Banning books is something that mustn't be taken lightly.

It didn't take long to find The Story of Little Black Sambo in the Auckland Public Libraries system. A catalogue search turns up 11 versions, though only one looks like the edition I remember from my childhood.

For younger readers, Sambo's story may need some introduction. Published in 1899, it was the first book of Edinburgh-born Helen Bannerman, who spent much of her life in southern India.

Its titular hero has a splendid outfit (red coat, blue trousers, green umbrella and "a lovely little Pair of Purple Shoes with Crimson Soles and Crimson Linings"), which he surrenders, piece by piece, to various man-eating tigers that employ standover tactics.

The well-dressed animals then get into an argument over which of them is the grandest and chase each other around a tree with such vigour that they turn into ghee, the clarified butter that is a staple in the Indian kitchen. The boy gets his kit back and a feed of buttery pancakes as well.


It's a charming story, though no masterpiece by modern children's-book standards. But to our ears, Sambo's name jars because the word is - and was then - well established as a vile racial slur.

It makes matters only slightly worse that Bannerman (who named the boy's parents Mumbo and Jumbo) used a word traditionally applied to Africans to name an imaginary Tamil boy who looked utterly unlike an African. The book's various illustrators over the years took their cue, conjuring grotesqueries that outdid the grossest of blackface caricature.

A re-illustrated 1990s version, The Story of Little Babaji, was a bestseller but the original survives and the fact the library has not acted to expunge it would presumably be a source of puzzlement to those who want Michael Pearl's first book pulled from the shelves.

Pearl, a Tennessee-based fundamentalist preacher with a Moses beard, wrote a parenting guide in 1994 with his wife, Debi. Its approach may reasonably be inferred from the phraseology of its title, To Train Up a Child, with its faintly chilling implication that kids are like sheepdogs or dancing bears.

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In short, it espouses pain as a teaching tool. Specifically, it gives advice on corporal punishment - the term it prefers is "spanking". A section headed "Instruments of Love" prescribes for a recalcitrant child under 1 year old a "willowy branch [stripped] of any knots that might break the skin". The ideal length and diameter are specified and alternatives offered ("a one-foot ruler, or its equivalent in a paddle"). "For the larger child, a belt or larger tree branch is effective." You get the drift.

Last week a West Auckland mother launched an online campaign - by yesterday morning it had 2431 supporters - to have the book pulled from library shelves. The library has demurred, saying its "commitment to ... freedom of access to information" forbids it to "suppress or remove material on the grounds that it gives offence".

It's a position that's hard to argue with, if only because relinquishing it is a step down a very slippery slope. The book, which resides in the religious section of the library, not among the parenting guides, was bought in 2012 because a customer asked for it. It had, until last week's events, been borrowed 10 times though now there is a waiting list.


The entire text is easily accessed for free, online, so having it withdrawn from libraries would be an empty gesture. More important, it would be asking libraries to forbid what the state has not.

The Censorship Compliance Unit, the enforcement arm of our censorship system, looked at the book in 2011, but did not refer it to the Office of Film and Literature Classification for consideration by the Chief Censor (although bookstore chain Whitcoulls pulled it).

But just before the Easter break, I learned that a member of the public had submitted the book to the censor, who will decide whether it meets the legal definition of objectionable. The office has had about a dozen other emails expressing concern about the book.

That office's decision will take between two and six weeks and I'll be watching with interest. Whatever it is, it will at least have followed a legal process. Pulling a book from the library because of a public outcry is a whole other matter. On that basis, they'd be biffing quite a bit of Shakespeare and Mark Twain. I'd certainly want everything Jeffrey Archer and Dan Brown ever wrote to be gone. And Little Black Sambo wouldn't stand a chance.