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.



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.

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,

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.

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