Brazil: Children's Book Sparks Racism Debate

Whilst reading this article, why not listen to the song Yellow Woodpecker's Ranch (Sítio do Pica-Pau Amarelo) [pt], the soundtrack of the classic Brazilian television series based on Monteiro Lobato's children's books.

Song by Gilberto Gil, available from the artist's website. Click to open the audio player in another window.

During recent months Brazilian citizen media has been debating literature, censorship, racism and education, following the suggestion by the country's National Council on Education (NCE) to withdraw celebrated author Monteiro Lobato's book Caçadas de Pedrinho (Pete's Hunting) [pt] from schools.

Lobato's Caçadas de Pedrinho was made into a famous television series in the 1980s which is still broadcast in Portuguese language-speaking countries today. In the late 1990s it was adopted as teaching material in schools throughout Brazil, and it has also been part of a government program that distributes books to children in public schools.

However, at the end of 2010 a citizen filed a complaint claiming the book does not follow NCE's courseware directives [pt], particularly regarding “the absence of prejudice, estereotypes or doctrination”, in a list of criteria that also includes “the quality of the text, the theme, the graphic quality and the reading potential, considering the target audience”. Sergio Leo explains:

(…) os especialistas do MEC [Ministério da Educação] analisaram a denúncia e tiveram de admitir que a obra tem elementos racistas e concluíram que, do jeito que está, não deve constar da lista de distribuição, a menos que tenha uma orientação ao professor e aos pequenos leitores, mostrando que lá em 1933 havia mais racismo no Brasil e que não se deve tomar como padrão de conduta e valor o tipo de referência depreciativa que Lobato faz a negros.

(…) experts in the Ministry of Education analyzed the complaint and had to admit that the novel presents racist elements and concluded that, as it is, the book should not be part of the distribution list unless it offers some kind of guidence to teacher and young readers, showing that back in 1933 there was more racism in Brazil and that the derogatory references made by Lobato to black people should not be taken as normal behaviour.

Opposition to the suggested withdrawal has come from many sides. Intellectuals from the Brazilian Academy of Letters have protested [pt] the move. Jarbas, from the blog Boteco Escola (Pub School) [pt] described the case as “pedagogical censorship”.

The blog Música Pura (Pure Music) [pt] stated that literature is a heritage that cannot be proofread according to conceptual innovations. Aldo Rebelo from the Communist Party posted [pt] a harsh criticism comparing the veto applied to Caçadas de Pedrinho to the installation of “a literary court in Brazil”.

Valdeci, from the blog Mais de 140 caracteres (More than 140 characters) [pt], made an appeal not only in support of Lobato but also to all writers who dared to challenge political correctness:

Agora o Conselho Nacional de Educação vai tomar para si o direito de invadir editoras mundo a fora, com se donos da verdade absoluta fossem, para recolher os livros de Monteiro Lobato, Machado de Assis, Castro Alves e tantos outros escritores que “ousaram” escrever suas histórias longe da hipocrisia do politicamente correto (termo e conceito estes que nem existiam na época)…

Now the National Council on Education will assume the right to invade publishers all over the world, as if it was the sole guardian of truth, to retake the novels of Monteiro Lobato, Machado de Assis, Castro Alves and so many other writers that “dared” to write their stories free from the hypocrisy of political correctness (a concept that didn't even exist in their time)…
Picture of Monteiro Lobato, circa 1920. Image in public domain.

Picture of Monteiro Lobato, circa 1920. Image in public domain.

Monteiro Lobato is the mastermind responsible for books that have entertained generations of Brazil's children. Viewed as a national hero, he has made a significant contribution to the country's cultural heritage.

Brazilian author Maurício de Souza, the creator of children's comic book Turma da Mônica (Monica's Gang) [pt], was quoted by Silvana Nunes in Meu caderno de poesias (My poetry notebook) [pt], making a heartfelt defense of Lobato's work:

(…) durante essa guerra que travava contra o atraso, semeava ideias e livros para as crianças. Os melhores de todos os tempos.

