Last Sunday, our "3 things to do today" list on the front page included a suggestion: "Make a memory. Buy a niece or nephew a copy of your favorite childhood book for Christmas — and inscribe the flyleaf with a message about why it was special to you."

It reminded me of Christopher Bing, an award-winning illustrator of children's books, and the lengths to which he went to rehabilitate his favorite: "Little Black Sambo."

Was there ever a more troubling childhood icon? And yet, "Little Black Sambo" has never been out of print, not once in the 107 years since its original publication in 1899.

I wore out two copies of the little red book as a child, and the idea that its illustrations were racist or stereotyped never occurred to me. Doesn't occur to most children. Didn't occur to 4-year-old Christopher Bing as he begged his grandfather to read it to him over and over.

But, you grow up, and that's when the trouble begins.

As Christopher Franceschelli of Handprint books, which published Bing's version in 2003, said:

"Returning to the book as a student at the Rhode Island School of Design, he (Bing) had a reaction shared by many who knew and loved the book as children and then came back to it years later to see it through the eyes of an adult: a dismay at the narrowness of vision which informed the illustrations, entirely at odds with the richness of the story."

With no particular thought toward publication, Christopher Bing set out to re-illustrate the original text with uplifting images. It would take him 20 years.



The story of the story

Most adults remember "Little Black Sambo" being set in Africa. But no, think for a minute, there are no tigers in Africa.

The author, Helen Bannerman, was the wife of a Scots officer in the British Army stationed in India for 30 years as a member of the Indian Medical Services. She wrote the story for her daughters during a two-day train ride from Madras to Kodaikanal, India.

And, unfortunately, Bannerman was a product of her times. She viewed the native people through the eyes of the white colonial ruling class Ñ and it showed in the way she depicted them in her illustrations.

A friend took the story to a publisher in London. Within a year, just at the turn of the century, it was available in the United States. At that point, it was widely pirated, with each new version more deliberately offensive than the one before.

But it's not the story itself that has failed to stand the test of time. Just in case it's been a few years since you read it:

Little Black Sambo's mother and father give him a new outfit — a red coat, blue trousers, a green umbrella and purple shoes with crimson soles and crimson linings.

The little boy strides off in his grand new clothes for a walk in the jungle. He eventually loses all his new clothes to four tigers, giving the items up one by one in exchange for his life.

Later, he takes his fine clothes back as the tigers chase each other round and round a palm tree, fighting over who is the best-dressed tiger in the jungle. The tigers run so fast they spin themselves into butter, which Sambo's father collects on his way home.

That night, the family feasts on pancakes drizzled with tiger butter — and Sambo is so hungry, he eats 169.

It's the story of a little boy who outwits the most ferocious predators in India.



Later versions

Christopher Bing's interpretation, published by Handprint Books in 2003, is not the only reconstructed version out there.

In 1996, two others were published. The first was called "The Story of Little Babaji," illustrated by Fred Marcellino. Again setting the story in India, it retains Bannerman's text almost entirely, but gives the little boy an Indian name and style of dress.

The other 1996 version was called "Sam and the Tigers," with new text by Julius Lester and illustrations by Jerry Pickney. This adaptation is a send-up of the original set in a mythical American South. I've only read about it.

There may be others and I just don't know it. But the number of "re-writes" begs the question: If children are color-blind, who are we doing this for?

Maybe for guilty, grown-up white people. Or maybe today's children are more sensitive to the original book's problems.



Which brings us to Bing

Here's what Christopher Bing said about his "Little Black Sambo" shortly after the book was published:

"I would like to dispel the cloud around it. I don't ever want a black child to pick up the book and look at the images and feel insulted ... I want a child to feel just the wonder I did as a child."

And Bing's illustrations are joyous, luminous, inspired, extraordinary.

He sets it in India, but doesn't make the characters Indian. As his publisher explains: "Christopher felt strongly that to simply re-cast the figure of Sambo as an Indian child wrenched the story out of the cultural context in which it has been understood by an American readership for more than a century.

"Therefore, his Sambo is a glorious and unabashedly African child, who runs through a richly detailed Indian setting, a fluidity of culture and geography possible only in the genre to which this tale ultimately belongs: true and marvelous fantasy."

The volume is much larger than the palm-sized original, but echoes its red cloth cover — right down to fading on the spine, as if it had rested on a sunny shelf for decades.

Likewise, the pages inside the book mimic the condition of the copy you probably own, dog-eared and torn, stained and discolored by age. Bing even faithfully reproduces broken interior bindings and exposed stitching.

This attention to detail, the desire to make the new volume feel as familiar as the old one, mark Bing's effort as a labor of love.

Christopher Bing's book, however, is not without detractors. Bing retained the original character names — Little Black Sambo, his mother, Black Mumbo, and his father, Black Jumbo.

"Sam," the book's defenders point out, is a common prefix for boys' names in India — as in Samir, Samrat, Sambit. The "bo" at the end of all three names indicates affectionate familiarity.

Bing does not address the unfortunate, and parallel, evolution of the word "sambo" in the United States, and some people hate his book for it.

An example, from Dr. Alvin F. Poussaint of Harvard: "I don't see how I can get past the title and what it means. It would be like him trying to do 'Little Black Darky' and saying, 'As long as I fix up the character so he doesn't look like a darky on the plantation, it's OK.'"

Well, OK, I understand the point.

Maybe Bing's take isn't reconstructed enough for everybody's taste but, with respect, I've waited so long to love this book again that I really can't help myself.

Give it a read ... for the child inside you.

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