For my final project, I would like to write a children’s book based on Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. My intended audience for the book is black children as I believe children’s book authors have historically written for a white reader base. My intervention in to the field of children’s literature will be to write a book based on the characters of Uncle Tom’s Cabin that develops the characters as people rather than stereotypes.
My interest in this project came through thinking about my prior knowledge of Uncle Tom’s Cabin before reading the novel for this class. I knew of the stereotypes associated with the characters—specifically Uncle Tom, Topsy, and Mammy—but I did not know about the literature in which these characters were developed. I initially considered this a failure on my part to not educate myself beyond the face-value information given to me through American history classes over the years. But then I realized that this lack of education was not a fault of my own, it was a broader societal issue. Children grow up hearing the terms “Uncle Tom” and “Mammy” used as derogatory devices. Black children internalize this language which in term negatively influences their understanding of such characters. I want to write a children’s book specifically addressing black children to counter this internalization.
I am also interested in exploring the genre of a children’s story because of the central role motherhood played in Stowe’s original text. Stowe used motherhood as a tool to humanize slaves. To the white readers of the nineteenth century, Eliza became a person because she was a mother. Additionally, the white mothers of the text realized the negative effects slavery had on the existence of a family. The immoral separation of children from their parents (specifically their mothers) was an argument used by abolitionists in their fight against the institution.
Children’s stories are implicitly tied to mothers. I have fond memories from growing up of my mother reading me a picture book every night before bed. Many of my friends share similar memories. My personal observation is not meant to diminish the role of fathers in the rearing of their children. Many fathers read to their children as well. Historically, however, the home education of the children has been primarily the work of the mother. The “Cult of True Motherhood” was a value system popular among the middle and upper class households of white families in the nineteenth century. Under this system, women were expected be the guardians and protectors of the morals of the home and of American society. Women had the responsibility to educate the children about these morals. Women were then seen as instrumental in developing the moral consciousness of American society.
Stowe wrote both young adult and children’s versions of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. These stories were likely addressed to a white audience—as was the original text. Motherhood was an essential theme of the novel and Stowe’s creation of these additional versions proves her focus on the role of the mother. These texts, however, served white children and maintained the belief held at the time that white people were superior to blacks. Such lessons were those that were being taught in the home and used to develop the moral backbone of white Americans. There were few lessons available to black children to tell them of the falsity of these claims. Although it is centuries later, I want to teach black children about such erroneous propagations. I plan to do this through thorough research in to Stowe’s alternate versions of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the “Cult of True Motherhood”, stereotypes created in the novel, and the genre of the children’s book.
For my research, I plan to first read Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (Told to the Children) published in 1852, the same year the original edition was published. The book was part of the Told to the Children series, which were a series of books first published in Great Britain in the early 1900s. The purpose of the series was to introduce readers between the ages of nine and twelve to the classic novels of the nineteenth century.
The other book central to my research is Pictures and Stories from Uncle Tom’s Cabin, published in 1853. This is the illustrated children’s book from which I hope to base my children’s story. There is an original edition of the book in the Beinecke Library that I have already requested and I look forward to reading there. I enjoy doing primary source research at the Beinecke and one of the reasons I chose to pursue this project was so I could do just that.
From there, I plan to scale back and investigate the craft of the children’s book so that I can use theory to inform my writing practice. The history of children’s literature is long because it is part of a wider oral tradition of adults sharing stories with children before publishing existed. Beginning in the fifteenth century, children’s tales were often intended to convey a larger moral or religious message. This concept of messaging is what I am particularly interested in in regards to children’s literature. What right does an author have to disseminate a message to children? How do accompanying images work to reinforce the message? How should the public respond when those messages are negative towards a group of the population?
For theory and craft research, I plan to start with Telling Children’s Stories: Narrative Theory and Children’s Literature by Mike Cadden, The Art of Writing for Children: Skills and Techniques of the Craft by Connie C. Epstein, and Children’s Literature: Theory and Practice by Felicity A. Hughes. From there, I want to expand to look at the voices of children’s authors themselves to see why and how they write for children. These authors are the voices of the messages I am interested in exploring, so I believe it is essential to incorporate them in to my research. Some of the books I have found about this topic are: Openhearted Audience: Ten Authors Talk about Writing for Children edited by Virginia Haviland, Thorny Paradise: Writers on Writing for Children edited by Edward Bilshen, and Journey of Discovery: On Writing for Children by Ivan Southall. I believe these books will further my understanding of the children’s literature genre.
I also plan on reading popular children’s books to get a sense of the survey of literature available to children. TIME Magazine compiled a list of the “100 Best Children’s Books of All Time” in consultation with the U.S. Children’s Poet Laureate Kenn Nesbitt, children’s-book historian Leonard Marcus, the National Center for Children’s Illustrated Literature, the Library of Congress’s Young Readers Center, the Every Child Reader literacy foundation, and ten independent booksellers. I plan to read the top five books on this list. I originally considered reading the top five Amazon children book’s bestsellers, but decided otherwise because I felt as though that listing would favor contemporary books rather than give me a broader historical scope. Those top five are: Where the Wild Things Are, The Snowy Day, Goodnight Moon, Blueberries for Sal, and Little Bear.