(…) meanwhile he fought a war against backwardness, he was seeding ideas and books for children. The best of all times.

However, César Baldi cited by BloQ [pt], sees limiting the idea of racism to the moment the book was written (an argument used in Lobato's defense) as denying the permanent nature of the discrimination of black people.

The cast of Yellow Woodpecker Ranch in the Globo television series based on Monteiro Lobato's children's books. Image courtesy of Obvious magazine.

The cast of Yellow Woodpecker Ranch in the Globo television series based on Monteiro Lobato's children's books. Image courtesy of Obvious magazine.

Terezinha Pereira from the blog Alma Carioca (Carioca Soul) [pt], questioned the criteria adopted by the NCE and the Special Secretariat in the analysis of the complaint:

Nem devem imaginar que personagens da ficção “tem voz própria” que, necessariamente, não é a mesma do autor. E se fosse? Não seria um bom motivo para discussão na escola?

They probably don't even imagine that fictional characters have “their own say” which is not necessarily the same as the author's. And what if they were alike? Wouldn't this be a good point with which to foster debate at school?

Idelber Avelar, from the blog O biscoito fino e a massa (The cracker and the mass) [pt], gave an educational perspective to the matter:

a contextualização [é] necessária para que epítetos, comportamentos discriminatórios, racismo explicito, ódio a povos ou a orientações sexuais etc., sancionadas e apresentadas como normais no contexto em que a obra foi escrita ou no interior dela (…) sejam lidos criticamente e não replicados como modelo pelos alunos. Não é tão fácil como parece. No caso de Monteiro Lobato, é imensamente difícil.

it is necessary to contextualize so that epithets, discriminatory behaviours, explicit racial profiling, hate towards people or sexual orientation, and so on, either sanctioned or presented as usual behaviour in the context in which the novel was written or within the novels (…) are read in a critical perspective and not replicated as models by students. It is not as easy as it seems. In Lobato's case, the difficulty becomes huge.

To  Sergio Leo [pt] the greater share of critics of the NCE's report never read Lobato's novels, getting to know his work only through television adaptations which were freed from “racism and other stuff”.

Alberto Mussa, cited by Rafael Rodrigues in Entretantos (Meanwhiles) [pt], believes it is time to get over the idea that in Brazil neither racism nor prejudice exist. In his original post in a literature journal, Mussa asked to be convinced:

Me convençam que uma criança negra lendo uma passagem racista de um dos livros do genial Lobato não vá se sentir vexada, discriminada, constrangida. Me convençam que livros como esses não violam a integridade psíquica e moral da criança – que somos, por lei, obrigados a proteger.

Convince me that a black child, when reading a racist phrase in one of the books of the great Lobato, won't feel harassed, discriminated, troubled. Convince me that books like these don't violate the moral and psychic integrity of children – which we are, by law, obliged to protect.

The debate over the Monteiro Lobato case showed clear differences between mainstream media coverage of the issue and that of the blogosphere. The former was comfortable with the censorship approach, setting an agenda that fueled in some cases the wrong discussions.

The blogosphere meanwhile went deeper into the subject and presented a variety of points of view, for and against, ones that were not available to the average media reader or viewer.

This post was proofread in English by Emma Brewin.


  • rogerio

    Monteiro Lobato was a racist. It is clear that the article is trying to deny the thousands of written manifestations about the racist content. But, the problem is not so much if the writer was a racist or not.
    Brazil is famous about it undeclared racism, and authors like the creator of the questioned books was not an exception, at all. Hypocrisy is at the best in this case.

    Letś get real: Lobato was dealing with Eugenics, he was upset by the fact the his book get rejected by Americans , and then he says: ” I should came here when they was hanging the negroes, not now.” So what else are necessary to say that this author is a racist?

    If we, Brazilians want to tell the history, is crucial that we admit that not only the writings are aggressive, but the person himself was very, very compromised with Eugenics and all it racist agenda. To defend literature, to call ignorant those who suffer from symbolic violence is arbitrary and totally unacceptable. We should give all the facts possible so people can make a better reading.

