The Cay: A Critical Analysis

The CayWritten in 1969 by Theodore Taylor, The Cay is the story of a white boy, Phillip, who gets stranded on a cay with an elderly, black West Indian stranger named Timothy after German submarines in the Caribbean torpedo their ship. Phillip is initially weary of Timothy due to prejudice instilled in him by his mother, but has to depend on Timothy and his survival experience, especially since Phillip has no vision due to a nasty head injury sustained during the shipwreck. As Timothy provides for them and teaches Phillip independence and survival skills, Phillip has a change of heart and grows to care for Timothy, despite their racial differences. When a hurricane ravishes the island, Timothy physically shields Phillip from the wrath of the storm. Timothy is severely weakened by the injuries and unable to recover. It is then up to Phillip, alone and still sightless, to orchestrate his own rescue. The book is a simple coming-of-age story, exploring prejudice and acceptance. In the fight for survival against the elements, the friendship between the characters grows and we see a transformation in Phillip as he realizes the sacrifice and selflessness that Timothy has offered.

Controversy and Racism in the Book

When Theodore Taylor wrote this novel, it was well-intentioned and initially well-received. The following year, it received the 1970 Jane Addams Children’s Book Award, which is awarded annually to “children’s books published the preceding year that effectively promote the cause of peace, social justice, world community, and the equality of the sexes and all races as well as meeting conventional standards for excellence” (Jane Addams Peace Association). In the years that followed, however, it drew criticism for being a racist novel, especially from the Council on Interracial Books for Children (also known as the CIBC), leading to Taylor’s decision in 1975 to return the prize.

Jane Addams book awardTaylor wrote the book from the perspective of a “racially programmed” 11 year-old white boy. He states that he very intentionally wrote Phillip’s racist descriptions and reactions to Timothy in order to drive the theme of change (Taylor, “In the Mailbag” 286). Even Timothy’s use of the expression, “young bahss” for the first 40 pages of their relationship (Taylor, The Cay 30-72) is a deliberate use of dialect to show the social relationships between white and black people during this time period. The CIBC claims that Timothy’s characterization is harmful to children and “conforms to the traditional stereotype of the faithful slave or retainer who is happy to serve and even sacrifice his life for his ‘young bahss’” (CIBC 283). However, to be considered historically and regionally accurate, from Timothy’s Calypso dialect, taken from Taylor’s first-hand experiences in the Caribbean to the initial relationship between Phillip and Timothy, The Cay needed to unfold as written. Taylor felt that Timothy was compassionate and could patiently “cope with the mindless mouthings of a child” (Taylor, “In the Mailbag, 287). Marianne (57) cites the explanation in Pearson Education’s “Teacher Notes” on the book,

It is important in the novel that Timothy is black, and Phillip white… Like black people in many parts of the world at that time, [Timothy] would still have felt any white person to be his social superior… This is why he calls Phillip ‘young boss’ [sic]. Yet despite this, the friendship that grows between Timothy and Phillip is simply that between an old man and a young boy, not between ‘master’ and ‘servant’ or even black and white.

It would not have been realistic for Timothy to speak or act differently, even if critics think that his character is negatively stereotyped.

Instead, there are several places in the novel that we see evidence of Phillip’s growing acceptance, one being on page 72 when he asks Timothy to shed the title of “young bahss”. Taylor wanted Phillip to reach the point of symbolic color-blindness, in addition to his literal blindness (Taylor, “In the Mailbag” 287). At first we hear it in Phillip’s thoughts (76): “I moved close to Timothy’s big body before I went to sleep. I remember smiling in the darkness. He felt neither white nor black” and then in his words (100): “Timothy, are you still black?” Though perhaps a perspective of a white person wishing whiteness on a person of color, the receding of Phillip’s prejudice is still a dramatic change.

Place in School Libraries and Curriculum

From an intellectual freedom standpoint, I believe that it is important to provide access to titles that might be considered to be controversial so that readers can compare and critically review them if they wish. Knowing that there has been some controversy surrounding The Cay and that readers continue to seem interested in the book (according to my “nonscientific” analysis of demand at my high school library), I would consider purchasing it for a school library. That said, I would be cautious in my recommendation for elementary school libraries because I believe the book is meant for a middle level audience.

