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Are Today's Children's Books About Africa Still Racist?

We're used to seeing blatant racism in children's classics such as TinTin. But are contemporary books just as guilty of propagating African clichés?

A image from
A image from

Picture books "Babar the Little Elephant" and "Tin Tin in Congo," both published in 1931, hail from an age in which European nations claimed large parts of Africa as their own. The books, whose pages are filled with humor and loving illustrations, were written for children and adolescents. They were also full of racist, colonial thinking.

Babar tells the story of a lost elephant who meets civilization when he wanders into town. He returns to Africa wearing a suit and standing on two legs. Upon arrival, he is made king of the animals. Tin Tin tells the story of a colonial adventurer who makes his way into the jungle, where he encounters stupid people whom he easily outwits. Tin Tin, the superior and rational European, is cast in juxtaposition to the Africans, whom the comic depicts as wild, lazy and superstitious.

One year later, in Switzerland, the fantasy figure Globin was developed as an advertising object for the Globus department store. In 1935, Globin embarked on his first world tour, and a picture book depicts his unequal encounters with cannibals wearing hula skirts.

In the wake of post-World War II human rights declarations and the decolonization of Africa starting in the 1960s, critics of this literary racism became very vocal. Instead of focusing on the superiority of white colonial masters, depictions of Africa were to be fair, diverse, and from multiple perspectives.

In Switzerland, for example, the publishing house Baobab Books was founded through the Terre des Hommes initiative and the Berne Declaration of 1993. Today, Baobab publishes many German translations of African children's books.

Stereotypes die hard

But expunging African stereotypes from Western books for kids has been no easy task. Even publishers with the best intentions do not always succeed in overcoming colonial attitudes.

A case in point is the award-winning picture book "Tell Me, How is Africa," first published in 2002 by Peter Hammer Verlag in Germany. Through stories told by Papa Dembo to his grandson Chaka, young readers are encouraged to learn about "Africa and its people." But Papa Dembo's stories are all idyllic. In them, people seem to live together in perfect harmony, with each other and with their environment. Papa Dembo's personal life story seems to depict Africa as a whole – the book makes the entire continent look like a provincial fishing village.

"Tell Me, How is Africa" draws a very simple image of Africa, and the accompanying full-page illustrations show people and places that are not identifiable. Pages of text are supplemented by photographs of old masks and sculptures that are given no direct relation to history, but rather associated with a diffuse mythical image of what Africa might be.

Like many other books that seek to "explain Africa," Papa Dembo's stories begin by making the fatal distinction between "us-in-Europe" and "them-in-Africa." This sort of representation inherently results in - no matter how good the intentions - a condensed representation of African realities.

Glimpses of urban Africa

Not all children's books fall into this trap. In the French comic book series "Aya," which first appeared in 2005, the narrator and protagonist is 19-year-old Aya, who lives in Yopougon, a neighborhood of the capital of the Ivory Coast. The story follows the everyday lives of her relatives, friends and neighbors in the 1970s.

The very first image from the first volume focuses on a TV in Aya's living room. On the screen, a bicycle and a city bus can be seen: it is an excerpt from a beer commercial, the first television advertising campaign in the Ivory Coast. The texts and images in the series represent anything but a generalized, timeless Africa.

Likewise, in the French children's comic "Akissi. Attaque de chats," first published in 2010, seven episodes tell the story of little Akissi, a young girl who continues to come into contact with the adult world when she would rather be playing pranks on her older brother. Like Aya, Akissi lives in a modern city, and her story resists any exoticism.

Reality or fantasy, authentic or clichéd, Western-produced children's literature about Africa continues to say as much about us as it does about them.

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