Education Week - October 11, 2017 - 10
Critics: Racist Images Pop Up in Many Children's Classics
teachers' union has since 1997 celebrated Read Across America, an initiative centered on Geisel's birthday each
year. And an associated symbol, the
Cat in the Hat's red-and-white-striped
stovepipe hat, has been sported by
everyone from the NEA president to
Barack and Michelle Obama.
In recent years, the NEA has
broadened its focus from Seuss, highlighting more diverse children's books
and expanding resources aimed at
older children. And while it has gotten more queries and some criticism
about the Seuss connection as the author's background has become more
well-known, the changes have been
priorities for some time, said Steven
Grant, an NEA spokesman and manager of Read Across America.
"I think there will always be a place
for Seuss books-they are in every
classroom and library in America-
and in some cases, they're effective for
younger readers," he said. "That said,
it's not to the exclusion of all the other
great books that are out there."
CONTINUED FROM PAGE 1
the choice of books a "cliché" and
criticizing Dr. Seuss' illustrations
in If I Ran the Zoo, among others, as
"steeped in racist propaganda, caricatures, and harmful stereotypes."
She also took aim at the Trump
administration's support for school
choice programs. Trump's spokeswoman shot back that the "divisive"
letter was unfortunate.
Hundreds of articles about the
dust-up followed, some defending
the librarian's decision and others
criticizing her rejection of the books
as churlish. But from a curricular
perspective, the episode thrusts into
the limelight a difficult question:
What should teachers and parents
do about the culturally insensitive
imagery and text in some beloved
classics-including the dog-eared favorites that still sit on their shelves?
The career of Dr. Seuss, whose full
name was Theodor Seuss Geisel, is
complex and not easily summarized.
As a political cartoonist in the World
War II era, he excoriated Jim Crow
laws-but also drew racist cartoons
depicting Japanese-Americans as the
enemy. Some of his early books suffer
from similar caricatures. If I Ran the
Zoo contains stereotypical images of
Africans and at one point references
"helpers who all wear their eyes at a
slant." (The book was not in the collection provided by Mrs. Trump.)
It can be hard to square such depictions with some of Seuss' other
tales, which were often liberal on
sociopolitical subjects. The Sneeches
argues against prejudice based on
physical characteristics; The Lorax is
an unsubtle environmental lament;
and The Butter Battle Book allegorizes the nuclear arms race.
The Cat In the Hat lies somewhere
in the middle. Although less explicitly racist, the main character owes a
debt to blackface vaudeville, and was
based on a black woman who worked
as an elevator operator, said Philip
Nel, a professor of English at Kansas
And while the cat brings liveliness
to two children on a dreary day, he is
also clearly marked as not belonging
in their white household.
"It's actually kind of ordinary
and that's part of the point-racism is ordinary, it's not aberrant it's
not strange-and that's why Seuss
is useful to think about," said Nel,
whose book-length study Was The
Cat In the Hat Black?, was released
in August. "He is an example of how
even progressive, anti-racist people
can act in ways that are racist. I don't
think he's intentionally recycling
stereotypes in his book from the '50s
but the imagination is influenced by
the culture in which it grows, and it
doesn't necessarily filter out the racism bits during artistic creation."
Critics of such analyses wonder
if they say more about adults' baggage than kids' books. To echo those
who have pushed back at the critical attention on Seuss-the mayor
of Springfield, Mass., Geisel's hometown, among them-isn't the Cat in
10 | EDUCATION WEEK | October 11, 2017 | www.edweek.org
A Tough Balance
LOOKING BACK: Classic
Dr. Seuss titles such as
The Cat in the Hat, If I Ran
the Zoo, and And to Think
That I Saw It on Mulberry
Street are among
the children's books that
have been criticized
for drawing on culturally
of African-Americans and
other racial groups.
the Hat, well, just a cat in a hat?
Even those who acknowledge some
of the troubling features in his books
question the recent focus on his work.
"So Seuss had issues. But so did a
vast array of other authors, including
pretty much anyone writing before,
say, 1930," one Washington Post columnist wrote.
But Nel counters that the images
are powerful ones, a reminder of
racism's capacity to adapt, and how
young readers can internalize them.
"I think children notice on levels that
they may not be able to articulate,"
he said. "The persistence of blackface
minstrelsy, even in subtle ways, has
a normalizing effect."
It's tempting to think that only
the subtler examples of racism persist in children's literature. But according to Michelle H. Martin, the
Beverly Cleary professor for children and youth services at the information school at the University
of Washington in Seattle, versions
of Little Black Sambo, first published in 1899 and long since in the
public domain, have been brought
out as recently as 2004, though
they are sometimes sanitized.
Meanwhile, despite some advances, the children's literature
market remains dominated by white
authors and depictions of white
characters, according to annual
data collected by the Cooperative
Children's Book Center, a research
library at the University of Wisconsin-Madison's school of education.
In 2016, just 22 percent of the
roughly 3,400 books reviewed
by the center featured nonwhite
characters, and only 13 percent
were written by people of color-
even though more than half of the
United States' school-age population are children of color.
The spotlight on Seuss could bring
some uncomfortable attention for
organizations long tied to his work,
among them the National Education Association. The nation's largest
The harder question concerns
teachers whose classrooms are
stocked with the older books. The
tendency is to avoid them altogether
or to keep only those that don't have
objectionable content (Green Eggs
and Ham, anyone?) But scholars like
Nel and Martin argue there's another
way to do it: Embrace the history in
Martin said she's talked about
one of the modern rewrites of the
Sambo story, Anne Isaac's Pancakes for Supper, with her 5-yearold niece. (The book reworks the
story as an American tall tale with
a female protagonist.)
"The fact that it is still part of
our culture-why are we still rewriting the story? Of what value is
it?" she said. "Anne Isaac's story is
a delightful story, and if you didn't
know that it's derived from a little
black Sambo story, it would stand
on its own, but that's part of the argument we're making-bring that
history out. Ask kids what they
think. They might say, 'This is an
awesome story,' but they should be
informed while reading," she said.
Martin, who has also been a
teacher-educator, also believes that
programs preparing teachers need
to engage with similar questions
and help teachers locate more diverse books, some of which have been
published by smaller, independent
presses. "If the teachers don't have
training in cultural sensitivity and
diverse children's books, they have a
disconnect going into the classroom-
and they have a disadvantage," she
said. "And they don't know it."
And adults of all professions should
be open to taking a hard look at their
favorite children's books, and embrace the discomfort it may bring.
"I don't think nostalgia is a defense. Affection is not a defense," Nel
said. "What you have to do is take
a deep breath, step back, and realize that the culture in which these
books live and in which these books
were written is a racist culture and
a sexist culture."