Sylvester and the Magic Pebble / The Undefeated

I (Tatia) work in primary teacher education in the Netherlands and believe that this month’s theme of banned picturebooks will be of great interest for student teachers. Whereas student teachers will be aware of Dutch primary schools restricting picturebook choices for religious reasons, they may be unfamiliar with the concept of a national or international ban for a specific picturebook as it occurs, for example, in the US. My focus will lie on discovering banned picturebooks and establishing possible reasons.

I have chosen two banned picturebooks to share with student teachers. The first one is ‘Sylvester and the Magic Pebble’ written and illustrated by William Steig and published by Windmill Books/Simon & Schuster in 1969. The second one is ‘The Undefeated’ written by Alexander Kwame, illustrated by Kadir Nelson and published by Versify/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2019. 50 years lie between these two Caldecott Medal winning publications.

‘Sylvester and the Magic Pebble’ is an anthropomorphic story featuring a donkey called Sylvester who likes to collect pebbles. One day Sylvester finds a magic pebble and after turning into a rock to avoid danger, he eventually returns to his usual self and is reunited with his family.

The Undefeated’ is a poem which tells the story of ‘real people’. In image and poetry, it remembers ‘unforgettable, unafraid and unbowed, famous and overlooked figures from black history’ (BookTrust). The purpose of this story is to inspire and encourage black communities and to describe the toughness black Americans faced during slavery, and segregation.

The main reason I chose these two books is that they are both award-winning and very different in style and making. Student teachers may be able to guess that ‘The Undefeated’ might have been challenged or banned for reasons linked to race. Indeed, it was banned in various US classrooms as it was considered propaganda for teaching Black Lives Matter. However, the reason why ‘Sylvester and the Magic Pebble’ was banned in 1977 might be more difficult and will require careful reading of both text and image. In fact, the reason it was banned was because the police were depicted as pigs.

I believe this lesson will enrich student teachers on many levels as it will allow them to consider the reasons for censorship of picturebooks in certain contexts and to consider how to share banned picturebooks with their pupils. Thanks Tatia

Excellent read aloud by Kwame:

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