Tweaking The Emperor’s New Clothes and other Classics for Today

Probably the most common way of putting a new spin on an old favorite is to situate it in a different time and place, which gives the writer, artist, or author-illustrator the freedom to imagine richly detailed settings.  When done with skill and imagination, the retelling pays tribute to the original and the recreator.  However, this trio of picture books play with the texts in more radical ways, because the plots have been restructured to highlight themes of collaboration, cooperation, and collusion.

Alison Jackson, I Know an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Pie, illustrated by Judith Byron Schachner. (New York: Dutton Children’s Books, 1997). Promised gift.

Alison Jackson turns the old accumulative rhyme “I Know an Old Woman Who Swallowed a Fly,” into a tribute to Thanksgiving gluttony.   An grandmotherly lady shows up on the doorstep of a young family’s house bearing a pie.   As soon as she  crosses the threshold, she wolfs down the pie and has to wash it down with a gallon jug of cider.  This dubious  accomplishment  impresses the two children so much that they  want to see what else she will eat. They try to restrain her when she lunges for the turkey platter, but would they be smiling if they weren’t secretly hoping she’ll go for it?  Can she get the entire uncarved bird down her gullet and survive?  She does.  The children hesitate momentarily when the old lady–now monstrously bloated with pie, cider, salad, squash, turkey, and a stock pot–menaces the dessert, a ten-layer cake.  But there is no stopping her and afterwards the baby and cat loll on the old lady’s huge, pillowy body, while the little girl tries to retrieve her skinny feet from under the dress.  The parody of the rhyme wouldn’t be anywhere as funny if Schachner (better known as the creator of Skippy Jon Jones) hadn’t created this subtext about the children egging on the old lady, which isn’t suggested in the text.   Giving the greedy old lady an audience does make this retelling a little grosser and more subversive than the original.

Margie Palatino, Lousy Rotten Stinkin’ Grapes, illustrated by Barry Moser (New York: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, c. 2009) Promised gift.

Lousy Rotten Stinkin’ Grapes, written by Margie Palatino and illustrated by Barry Moser, presents the fable of the fox and the grapes as a disastrous team effort.  When the fox discovers he can’t jump high enough to get the luscious fruit, he seizes the day when his acquaintance the bear lumbers along and allows himself to be roped into the fox’s plan.  Still unable to reach the fruit when balanced on the bear’s snout, the fox tries to make what ought to be a sure fire concept work by dragging in more collaborators with half his brains.The tottering pile-up could be out of the Grimms’ “The Bremen Town Musicians,” but the higher it gets, the farther it is to the ground.  Having lost face in front of his helpers, the fox stalks off saying he didn’t want the “lousy rotten stinkin’ grapes” anyway.   The supposedly slow-witted team members gather the grapes without any difficulty and the would-be captain’s absence doesn’t seem to decrease their enjoyment of the fruit.  A case could be made that Palatino has improved on Aesop by making fall of the cocksure fox more dramatic than it is when he has no witnesses.

The reinterpreted plots in the first two picture books do not change the outcome of either story.  YIng Chang Compestine’s revamping of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Emperor’s New Clothes” turns a perfect story on its head and claims this is the real version–always a risky move.

The emperor of China is a nine-year-old boy Ming Da controlled by three dishonest ministers who are enriching themselves at the kingdom’s expense.  Hungry, ragged children in the street, whom he cannot feed and dress, remind the little emperor how powerless he is.  While inspecting fabrics at the tailor’s shop for a New Year’s gown, the boy thinks of a plan to outwit the bad ministers that just might work if the tailors will help him execute it.  The emperor invites his ministers to the tailor’s shop to admire his new magical robes, whose splendor can only be seen by the honest.  The robe is nothing more than a painted burlap sack, but the ministers lavish praise upon the quality of the silk and the beauty of the embroidery rather than admit they don’t see anything of the kind.   The emperor invites the ministers to have such garments made for themselves.

Ying Chang Compestine, The Chinese Emperor’s New Clothes, illustrated by David Roberts. (New York: Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2017). Promised gift.