The protagonist may only be a couple years older than some elementary students and the reading level may also be a fit—elements that can indicate age-appropriateness. Many librarians and teachers are comfortable with encouraging readers to shoot high and read books meant for older readers as a way to increase reading skill. However, when a book is challenged and criticized for racial stereotyping, for example, as in the case of The Cay, it is important to consider the critical thinking abilities of the readers. Without guidance, younger children may not identify content as problematic and it would be a disservice to include such titles as multicultural literature for recreational reading. This is not to say that elementary readers couldn’t handle this text in language arts or social studies curriculum under the tutelage of an experience teacher. Placement in middle school and high school libraries makes more sense to me. These readers are more likely to be able to identify critical material outside of classroom instruction. Though high school students will be slightly older than the main character, the plot is still engaging.

In the case of curriculum, elementary teachers might find ways to pair this book with another book, perhaps something more contemporary, written about similar themes such as cross-cultural acceptance or personal transformation. In this way, teachers can provide students with another reference point and discourage the acceptance of a text at face value without using a critical lens to examine its weaknesses. Ideally, however, this book fits better in the curriculum of older students. High schoolers may find The Cay to be a quality specimen of multicultural work that came out of the 1960s and interesting in the context of that social climate. For example, Taylor’s book dedication to Dr. Martin Luther King is an example of evidence that students might consider in their analysis. A unit associated with a 10th grade U.S. History course (perhaps collaboratively with a 10th grade English Language Arts course) would work really well with The Cay, given the abilities and course content involved. I could see middle school language arts and social studies curriculum approaching this book with either (or both) of my elementary and high school suggestions. Similar to several of the Common Core College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Reading (60), the primary goals of including The Cay in curriculum would be to use the text in a critical way that asks students to analyze how themes develop and assess how the author’s background shapes the content.

Informing My Recommendations

In my analysis, I looked for critical reviews of The Cay from the period when it was published, as well as more contemporary reviews. I found primary sources written by Theodore Taylor and a main detractor, the CIBC, in the “In the Mailbag” column of the American Library Association’s Top of the News publication. It was important to me to hear the author explain his rationale and defend his work in his own words. I also needed to find alternative views that conflicted with my own so that I was confident in my rationale.

I tried to only consult sources by those considered to be authorities in the field of multicultural and children’s literature. For example, Horn Book and its writers have a well-respected reputation among librarians. A blog article I found was also written by a former contributor to Horn Book and in the comments section of the post, I noticed that Kathleen T. Horning, director of the Cooperative Children’s Book Center (and someone whom I respect very much), had participated in the discussion.

It was useful to examine the historical context of the book and our country at the time it was published (and criticized). By referencing the Common Core State Standards, the criteria for the Jane Addams Children’s Book Award, and the Materials Selection Policy of the school district where I work, I was able to consider core values common to teachers and librarians choosing books and driving curriculum.

Place in Multicultural Literature

Multicultural literature includes books that serve as windows into and mirrors of parallel cultures. The reading experience should provide enlightenment for cultural outsiders but not reinforce stereotypes; this is a “window.” Cultural insiders should be able to see themselves, as if in a mirror, in characters experiencing real life adventures, triumphs, and failures. We need multicultural literature because all children in a democratic society deserve representation in the social and academic culture of that society. If we expect to grow as a society, we need to hear everyone’s voice. It is difficult to hear those who cannot be heard on a larger scale and are absent from our media. Multicultural books can be that equalizer though.

It is perhaps not as simple as Taylor suggests—that the example of Phillip’s change of heart might inspire a white audience to be more accepting of racial differences. However, the CIBC’s attempts to keep this book out of recommended lists, schools, and libraries could actually be considered censorship (Bader 663). Instead, as Susan Griffith suggests in her article, ““So the Very Young Understand”: Reframing Discussion of The Cay” (31) that these criticisms brought up in the 1970s can push readers to evaluate what we can learn from the racism in the book. Even Beryle Banfield, former President of the CIBC, suggests that controversial portrayals of African Americans in literature is likely a long-term dilemma that is best handled by creating an education that develops understandings between people and cultures (22).

