Whatever happened to Corduroy's Lisa?

I have faint memories of reading Corduroy as a child.

So, when someone gave us Corduroy at my daughter’s baby shower, I was delighted, eager to share the adorable bear with the missing button with my daughter.

What I didn’t remember from my childhood was that Lisa, the young girl who walks into the department store and falls in love with Corduroy, is black. It’s not surprising to me that this didn't register to me as a young child. Children don’t take note of skin color the way adults do. 

Lisa And Corduroy

Even so, as an adult, this jumped out to me. So, I immediately looked at the copyright.

1968.

In the midst of the Civil Rights Movement, author and illustrator Don Freeman (a white male) published a children’s book starring a black family. This was stunning to me.

A little digging into Corduroy shows that its publisher, Viking Press, initially rejected it, apparently because they only published a small number of books each year. 

This may be true but I can’t help but wonder, was Corduroy also rejected because, during a time of escalating racial tensions, it featured a black family?

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As part of our family’s Christmas tradition, we read a Christmas book every night of Advent. Each year, I add a few books to our family’s stack of Christmas books. Last year, I was thrilled to discover a Christmas book featuring Corduroy. Because of how much we love the original Corduroy, I ordered it, sight unseen.

I didn't open Corduroy’s Christmas Surprise until it was time to read it during Advent. Needless to say, we were surprised by it. 

By the end of it, we had no idea what had become of Lisa. She and her mother were not featured in this book, which was published in 2000, 22 years after author Don Freeman’s death.

Sometime later, my daughter found the Corduroy section at the library. We checked out a few more books, including the 2010 Play Ball, Corduroy.

Once again, Lisa and her mother are nowhere to be found in this book. Instead, Corduroy’s family has been replaced by a cadre of cute animal characters.

At this point, I cannot help but wonder if racism is at work here. How else do you explain the complete disappearance of a black family from a beloved children’s series?

We like to think that our country has come so far since the Civil Rights movement. Yet, in 1968, author Don Freeman wrote and published an excellent children’s book featuring a black family. 50 years later, that black family has been eliminated from subsequent Corduroy books. If you started reading later Corduroy books, you’d never know Lisa and her family existed. You’d just assume Corduroy was a mediocre children’s book series about some cute animals.

Perhaps you think I’m making a big deal out of nothing.

But erasing black people out of a children’s book isn’t nothing.

It’s racism.

And it reflects the way in which even now, there are still people who would like to erase black people…

Out of our public arenas.

Out of our politics.

Out of leadership.

Out of office.

Maybe even out of our country.

In a time when racial tensions are only increasing, seemingly insignificant things matter.

Calling out racism – even in children’s books – matters.

Disappearing black families – even in fiction – matters.

That’s why, in my house, we’ll continue to cherish Don Freeman’s original Corduroy. But we’ve stopped reading the later Corduroy books that don’t include Lisa and her family.

And when my daughter asks Why? we explain that we miss Lisa; That because we value Lisa and people who look like her, we won’t read books that don’t include her.

Doing so won’t singlehandedly eliminate racism but it has begun a conversation with my daughter that will show her it’s never okay to erase, eliminate, or ignore people who don’t look like her; That racism – no matter how subtle and seemingly inconsequential – is always wrong.

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Image credit: http://www.corduroybook.com/about.html

Jen Bradbury on Youth Ministry

Jen serves as the director of youth ministry at Faith Lutheran Church in Glen Ellyn, Illinois. A veteran youth worker, Jen holds an MA in Youth Ministry Leadership from Huntington University. Jen is the author of The Jesus Gap: What Teens Actually Believe about Jesus (The Youth Cartel), The Real Jesus (The Youth Cartel), Unleashing the Hidden Potential of Your Student Leaders (Abingdon), and the forthcoming A Mission That Matters (Abingdon). Her writing has also appeared in YouthWorker Journal, Immerse, and The Christian Century. Jen is also the Assistant Director of Arbor Research Group where she has led many national studies. When not doing ministry or research, she and her husband, Doug, and daughter, Hope, can be found traveling and enjoying life together.

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