“Madeline,” race, and the problem with ‘good versus bad’

1st-madelineby Sachi Feris

A friend of the family gave my daughter the book “Madeline” by Ludwig Bemelmans along with a Madeline doll. We looked at the Madeline doll together and noted that she has red hair. As we opened the book and started to read, we looked for Madeline but couldn’t find her at first. We then realized that she has blonde hair on some pages and red hair on other pages.

I noted that one of our neighbors is also named Madeline…to which my daughter asked, “Es blanca?” (Is she White?)

“No,” I replied, “Our neighbor Madeline isn’t White. She is Black.”

“Two Madelines!” my daughter noted.

“Yes,” I confirmed.

As I have written about in other posts, I want my daughter to see Whiteness because the alternative is White “invisibility” which does nothing to challenge the privilege that White skin in our society affords.

The “Madeline” series has its more overtly racist books, such as “Madeline and the Gypsies”, which I will opt out of reading to my daughter. The original “Madeline,” however, is not problematic enough to remove from our library. Rather, I speak to the parts of the books that bother me.

That first time I opened “Madeline” as a parent, I read:

“They smiled at the good, and frowned at the bad…”

“Oh no,” I groaned, “I don’t like this picture,” I lamented out loud to my daughter and husband who was standing nearby.

“What?” my husband asked.

I tilted the book toward him, showing him the image of a “robber” stealing money, while the “little girls in two straight lines” looked on, frowning.

“This dichotomy of good and bad,” I said to my husband. To my daughter, I said: “I don’t like this part, but we’ll talk about why I don’t like it later.” I continued to read.

Then my daughter took her nap and I sat down to write this post, thinking more clearly about what I don’t like about describing a person (in this case someone who is stealing) as “bad.”

First, it demonizes an individual rather than the action of stealing. Instead, we should ask the question: “What motivates someone to steal?”

After collecting my thoughts on this subject, I shared the following with my daughter during our next reading of “Madeline”:

“Let me tell you why I don’t like this picture. This is showing a man stealing money, which is wrong. Remember how we talk about this when we go to the supermarket?” (My daughter frequently objects to the fact that we have to pay for our food. I remind her that if we didn’t, it would be stealing.)

“But I don’t like that the book is calling him “bad” just because he is stealing. We live in a world where not everyone has everything they need. And that is also wrong. Remember at school how Grandma (a puppet) didn’t have enough money to buy food for Thanksgiving? Sometimes, if someone doesn’t have enough to eat, they might steal to get the food they need. It isn’t fair that someone should have to steal to get the food they need so they won’t be hungry.”

From a race perspective, the good/bad dichotomy raises red flags for me as this dichotomy is often applied to race. See, for example, Harvard’s Implicit Association Tests that ask participants to sort images of Black and White faces with the words “good” and “bad”—and reveals that “most Americans have an automatic preference for White over Black.” (Click here to read a related blog post about the implicit bias test.)

The wonderful thing about children’s books is you generally don’t read them just once (unless you decide they are so overtly racist or offensive in other ways that you have to remove them from your bookshelf!). This means that when you come across something you don’t like but can’t yet articulate, you can say something as simple as “I don’t like this” and return to it the next time to explain the “why.”


Sachi Feris is a blogger at Raising Race Conscious Children, an online a resource to support adults who are trying to talk about race with young children. Sachi also co-facilitates interactive workshops/webinars and small group workshop series on how to talk about race with young children. Sachi currently teaches Spanish to Kindergarten and 1st grade at an independent school in Brooklyn.