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Sam and the Tigers: A Retelling of Little Black Sambo: 09/02/11

cover art

Every book, every story, has multiple contexts. There's a context when it's written. A context when it's read and sometimes a context develops as a story ages and people, right or wrong, appropriate the story to their needs. Little Black Sambo (1899) by Helen Bannerman is a story with a sorted past and now, right or wrong, many racist connotations.

When I was a toddler in the 1970s, Sambo was one of the picture books I wanted read to me over and over again. To me, Sambo was a brave boy who was strong enough and brave enough to outwit dangerous and hungry tigers. Growing up in a fairly liberal San Diego neighborhood, I hadn't heard of Sambo being used as a racial epithet until the national uproar forced the shuttering of all (but one) of Sambo's Restaurants in 1982.

By 1983 Little Black Sambo was a taboo story. I don't know (or remember) if the library pulled the book off the shelf or if I had just outgrown the story — I was ten by then. But it was a story that only came up in heated debates over racism in children's literature.

In 1996 Julius Lester and Jerry Pinkney collaborated on a retelling called Sam and the Tigers that as Book a Day Almanac post puts it "took the racial sting" out of the story. Julius Lester explains in the introduction to the book that he grew up with the story and loved it. He wanted to reclaim the story and make something that present day children could enjoy without all the associated negativity.

Sambo's name is shortened to Sam and he lives in a land where everyone is named Sam. Animals and people live and work side by side (including pesky, dangerous tigers). Sam has to make a deal with the tigers so he can walk to school safely.

Pinkney's illustrations create a likable and believable boy. Sam's colorful costume and the bright orange tigers will be a recognizable to parents or grandparents who grew up on the original but Pinkney's work is a definite improvement over the version I remember reading as a child.

I'm glad to have found this retelling at the library. Sweeping the unsavory stuff under the rug is a sure fire way to just continue propagating it. Sam and the Tigers can be read in conjunction with the original text which is available online.

Four stars.

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