On cocoanuts growing on cocoanut trees

IMG_2962I’m immensely enjoying ‘The Coral Island’ by R. M. Ballantyne, and am almost looking forward to having to take the bus for the first time in a long time this morning because it means I have some reading time! I’m about halfway through the book. I love the language – it’s full of beautiful descriptions of the island the three heroes of the story inhabit, and adrift with adjectives. And the way the boys speak – I love the gentle humour.

‘Oh Jack, that’s all humbug. If you begin to lay everything to the credit of books, I’ll quite lose my opinion of you,’ cried Peterkin, with a look of contempt. ‘I’ve seen a lot o’ fellows that were always pouring over books, and when they have to try to do anything, they were no better than baboons!’

‘You are quite right,’ retorted Jack; ‘and I have seen a lot of fellows who never looked into books at all, who knew nothing about anything except the things they had actually seen, and very little they knew even about these. Indeed, some were so ignorant, that they did not know that cocoanuts grew on cocoanut-trees!’

I love the quaint illustrations – I find it quite funny that after living on a deserted island for at least a few weeks, the boys still have spotless white trousers.

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Something I find amusing, but at the same time frustrating, it that each Chapter has a list of headings underneath describing what is gong to occur during that chapter. Take Chapter Two, for example (I hope I’m not ruining anything for you – but after all, it must be pretty obvious to you that the boys get shipwrecked, since I’ve already told you that they are on a deserted island):

CHAPTER II

The departure – The sea – My companions – Some account of the wonderful sights we saw on the great deep – A dreadful storm and a frightful wreck.

This seems so puzzling to me – why on earth would the author give away such crucial plot points before the read begins the chapter? It must be once of the quirky preferences of the time it was written.

I sometimes like reading books written long ago, and smile over the words and content that would probably never be included in a book published today. The boys use words like ‘humbug’ and ‘giving tuppence’ and ‘ignorant booby’. However, they have made several references to ‘savages’ – that is, potential indigenous inhabitants of the island. They haven’t come across any ‘savages’ yet, but they seem very distrustful of the thought of such barbaric creatures. There are also quite a few Christian references, to ‘The Creator’ creating a wonderful world for the boys to explore.

How times have changed. I very much doubt that a modern children’s book would be allowed to be published using the word ‘savages’ to describe the inhabitants of a pacific island today. Should this word, and the connotations that it alludes to, be changed in editions of the book published now? I also sure that the Christian references would jolt several non-religious parents. I know that several Enid Blyton books have been ‘cleaned up’ for modern audiences. I don’t think it’s necessary, as long as the context of the word is explained to children. Most children who would be reading this book would probably be old enough to understand the differences between ideology today and ideology two hundred years ago.

Books capture the moment in time when they were published, and the society it was created for. I think, while some of the book seems quaint and old-fashioned, to downright racist, it does capture what life was like, how people used to think. Changing a book to ‘clean it up’ won’t take away the errors of the past that the book represents. The jolts I got from some of the language and ideas only serve to me a reminders of how different life is now.

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3 comments

  1. Little Black Sambo is one of those books for me. It just seems like it wouldn’t be the same with his name changed. (As a small person I always just thought it was his name).
    One thing I do find difficult about books with more old fashioned text is reading them aloud to my children… I felt like a most ‘insufferable bore’ ready The Magicians Nephew to my daughter and had to keep stopping to explain things… not fun at all!

  2. PS Good to see your life has settled a bit so you have some reading and writing time- glad to have you back in my inbox.

  3. Pingback: On where the list of 1001 Children’s Books I Must Read Before I Grow Up (Too Much) comes from | 1001 Children's Books

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