Saturday, July 2, 2016

Troubling Tales of Children of Other Lands

And lo last week  I found myself at one of my  favorite bookstores, "Bookends and Beginnings" in Evanston, Illinois.

So of course I bought some books, including this intriguing tome--"Children of Other Lands".

This was no pristine collectors item...which only intrigued me more.  Published in 1933, this copy of "Children of Other Lands" had clearly been a hands-on book.  Nearly every page includes what seem to be determined graffiti by a child--from the pencil scribbles on  the cover to the random additions of orange crayon on nearly every illustration.   Pages are ripped and the once sturdy red binding is feathering.

 I didn't have to look far to find the identity of the child.  He proudly wrote his name 3 separate times on the end papers:  Herbert Benjamin Nechin.

At first I wasn't sure how I felt about little Herbert embellishing such a lovely book--did the book bore him and he felt he had no alternative but to turn it into a coloring book?  Or did he love the book so much that it was his go-to resource for artistic inspiration?

Hard to say.

After reading this book, however, I found myself hoping that Herbert was expressing his distaste for the text, rather than sharing his approval.

The book is divided into twelve separate stories that tell the tales of representative children from lands around the globe.

Each story gives an overview of the specific country including geography, transportation, boats, customs and a smattering of history.  Individual children from that country are then described in terms of dress, food, entertainment and personality.

I can't put my finger on what precisely makes my skin crawl about these descriptions.    While I can forgive some of the ignorance of global cultures indicative of the 1920's and 1930's, I'm not sure I can so easily let go of the patronizing comments and rhetorical questions, such as in the second story about Japan, where the author points out about the Japanese people "Their skin is not white like yours, but light yellow.  Like the Chinese, they belong to the Yellow Race. Their eyes do not open as widely as yours, which makes them appear to be slanting."  And at the end of the story "How hard it is to say sayonara, which means good-bye in Japanese, to such an interesting country as Japan and to such pleasant little companions as slant-eyed Togo and Yuki-san!".

Nearly all of the twelve stories contain at least one shudder-worthy description.

Which brings us to the author--Watty Piper.   Who was this Watty Piper?

Well, Watty Piper did not exist.

"Watty Piper" was the pen name of Arnold Munk (yes, the "Munk" of the publishers Platt & Munk.) (2)     Arnold Munk/Watty Piper is perhaps best known for writing "The Little Engine That Could". (2)

Arnold Munk (3) 

I wasn't able to find much satisfying information about Arnold Munk, aside from his daughter's apparent disapproval of his pen name. (3)    I found this curious, since Arnold Munk/Watty Piper authored several well-known children's books that have stood the test of time (although "Children of Other Lands" is not necessarily one of them).

The illustrators, however, were another story.

Lucille Webster Holling and Holling Clancy Holling were a husband and wife illustrating team who met while attending the Art Institute in Chicago, Illinois. (5)


Holling C. Holling was an avid naturalist and science-lover as well as an amateur ethnographer. (5) Lucille shared many of his interests (5) which leads me to wonder how much of the text of "Children of Other Lands" was influenced by Lucille and Holling.

The illustrations in "Children of Other Lands" are rich and detailed.  The elaborate watercolor pictures are thought to be Lucille's work, while the black and white ink drawings are believed to be those of Holling. (5)


It pains me to see such beautiful--although at times stereotypical--illustrations paired with text that includes  such cringingly dated and even ignorant descriptions of world cultures.

Which is why I find I must step back from this book in order to view it as a time capsule rather than a resource.

"Children of Other  Lands" gives us a peek into how people in the early 1900's viewed the world and the people around them.  While this book does contain interesting factual information, at the same time it is replete with dated, superficial stereotypes about people and cultures.

The sad thing is that I cannot say with certainty that we have left all of these stereotypes behind--
which makes this  book is a poignant reminder that many times beauty, truth and ignorance are often intertwined and can fool us unless we take a closer look.


1. "Children of Other Lands"  by Watty Piper, Illustrated by Lucille W. and H.C. Holling.  The Platt & Munk Co. Inc. 1933. 





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