By teaching students how to read critically and consistently providing multicultural texts written by cultural insiders and outsiders, we as educators and librarians can promote positive change in the identity formation and understanding of our youth. Books such as The Cay were formative in helping the dominant culture see multiple perspectives. The discussion and controversy around books like this can also have the positive effect of challenging the status quo and encouraging analytical thinking.

 

References

Bader, Barbara. “How the Little House Gave Ground: The Beginnings of Multiculturalism in a New, Black Children’s Literature.” The Horn Book Magazine 78, no. 6 (November 2002): 657-673.

Banfield, Beryle. “Commitment to Change: The Council on Interracial Books for Children and the World of Children’s Books.” African American Review 32, no. 1 (Spring 1998): 17-22.

Council on Interracial Books for Children. “In the Mailbag.” Top of the News 31, no. 3 (April 1975): 282-284.

Griffith, Susan C. ““So the Very Young Know and Understand”: Reframing Discussion of the Cay.” The Horn Book Magazine 88, no. 5 (September 2012): 27-31.

Jane Addams Peace Association. “What are the Jane Addams Children’s Book Awards?” Jane Addams Peace Association. Accessed May 11, 2014. http://www.janeaddamspeace.org/jacba/about.shtml

Marianne. “A Comparative Analysis of Racism in the Original and Modified Texts of The Cay.” Reading in a Foreign Language 19, no. 1 (April 2007): 56-68.

Sieruta, Peter D. “Collecting Children’s Books: This One Really Did Happen.” Collecting Children’s Books (blog), April 7, 2009, http://collectingchildrensbooks.blogspot.com/2009/04/this-one-really-did-happen.html

Taylor, Theodore. “In the Mailbag.” Top of the News 31, no. 3(April 1975): 284-288.

Taylor, Theodore. The Cay. 1969. Reprint. New York: Random House, 2002.

Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. “College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Reading.” Common Core State Standards for Literacy in All Subjects. Last modified September 2011. http://standards.dpi.wi.gov/files/cal/pdf/las-stds.pdf

Reader’s Response Journal: My Best Friend

My Best Friend coverCitation:

Rodman, Mary Ann. My Best Friend. Illus. E. B. Lewis. New York: Viking-Penguin, 2005. Print.

Plot:

Six year-old Lily longs to be best friends at the swimming pool with Tamika, who is seven and already has a best friend. Lily tries to get Tamika’s attention by getting a new swimming suit, learning how to dive and sharing her pool toys and popsicles, but Tamika and her friend Shanice just tease her. One day when Shanice isn’t there, Lily and Tamika have a great time together, but the fun is only temporary because Tamika goes back to ignoring her the next time they meet. Lily later realizes that maybe she had someone who wanted to be her friend all along and decides to just enjoy playing with Keesha (who is also six) instead.

Setting:

Present-day summertime at the community swimming pool.

Point of View:

1st person (Lily)

Theme:

Friendship, making impressions, appreciating what you have

Literary Quality:

The story is realistic and universal. The voice really seems to reflect the thoughts and speech of a six year-old. Although the story features six and seven year-olds, most children can identify with Lily’s frustration and attempts at friendship, no matter their age. The watercolor pictures are beautifully done and true to life. The round bellies of the little girls and the shapes of the parents do not promote a distorted body image. The text and artwork complement each other nicely, though the most of the storyline flows through the text.

Cultural Authenticity:

All of the main characters in the pictures are black children, with a variety of skin tones, at playgroup with their parents. Some of the names also seem to be authentic to contemporary African-American culture, which could possibly “date” or stereotype the book years down the road. The storyline, however, is not necessarily unique to a black child’s experience because it could happen to any child of any race.

