The Story of Little Black Sambo

The True First Edition, First Printing
"One of the Few Books of its Day to Proclaim the Humanity of Black People"
"Revolutionary in Its Day"
Alas, Perverted in the U.S. into a Humiliating Racist Burlesque

BANNERMAN, Helen. The Story of Little Black Sambo. London: Grant Richards, 1899.

First edition, first printing (500 copies). Sixteenmo. viii, 57, [1, blank], [1, printer's slug], [1, blank] pp. Twenty-seven full page color illustrations by the author. Woodcut engraved and printed at Racquet Court by Edmund Evans.

Publisher's original cloth. Completely untouched and with minimal wear, internally with just the mildest of smudging to plates. A tight, very attractive and near fine copy. Chemised in a quarter cream buckram over mottled boards clamshell case.

Grant Richards Dumpy Books for Children No. 4, with advertisements for such opposite the title page. Few copies of the first printing have survived in collectible condition because of the small format and rough handling by enthusiastic children; thus scarce.

"The Story of Little Black Sambo has been one of the best-loved children's tales for many generations - but it is a book surrounded nowadays by a certain amount of controversy.

"…The author was Helen Bannerman [1862-1946], who came from a well-known Edinburgh family…When she wrote it, however, she was in India, where her husband was a doctor in the Indian Medical Service…stationed in Madras. During the hot weather [she] went with her two small daughters to a hill-station called Kodaikanal; she decided to leave her children there with their ayah while she went back to Madras to see her husband. It was during this journey from Kodaikanal to Madras that she wrote The Story of Little Black Sambo. She drew and painted the pictures, bound it herself (she had her own book press), and sent it off to her daughters as a present.

"Later, the book was taken to London by a friend and there it was sold, copyright and all, to the publisher Grant Richards for £5.

"…From the first, the little book was a runaway success. It was one of the first children's books produced in small format…It had a simple, repetitive story, exciting pictures in bright colours, and, what was rare in those days, no moral or improving tone. Children loved it. Within a year it had sold 21,000 copies and gone through four editions…

"…In the USA, many copies have been sold in editions with illustrations by other artists. These versions, not illustrated by Helen Bannerman, but others who had quite different ideas about her story and her hero, were to prove damaging to the author. Many of the pictures were tasteless and transported Helen Bannerman's hero to the South of the United States, to a world of cotton plantations and 'black Mammies.' From being one of the few books of its day to proclaim the humanity of black people, it was transformed, in some versions, into a book that associated black people with the humiliations of slavery and its aftermath…There were no such links in…the original illustrations.

"Because of criticism, some American publishers shifted the story's location to India. This fitted in with certain Indian words in the text ["ghi": butter], but took the book away from the far-off African land of Bannerman's original creation.

"It is unfortunate that Helen Bannerman's name should have been brought into controversies of this kind though the choice of the name Sambo and the loss of control over her book by the sale of her copyright. Paradoxically, she was a committed Christian, interested (as her letters and illustrations show) in people of each and every race, and in advance of her time in portraying a hero who was black" (From the accompanying pamphlet to the National Library of Scotland exhibition Helen Bannerman 'Oh please Mr Tiger', 3 April to 30 June 1981).

"Little Black Sambo embodied nearly all the principles on which present day books for children are based and was revolutionary in its day" (Hay, Sambo Sahib, p. 1).

Edmund Evans was the pre-eminent color printer of his era, printing the works of Kate Greenaway, Beatrix Potter, and Lewis Carroll's The Nursery Alice.

Hay, Sambo Sahib, p. 176. Schiller, Justin G. The Story of Little Black Sambo, The Book Collector (Vol. 23, No. 3., Autumn 1974). Item #01301

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