It is striking to me that The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats is so highly ranked on this list because it was one of the first children’s books to focus on a black protagonist when it was published in 1976. The book broke down barriers that many white editors did not even know existed until The Snowy Day was published. Today, there are many more children’s books written for a black audience. I plan to read several of these books as well such as, Freedom in Congo Square, Happy to be Nappy, The Color of Us, and If I Ran for President. I selected these books after consulting with the Huffington Post article “21 Children’s Books Every Black Kid Should Read” and speaking with my black peers about their favorite children’s books growing up.
In my project I hope to dismantle the anti-black stereotypes portrayed in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. To do so, I must familiarize myself with those stereotypes. I plan to do this through reading essays published by scholars of English and African-American Studies. A few of these essays include: “African American Responses to ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’” by Lois Brown and “The Tom Caricature” by David Pilgrim. Some books I plan to look at are Racial Stereotypes in Fictions of Slavery by José Evaristo D’Almeida, Uncle Tom Mania: Slavery, Minstrelsy, and Transatlantic Culture in the 1850s by Sarah Meer, Uncle Tom’s Cabin on the American Stage and Screen by John W. Frick, and Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films by Donald Bogle. These works will be critical to my understanding of the ways in which Stowe’s novel contributed to the creation of the anti-black stereotypes associated with the terms “Uncle Tom”, “Mammy”, and “Topsy”.
A New Message
Ultimately, I hope that my children’s book will provide an intervention in to the types of messaging being shown to black children about negative stereotypes. It may seem as though these messages are in the past, but unfortunately they continue today. A Birthday Cake for George Washington was a children’s book published by Scholastic and released on January 5, 2016. The book is narrated by Delia, who is the daughter of Hercules, one of George Washington’s slaves who worked for him as a cook. The plot of the book is of Delia and Hercules baking a birthday cake for Washington. The book’s description on Amazon reads, “This story…is based on real events, and underscores the loving exchange between a very determined father and his eager daughter, who are faced with an unspoken, bittersweet reality. No matter how delicious the president’s cake turns out to be, Delia and Papa will not taste the sweetness of freedom.”
The book was widely criticized for depicting an overly-positive portrayal of slavery and in response to the criticism Scholastic pulled the book from shelves shortly after its release on January 17, 2016. The publisher said in a statement, “We believe that, without more historical background on the evils of slavery than this book for younger children can provide, the book may give a false impression of the reality of the lives of slaves and therefore should be withdrawn.” (Time).
I plan to read this book as well as the critical arguments against it to ensure that I avoid depicting slavery in a positive light. Black children have been overlooked in contemporary children’s literature. I experienced this personally growing up. I hope that my children’s book and my accompanying research can help publishers realize the issues with their not publishing books for this audience. Children’s literature is a wonderful avenue to share messages, but we must ensure that these messages are positive and all-inclusive.
My major limitation in undertaking this task is that I would ideally like for my book to be a picture book, but I have no artistic talent. I am hoping to solicit help from my more artistically-inclined classmates and would look forward to collaborating with an artist on this project. Many children’s books are published as collaborations between an author and an artist, so to do so in class would mirror children’s publishing in the real world. I am excited about embarking on this project, and I hope to find someone who is equally excited to offer an alternative narration to Uncle Tom’s Cabin with me.
Bilshen, Edward. Thorny Paradise: Writers on Writing for Children. Harmondsworth, Eng.:
Penguin Books, 1975. Print.
Bogle, Donald. Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks
in American Films. New York: Continuum, 1994. Print.
Brown, Lois. “African-American Responses to Uncle Tom’s Cabin”. Mount Holyoke College,
Cadden, Mike. Telling Children’s Stories: Narrative Theory and Children’s Literature. Lincoln:
University of Nebraska Press, 2010.
Chan, Melissa. “Scholastic Pulls A Birthday Cake for George Washington Amid Slavery
Backlash”. January 18. 2016. Accessed March 4, 2017.
Epstein, Connie C. The Art of Writing for Children: Skills and Techniques of the Craft. Hamden:
Archon Books, 1991. Print.
Frick, John W. Uncle Tom’s Cabin on the American Stage and Screen. New York: Palgrave
Macmillan, 2012. Print.
Hayiland, Virginia. The Openhearted Audience: Ten Authors Talk about Writing for Children.
Washington: Library of Congress, 1980. Print.
Hughes, Felicity A. “Children’s Literature: Theory and Practice.” ELH, vol. 45, no. 3, 1978, pp.
Pictures and stories from Uncle Tom’s cabin. Boston, 1853. 34pp. Sabin Americana. Gale,
Cengage Learning. 04 March 17 2017<http://galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/Sabin?af=RN&ae=CY111086273&srchtp=a&
Meer, Sarah. Uncle Tom Mania: Slavery, Minstrelsy, and Transatlantic Culture in the 1850s.
Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2005.
Pilgrim, David. “The Tom Caricature”. Ferris State University, December 2000.
Southall, Ivan. A Journey of Discovery: On Writing for Children. Harmondsworth: Kestrel
Books, 1975. Print.
Stowe, Harriet Beecher. Uncle Tom’s Cabin (Told to the Children). Lit2Go Edition. 1852. Web.
<http://etc.usf.edu/lit2go/88/uncle-toms-cabin-told-to-the-children/>. March 04, 2017.