What if Hitler wrote a children’s novel?

World Book day was on Thursday: an annual event which passes most adults by. But for children it is the one day in the school calendar when the fantasy of book spills into reality.

School children nationwide celebrated with elaborate costumes, carefully put together by keen parents. And in Kingston it was no different. Pictures were proudly posted to social media and sent to websites.

But aside from just dressing up, the serious message promoted by organisers, UNESCO is: “To encourage children to explore the pleasures of books and reading.”

A feat more important than ever as the UK blushes at its trailing standards of literacy, according to reports last year.

So no wonder many local schools embraced the chance to dedicate a day to thinking and talking about books.

Schools like Alexandra Infants in Kingston got into full swing and marked the day with book swaps and readings.

But in all this bookish frolicking, the authors behind the books seem to have been neglected.

Most children dressed up didn’t know the person behind the character. Probably some parents were left wondering too. If they only knew, they might think twice.

When 20 Kingston shoppers were asked who wrote the Wizard of Oz, a book ingrained into our minds from childhood, only one person replied with the right answer: Lyman Frank Baum.

Mr Baum wrote 55 novels in total, 83 short stories and 200 poems. He also excelled as a journalist and even opened his own newspaper, which eventually failed.

He was a feminist who supported the suffragettes and arguably a racist, who called for the genocide of Native Indians.

In one of his editorials he wrote: “The Whites, by law of conquest, by justice of civilization, are masters of the American continent, and the best safety of the frontier settlements will be secured by the total annihilation of the few remaining Indians.”

Some argue this was a satirical attempt to encourage empathy for the Native Indians, whom Baum admits were “wronged” by Americans for centuries.

Yet it is hard to know for sure, and academics still argue over the point. But does this change how we see him as a Children’s author and should it? Should we let racists command our children’s attention? What if Hitler wrote a children’s novel?

Elizabeth Ross, mother of two from Kingston, said: “Hitler was a wrong’un. I don’t think it would be morally right to give his book to children.

“My kids never liked Wizard of Oz either. My daughter was terrified of the munchkins and my son didn’t find it interesting.”

Others said a book by Hitler should and would be banned.

Applying heavy-handed censorship may not be the answer in Baum’s case, although there have been attempts to do so.

In some states in the US the book came under fire, but for religious, not racial reasons. There has also been a desire in academic and critical works to impose a political allegory on Baum’s fantasy work.

He answered these allegations simply: the story, he said, was to “please children”.

So as little Dorothy’s tiptoed their way to school on Thursday, some clutching oversized wicker baskets, they had no idea of the ongoing debate about the nineteenth century classic. The question is should they?

That many of them wore red shoes from the film version, rather than the silver shoes depicted by the author, is another worry altogether.

Image courtesy of Rex/James D. Morgan

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