A recent spat over Dr. Seuss’ place in the children’s literature canon has highlighted an uncomfortable truism about the books that children experience in their earliest school days: Some of the most classic and beloved titles, from The Wizard of Oz on down, draw on racist tropes and images.
The Oompa-Loompas in Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, at least in its original version, were depicted as African pygmies who were happy to be working for cocoa beans at said chocolate factory. The eponymous Cat in the Hat, a new scholarly book argues,.
This topic entered the mainstream again late last month, when first lady Melania Trump sent 10 Dr. Seuss books to a school in each state. In, a librarian in Cambridge, Mass., Liz Phipps Soeiro, said she would not keep them, calling the choice of books a “cliché” and criticizing his 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?
A Complex History
The career of Dr. Seuss, whose full name was Theodor Seuss Geisel, is complex and not easily summarized. As a political cartoonist, he excoriated Jim Crow laws—but also drew racist cartoons depicting Japanese-Americans as the enemy. Some of his early books suffer from. 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 as Kansas State University.
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, Geisel’s hometown, among them—isn’t the Cat in the Hat, well, just a cat in a hat?
Even those who acknowledge some of the troubling features in his book 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. “I think children notice on levels that they may not be able to articulate,” he said. “The persistence of blackface minstrelry, 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, 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 teachers’ union has since 1997 celebrated, 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 Seuss as the author’s background has become more widespread, those 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.”
A Tough Balance
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 effective ways.
Martin said she’s talked about one of the modern rewrites of the Sambo story, Anne Isaac’s Pancakes for Supper, with her 5-year-old 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.”
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 inand diverse children’s books, they have a disconnect going into the classroom—and they have a disadvantage. And they don’t know it,” she said.
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.”
A version of this article appeared in the October 11, 2017 edition of Education Week as Does The Cat in the Hat Sustain Racist Stereotypes?