Sunday, July 15, 2007

Uproar Over Racism in Popular 1931 Children's Book Set for U.S. Debut

By Lynn Andriani -- Publishers Weekly, 7/13/2007 10:00:00 AM

In September, Little, Brown Books for Young Readers will publish the popular colonial era children's graphic novel Tintin in the Congo for the first time in the U.S., despite a controversy that erupted in the U.K. yesterday around the book's racist content that resulted in bookstores moving it out of the children's section and reshelving it with adult books.

Little, Brown is the longtime publisher of the Tintin books series in the U.S. The Congo title is one of three Tintin books, including Tintin in the Land of the Soviets and Tintin and Alph-Art, it is publishing this fall to mark the centenary of it's author, Belgian artist Hergé. The book shows Africans drawn to have a strong resemblance to primates and contains scenes such as one in which a black woman bows to Tintin saying: "White man very great... White mister is big juju man!"

A note on Little, Brown's Web site says Tintin in the Congo "may be considered somewhat controversial, as it reflects the colonial attitudes of the time it was created. Hergé depicts African people according to the stereotypes of the time period, but in this edition it will be contextualized for the reader in an explanatory preface." The publisher will include a similar statement on a belly band that will wrap around the book. Executives at Little, Brown declined to comment further on how they plan to position the book.

Also as part of it's centenary celebration of Hergé's birth, Little, Brown will publish a boxed set containing all 24 Tintin books in November. The set will include all its previously published Tintin books, as well as the final three.

Valerie Koehler, owner of Blue Willow Bookshop in Houston, Tex., said she could not decide where she will shelve Congo until she sees the book. But she said the series is not very popular in her store: "We’re not talking about Harry Potter here. By and large, the mom who walks in here who grew up in Houston, she doesn’t know who Tintin is." Leslie Reiner, owner of Inkwood Books in Tampa Bay, Fla., plans on shelving the book in her store's graphic novels section. She said Tintin books "haven't been selling that well, but I anticipate more sales with the fall release." Barnes & Noble and Borders did not respond to requests for comment.

The Tintin books have long been widely read in Europe and are poised to cut a much higher profile in America in 2009, when DreamWorks releases a trilogy based on the comic-strip hero. Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson have teamed to direct and produce the films.

In the U.K. this week, Borders removed the 1931 book from the children's book section and reshelved it in the stores’ adult “graphics” section. The move was prompted by a complaint from a British lawyer that the “highly offensive” book contained racist images.

According to a report in the Evening Standard, a hate crime division of the Hertfordshire police has noted the sale of the book as a “racist incident” and is considering whether to take further action.

The lawyer who initiated the complaint, with support from Britain’s Commission on Racial Equality, asked that Borders stop selling the book altogether, telling the Evening Standard he was “appalled” when he and his black wife and two young children found the book in a Borders store near their home. He was compelled to complain to the store in a letter: “Before passing the book to my wife and two boys (aged two-and-a-half and seven) I opened the book. I was utterly astonished and aghast to see page after page of representations of black African people as baboons or monkeys, bowing before a white teenager and speaking like retarded baboons.”

A Borders response argued that the retailer “cannot and will not act as moral judge and jury in deciding what material we sell to our customers,” agreeing only to stock it outside the children’s department.

© 2007, Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All Rights Reserved.