Helen Bannerman: Biography & Books

Instructor: Sharon Linde

Sharon has a Masters of Science in Mathematics

Classic children's author Helen Bannerman knew how to capture the interest of the young. This lesson will introduce you to her life and work and will fill you in on a little controversy she unwittingly stirred up. Intrigued? Read on.

Author Helen Bannerman

Helen Bannerman's success as an author is like a fairy tale, complete with the evil plot twist. Born in 1862 in Edinburgh, Scotland to a minister father, she and her family moved to a small island in the north Atlantic called Madeira. She was home schooled by her father until the family returned to Edinburgh in 1874, when she began regular schooling.

Helen wanted to continue her academic career at St. Andrew's University, but Scottish laws would not allow this. Instead she was able to earn an LLA, or Lady Literate in the Arts degree, by taking the exams off campus. In 1889 she met and married William Bannerman, a doctor who worked for the Indian Medical Service in India. The Bannerman family lived in the city of Madras for 30 years and had a total of four children, two boys and two girls.

Author Helen Bannerman

Little Black Sambo

The city of Madras is located in India and is considered a lowland city, one located in lower altitudes with hot weather. Because of this, many diseases were prevalent; remember, this is in the early 1900s when medical treatment was still relatively primitive. To escape the heat and threat of illness the Bannerman children spent their summers in a higher altitude city, Kodaikanal, with a nanny. Helen and William remained in Madras.

As you'd expect of any mother, Helen missed her children when they were gone. In 1898 she decided to write a book for her daughters. Using characters inspired by local children and wildlife, Helen wrote 'Little Black Sambo', the story of a little boy who meets up with four tigers that want to eat him. He tricks them by giving them his new clothes and umbrella; the tigers argue about who is the best looking, eventually chasing each other around a pole until they become so hot they turn to butter. Sambo takes his belongings back and his mother makes pancakes with the newfound butter.

Original cover of Little Black Sambo

Bannerman wrote, illustrated and bound the book in a way small children would feel comfortable holding and reading. With encouragement from a friend she showed it to a publisher in London who bought it from her and published it under his own series, 'Dumpy Books for Children,' in 1899.

Controversy and Little Black Sambo

In 1900 a US publisher named Frederick A. Stokes bought the rights to the book, changed the cover, reset the type, and published a US version. 'Little Black Sambo' was an immediate bestseller. Loose publishing laws of the times led to several pirated versions being printed. These books were not like the original and had several startling changes. The main character, Sambo, was often drawn as a boy from Africa or South America; he was also made to look dishonorable and unintelligent. Many people began looking at 'Little Black Sambo' as a racist depiction; at several points in its history it has been banned or boycotted. The name 'Sambo' even began to be linked as a racist slur.

This was not the story Bannerman wrote or ever meant to portray. In 1923, Stokes added the words 'The Only Authorized American Edition' to all original printings of the book. It remained on the 'Recommended Book List for Children' into the 1960s and is still considered a favorite of children around the world.

Other Works by Bannerman

A book published by Bannerman later in her career

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