Audience:

The book jacket indicates that it is intended for children ages 4 and up. Since the oldest children are going into second grade, I suspect that third grade is probably the upper limit. However, any elementary-aged child who is struggling with making friends might make a connection with this book. Because of the realization that Lily makes at the end of the story, parents of young children might be able to use this book as a way to start a conversation about friendship and peer relations.

Personal Reaction:

I am in awe of this book because of the extraordinary watercolors. I found myself paging forward and back, examining and reexamining the detail of the images. I loved the beauty of the African-American children in the story—it’s so nice to see more and more examples of quality picture books featuring children of color with storylines that can resonate with any child. I also smiled several times because of Lily’s extreme efforts to make an impression on someone she thought was cool. How interesting that many of us continue to do this, even through adulthood!

Reader’s Response Journal: Bad Boy

Bad Boy coverCitation:

Myers, Walter Dean. Bad Boy. New York: Amistad-HarperCollins, 2001. Print.

Plot:

Children’s book author Walter Dean Myers traces his childhood and adolescence in Harlem. Myers went to live with the Deans, the family of his father’s first wife, at the age of four after his own mother passed away. Self-described as a busy child, Myers had a speech problem and switched schools several times due to fighting, eventually ending up in an accelerated junior high for bright students and academic high school for science. In secret, he became a voracious reader and writer, but began to lose himself as he aged, confused by social expectations. Myers was a habitual truant in high school, missed his own graduation and lied to join the military at age 17, before realizing his place as an author.

Setting:

Harlem, New York, primarily in the 1940s and 1950s. At the end, the author offers a follow-up on how his adult life has turned since.

Point of View:

1st person (the author)

Theme:

Identity, family, urban life, coming of age, importance of reading and writing.

Literary Quality:

Myers’ story is an engaging look at the early influences that formed him into a writer. His descriptions are sometimes humorous (for example, Mrs. Dodson, a.k.a. The Wicked Witch of the West) and colorful, helping the reader to picture the Harlem he grew up in. Even the titles of each chapter draws the reader in, evoking curiosity as to what will happen next in his life.

Cultural Authenticity:

Myers’ observations of life in the city for a black child during the mid-20th century are realistic and astute. He acknowledges that his experience during that period in the north differed from what many blacks encountered in southern states. However, we also learn of racial inequalities that affected Myers’ identity and development, such as the “bull work” he sought to avoid in the garment district and the frustration he felt over hiding his interests because they were not “black enough.”

Audience:

The book appears to be geared toward the middle school and high school readers that are normally the audiences for his other books. However, as memoirs go, the writing could easily be appropriate for an adult audience as well because the content is not approached in a uniquely juvenile way. One could assume that the interest level of this book corresponds with Myers’ status as a children’s author, since youth fans would stand to be the most interested in learning more about him.

Personal Reaction:

I found the book to be an enjoyable read. It satisfied most of the curiosity I had regarding the author’s background and family and the meaning of the title. I thought the title of Bad Boy was a bit of a stretch, though Myers did suggest at the end that he did leave some stuff out. It saddened me to witness his identity confusion as an adolescent and his downward familial and academic spiral. Myers’ success is a rare happy ending compared to other stories of struggling urban youth. It definitely points to the power of books and the importance of adult influence in the lives of young people.

Reader’s Response Journal: The Land

The Land coverCitation:

Taylor, Mildred D. The Land. New York: Phyllis Fogelman-Penguin Putnam, 2001. Print.

Plot:

Paul-Edward Logan slowly learns the cruelties of being a biracial child as he encounters bullying, injustice, discrimination in his community and eventually betrayal at the hands of his own [white] brother and best friend, Robert. At the age of 14, while on a trip with Robert and his father to East Texas, Paul gets into some trouble and flees with his former bully-turned-friend, Mitchell. The two wander the South for several years, working at lumber camps before going their separate ways for a bit. Paul’s long-time dream of buying his own land almost falls through after Mitchell is fatally attacked, the land contract they had been working toward is reneged upon and Paul almost loses his entire savings in earnest money. Paul reaches out to his sister for money help and in doing so, saves his dream property deal. He settles down to raise a family with Mitchell’s widow and is eventually reunited with the rest of his estranged family.