    The country is changing and black people will no longer be talked. We talk about ourselves now.

  • Agradeço sua gentileza em publicar parte do meu texto sobre a tentativa de censura ao grande escritor brasileiro Monteiro Lobato.

    Espero, sinceramente, que ele possa contribuir para acirrar ainda mais o debate sobre tema tão relevante e que não pode (e não deve) cair no esquecimento.

    Esperamos todos que esta tentativa esdrúxula de censura não retorne e não venha a querer fazer novas vítimas e que a liberdade de expressão possa ser, mais que um direito do cidadão, uma obrigação de cada indivíduo para o aprimoramento do livre pensar e da democracia.

    Forte Abraço,

    • rogerio

      Monteiro Lobato foi um racista. Dizer que queria “os negros enforcados” soa doentio. Defender essa postura doentia, soa, no mínimo, inadequado. Onde está a defesa para essa frase?

      Até quando vai se acobertar que o escritor em questão tinha um comportamento reprovável? ligado ás teorias do Eugenismo?

      O escritor pode ter sua memória guardada, mas por favor, eu, como brasileiro, não quero e não aceito isso com dinheiro público.

      Será que devemos dar esse exemplo aos que pensam que o Brasil não sofre também, e principalmente, dessa patologia social?

      Para quem quiser ler outras opiniões sobre o que disse o escritor racista:

  • This is a very important debate for brazilian education. I tend to agree with Rogerio and recommend another post about Lobato and his racist ideology:

  • I would like to add that there is another GV post on Monteiro Lobato, from the times when Obama was to be elected (2008). It focused on the resurgence of a weirdly interesting Lobato’s 1928 Brazilian sci-fi novel — ‘The Black President’ — that predicted a US election matching a black, a feminist, and a conservative candidate in the then remote year of 2228.

    “In fact, what previously called attention to this book [The Black President] — prior to the current historical coincidence with the US elections — was the evidence of Lobato’s sympathy with Eugenics, a racist social philosophy that acquired some followers in Brazil during the 20s and 30s, and advocates the improvement of human hereditary traits through various forms of intervention, mainly segregating races.”
    from “The Black President Before Obama” – Global Voices Online

    For those who want to check it out:

  • Jose Teixeira

    The problem in Brazil is that the highest echelons of the administration are occupied by ignorant politicians (really). The following 4 to 5 lower levels are occupied by ignorant sycophants, leaving the technical knowledge support in the hands of underpaid “professionals”. Well, it is a universal truth that “you get what you pay for”. And you could not expect great things from people that sell their work for the price paid to a civil servant in Brazil. As a result, policies are proposed based on now out of fashion american trends, viewed by these underpaid officials as modern and revolutionaries.

    • rogerio

      As you all GV readers can see, that’s the Brazilian bourgeoisie style: rude, offensive and with a lot of critics, but no serious and objective proposals, no suggestions, at all. I really think that, for (some of) them, black people ( and by extension original habitants of the continent, the “Indians”, as they like to say) should be on the farms or in the the jungle…in silence. Arguments with disqualification of the opposite opinions, should be made on a technical basis, what the Brazilian citizen above forgot to do, with its harsh, negative words. But there are lots more of Brazilians as well that see on this debate, a health opportunity to discuss the sickness of racism. Negative words will not repair the suffer of people classified as sub-humans, as the racist writer did. Enough said. Let’s wait for the reply, wishing some proposals.

  • Jose Teixeira

    For the ones who line with the official who came up with fantastic idea of crucifying Monteiro Lobato I will try to be didactic and inform that the author was a man of his time, great writer, no fantastic philosopher. So, the same way in the XV century people would believe in and advocate on the flatness of earth, well, in the early years of the XX century, racist theories were up to date. As I sad before, JBML was a man of his time, and followed the trend. By the way, just to help you with your witch hunt, Darwin too was a racist, after all his evolutionary theory builds a pyramid (pyramids do not have flat tops). What should we do? Crap on his tomb?

