Tuesday, January 17, 2023

Nostalgia for Margaret Wise Brown's DOCTOR SQUASH THE DOLL DOCTOR

Yesterday (Monday, Jan 17, 2023) this image appeared on the timeline of my Facebook account. Specifically, it was shared to a Facebook group about children's literature. I paused when I saw it:

Those of you who read AICL would probably have paused when you saw it, too. There's derogatory stereotypes on that page. I wish it was being shared to call attention to the problems but that is not the case. 

The illustration is from Doctor Squash the Doll Doctor. Written by Margaret Wise Brown, the first edition was illustrated by J.P. Miller. It came out in 1952. 

An author shared it on her page, and an administrator for the Facebook group shared it to a Facebook group for children's literature. Right now (Tuesday Jan 17, 6:26 AM Pacific Time), there are 40 likes and hearts on the author's original post. There are five comments saying things like "Love this!" and "Oooh, a vintage one to check out" (followed by a smiley face with 3 hearts on it). The original post was shared, uncritically, by five people. 

When I saw it on the FB group page, it had 36 likes and hearts and one comment from a person who has the book and quoted a line from it ("Whenever you are sick, sick, sick, call for the doctor quick, quick, quick!"). 

There's clearly a lot of nostalgia for what is--speaking honestly--racist imagery!

I submitted a comment to call attention to the stereotyping. I also anticipated the responses I'd likely get defending it, and included arguments to counter them ahead of time. This morning, the share to the children's literature group is gone. My guess is that the administrator who initially shared it decided to delete it. I wish they had left the post there, for discussion. 

You may recall that I wrote an open letter to Kate Di Camillo last year, about her Facebook post where she had warmly shared a memory of reading Island of the Blue Dolphins. She read my letter and asked her followers to read it, too. I think I'll share that post to this facebook group. There was a time when I had warm feelings about a book I read as a child. That book is The Five Chinese Brothers. I didn't see the stereotyping it in until I was an adult looking critically at images. I definitely see it now and when I work with teachers and librarians, I'll usually talk about that memory and letting go of the book. 

Doctor Squash the Doll Doctor is one I want to dig into a bit. The illustration above is from the first edition. Here's that cover (screen capped from an Etsy page):

In 2010, it was reissued (I think as an e-book) by Random House with new illustrations by David Hitch. Here's the 2010 cover:

Here's the review of the 2010 e-book from School Library Journal:
K-Gr 3–This newly illustrated reissue of a 1952 Golden Book recounts the illnesses of various dolls–squeaky soldier, teddy bear with a bloody nose, fireman with a broken leg, Indian with poison ivy, etc–and Doctor Squash, who comes running to dispense medicine and advice as needed. When the good doctor falls ill, the toys get the chance to return the favor and take care of him. Hitch's cartoon illustrations complement the text well with bright colors and great facial expressions. They are updated from the original (no Mammy doll) but still have an old-fashioned look. References to the snowman doll's illness and “wild Indian” have been removed. Perplexingly, the story does continue to refer to cough drops as “good as candy and just as pretty” and to mention writing prescriptions for measles, mumps, chicken pox, and whooping cough. Updated, but still a bit out-of-date.–Catherine Callegari, Gay-Kimball Library, Troy, NH. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted. --This text refers to the library edition.

Here's the review from Kirkus: 
A Little Golden Book first published in 1952 with illustrations by J.P. Miller sees new life with new art, proving yet again that Brown is synonymous with timelessness. When dolls are sick or in pain, there’s really only one doctor to call: the good Doctor Squash, who attends to their every need. From broken legs and poison ivy to coughs and the mumps, the doctor always has the right cure on hand. And when the doc falls ill, the dolls take care of him in return. Some of the original text has been updated to suit the times (for example, the Wild Indian Doll becomes simply the Indian Doll). Gone too are such anachronistic images as the mammy doll. Appropriate though these changes may be, it is a pity that there is no mention of them in this new edition. Nevertheless, playing doctor with dolls never falls out of style, and Hitch’s retro style and modern toy updates work overtime to ensure that this book becomes a classic all over again. Entertaining and charming. (Picture book. 4-8)

As both SLJ and Kirkus noted, the 2010 one does not have the Mammy doll. Neither review pointed out that the doll with a sombrero, huge mustache, serape, and guitar is also gone. (SLJ noted that the snowman is gone; in the original the snowman got frostbite on his left foot.) 

Here's the page with "the Indian Doll" (screen cap is from the Internet Archive):

If the text in the 2010 version is the same as the text in the original 1952 edition, the words on that page were "The wild Indian Doll fell off his horse when he was out for a ride one day." Do you think "The Indian Doll" is an improvement? I don't. 

At the website for the Smithsonian's American History Museum, I was able to find illustrations (but not text) for the original book. Here's the way Miller drew that page:

The "Indian" doesn't have a big nose, feather and tomahawk in the updated version. I suppose Hitch and the art director at Random House thought that was a good change, but it isn't. Not really. We still have use of a single image to represent "Indian" as though we're all the same. And I suppose they decided it is not ok to have a Black or Latinx doll -- that perhaps they can't be playthings, but did they decide a toy Indian is ok? I think they did. They are wrong, of course. They seem more knowledgeable than the people on FB who feel warmly towards the original, but the "Entertaining and charming" line from the reviewer at Kirkus is disappointing. Overall, from the readers on a FB group page to the professional reviewers, we see lot of room for growth. 

Obviously, I do not recommend Doctor Squash the Doll Doctor. 

That's all I have for now. On to other things. As always, I welcome your comments. 

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