HOME SCHOOL BOOK REVIEW
Book: The Story of Little Black Sambo
Author and Illustrator: Helen Bannerman
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers, reprinted in 2003
Language level: 1 (nothing objectionable)
Reading level: Ages 8-10
Rating: 5 stars (EXCELLENT)
Reviewed by Wayne S. Walker
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Bannerman, Helen. The Story of Little Black Sambo (published in 1899 by Grant Richards, London, England). The Story of Little Black Sambo, a children’s book written and illustrated by Helen Bannerman, and first published by Grant Richards in October, 1899, as one in a series of small-format books called “The Dumpy Books for Children,” was always one of my favorite books to look at when I was small. Sambo is a Tamil boy from south India who encounters four hungry tigers. They promise not to eat him if he will give them his colorful new clothes, shoes, and umbrella. The tigers then get into an argument over who gets what and so begin chasing each other around a tree until they become a pool of melted butter. Sambo is able to get his clothes back, and his mother makes pancakes to eat with the butter.
For many years, this story was the victim of early political correctness. In 1932 Langston Hughes criticized Little Black Sambo as a typical “pickaninny” storybook which was hurtful to black children. The word “sambo” became a term that was considered a racial slur by American Negroes, and the original book was gradually taken off the market despite the fact that the story had nothing to do with Africans or African Americans. In 1942, Saalfield Publishing Company released a version of Little Black Sambo with new illustrations by Ethel Hays. During the mid twentieth century, however, some American editions of the story, including a 1950 audio version on Peter Pan Records, changed the title to the supposedly racially neutral Brave Little Sambo. In 1996, noted illustrator Fred Marcellino observed that the story itself contains no racist overtones and produced a re-illustrated version, The Story of Little Babaji, which changes the characters’ names but otherwise leaves the text unmodified. This version was a best-seller.
A modern printing with the original title, in 2003, substituted more racially sensitive illustrations by Christopher Bing, in which, for example, Sambo is no longer so inky black. It was chosen for the Kirkus 2003 Editor’s Choice list. Some critics were still unsatisfied. Dr Alvin F. Poussaint said of the 2003 publication: “I don’t see how I can get past the title and what it means. It would be like . . . trying to do ‘Little Black Darky’ and saying, ‘As long as I fix up the character so he doesn’t look like a darky on the plantation, it’s OK.'” That’s like saying that since radical homosexual activists find the word “queer” offensive, then all books that use that word in the title, such as Something Queer at the Ball Park, should be banned or changed. In 2004, a Little Golden Book version was published, The Boy and the Tigers, with new names and illustrations by Valeria Petrone. The boy is called Little Rajani. However, I am glad that the original book is now available again. I have agree that there’s nothing racist about it at all.