Setting:

Before the Civil War through the late 1880s in Georgia, East Texas and Mississippi

Point of View:

1st person (Paul Logan)

Theme:

Racial relations, identity and finding your place in the world

Literary Quality:

Taylor’s writing reflects the time period and dialect well, while not excluding the sensibilities of readers who might be unfamiliar with historical Southern culture. Her descriptions are complete and the dialogs were engaging, always moving the story forward. The Land was honored with the Coretta Scott King Award and the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction. It is also a prequel to a Newbery Medal Winner (Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry).

Cultural Authenticity:

Mildred D. Taylor based this book off of her own family history, retelling the stories she heard from her father about her ancestors. As a minority voice telling her family’s story, the depictions are likely unbiased and authentic. Her characters do not seem to be stereotypes or caricatures; she seems to give positive and negative examples of human nature and behavior from both racial groups, without overly victimizing or villainizing.

Audience:

The main character is a pre-teen when the story picks up, so the book is probably very appealing to a middle school audience on the low end, but young adult readers will not feel alienated by juvenile content either. The story is universally appealing because most readers can identify with the importance of working toward a dream and finding a place where you feel you belong. Biracial readers may also be especially interested as they may identify with Paul Logan’s frustrations of not fitting in well with either racial group.

Personal Reaction:

The Land was an enjoyable read. I was not initially compelled by the plot because the conflict was not obvious to me at first, but I was very engrossed in the characters. The conclusion choked me up a little, with empathy for Paul and the near loss of the land. I admired Paul’s composure at times when he was frustrated with injustice and held his tongue. I am glad that I read this book, because it was a very nice, complete story. However, I’m not sure that I would recommend it specifically to anyone in particular in my life for recreational reading, mainly because it didn’t jump out at me as an earth-shattering experience. I think its potential for use in the classroom, on the other hand, is very rich.

Reader’s Response Journal: Day of Tears

Day of Tears cover

Citation:

Lester, Julius. Day of Tears. New York: Jump at the Sun-Hyperion, 2005. Print.

Plot:

Pierce Butler, a divorced, Southern plantation owner, deep in debt due to gambling, decides to auction off his slaves in the biggest slave auction in U.S. history. The slave who looks after his children, Emma, is sold away from her family, despite Butler’s promise not to. After several years, Emma’s fiancé Joe meets a white man, Mr. Henry, who helps them to escape across the Ohio River to freedom. Emma encounters Butler’s ex-wife, Fanny Kemble, in Philadelphia and she helps them escape one more time to Canada, for fear of the Fugitive Slave Act. Told from the viewpoints of several characters at the time of the auction and from the future looking back, Lester’s work is based on a true story.

Setting:

The day of the auction in 1859 and the years preceding and following the Civil War on the Butler Plantation in Georgia, the Henfield Plantation in Kentucky, Philadelphia and Nova Scotia.

Point of View:

1st person (all characters), in dialogue.

Theme:

Sadness and grief, personal strength, enduring love despite time and distance.

Literary Quality:

Through the use of dialogue, flashbacks and multiple points of view, Lester recreates a dramatic event in U.S. history, lending a personal side and emotion to the story. The novel depicts the stories of characters from multiple perspectives of slavery: white and black, pro-slavery and abolitionist. The descriptions are rich but not heavy, with an extended metaphor of rain to express sadness throughout the book.

Cultural Authenticity:

Julius Lester used the primary source writings from several of the characters in the story, as well as records from the actual auction to recreate the event. The humanity and feelings of the characters are expressed openly, making it easier to understand their motivations, even the ones who outwardly seem to be despicable. Lester notes at the end that his purpose for writing this book was to give voice to those who were unable to tell their own stories.

Audience:

The intended audience of this book is likely upper-elementary or middle school children. The dialogue format is simple and clear, with character changes clearly noted, so most young readers will not struggle with the change in voice. However, the changes in time, through also noted in words and by use of italic font, may pose more difficult for younger, more abstract readers. The book lacks the brutality and violence common in stories about this period of history and instead focuses on grief, also making it more appropriate for a younger audience.

