March 3, 2021

Valerie Strauss: No, a Virginia school district didn’t ban Dr. Seuss books. Here’s what really happened.

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Valerie Strauss at The Answer Sheet provides some much-needed historical perspective on what the Dr. Seuss kerfluffle is all about (spoiler alert–Fox News’ coverage is neither complete nor accurate). The piece also includes an interview with Philip Nel, author of Was The Cat In The Hat Black?

Says Nel:

The Cat in the Hat is in the title because he’s the ideal metaphor for the often unseen ways in which racism persists in children’s culture. To be clear (and contrary to some of the news stories on the book), my argument is not that the Cat in the Hat is racist. As a character, he is racially complicated, inspired by blackface minstrelsy and by an actual person of color — Houghton Mifflin elevator operator Annie Williams, an African American who wore white gloves and a secret smile. Also, with reference to the blackface influence, it’s not at all unusual to find apparently discarded racial images and ideas circulating in children’s culture.

On the need for full representation in children’s literature

Though literal realism isn’t required, it’s important for all children to meet characters of all races and many varieties of experience. Because representation is about power. If you’re mainly reading books about straight White boys and men, the message you receive is that straight White boys and men are — and should be — at the center of the universe. A steady literary diet of such books risks creating arrogant, self-centered White boys, and it risks telling all others that their stories are just not as worth telling, that they are less important. In contrast, reading books by Ibi Zoboi or Jacqueline Woodson or Daniel José Older is good for everyone. Children whose identities intersect with their characters’ identities see themselves reflected in the books they read. They learn that their stories matter and that they are not alone. And the White boys reading these books can expand their understanding of humanity and cultivate empathy for lives different than their own.

Literature expands our emotional lives. Stories show us how we are connected — offering “a glimpse across the limits of our self,” as Hisham Matar says of art more generally. Books for young people reach selves still very much in the process of becoming; minds that have not yet been made up; future adults who can learn respect instead of suspicion, understanding instead of fear, and even love.

The full piece is behind the Washington Post paywall, but is well worth the read for a better perspective on the great Seussian debate.

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