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the pigtail of ah lee ben loo

25 february 2011

When I saw that one of the Newbery Honor Books for 1929 was titled Pigtail of Ah Lee Ben Loo, I looked forward to some jousting at an extremely stationary target of egregious political incorrectness.

Well, of course, I was disappointed. Not that John Bennett's Pigtail is a model of multicultural sensitivity, by any means. As his 17 "laughable tales" unfold, Germans and Arabs and Persians and ancient Egyptians and medieval Europeans prove as wacky as the Chinese characters in the title story. But the ecumenism of the approach soon shows Bennett to be an equal-opportunity stereotyper.

And in effect, Bennett isn't a stereotyper at all. None of the light verse or prose stories in Pigtail makes realistic use of its exotic setting. In fact, they're so detached from cultural specifics that they all tend to reflect back on what fools we 20th-century Americans be. The Pharaoh in "Ben Ali the Egyptian" is on his distinctly Jazz-Age uppers:

Not a solitary single copper cent had he to jingle
In his pocket
and as a result
While the king liked sweet potatoes, puddings, pies, and canned tomatoes,
Boneless ham and Blue Point oysters, cooked some prehistoric way.
Men sing small on economics when it comes to empty stomachs,
And Egyptian kings are molded just the ordinary size;
So with appetite unwonted old Rameses groaned and grunted,
As he longed for twisted doughnuts, ginger-cakes, and apple-pies. (188-89)
Again and again, Bennett's targets in the tales are pretentious Establishment Americans, seen in fancy dress. He punctures stuffiness, hidebound convention, and excess. The Pigtail of Ah Lee Ben Loo, for all its archness and occasional gaucherie, is at heart a Progressive children's book.

Not that any Chinese or Chinese-American person then or now would think it as hilarious as Bennett does when he names a character Li-Ching-i-Chang-Ching (1). To bring off such raucous comic Orientalism without offense, you need to be Gilbert & Sullivan – or alternatively, Gene Luen Yang. And even then, audiences will have uneasy reactions.

So I doubt that The Pigtail of Ah Lee Ben Loo will make its way back into school reading lists. I doubt, in fact, that it was ever there, despite being what the ALA called a Newbery "runner-up" in its day. Pigtail is a large-format, exquisitely-produced picture book. The 1930 edition was a handsome affair, surely at the high end of the children's market in its day – and its day was the cusp of the Depression, when disposable income wasn't always spent on laughable tales and comic silhouettes.

Bennett's silhouettes are the heart of his work, and they're really a bravura achievement. To show just a hint of their high quality, I'll break precedent and display the first image ever presented here on lection:

And that's (says Bennett's little just-so story) "How Cats Came to Purr" (206).

Bennett, John. The Pigtail of Ah Lee Ben Loo, with seventeen other laughable tales & 200 comical silhouettes. 1928. New York: Longmans, 1930.