Saturday, November 13, 2010

"You will not behave like a Red Indian, Michael"

This morning on his Facebook page, Philip Nel (a professor in children's literature) pointed to Anita Silvey's blog: Book-A-Day Almanac. Silvey is well known in children's literature.

On November 13th, 2010, she featured Mary Poppins, by P. L. Travers. I wondered if Travers included any stereotypical Indians in her book. I ran a search of the book (I used Google Books) and found (on page 199):
"You will not behave like a Red Indian, Michael!"
That line appears in the chapter called West Wind. At that point, Mary Poppins has left and the children are upset that she's gone. The line is delivered by Mrs. Banks when, in his distress, Michael grabs her skirt, shakes it, and cries "Did she say she'd come back?"  In pulling on her skirt, he nearly knocks her over.  Crying out and vigorously pulling on her skirt must, to Travers' way of thinking, be the sort of thing a "Red Indian" would do...

"Red Indian" is a phrase commonly found in England. It appears, for example, in Arthur Ransom's Swallows and Amazons. According to Silvey's post, Mary Poppins was published in 1934. Travers is Australian but emigrated to England.

In her 100 Best Books for Children, Silvey writes:
In the seventies and early eighties, Mary Poppins, like many books of its era, came under attack for racism and stereotypes. In typical P. L. Travers fashion, she took this matter into her own hands and rewrote the sections others found offensive. Hence the chapter "Bad Tuesday" now contains the changes made in the 1981 revision.
As I started research into the changes, I find that I need to locate the older version so I can see what she changed. In that chapter, Mary Poppins took the children north. In the revised version, once in the north, they encounter a polar bear. What was there before? I'll have to check into that... Right now, I've got to get ready for my presentation today at Navy Pier.


Update, Monday, Nov 15, 5:04 PM

In comments to the post above, Katharine shared a link to her photos of pages from The Magic Compass, which is the Bad Tuesday chapter, turned into a Little Golden Book.  Take a look at the pages she photographed. Clicking on the link will take you to one page. On the right are thumbnail-size images. Click on the each one to see all the pages she photographed. The Magic Compass was published in 1953.


Teaspoon said...

There is record of an interview with Pamela Travers after the revisions, asking about her decisions in the original and in the revised version in Cultural conformity in books for children: further readings in racism by Donnarae MacCann; Gloria Woodard (p.134-140). It focuses more on her treatment of Africans, but perhaps it will still offer some useful information about the thought process that led to the revisions but failed to make them very meaningful.

(I don't think I've commented here before, though I've been reading for several months. Thank you for your writing.)

Anonymous said...

Re the older version of Mary Poppins: I'm not sure I own it (have to check my battered old PB copy), but I read it as a child, and as I recall (warning: I'm 55, and talking about reading stuff in the 1960s), the original version had the children being taken to meet very stereotypical children at the "exotic and foreign" locations--so, I'm thinking I recall an Eskimo boy, etc.--later, the stereotypical images of the foreign children were replaced by talking animals.

Sarah Miller said...

I had on older copy of Mary Poppins at one time -- of course, now I can't lay my hands on it.

If I recall correctly, the polar bear is now a stand-in for what was formerly an Eskimo encounter. There may have been other stereotypical natives (cannibals?) involved in their travels south...

I'll let you know if my unrevised version turns up.

hschinske said...

North: Eskimos. South: mammy and pickaninnies (the mammy offers them watermelon and suggests that Mary Poppins try a little boot polish on the chillun). East: mandarins. West: Red Indians. has Travers defending her book and saying that black children loved it the way it was.

There are actually a couple of different revisions: in one the people are still people but use somewhat less stereotyped language (from "My, but dem's very white babies. You wan' use a li'l bit black boot polish on dem" to "Goodness, those are very pale children! Where did you find them? On the moon?", and in the second (1981) they have become animals.

I don't have either version to hand, and the mammy stuff, being the *most* offensive, gets quoted a lot more than the Indian section.

Helen Schinske

Kate said...

The chapter "Bad Tuesday" was brought out as a Little Golden Book called "The Magic Compass". I will post rather poor pictures of a couple pages on my Flickr account:

I bought my copy on ebay.


Debbie Reese said...


Your images at Flikr are... well, I don't know how to describe them. Thanks for putting them up there. I really appreciate it.


hschinske said...

The Magic Compass version is different again -- fairly similar to the first edition, but various small changes made (and of course new, much more elaborate illustrations). So that makes four published versions, or 3.5, depending how you count.

Helen Schinske