Behind a screen in the tailor’s, Ming Da spies on the ministers when they return to inspect the finished robes.  Of course, each of the burlap robes is imperfect, so the ministers, determined to outshine each other, supply the tailors with more jewels, gold, and rice to ensure the receipt of the finest garment that can be had.  The tailors hand off the treasure to the little emperor, who purchases cloth and rice so that the poor people can be clothed and fed.

At the New Year’s parade, the ministers in their burlap finery march behind the emperor, puzzled by the lack of response from the crowds in the street.  The spectators  break into raucous laughter as soon as when the children expose the deception by shrieking that the ministers are clothed in itchy rice sacks instead of gorgeous silks.

Humiliated at  having been tricked, the ministers flee the country and the little emperor replaces them with honest men.   During the rest of Ming Da’s reign, everyone is happy because no one goes hungry or naked.   The story concludes like this: “The emperor marched through the town to save his country.  I don’t know how people ended up with the old folktale about two sly tailors fooling a vain emperor.”   There are several possible morals–that the powerful few will rule justly with the interests of the many at heart, or even the mighty need the humble to achieve social justice.  Perhaps the author rewrote Andersen like this so children would have faith in the rectitude of authority.  But I miss the puncturing of human vanity with the light and deadly touch.

The British illustrator David Roberts, who spent time as a milliner and fashion illustrator in Hong Kong, has done research to give this story a distinct Chinese flavor. The characters’ attire, crisp outlines, and caricatured faces recall animated Chinese films from the second half of the twentieth century. This aesthetic borrows and remixes visual elements from various Chinese art traditions, including ancient architecture and Peking Opera make-up and stage design.

Animated Chinese film Monkey King Wreaks Havoc in Heaven, first aired in 1964.

The Chinese Emperor’s New Clothes presents an anachronistic ancient China, which can often be spotted in picture books illustrated by cultural outsiders. The green robes and official winged-flap headwear of the three evil ministers signal that they are from the Ming dynasty or earlier. However, the Manchu braided hairstyle worn by the emperor, the tailors, and the children betrays the Qing dynasty. The confusion between these two consecutive dynasties is especially evident in a picture of the little emperor, who is wearing a Qing braid and a green robe and hat that are more likely Ming. Children’s literature critics have repeatedly lamented the peril of cultural misrepresentation, suggesting that publishers seek feedback from cultural insiders during the editing process. Just like Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Nightingale,” a fairy tale set in an imagined China, this rebellious retelling of Andersen’s “The Emperor’s New Clothes” takes place in a distant China that never was.

(Minjie Chen contributed to the essay.)

Dove Soap Could Learn Something About Stereotyping from Children’s Books

The week in business was a reminder that those who know little history are condemned to repeat it.  Whether it was inadvertent or deliberate, Dove’s allusion to the ancient topos of turning dark-skinned people white to advertise soap, a product with a tradition of exploiting race in its promotion, was a public relations nightmare.

As CEO of Neutrogena, Mr. Cotsen accumulated ephemera about the product his company made that documented the history of promoting the product his company made.  As a children’s book collector, he looked for illustrated pamphlets about soap that were either directed at children or featured child sponsors.  Over the years he selected examples that offer really interesting insights into the way literature and the concepts of  blackness and whiteness have been used to encourage cleanliness in the early twentieth century.   Here are some of the most interesting ones…

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Under the direction of advertising immortal Artemas Ward, Sapolio Soap drove old-fashioned general household cleaners like bath-brick and rotten-stone out of the cupboards of modern housewives.  Among the brand’s sponsors were the precocious Gemini Twins, Luck and Pluck, featured here on a two-sided accordion-folded strip.  Once they have cleaned all their friends and relations, the two chubbins mount a ladder into the sky and scrub the moon’s face shiny bright.  So bright that the amount of light radiated increased exponentially.

Gemini: A Sapolionic Tale . New York: Enoch Morgans’ Sons, Co, ca. 1900?. Cotsen 17195.

