Thursday, November 20, 2008

The Whitewashing of Betsy


Before we begin: I'll bet I'm not actually allowed to include the excerpts I have included below, for copyright reasons. Same with the illustration, probably. However, I'm going to go ahead and chance it. If this disappears at some point, you'll know that the book police found me.

When I was a little girl, some of my favorite books were from the Betsy series by Carolyn Haywood. Haywood was a prolific writer and illustrator of children's books. She was also responsible for the Eddie series. (Eddie and Betsy knew each other, and shared some crossover adventures.) I enjoyed stories about Eddie, but Betsy was always my favorite. The first Betsy book was written in 1939, and they have a classic, wholesome feel to them that always appealed to me.

Since the books come from a different time, some aspects can seem out of place when transplanted into the present day. Not long ago, I reread the second book, Back to School with Betsy, for the first time in at least ten years. I picked it up from the local library on a whim: a paperback edition from 2004. The cover illustration was snappy and updated, but the inside illustrations featured the classic Haywood drawings I know and love. Ah, Betsy. What fun she had with friends Billy and Ellen, and cocker spaniel Thumpy.

Near the end of the book, I reached a chapter I remembered well from previous readings. Entitled "Exactly What Betsy Wanted," it tells of Betsy's desire for another sister to go along with her existing baby sister. The catch is, Betsy wants her parents to adopt a little black baby. Her mother informs her that this isn't really likely to happen, but Betsy keeps hoping. Lo and behold, she finds a lost little black girl in town the very next week. Although Betsy wants to keep her, the little girl's own mother is found - and it just so happens she's the new housekeeper at the house right behind Betsy's. How fortunate!

What I really remembered about the chapter was the fact that it was a little ... hmmm. Racist? I couldn't come up with any concrete examples, but I definitely recalled the distinct impression that the same chapter today would not be written as it had been in 1943. With that in mind, I delved into the 2004 edition. I immediately noticed that it wasn't nearly as bad as I'd remembered. It was really pretty innocuous. In fact ... it was too innocuous. Something was amiss.

My sister is the current owner of the original 1943 edition of Back to School with Betsy that we all read as kids. I borrowed it from her and paged to the same chapter. And what do you know? The 2004 wasn't nearly as bad as I'd remembered because it was edited! Quite liberally edited. The good old 1943 edition was every bit as "innocently" racist as I'd remembered. Let's compare and contrast:

1943:
"Mother," said Betsy, "Do you know what kind of baby I want the next time we get one?"

"Goodness!" cried Mother. "You're not thinking of the next baby already, are you?"

"Oh, yes!" said Betsy. "I know exactly what kind I want."

"Well, what kind do you want?" asked Mother.

"I want a little colored baby," said Betsy.

"But, Betsy," said Mother, "we can never have a little colored baby."

"Why not?" asked Betsy. "I saw one the other day. It was so cunning. It looked as though it was made of a piece of your brown satin dress. Why can't we get a little colored baby?"

"Because, dear, colored babies have to have colored fathers and mothers," replied Mother.

"Well, I know," said Betsy, "but couldn't we get one all ready made? I forget what you call babies that you get all ready made."

"You mean 'adopt' a baby," said Mother.

"Yes," replied Betsy. "Couldn't we 'dopt one?"

"No, dear," said Mother. "Colored babies like to be adopted by colored fathers and mothers."


2004:
"Mother," said Betsy, "Do you know what kind of baby I want the next time we get one?"

"Goodness!" cried Mother. "You're not thinking of the next baby already, are you?"

"Oh, yes!" said Betsy. "I know exactly what kind I want. Could we get one all ready-made? I forget what you call babies that you get all ready-made."

"You mean 'adopt' a baby," said Mother.

"Yes," replied Betsy. "Couldn't we 'dopt one?""

"No, dear," said Mother. "We already have a baby."



1943:
The two children were standing in front of a big house. Betsy looked up at the house. Then she led the baby up to the front door. Betsy rang the bell. She waited. In a few moments a lady opened the door. She looked at the two on the step. "Well, what do you want?" she said to Betsy.

"Does this little girl belong to you?" asked Betsy.

"She certainly does not," said the lady. And to Betsy's surprise she slammed the door.


2004:
The two children were standing in front of a big house. Betsy looked up at the house. Then she led the baby up to the front door. Betsy rang the bell. She waited.

In a few minutes the door was opened by a plump old lady, wearing a checked apron. "What is the matter?" the lady asked.

