Blogger Kaitlin Frick

The Problem with Classic Literature

When was the last time you took a good, honest look at the classic titles on your library’s shelves? Now more than ever, we need to be considering not only the harm some of our childhood favorites do to children of color – particularly Black children – but also the messages they send to white children.

Tikki Tikki Tembo, for instance, is a title many grandmothers fondly remember and request from me often. But any good researcher (and what are we as children’s librarians but researchers who also enjoy a good storytime or science lesson?) can easily dig up this 2012 post from Grace Lin detailing the inherent problems in the story. And I’m sure many of us have heard about the study released in 2019 on racist depictions within Dr. Seuss’s books.

While I’m not saying you need to out-and-out remove Tikki Tikki Tembo, Dr. Seuss or Little House on the Prairie from your library, what I am saying is we all – most especially white librarians – need to be more conscious of the messages our recommendations send to our public, and the lessons children are learning from those recommendations. 

If a classic isn’t circulating the way it used to, if it no longer meets the criteria set for inclusion in your collection – maybe it’s time to weed.

If that classic is still quite popular, however, perhaps you could make guides for discussing race and racism available for caregivers – on your shelves or at your circulation desk. Embrace Race has a list of tips for talking to kids about race, and Dr. Debbie Reese recommends caregivers read critical writings about the classics they intend to read in order “to create an informed space where you can talk to your child about the problems they present.”

First and foremost, however, a great way to counter racism in classic children’s literature is simply to feature and recommend titles that promote anti-racism. If Little House on the Prairie would make a good addition to a display, put out The Birchbark House instead. If you’re considering handing Peter Pan to a caregiver, they’d probably also like Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky. (Unless they specifically asked for a classic. Then maybe hand them both.)

I guess what I’m saying is, while I don’t necessarily subscribe to the image of “librarians as gatekeepers,” I do believe we as children’s librarians have a profound influence on the young people we interact with on a regular basis. What we choose to do with that power and privilege is ultimately up to each of us. I hope I use it well.

Interested in resources to help you select children’s books by and about BIPOC? Check out this list:

How to choose excellent children’s books by and about American Indians (Dr. Debbie Reese)

Where to Find Diverse Books (We Need Diverse Books)

Confronting Anti-Blackness: A Reading List for Ages 0-18 (The Conscious Kid)

Nine things parents should consider when searching for anti-racist media for their kids (The Washington Post)

And if you haven’t already, go check out this thoughtful, thought-provoking post from fellow blogger Abby Johnson.


This post addresses the following ALSC Core Competencies: I. Commitment to Client Group, II. Reference and User Services, IV. Knowledge, Curation, and Management of Materials, VII. Professionalism and Professional Development.

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