Home United States USA — Art The debate over Dr. Seuss: When racist themes collides with childhood nostalgia

The debate over Dr. Seuss: When racist themes collides with childhood nostalgia


Expert: People who remember Seuss stories with affection find it hard to critically examine them later for hidden themes that even he might’ve missed.
Melania Trump is having her say after a Massachusetts school librarian rejected the first lady’s donation of Dr. Seuss books because they’re racist and unneeded.
“To turn the gesture of sending young students some books into something divisive is unfortunate, but the First Lady remains committed to her efforts on behalf of children everywhere,” Trump’s spokeswoman, Stephanie Grisham, said in a statement to USA TODAY on Friday.
Grisham said Trump intends to use her platform as FLOTUS “to help as many children as she can. She has demonstrated this in both actions and words since her husband took office, and sending books to children across the country is but one example.”
The dustup over Dr. Seuss provided more grist for another grinding clash between Trump and Trump critics, liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans. But the book donation program has been an annual gesture by previous first ladies for years; in fact, both Barbara and Laura Bush put reading and literacy near the top of their agendas.
And, as some Trump-supporting tweeters pointed out, former President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama were photographed multiple times over the years reading Seuss classics to children, including Green Eggs and Ham and Oh, the Things You Can Do That Are Good For You.
Three weeks ago, in honor of National Read a Book Day, Trump sent packages of 10 Dr. Seuss books to one high-achieving school in every state. The packages included titles such as The Cat in the Hat, Green Eggs and Ham and a personal favorite that she and her son, Barron, 11, read together “over and over:” Oh, the Places You’ll Go!
In an open letter to the first lady posted on a book blog Thursday, Liz Phipps Soeiro,a library media specialist at the Cambridgeport School in Cambridge, Mass., said that while she was grateful for the books, she would not be accepting them. Why? Because she says her Boston-area school doesn’t lack for resources and because she takes issue with “racist” imagery in some of the author’s books.
“Another fact that many people are unaware of is that Dr. Seuss’ illustrations are steeped in racist propaganda, caricatures, and harmful stereotypes,” Phipps Soeiro wrote, citing If I Ran a Zoo, which some critics say contains caricatures of Africans and Asians.
She also criticized the Trump administration’s policies on funding schools and libraries, suggested Trump consult the Librarian of Congress, Carla Hayden, for a list of diverse books, and called out Trump’s education secretary by name.
“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?” she proposed.
Her lengthy letter prompted her school district to distance itself from her, saying in a statement that she has the right to her opinion but it is not an official position, according to the Boston Globe .
The district did not return a call from USA TODAY seeking comment on whether Phipps Soeiro will be disciplined for airing her opinion.
At least one Seuss scholar, Philip Nel, a professor of children’s literature at Kansas State University, defended Phipps Soeiro in an interview with USA TODAY.
“I’m glad she was directing attention to the need to fund school libraries adequately and the need for diverse books,” said Nel, author of Dr. Seuss: American Icon and Was the Cat in the Hat Black? The Hidden Racism of Children’s Literature, and the Need for Diverse Books.
Phipps Soiero’s reaction reflected both political opposition to the Trump administration and the shift in educators’ thinking about the imagery in some of the most beloved Dr. Seuss books dating from the 1950s.
“The National Education Association recently dropped The Cat in the Hat as the mascot for its Read Across America program and instead will focus on diverse books, so (the issue) is in the conversation now,” Nel said.
But are Dr. Seuss books racist?
It depends on the book, Nel says. Theodor Seuss Geisel, who died in 1991,employed both racist and anti-racist themes in his books, with The Sneetches and Horton Hears a Who among the most obvious of the latter, Nel says.
Both books “clearly argue against picking on others for arbitrary marks of difference,” he said, citing green stars in the case of Sneetches and size in the case of Horton (“A person’s a person, no matter how small”).
“Racism lurks in children’s’ culture in ways we’re not aware of, and (authors) can recycle images and ideas in their work without being aware of it,” Nel says. “People don’t take children’s lit seriously, they think kids are not going to notice this, only grownups notice. That underestimates their intelligence and doesn’t take into account that we learn things without being aware we’re learning things.”
Nel acknowledged that people who remember Seuss stories with deep affection find it difficult to critically examine them later for hidden themes that even Geisel might have been unaware of, Nel said.
“Grownups own the nostalgia for their childhood,” Nel said. “It feels like a challenge when you analyze (Seuss books) critically. It’s why people become angry (talking about these issues)… Favorite books, toys, films — they think, I am not a bad person, therefore, these can’t be bad.”

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