This quaint children’s classic focuses on the adventures of an unassuming doctor who can speak with animals. Dr. Dolittle and his many animal companions make a voyage to Africa in this volume, in order to cure a troupe of monkeys who are suffering from a contagious disease. It was an engaging read-aloud for my son—he particularly enjoyed the part in which Dr. Dolittle commandeers a pirate ship while the pirates are raiding his own ship—but I found it problematic in a number of ways.
First, let me say that we read the edited version, and that I would in no way recommend the original version as a read-aloud for children. (As an artifact of its time, certainly, but not for pleasure reading.) I’m not generally a fan of abridged or edited versions of books, but in this case, I consider the changes necessary to make the book appropriate for modern readers. The original version has a number of elements that are quite racist by today’s standards, reflecting the paternalistic colonial mindset of the day. The African characters are clearly meant to be sympathetic, but they come across as bumbling and foolish. For instance, in the original version, an African prince begs Dr. Dolittle to turn him into a white man so that he can marry Sleeping Beauty and not frighten her when he kisses her.
In the afterword, Christopher Lofting comments in this way about the changes that were made to the text: “Is it appropriate to reissue the Doctor Dolittle books exactly as written and stand on principle at the expense of our obligation to respect the feelings of others? Should future generations of children be denied the opportunity to read the Doctor Dolittle stories because of a few minor references in one or two of the books that were never intended by the author to comment on any ethnic group, particularly when the references are not an integral or important part of the story? What should our response be when there is widespread disagreement among well-meaning parents, librarians, and teachers as to the proper action to take?… After much soul-searching the consensus was that the changes should be made. The deciding factor was the strong belief that the author himself would have immediately approved of making these alterations. Hugh Lofting would have been appalled at the suggestion that any part of his work could give offense and would have been the first to have made the changes himself. In any case, the alterations are minor enough not to interfere with the style and spirit of the original.”
I am glad that these alterations were made. As a parent, I would never read my child a book in which Africans are portrayed as they were in the original version of this book. That said, I found even the edited version somewhat problematic. It still had the theme of the wise Englishman sailing to Africa in order to save the helpless local tribe (of monkeys … but still). And while the grossly offensive descriptions of the African characters were removed, the characters still came across as foolish and one-sided (though, to be fair, most of the British characters came across as rather foolish and one-sided as well—Dr. Dolittle and the animals were the only truly positive characters in the book).
Reading through this book with my son, I was reminded of the importance of having thoughtful and critical discussions about books with him, and I was glad that we were reading Anna Hibiscus by Nigerian author Atinuke at the same time. With all the relics of colonialism left in our children’s literature, I am excited to read the children’s literature produced by the rising tide of amazing African authors in our world.