When a deeply loved book is highly problematic: the Tintin syndrome
I purchased Herge's Tintin in the Congo for my library's graphic novel collection a few years ago when it was available in the U.S. after many many years out of print. Originally published in black and white as a weekly serial in 1930 and 1931 and then in color in 1946, this volume was not published in English until 2005. Tintin in the Congo is widely recognized as being racist and offensive, with hideous illustrations of colonized Congolese people and insulting depictions of them. So why would I want to add a book to my collection that I found to be distasteful? As a completionist, I knew that there would be public interest in this book. Researchers and grad students and curious individuals, as well as general fans of the Tintin books would have the opportunity to get their hands on something that prior to this re-print had been very difficult to come by.
After the decision to purchase the book, the question was where to put it in the collection. Should it be a reference book for in-house use only? Adult graphic novels? A special collection? Or in with the other Tintin books in the children's circulating collection? I chose to have the book in with the other Tintin books because I felt that people would be looking there, so it seemed natural. I also am not a gate-keeper type of librarian, trying to control access to information and materials. I like freedom and I like empowering patrons. I braced myself for objections from the public, for challenges and requests to have Tintin in the Congo removed from the library. The first an only comment came from a member of my staff who was very upset when she saw three copies of the book arrive on a cart of new materials. She thought that I had purchased it by mistake, not knowing what it was. I assured her that the books were purchased deliberately and explained that they had been out of print for many years. We discussed censorship and the buzz that the re-release of this title was creating. I could tell that she doubted my professional capabilities.
Children (mostly boys, mostly caucasian) in the wealthy suburb of Boston where I was the Youth Services Supervisor squealed with excitement upon seeing the book. They would flop down on their bellies next to the graphic novels per usual, and begin to hungrily read. No reaction to the racist images, ever. No comments from from the children or their parents. No complaints from anyone in our 42-library network. Only constant circulation of the books as they were requested by patrons in my library and the 41 others. When I think of the types of comments and complaints I have gotten from parents during my career, I cannot believe that Tintin in the Congo did not foster at least one conversation. I had a mother get upset that a middle grade book had a raccoon on the cover, because her fifth grader was afraid of raccoons. I had a mother complain that the female superheroes in our graphic novel collection were wearing clothing that was too tight and therefore inappropriate. I had a mother complain that her fourth grade son had selected the book Superfudge on a school visit to the library because she felt that it would be too challenging for him to read and would upset him. But over Tintin --- not a peep. In library school, we are trained in topics of censorship, of legality, of how to address formal challenges from patrons. We are not trained in how to react when not a single person blinks in response to historical material that is controversial and deeply offensive. I kept my feelings to myself, as it is not my professional role to engage in unsolicited conversations about race and what is offensive to me and what is not. Almost all of the libraries in the network opted not to purchase the re-released edition of Tintin in the Congo. One library has it in their closed stacks, not for circulation; another has it in adult graphic, not children's. Three other libraries have it in French (so not something they purchased as part of the re-release), and one of those three libraries does not circulate the book, but keeps it for library use only.
How do you feel about historical books with offensive content? Is it censorship to avoid them completely? Or to limit access?
For next month's post and moving forward, please send me questions and topics that you would like to discuss that involve libraries, books, diversity, and the children's literature community. firstname.lastname@example.org
Fifi Abu spends her days surrounded by books that have already been created and the rest of her time writing and illustrating books yet to be born. She looks forward to a day when all children can see themselves reflected in the books they read. Ms. Abu holds a master's degree in children's literature and a master's degree in library science, is an active member of SCBWI and a Children's Book Academy graduate.
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