“The Story of Little Babaji” – a Classic Children’s Book

This week I read aloud one of the children’s favorite books on YouTube.  In order to understand the book and its popularity, first let me back up – a long time ago.

I vividly remember the book Little Black Sambo when I was a little girl.  I loved that book.  Did you?  Do you remember the tigers running around the tree and turning into butter?  This was a classic book.

Fast forward to teaching preschool.  I discovered the book again, but it was different.  The characters weren’t black, they were from India.  That was the way the original story was written, as the author lived in India for thirty years.  Here is a brief description I wrote about the book:

The Story of Little Babaji

Helen Bannerman wrote this story in 1899.  When I was a child, I loved Little Black Sambo, which was an adaptation of this book.  That book was banned, and the original, based in India, was reborn.  Thank goodness.  Not only is it a great story, it is so beloved in my classroom that we host play performances for families.  When a children’s book has a repeating phrase that encourages children to join the reader and say aloud; “Little Babaji, I’m going to eat you up”, it cements their love for the book.

The original book was banned.  It had become a symbol of racial injustice.  Yet, that was never the author’s intent, way back in 1899.  Along came the illustrator Fred Marcellino who understood the story and wanted to bring it back to the original intent of the author.  He didn’t change the words, but he changed the names of the characters to true Indian names – Babaji, Mamaji, and Papaji.

The book is high on my top ten children’s book list.  Really.  My readers know I am picky, so that vote speaks volumes.  Children are always glued to the story.  They love to help me with the chant, “Little Babaji, I’m going to eat you up.”  We have done play performances for families based on this book.  In my decades of teaching, this book is one of the best.  It has withstood the test of time, from being loved to being banned to being redone as it was meant to be.

Schools are closed.  I have set up a YouTube channel (Aqua Room) so I can read aloud to the children.  Here I am reading this book aloud to my preschoolers this week:

Jennie

About Jennie

I have been teaching preschool for over thirty years. This is my passion. I believe that children have a voice, and that is the catalyst to enhance or even change the learning experience. Emergent curriculum opens young minds. It's the little things that happen in the classroom that are most important and exciting. That's what I write about. I am highlighted in the the new edition of Jim Trelease's bestselling book, "The Read-Aloud Handbook" because of my reading to children. My class has designed quilts that hang as permanent displays at both the National Liberty Museum in Philadelphia, and the Fisher House at the Boston VA Hospital.
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80 Responses to “The Story of Little Babaji” – a Classic Children’s Book

  1. Opher says:

    We loved that book too!!

  2. Norah says:

    I remember the same version as you from my childhood. How lovely the original has been reinstated.

  3. beetleypete says:

    You are doing a great job, Jennie. When I was a child, my parents casually referred to any black man as ‘Sambo’, black women as ‘Mamas’, and black children as ‘Piccaninnies’. Attitudes changed quickly after that, and rightly so.
    Best wishes, Pete.

    • Jennie says:

      I recall those names, too. It took a while for most people to “wake up and smell the coffee”, and unfortunately some are still asleep in that regard. The revised edition makes perfect sense, as the characters are from India. I would highly recommend it for your grandchildren. Best to you, Pete.

  4. Dan Antion says:

    I am familiar with the version you grew up with, Jennie. I’m glad the story has been revised and released because it is wonderful.

    This is a very good thing you are doing.

  5. beth says:

    i remember the original too, and understand the pain and sensitivity in response to it. i’m glad it returned to its origins and i love this book, reading it every year to my kinder. the kids especially love when the tigers run around the tree and turn into butter.

  6. quiall says:

    I loved that! It brought back wonderful memories.

  7. Darlene says:

    Well done! I loved the Little Black Sambo book growing up. I have to say that, because we didn’t have any black people living in our part of the world, the book made me eager to meet and get to know people like Sambo and his family. This revised edition is great. We didn’t have any people from India in the neighbourhood either so it would have done the same thing.

    • Jennie says:

      Thank you, Darlene. I know what you mean about being eager to meet people from other cultures that you don’t get to see. It’s a great book.

  8. I remember Little Black Sambo. My grandmom had it at her house and I always loved listening to it. I’m so glad to hear it again in this original version. Thanks for sharing this post.

  9. Excellent, Jennie. The story itself is worth preserving. BTW I’m glad to see you on a chair.

  10. Ritu says:

    I bought this after you posted about it, last time!

  11. There is also Sam and the Tigers by Julius Lester, https://www.amazon.com/Sam-Tigers-Retelling-Picture-Puffins/dp/0140562885

    When I was a child, my mom used to read a book called Epaminondas and His Auntie. I loved the story and I didn’t remember that the child was black. Colleen Salley did an updated version, called Epossumondas. Epossumondas is a possom. It’s a great story with adorable pictures. I have read it to many children. Before this book, came out, I would tell it as a Jack tale. amazon.com/Epossumondas-Coleen-Salley/dp/015216748X/ref=sr_1_1?keywords=epossumondas&qid=1585321781&s=books&sr=1-1

    • Jennie says:

      Thank you so much for the book recommendation on Epaminondas and Epossumondas and Lou! I’ll definitely look them up. I do know Sam and the Tigers. Jerry Pinkney is one of my favorite illustrators.

