open our eyes. More than that, we need God’s story: His tale of sin and the Fall, evil and injustice, hope and restoration in a Kingdom of light.
If you know of any other beautiful, culturally-diverse fairy tale picture books or fairy tale retellings, could you leave a comment with a picture or a link?