Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

A school librarian responds to Mrs. Trump’s gift of Dr. Seuss books

leave a comment »

Liz Phipps Soeiro pens a thoughtful letter to Melania Trump:

Dear Mrs. Trump,

Thank you for the ten Dr. Seuss titles that you sent my school library in recognition of this year’s National Read a Book Day. (Sent second-day air, no less! That must have been expensive.) I’m proud that you recognized my school as something special. It truly is. Our beautiful and diverse student body is made up of children from all over the world; from different socioeconomic statuses; with a spectrum of gender expressions and identities; with a range of abilities; and of varied racial, ethnic, and religious backgrounds.

According to the White House website, you selected one school per state by “working with the Department of Education to identify schools with programs that have achieved high standards of excellence, recognized by State and National awards and Blue Ribbon Awards…” Each of those carefully vetted schools received ten books: Seuss-isms!Because a Little Bug Went KaChoo; What Pet Should I Get?The Cat in the HatI Can Read with My Eyes Shut!; One FishTwo Fish, Red Fish, Blue FishThe Foot BookWacky WednesdayGreen Eggs and Ham; and Oh, the Places You’ll Go!.

My students were interested in reading your enclosed letter and impressed with the beautiful bookplates with your name and the indelible White House stamp, however, we will not be keeping the titles for our collection. I’d like to respectfully offer my explanation.

* * * * *

My school and my library are indeed award-winning. I work in a district that has plenty of resources, which contributes directly to “excellence.” Cambridge, Massachusetts, is an amazing city with robust social programming, a responsive city government, free all-day kindergarten, and well-paid teachers (relatively speaking — many of us can’t afford to live in the city in which we teach). My students have access to a school library with over nine thousand volumes and a librarian with a graduate degree in library science. Multiple studies show that schools with professionally staffed libraries improve student performance. The American Association of School Librarians has a great infographic on these findings. Many schools around the state and country can’t compete.

Yearly per-pupil spending in Cambridge is well over $20,000; our city’s values are such that given a HUGE range in the socioeconomic status of our residents, we believe that each and every child deserves the best free education possible and are working hard to make that a reality (most classrooms maintain a 60/40 split between free/reduced lunch and paid lunch). This offers our Title I school and the district a lot of privilege and room for programming and pedagogy to foster “high standards of excellence.” Even so, we still struggle to close the achievement gap, retain teachers of color, and dismantle the systemic white supremacy in our institution. But hell, we test well! And in the end, it appears that data — and not children — are what matters.

Meanwhile, school libraries around the country are being shuttered. Cities like Philadelphia, Chicago, and Detroit are suffering through expansion, privatization, and school “choice” with no interest in outcomes of children, their families, their teachers, and their schools. Are those kids any less deserving of books simply because of circumstances beyond their control? Why not go out of your way to gift books to underfunded and underprivileged communities that continue to be marginalized and maligned by policies put in place by Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos? Why not reflect on those “high standards of excellence” beyond only what the numbers suggest? Secretary DeVos would do well to scaffold and lift schools instead of punishing them with closures and slashed budgets.

* * * * *

So, my school doesn’t have a NEED for these books. And then there’s the matter of the books themselves. You may not be aware of this, but Dr. Seuss is a bit of a cliché, a tired and worn ambassador for children’s literature. As First Lady of the United States, you have an incredible platform with world-class resources at your fingertips. Just down the street you have access to a phenomenal children’s librarian: Dr. Carla Hayden, the current Librarian of Congress. I have no doubt Dr. Hayden would have given you some stellar recommendations.

Another fact that many people are unaware of is that Dr. Seuss’s illustrations are steeped in racist propaganda, caricatures, and harmful stereotypes. Open one of his books (If I Ran a Zoo or And to Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street, for example), and you’ll see the racist mockery in his art. Grace Hwang Lynch’s School Library Journal article, “Is the Cat in the Hat Racist? Read Across America Shifts Away from Dr. Seuss and Toward Diverse Books,” reports on Katie Ishizuka’s work analyzing the minstrel characteristics and trope nature of Seuss’s characters. Scholar Philip Nel’s new book, Was the Cat in the Hat Black? The Hidden Racism of Children’s Literature, and the Need for Diverse Books, further explores and shines a spotlight on the systemic racism and oppression in education and literature.

I am honored that you recognized my students and our school. I can think of no better gift for children than books; it was a wonderful gesture, if one that could have been better thought out. Books can be a powerful way to learn about and experience the world around us; they help build empathy and understanding. In return, I’m attaching a list of ten books (it’s the librarian in me) that I hope will offer you a window into the lives of the many children affected by the policies of your husband’s administration. You and your husband have a direct impact on these children’s lives. Please make time to learn about and value them. . .

Continue reading.

And do click the link to see the list of 10 books—extremely interesting selections.

See also Isabel Fattal’s article in the AtlanticReading Racism in Dr. Seuss.” It begins:

Reminiscing about the Dr. Seuss books we loved as children is usually a happy time for adults. We might remember first learning about equality in Horton Hears a Who! or getting starry-eyed about our futures reading Oh, the Places You’ll Go! (of course, for some of us there’s also a bit of residual terror about that green-food-obsessed apparition in Green Eggs and Ham).

But Philip Nel, a scholar and professor of children’s literature whose specialties include Dr. Seuss and Harry Potter, is pushing readers to grapple with the political and social implications of the stories that inspire such warm, fuzzy memories. In his new book, Was the Cat in the Hat Black?: The Hidden Racism of Children’s Literature, and the Need for Diverse Books, Nel argues that, yes, the Cat in the Hat was black—or, more precisely, that Seuss’s depiction of the character was based on racial stereotypes and inspired by traditions of blackface minstrel entertainment—and that dozens more children’s books of decades past are brimming with insidious, racist themes.

I spoke with Nel about how teachers and parents should discuss these books with children, how one’s nostalgia for children’s books can coexist with an understanding of their not-so-innocent makings, and why he’s dedicated his adult life to thinking about children’s literature. Below is a lightly edited version of our conversation.

Fattal: You say that your book is “about how race is present especially when it seems to be absent.” Can you give an example of a character or a scene in a children’s book that seems to be “race-free” but actually isn’t when you take a second look?

Nel: One obvious example would be the Oompa Loompas in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, who are these orange people who are enslaved happily by Mr. Wonka. The book presents slavery as happy and fun, and the kind of thing that others would enjoy, and I’m not sure that everyone thinks of the book in those terms. In the original version, the Oompa Loompas are not white people from Loompaland—they are in fact black pygmies from Africa. And though [Roald] Dahl changed that, he didn’t change the broader themes of racism and colonialism when he did that.

Fattal: In your book you talk about nostalgia and how parents are reluctant to acknowledge racism in the books they loved growing up and want to read to their kids. Can parents share these books with their kids while also acknowledging their troubling elements?

Nel: I think that what we have to do is admit that our relationships with these books can be complicated. It’s okay to think fondly of a beautiful story, but you need to also think about the way in which that beautiful story may also be racist. We can talk about what is masterful about it or what is artistic about it, but we also need to talk about some of the things in the book which are not, and if presented uncritically are simply transmitting these ideas to a new generation. I think adults need to recognize that their fondness for a book or a movie is not a defense of that. I think you would actually have a richer and more profound relationship with a work if you do think about it critically, and if we do acknowledge those mixed feelings.

Fattal: You argue that there is an imperative to keep reading these problematic children’s books. What would you say to those who ask why we wouldn’t just stop reading them? . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

28 September 2017 at 8:32 pm

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.