  12. The Hook says:

    Cool share.
    Thanks, Jennie.

  13. frenchc1955 says:

    Jennie, thank you, and please continue to do your excellent work!

    • Jennie says:

      You are welcome, Charles. I will. Fingers crossed that teachers will hold onto their jobs. All schools are shut down till May 4th. How is your online teaching going?

  14. Elizabeth says:

    I thought that everyone could read upside down. Turns out that must be a skill developed only by those of us who taught preschool. Great work on keeping going with the story telling.

  15. petespringerauthor says:

    Thanks for the backstory, Jennie. I am quite familiar with the book, but I did not know the full story regarding it. Even though the kids aren’t with you, I’m smiling, just envisioning them with the chant.

  16. AK says:

    I found the artwork in the book very interesting. Thanks for sharing.
    Cheers.

  17. I’m an Aqua-roomer! Fantastic, Jeanie!! You really know how to draw in the listeners. 🌂

  18. Yes, I did so love Little Black Sambo, although now that I’m an adult, I do vaguely remember my father’s discomfort with it.

  19. I loved that book too. I’m so glad it has been revised and brought back. There was a restaurant called Sambo’s back in the day and they had the story of the boy and tigers painted in huge murals on the walls. I loved having pancakes there, and they had the best coffee. Just as I was entering adulthood the last of them closed. I’ve never forgotten how good their coffee was and I’m a tea drinker!

    • Jennie says:

      That is a great story! Thanks for telling me about Sambos. I bet the murals were a big customer draw. You would love the illustrations in the revised book. I’m glad the story is as beloved today as it was in our day. 🙂

  20. Another stellar storytime Jennie! I absolutely love this version by Fred Marcellino. Have you also seen Sam and the Tigers, by Julius Lester & illustrated by Jerry Pinkney?

  21. I too, like others, remember the original version, and never realized there was any so called racism involved. It was just a good story that children could hear and get excited about, just like the one about (was it Babar, the little elephant?) I loved that one too. In fact, there were a lot of little stories involving some kinds of animals, etc. and we never thought of them as racist. We didn’t even know what that meant. Today I can say that t I just never grew up as racist, and so I am still not that. Thank you so much for bringing back this wonderful story. Always, Anne

    • Jennie says:

      Children grew up loving the book, even when many editions depicted the characters as poor blacks in the south. They don’t know prejudice. It’s the adults who ban books and see racism. Thank goodness the book is as popular today as it was then. It’s good to have authentic characters and names.

  22. I do remember the Black Sambo story and didn’t realize people thought of it as racist. I was raised around so many kinds of people that it never occurred to me. I think it’s the adults that have the problem. Children just see other children. I’m enjoying your reading.

    • Jennie says:

      Yes, children just see children. Of course the largest group of people who are not racist or prejudice is the military. They are a band of brothers and sisters, and you grew up in that environment. Many thanks. Best to you, Marlene.

  23. srbottch says:

    I never knew the history of the book. Thanks for enlightening me, Jennie. Take care.

  24. I have never read this book, Jennie. I assume it wasn’t available here. It sounds very interesting.

  25. Very new to me, but wonderful. Its important having an eye on racism, but sometimes it would be better acting against racism happening every day, in real life. Thank you for recommending this book, and reading it aloud for us too. Michael

    • Jennie says:

      It is a great book, Michael. Children have loved the story for decades. Now it is back to what the author intended with Indian names, not references to blacks. Thank you!

      • 😀 You too, for recommending, Jennie!

      • 😉 Just heared, the official cooperation platform of the Bavarian States Government will not be used like predicted. Only 10 perfect of the teachers and pupils are registered. 😉 Think, hope dies at least, and they all are using better things.

      • Jennie says:

        Michael, can you explain that again? I’m not sure I understand.

      • Excuse my bad explaination, Jennie! Sure, i will try to do it better. As i heared a few days ago, our Bavarian government has established a learning platform usable by teachers, since a longer time. But they told nobody about it, and now the teachers are not willing to use it for home schooling. Otherwise platforms like Google classroom are not allowed to use. All these things need a former approbation by the officials, even its from big companies. This behaviour origins in my meaning in the influence our big Christian Churches (most the RomanCatholicChurch) have. These churches are owners of, and influencers in the most publishing houses and booksellers too. ;-( At least here is unbrocken since over 300 years the same situation. Dont worry, i think this crisis is able breaking this down. Best wishes, Michael

      • Jennie says:

        Wow! Thank you for explaining, Michael. I am shaking my head.

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