I’ve slowly been bringing across from America to Britain some of my favourite books from my childhood. I missed the chance to pass them on to my nieces and nephews, who are in their 20s now, but my best friend has kids who are 7 and 5 and keen readers, so I wanted to share with them what I could of my childhood.
Given the somewhat troubling race relations of the 20th century, I decided it was best to vet the books before passing them on. Many were actually already dated when I first read them, and indeed I’ve come across many gratuitous shifty Arabs and African American stereotypes. My latest disappointment was Rabbit Hill – OK, it was written in the 40s, but how bad could something be where the main characters were all woodland animals? Not bad at all until the arrival of the long-anticipated new owners of the local farmhouse. There had been much speculation about what sort of garden they would plant and what sort of garbage they would put out and whether there would be traps and poison. The animals’ fears are put to rest when a huge Black maid steps out of the back seat, because people of her shape and colour always put out the best garbage. No, I really can’t give that to modern children to read.
I felt more optimistic about my Peanuts Treasury. I recently came across a lovely correspondence with Charles Schulz about whether he should introduce a Black character, with his sensible worries about being seen as patronizing. The eventual progressive if somewhat bland result was Franklin. And indeed, there is nothing too worrying in the race relations in Peanuts, and although the gender stereotypes of the 60s are evident they are generally undercut.
But what I came to realize with growing horror as I read is how very similar to Charlie Brown I am. Which came first? Was I a good-natured but bullied and depressive child who found a mirror in Charlie, or did I pick up traits from him? I started reading Peanuts when I was probably 5 or 6, when my world view was surely still malleable. Did my whole character end up being moulded to fit the shape of the round-headed kid? Good grief!