    • rogerio

      being didactic to the children is to explain that racism is a sickness. More than that, is to say that, if we get attacking each other, instead of preventing disrespectful behaviors, we’ll fall on the “eye by eye”politics, what is clearly not the case. Let’s hear those people who are suffering by being called inferior, not make jokes about them; not treat them as if they were ignorants, disqualifying them. Let’s be humane, doing something now, instead of putting the problem under the rug. If Aristotle said, like many tribes around the world do, that only “perfect”people could be still alive, we’ll never have persons like Steve Hawking. Let propose something instead of calling people this and that. Name, mainly the bad ones, will not make the problem, a real one, to be solved. It is no correct to pretend that being politically correct, a term that Brazilians make harsh jokes about, with their past of horrors, is something bad. Actually, we lack a lot of correctness here in Brazil, starting at the bottom with the citizens going up to the politicians. We naturalize perversity, inequality and a lot of other things that are embedded in our colonial past, with charming jokes, at least it not gets serious, as the protest against the racist book is getting. Then people, those who have their ancestors with some kind of slavery heritage, start to disqualifying, or even worst, to call straight to their rights of having their literature, that sure was a picture of all sickness, preserved.Where are the solutions, or simply those who suffer should shut up their mouths and go work? Since I care about not only black children and woman, but any kind of human being, I think that, or at least I can imagine, that Brazilians citizen are also doing the same. So, what are the solution of people being submitted to the sickness of racism? To make jokes? To call them wrong, and keeping publishing with their taxes, books that make them inferior? I do not think it is correct.

      • Jose Teixeira

        Fellow, you called me bourgeois. You want to hang Aristotle. Now, for your information, inequality is a characteristic of men. Just for exercise, how many Stephen Hawking you can count, say, by continent?

  • I tend to put everything in perspective and think that everything is relative.

    The society at the time, only a few decades after the end of legal slavery – was indeed much more racist than today’s, and Monteiro Lobato and his work were a reflection of the time: of the mainstream thoughts, way of living and what was the moral rule. If nowadays there is still a lot of racism – imagine in the 30’s!

    Let’s try an imagination exercise with another issue that I think it quite similar and will eventually be debated in the same way in Brazil (I talk from experience):

    Nowadays in Brazil, it is completely morally accepted to have domestic workers to clean your house and look after your children. News, books, novels, soap-operas, blogs written as of now in Brazil all reflect this reality and many – really many – people see no problem in having even young people, sometimes underage, working in houses “because at least they have room and board”. They are badly paid, often mistreated, always invisible. Often are denied education (oh yes, they can go to school in the evenings if they have finished everything, when they are very tired to be able to pay attention). They get the minimum age, sometimes less. There are still people who work for shelter and food, others live under abusive treatment. When I was a child, my grandmother had “helpers” of my age who were always eager to finish their chores to play with me and cousins – at the time, it never crossed my mind that was wrong.

    It has been like this for ages, but it is slow changing due to the fact that the poorest population, that would before have no other choice, is getting more educated and life conditions are getting better – therefore, it is becoming expensive to keep a live-in “empregada” 24/7 and many people are switching to having cleaners a few days a week. There are more protective laws. The minimum age has increased. Flats have become smaller. A friend of mine has had to change her working conditions to be part time at home to look after her new born baby because it was too difficult to find someone reliable that would accept what she could afford to pay to be there full time (please note that she still has a domestic worker there, cleaning and cooking every day, but could not afford an extra nanny for the baby).

    Let’s say that in 80 or so years – in 2100 – Brazilian society has changed so much that everyone will have a good level of education, nobody will be ignorant of their rights and there will be plenty of job opportunities. Having domestic workers will not be the rule, but the exception, a choice for those who can afford it and do need it. And if they keep one, they will treat them in the same manner and with the same respect as you treat teachers – it will become unacceptable to keep them on a minimum age, sleeping in the back of the house and eating after everyone, to say the least. Abusive treatment will not be tolerated. Laws will very protective of workers rights and people will know and abide to them.

