Christopher Bing—and Handprint Books, his publisher—burst onto the children's book scene three years ago with an eye-popping interpretation of Casey at the Bat that garnered a 2001 Caldecott Honor. But Casey was not Bing's first project; the first book he finished was an edition of
Helen Bannerman's The Story of Little Black Sambo, a tale with a complex history.
Bing began Sambo as a labor of love while he was a student at the Rhode Island School of Design in the early 1980s. "I didn't do it as a book, I just did it for my own enjoyment," he said. "Every parent can tell you which book their child grabbed onto and had to hear over and over and over again. Mine was Little Black Sambo." As a child, Bing and his grandfather, a professor at the University of Gainesville in Florida, would walk across the campus past a pen of live alligators. "I remember being terrified and holding onto my grandfather's leg," Bing recalled. "So I had a direct thrill with the idea of Sambo facing off these tigers."
While Bing was a student at RISD, a bookseller in Providence, R.I., whose main focus was African-American literature, encouraged Bing to send his illustrations to Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr., now chair of Harvard's Afro-American Studies department. Gates told Bing to complete the artwork and then gave the project to his own agent, Carl Brandt, who submitted the book to Christopher Franceschelli.
"I committed to publishing the book immediately, but said it really should be [Bing's] third book," said Franceschelli, Bing's editor and founder of Handprint Books. Bing had been considering the idea of illustrating Ernest Lawrence Thayer's poem Casey at the Bat, so they went forward with this project first. Casey (2000) and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere (2001) established Bing as a meticulous researcher and earned him a name in the children's book community, especially after winning a Caldecott Honor.
But while Bing set aside his illustrations for the Sambo story to work on other projects, two other versions were published, both in 1996: Fred Marcellino's The Story of Little Babaji; and Sam and the Tigers by Julius Lester, illustrated by Jerry Pinkney. Bing considers them both "wonderful" books, but said he did not alter his own approach to Bannerman's story from those early drawings while he was still a student. "Even though [Sambo] is only appearing now, 80% of the book was sketched out 15 years ago," Franceschelli said.
The artist set the story in 1889 India, so that readers would feel "as if you were walking along at that time on that path." The process of preparing the artwork for publication was more involved than Bing had foreseen, however. "I thought I'd just lay watercolor into the old illustrations, but they turned to mud," he said. "I tried to preserve the originals, overlaying the color. But I felt I had to go back in and redo it."
Commitment to Truth
Bing's sole means of supporting himself after his graduation from RISD in 1983 was (and continues to be) his work as an editorial and political illustrator (his first illustration was published in the Boston Globe in the spring of his senior year). With this background, Bing felt strongly about remaining true to Bannerman's 1889 text for The Story of Little Black Sambo (still in print from HarperCollins) while also exposing the book's painful history. "I'm a strong believer in the saying that 'those who don't know history are doomed to repeat it,' " he said.
An afterword explains that while the name "Sambo" has taken on pejorative connotations here in the U.S., it was a common prefix for names in India, where the story is set (the Indian word "ghi," for instance, describes the fate of the fighting tigers, who "melt" into butter). Bannerman was paid a flat fee for her work, and pirated versions soon made their way to the U.S., where the period illustrations depicted minstrel-like facial qualities for the characters. Bing said that as a parent buying books, he'd seen versions of the story that "offend my sensibilities as a white person, let alone how African-Americans might react." He wanted to correct these painful associations: "I wanted African-American children, if they pick up the book, to feel like 'This is me, a handsome, happy boy.' "
As Bing recalled, "Christopher said that if I came out with Sambo first, I'd get killed in the press because people would think that I was trying to be controversial, when, in fact, I'd never intended the book to be published in the first place." Franceschelli shared Bing's sensibility about the importance of the project. "He saw it as a joyful tale; he wanted to create a child equally joyful," Franceschelli said. "I shared [with him] the sense that here was a positive image of a child, a book that quite consciously reversed the stereotype."
Bing's next project is a version of Little Red Riding Hood, which, according to his research, is "even more controversial than Sambo." The story was part of an oral tradition, told as a coming-of-age tale called "Red Cap," and was a sort of striptease. Bing said that when Charles Perrault started writing it down in the 17th century, he was directed to write it for girls, which "changed the story completely." Grimm retold it later, and that's the basis for Bing's edition, due out in the fall of 2004. Following that will be a book both written and illustrated by Bing.