Literati delved into the data behind the books our members decided to keep from December. And in Club Sage (age 7 – 9), Etchart: Hidden Forest, an activity book in which you scratch away at picturesque woodland scenes to discover the animals within, tied for first place with Illumanatomy, an incredible book which lets you look inside the human body with a magic three-color lens.
But it was the data on The Indian in the Cupboard by British author Lynne Reid Banks that we found intriguing. Originally published in 1980, it fared better than the more modern children’s book The Mysterious Benedict Society. It tells the story of Omri, a young boy who is given an Iroquois Indian toy for his birthday and discovers that a magical cupboard is able to turn the toy into a living being.
Dr. Mark West, an expert in children’s literature at the University of North Carolina, told me that while the book has won numerous awards, it’s actually become controversial in recent years. While the world was more receptive to the idea of authors writing about cultures other than their own in the 1970s and ’80s, he said the children’s publishing world today has seemed less keen. “The desire is that if a children’s book deals with a particular ethnic or racial group, then the author should be of that background. And Lynn Reid Banks isn’t from an Indian background at all.
“But,” he said, “if you read the book and don’t just make a quick judgement responding to broader concepts, you’ll see that Banks did a lot of research into Iroquois indians to create her central character.”
“That is the real story of The Indian In The Cupboard … It’s about stereotypes and the importance and difficulty of being able to look past them.”
As Ryan Vlastelica wrote for the AV Club website: “The toys start out defined by their labels—“the cowboy,” “the Indian,” and all the baggage those entail—and things are tense until they learn to see past the labels, to view each other as people.
“That is the real story of The Indian In The Cupboard,” Vlastelica said. “It’s about stereotypes and the importance and difficulty of being able to look past them.”
West believes the reason the book resonates so much with children, however, is because Banks successfully taps into how children play. “She captures this certain kind of pretend play – this kind of imaginative play in which toys come to life – just beautifully.
“From a kid’s point of view, it taps into a kind of play which is real for some of them. In the States we emphasize competitive and physical play. But in Britain, kids engage in more imaginative play.”
West said when a child engages in that kind of play, the toy functions as a storytelling prompt – “in a weird way [toys] function like their own language,” he said. “Before a child becomes capable of expressing their thoughts concisely they can express them through those toys. If they have anxiety about mom going off to work, for example – is she going to come back? – they can play out the scenario with the toy: mom going away in a car and coming back; I’m not going to stay in this daycare center forever.”
In The Indian in the Cupboard, West said the toy suddenly isn’t a toy at all – it’s something that has a will and a life that Omri has uprooted. “You see Omri maturing; he comes to respect Little Bear, and see him not so much as this play object but as flesh and blood.”