    How do you think that new society of 2100 will look back at our books and react watching our films? Would they feel hard to believe that in the year 2010 it was still accepted to have such working conditions for domestic workers? Would they judge that the writers of our days were exploiters of the poorest? Would they call Brazilians of today blood suckers? Some surely will, others will put it in context, and use them to learn about the Brazilian society in the early third millennium.

    I live in the UK and see this switch has happened in the last century. Between 1574 and 1821, it is estimated that servants of all type made up 13.4 percent of the English population [Oxford University Press]. To have servants was morally accepted in the Victorian Era too, a time of prosperity resulting of profits gained from the British Empire. Many books reflect society and depict it: Jane Austen, for example, had servants in her house and these characters are in her books. It was the rule, houses had little rooms in basements for them (our “dependência de empregada”). See here:

    Society has changed. Nowadays, having a domestic worker in the UK can be socially looked down. It is quite expensive compared to Brazil; cleaners would get paid the same rate as a freelance teacher or educator, let’s say, for music or language tuition. It is affordable for many people, who chose not to employ people this way unless they really need it (i.e. are disabled) because they accept as morally right that they need to clean up after themselves. I don’t see, however, criticism of books or writers of the time.

    So, change of mentality comes together with changes in social rules. Just think about it and place Lobato in perspective! Sorry for the long digression – I short, I just want to say – Societies change, perspectives too.

    • rogerio

      On could say, without being a social scientist, that thanks to the racist literature, that racists as Lobato wrote, that Brazilians feel good about to have in the 21th century, humans beings doing their houseworking. After all, the servant behavior was modeled not only by the literature, or the arts in general. It was imposed to the majority of poor and black people that had few choices, as noted above. Seems like that the argument”a man of his time”justifies that, today, we should accept racist content just because”it was what it was”. That’s naive and somehow a blind position to the suffering of people that no longer will be treated as inferiors. Looks like we actually can do something about our present, and then if we are up to feelings of others, maybe our future can be different of the picture that books, television, music, sports, politics and the like we have. Is up to us glorify sickness and indifference, or try to listen to the people that is saying: hey we don’t like to see our mothers, sisters wifes, daughters as animalized, brutalized. But instead, several critics come on the top, disqualifying those who pay the taxes, like everybody else, and blame them as racists, (?) anachronic and so on. It’s really paradoxal to see people defending an author the contributed so much to the naturalization of racism. This kind of sickness we have here in Brazil make people believe that, even when black woman are cleaning their bathroom, they still happy, as the characters of the racist novel were. Let’s get honest: there are people that don’t want to be depicted like inferior. Still, all critics made to the protests about the content that all citizens are paying to be distributed by the Brazilian Government simply do not offer any solution. What should be said to the children in a eventually discomfort in the classroom? What are the objective solutions proposed? Simply disqualifying the adding of a note, no more than that was proposed by the Nation Education Council, was made. Nothing, only veiled jokes, historical appeals to a very sad period and that’s it: shut up black woman and man. Let’s get real, times are changing.

  • rogerio

    On your own words: \..ignorant sycophants …And you could not expect great things from people that sell their work for the price paid to a civil servant in Brazil. \ seems really similar to treatment you’re now is complaining. I really cannot see where is the point on sustaining oppression and hierarchy as expectable. But if you do so, be prepared for people thinking different. If do not see yourself as such, just let me know, because you didn’t. More than that, if you don’t like to get personal, don’t say things like you said. Getting back to the point, a numerical one, human life is worth whatever the quantity. Seems strange trying to measure this. racism in Brazil is a crime, do you agree? Is up to you try to make things better, than just try to put the hat. Letś get to the point that I as a Brazilian citizen in no way can agree with racial oppression, harsh names and the usual historical brutality. Times are now changing. Brazil had enough of \nice racism\, let´s move ahead.

  • não se analisa a literatura com a epoca que ela foi escrita,isso é muita burrice

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