Personal Reaction:

I enjoyed the book immensely, especially once I realized that the story was based on a real historical event, because the characters became more human and three-dimensional to me this way. The use of dialogue was a little strange since it seemed to alternate between 1st person narrative and play-script, and I would have preferred one or the other, but not both. It was a quick-to-read book, but dense in meaning. I have never read another book that had treated the auctioning of slaves as fully as this one did, and I think it would be a valuable piece in fostering an understanding of this part of our history.

Reader’s Response Journal: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Citation:

Twain, Mark. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. 1885. New York: Signet Classic-Penguin, 1959. Print.

Plot:

After Huckleberry Finn fakes his own death to escape from his abusive, alcoholic father, Pap, he forms an unlikely partnership with Jim, a runaway slave of one of Huck’s former caretakers, Miss Watson. Huck is initially conflicted between the legality and morality of helping Jim, but eventually, he decides that it is the right thing to do and ends up considering Jim to be a friend. The two of them encounter robbers, slave hunters, blood feuders and other unsavory types as they travel down the Mississippi River on a log raft with the intended destination of the Ohio River, leading to the free states. They miss their target and end up entangled in a con of the “Duke” and the “Dauphin,” who ultimately betray them and turn Jim in. In a strange coincidence, the family holding Jim turns out to be that of Huck’s old friend, Tom Sawyer, who eventually reveals that Jim had been freed in Miss Watson’s will two months ago. Huck also receives some peace-of-mind that he is finally safe at the end when Jim admits that he saw Pap’s corpse earlier on their journey.

Setting:

The story takes place in the early nineteenth century (before the Civil War), along the Mississippi River, between Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky, and Arkansas.

Point of View:

1st person (Huck)

Theme:

The novel explores race-relations, moral dilemmas and friendships. Twain also engages in social criticism of the hypocrisy of what was considered “civilized”.

Literary Quality:

Though often banned for its “vulgarity” or “racist language,” the longevity of Twain’s novel, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and its continued inclusion in the literary curriculum of American public schools points to its value and universality. We get a telling glimpse into the race-relations and dialect of this period of history, as well as an exploration of a boy’s moral development and maturation. Huck’s decision to do the right thing is a declaration of compassion and affirmation of humanity beyond race differences.

Cultural Authenticity:

This novel has been criticized for its stereotyped portrayal of the black slave in Jim, as superstitious and ignorant, but Twain’s development of Jim also reflects a good-hearted and moral character. Twain did not present a sugarcoated, romanticized or politically correct version of pre-Civil War America. Instead, we get an honest look at the injustices and insensitivities of the era, which is generally agreed to be historically accurate. Though the African-American experience has changed since then, this period has greatly affected the cultural roots of the minority group.

Audience:

Traditionally, this book is used at the high school-level (though sometimes earlier), but it is not easy to teach or study, due to the understanding of the historical context it requires. Twain’s social criticisms are easily lost on the contemporary reader, who probably has not experienced similar conditions. Additionally, the rendering of the spoken dialects into written form poses an extra challenge for weaker readers who depend on predictable spelling and language structures. However, the story itself has elements of the adventure and coming-of-age tales that can be popular with younger audiences too, as evidenced by the transformation of this novel into several popular films over the years.

Personal Reaction:

I originally enjoyed this book when I was first exposed to it as a high school student, largely because my teacher’s passion for it—and that he read large portions of it aloud. In my re-reading of it for this course, I found myself mouthing the dialogues to myself to help my understanding, as well as reminiscing over some of the activities we did with the book. It is timeless, yet complex, and has elements that pervade our common culture. I am glad to have had the experience of studying it several times, but I’m not sure how I would feel about recommending this book outside of traditional English class-canon, like to a reluctant reader, for example. In those cases, I suspect that the “return on investment” may not be worth the struggle, when similar themes and skills could be developed elsewhere.