Animals, Adventure, and Controversy: Review of The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle

dolittleIn Hugh Lofting’s The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle, narrator Tommy Stubbins recollects when he was 9 and a half and met the Doctor, became his assistant, and joined in his adventures. I found the book to be a fun, quick read, imaginative, and an overall improvement from my reading experience with the previous Newbery winner.

Still, I found it ironic that Doctor Dolittle, who converses with animals and hates zoos, eats meat. Pages after referencing a pig that lives on his property, he’s digging sausages out of his bag and frying them up for him and Tommy. I’m no vegetarian, but I wonder how the Doctor justifies this choice. Is it OK as long as the animals on his dinner table weren’t any former patients or friends? How can he be so sure?

A more serious concern raised by readers is the book’s racial representations. While it may be unexpected for racism to come up in a story about humans talking with animals, it’s a repeat offender in early Newbery literature. (Though not mentioned in my review, The Story of Mankind included a note to parents about discussing with their children the portrayal of different races in the book.)

While the 1950 edition of The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle I read was the original text, later editions contain edits (mainly omissions of text) to address the issue. Challenging books happens all the time for various reasonsWhile Newbery books are considered “the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children” for each year the award is given, they are not exempt. Some age better than others, but should we go back and try to “fix” them?

Sometimes we take things too far in the name of political correctness to the point where we’re terrified to say or write anything lest someone be offended. Attitudes of society are reflected in literature, as is how they are shaped and changed over time. The attitude that one group of people is superior or inferior to another is particularly damaging, but it isn’t limited to the past. As long as people look, think, and believe differently from each other, there will be stereotypes, ridicule, and hatred. Omitting text and banning books won’t change reality. Why not discuss literature’s offenses in their historical context and try to learn from them? (As a side note, trash in the guise of entertainment exists. While I would argue some things are not appropriate for anyone, parents have a right and responsibility to determine what entertainment is appropriate for their children.)

Though racial prejudices are present in The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle and other Newbery works, they’re not the central theme in any I have read so far. It’s likely Lofting was more focused on imagination and adventure, and the delight from that kind of story caused his work to be selected the 1923 Newbery winner. That delight is what I think most children will continue to take away from it.

Three personality-free pork products out of five for The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle.

This post is part of a series about my goal to read through the Newbery Medal books.


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