"Does this little girl belong to you?" asked Betsy.

"No, she doesn't," said the lady, leaning down to look at the children. "Now, I've just made some cookies," she said. "Perhaps if we give her a cookie she'll stop crying. Just wait a minute."

Soon the old lady was back with two cookies. She gave one to each of the children.


(and my favorite)

1943:
The colored woman ran toward them and picked up Lillybell. The tears were running down her face. "Oh, Lillybell!" she cried. "My little Lillybell! What fo' you go 'way from yo' Mammy?"

Lillybell patted her mother's cheek and said, in a very tiny voice, "Mammy!"

"Mother!" cried Betsy. "Lillybell can talk. She just said 'Mammy'!"


2004:
Lillybell's mother ran toward them and picked up Lillybell. The tears were running down her face. "Oh, Lillybell!" she cried. "My little Lillybell! Why'd you run away?"

Lillybell patted her mother's cheek and said, in a very tiny voice, "Mommy!"

"Mother!" cried Betsy. "Lillybell can talk. She just said 'Mommy'!"


So, what do I think about this? My first reaction was one of amused shock, that a publisher can just completely hack up an author's work and not note anywhere that it's an abridged version. Isn't this censorship? The chapter is rather impressive today in its non-political-correctness. But that's how it was written - we can just delete anything uncomfortable for today's audience and not say a word about it?

On the other hand, I can kind of see the point. This chapter in Back to School with Betsy was meant to be another charming, lighthearted tale in a book - and series - full of the same. It didn't completely ignore racism. The door-slamming woman is meant to be an example of it. Yet although Haywood aimed for a sweetly amusing story that highlights Betsy's innocence and good nature, incidental bits like the the reunion scene actually undermine her intent when read today. They're a byproduct of the time and place of the book's writing. The contemporary 1943 audience reflected by the chapter, and fact that these elements weren't given a second thought, is actually much more interesting to me than the chapter itself. But since the book is currently intended as fluffy elementary school fare for children today, I can see deciding that the questionable elements simply aren't worth the trouble of including.

What I really want to know is how common such practices are. Do publishers "clean up" older titles all the time? Do they need permission from the author or the author's estate to do so? The book was reprinted in 1971 for the first time; were the changes made in that edition? Am I disgusted by the censorship, or do I think it's not really a big deal in cases like this?

5 comments:

Robin said...

That makes my head spin a little. Wow.

I would think that, from a legal perspective, the author or the author's estate would have to give permission for any edits. Or maybe the author surrendered her rights to the books somewhere down the line, and the publisher can do whatever they want.

This makes me think of the censorship issues that have followed "Huckleberry Finn". I can't fathom changing Huck. It's a masterpiece, and an historical touchstone. Twain captured the racism of the time. I tend to think that the people who want it censored or banned do so because they're terrified of having a discussion of racism on that level.

But with a kid's book ... I don't advocate censorship or changing a published work at all. I'm trying to teach my daughter that every human being is different. I've grappled with how to teach her about why Obama's election is so important and historical. I can't do it without teaching her that people have been treated differently because of their color. I don't want her to grapple with that. The more I think about it, though, I'd be more inclined to let her read the original version of Betsy and use it as a means of discussing how things have changed since the days when her great-grandparents were kids. Not now, though. Maybe in a few years. When she's 20.

BeeKay said...

I'd be interested in seeing a 1971 copy. If the edits were made then, there's a good chance the author changed it herself.

laura said...

Great post, B! I will check to see if I can track down a 1971 copy. I think this kind of "editing" does happen a lot-- I even remember reading about Richard Scarry having to change to cover art on one of his books (not the same thing exactly, but an interesting sidenote. the issue with the art was gender roles and the publishers wanted him to be more progressive..)

Tamala said...

Ray Bradbury used to get letters from readers requesting he add female characters/make black characters less "Uncle Tom"/Etc., and this was Ray's response: There's more than one way to burn a book. And the world is full of people running about with lit matches."

hip-hop-annonymous said...

Wow - that's all I can say. I'm as shocked as you. Mostly due to the fact that there is no notation of changes that were made. And really, while I understand changing and the ideas that people have, it's dated. You know? When people read it, they should be aware of the time and be able to learn/teach from it. Like Robin said about Huck Finn. I think it would be terrible if those changes were made without authorization of family members or whomever owns rights - cause really, who checks those things? Could it really have been published with most people not even knowing changes were made? Probably. Funny that you found them though!!!