Their boyish antics contrast sharply with the pictures on the other side of the strip showing female servants hard at work keeping the household’s silverware, dishes, metal, bath tubs, and marble mantels spotless with Sapolio.   But only the African-American woman sings the product’s praises in dialect on her hands and knees scrubbing the floor.

Princeton Department of Rare Books and Special Collections has an archive of the Enoch Morgans’ Sons business papers, if you want to learn more about the early history of Sapolio Soap…

Other soap manufacturers hired well-known author-illustrators to design promotional brochures that incorporated their iconic characters.   Palmer Cox, the creator of the Brownies, was more than happy to let his little elves pitch all kinds of merchandise.  Neither Cox nor the executives of Oakley’s American Glycerin Soap had any reservations about the Brownies breaking into the company’s premises to steal quantities of product to wash their faces.

Oakley’s American Glycerine. N.p., n.d. Cotsen 8099.

Chicago firm N. K. Fairbanks commissioned E. W. Kemble, whose stereotypical illustrations of African-American children were considered adorable then, to draw those “dear little, queer little Gold Dust Twins”  with their “rolling black eyes and roguish grins” making their work into play as if they were circus performers.  Dressed only in their trademark short skirts, they romp barechested through the laundry, ironing, dish washing, pot scouring, mirror polishing, stair scrubbing, etc. in record time.  The ugly old stereotype of the happy-go-lucky darky makes an appearance at the end of this ostensibly delightful brochure when the two break into  a celebratory clog dance.

E. W. Kemble. The Gold Dust Twins at Work and Play. Chicago: N. K. Fairbanks Co., c. 1902. Cotsen 61770.

Here is a 1908 reimagining of the Gold Dust Twins by an uncredited artist for comparison.   More submissive than the Kemble’s little imps, the ones here sign the text to the lady of the house as “your servants” and they are depicted as bald with coal black skin and big red fleshy lips.

Who are We? N.p.: N. K. Fairbank Company, c. 1908. Cotsen 28337.

One of the most intriguing brochures in the collection is this one published by Larkin Soap.  It contains a heartwarming story of girlish entrepreneurial spirit: Fannie admires the Chatauqua Desk at Margaret’s house and learns that if she sells just $10.00 of Larkin Soap to friends and family (just two afternoons’ work, according to Margaret), she too can purchase her own solid oak desk!  The second story on the back panel which brings us back full circle to this week’s misfired Dove advertisement.   Three Turkish princes are spurned by three “white Caucasian maids” until they agree to try and “erase the dark disgrace with the help of Sweet Home Soap.”  The bars of soap works their magic and turns the boys’ faces milky white, removing all obstacles to immediate marriages.

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This story is a variant of the Aesopian fable, known as “The Ethiopian washed white” or “The Blackamoor,” in which the master foolishly believes that the dark skin of his new enslaved man is simply dirt and filth.  He orders the man to be washed clean, but of course, his servants can make no “progress” and succeed  causing the  poor man’s death from cold.  Obviously, this fable cannot  be included in anthologies for children and probably only older adults remember it.  Below is one of the less objectionable illustrations of the fable by William Mulready that appeared in William Godwin’s Fables.At the turn of the nineteenth century, however, children were still being exposed to the trope of washing a dark-skinned person or thing skin white.

May Byron. The Poor Dear Dollies. Illustrated by Rosa C. Petherick. London: Henry Frowde and Hodder & Stoughton, ca. 1905. Cotsen 19786.

Rudyard Kipling’s  “How the Leopard Got His Spots” also plays with the idea that skin color can be altered and the resulting transformation is life changing.  To survive in a new environment, the Ethiopian must change his skin from “greyish, brownish-yellowish” to black.  In order to help his hunting companion the leopard, he stamps spots on his coat using the excess pigment on his fingers…

Rudyard Kipling, The Just So Stories. Color plates by Gleeson. New York: Doubleday & Co., 1949. Cotsen 9736.

There’s some profit in knowing a thing or two about the history of children’s books, even if for titans of business…