What Color are Burdocks
Written and Illustrated by: Joel Assogba
Published by: L.I.Daddy Publishing
Published: November 2004
Recently The Japan Times published a letter that talked about a parent's response to a book his children read called にんじんがあかいわけ (The Reason Carrots are Red, by Miyoko Matsutani and Eizo Hirayama) which had racist overtones. He was so incensed he published his own book as a protest.
I was intrigued so I borrowed the offending book from the library and bought a copy of the father's book.
The Reason Carrots are Red is a simple story about three root veggies who take a hot Japanese bath together. The daikon radish scrubs himself clean and white, the carrot loves it so much he can't come out and gets scalded red, and the burdock doesn't like the heat so he runs out of the path quick without washing. This is an old Japanese folk tale to explain the colours of these three long root veggies. With the benefit of hindsight it is easy to see how this has a message that is uncomfortably close to racial judgment, and how it would make the father, Joel Assogba, upset.
What would your response be if your child brought home a book like this? Like Assogba, my first reaction might be to call the publisher. When he didn't get the response he wanted, he decided to write his own book as a response, and set up a publishing company to do so.
The book he wrote is called What Color are Burdocks? It features a number of the same vegetables who are given a bath by some children. When the children try to clean up the vegetables they harvest, they think the burdock are still dirty because they are dark. The burdocks tell the children that this is their natural color and then some unknown force agrees with them. Then the veggies hold hands and dance in a circle singing "All the colors in the world are equally beautiful."
This is a wonderful sentiment. The message is great and it's interesting that he just changed the folk tale ending while keeping the beginning. It's so amazing that a father would go to this length to send a message to his children and to others who might read the original book. Books have been a form of protest as long as they are around, and it's great that Assogba has written an alternative story for children of the same target age group as the original children.
The book itself is far from professional. There are capitalization problems and the story is choppy. Even the English title is not something I would choose, and I've spent a few days wondering how it could be improved (What Colors are Burdocks? The Burdock's Color is? - I'm still not sure!). There is a problem with perspective as well, as hands aren't in natural places or the legs are off. All this makes it more endearing, like an elementary student who gives his mother a homemade book for Mother's Day. The homemade aspect, the passion Assogba put in, is its most appealing trait.
I'm also rather fond of the inside cover art, with vegetable people that have very cool earrings.
The question remains, what else should be done when we see books that have inappropriate messages? Personally I like to use them as teaching tools, I don't like to see books banned. A great elementary core curriculum could be made out of the original book. Empathy is taught in Japanese schools as a value to some extent, and if kids are going to read this book, why not use it to make them think about the message that "brown is dirty" sends? It would be great if the publisher had a teacher prepare a recommended lesson they could put on their website and as an insert in the books.
What else should be done?