A couple of years ago, I wrote about clearing Dr. Seuss's books from my bookshelves and Little Free Library. It was a response to a study on Dr. Seuss’s works that analyzed story content and characters for racist messages, imagery, white supremacy, or the erasure of non-white people.
Those who reject critical analyses as wokeness or cancel culture saw the article and argued about it. However, there was also support, especially from parents. Most parents had no idea about the harmful messages in the classic books they had in their homes.
And why would they? Who would suspect a silly rhyming story with kooky characters to have darker meanings? Primarily when written by someone as renowned as Suess.
It is undoubtedly the case that some parents know that Dr. Suess's books contain harmful messages and images but do not care. It is more likely, however, that most parents either do not know about the findings of Dr. Suess's books or do not know what to do about it. I struggled with this problem as well. After I gathered all the Dr. Suess books in my home and my Little Free Library, I was at a loss for what to do next. I certainly did not want to donate these books blindly and therefore spread these harmful messages. I opted to keep them with the intention that, once my son was ready, I would sit down with him and discuss why and how the stories were harmful.
This week, he is old enough to have that conversation.
My son is still very young, so we started with one book, “Hop on Pop.” If you remember reading this book as a child or parent, you might think there is nothing that could be wrong with the story. It has very few words. It’s a lot of “three trees,” “Pat sat,” and “jump bump.” There are pictures of happy bears, bees, and fish. But there are also a lot of human characters in this story. Katie Ishizuka and Ramón Stephens analyzed this book in their research paper, “The Cat is Out of the Bag: Orientalism, Anti-Blackness, and White Supremacy in Dr. Seuss's Children's Books.” And it was an excellent book since it was clear where the problems would appear.
We looked at all the human characters in the book and identified their race. He noticed all the people were white. He noticed that no characters looked brown, like me. This was a clear example of a book that centers the story around white individuals thereby attempting to erase people of color.
According to Ishizuka Stephens, “When children’s books center Whiteness, erase people of color and other oppressed groups…they both ingrain and reinforce internalized racism and White supremacy.” Their findings are part of a body of research showing “exposure to information regarding diversity, equity, and inclusion impacts one’s future decision making processes and inspires a conscious evaluation of judgments, interactions, and choices that may reify social and psychological oppressions.”
When he is older, we can begin to look at the more disturbing images like stereotypical headwear, subservient depictions of characters of color, or racist facial features. But, for now, it is easy to see white vs. nothing.
Dr. Suess Day is March 2. Those of us who are parents are well acquainted with the day as we usually get a notice that we are to dress our kids for school as the Grinch on Monday, Thing 1 or 2 on Tuesday, and have wacky hair on Wednesday, and so on.
Some flyers announcing Seuss week may still associate the late author with the National Education Association’s Read Across America initiative. However, the organization disassociated its National Reading Day from Dr. Suess and now opts to celebrate and encourage reading all year rather than on one day. The organization also promotes stories of diverse people and characters. For example, some of the March books of the month for Read Across America include “Dream Street,” “Karthik Delivers,” and “We Weren’t Looking To Be Found.”
In 1965, when “Fox in Socks” was published, parents did not have the options they do today regarding children’s books. Children now have a variety of books to read rather than “The Cat in the Hat.”
“Soul Food Sunday,” a 2022 Coretta Scott King award-winning book, tells of a boy visiting his extended family. His Granny tasks him with grating, rinsing, skinning, and slicing ingredients in preparation for the family’s meal. This book is packed with delightfully delicious illustrations and the familiar feeling of family.
“Fry Bread,” a 2020 American Indian Youth Literature Picture Book Honor Winner, tells the story of the cultural food and the history of the tribes who learned to make it with what they had. The book dives into the indigenous cultures of Turtle Island while showing images of multigenerational storytelling. A bonus in the book is the illustrations and messages that show body positivity, a rarity in a children’s book.
Parents, librarians, and educators can opt for stories like “Our Little Kitchen,” “Magic Ramen,” or “We’re all Wonders” instead of a Dr. Suess book. There are alternatives to “There’s a Wocket in my Pocket,” and it remains an exciting time to be a parent.
Children may learn about One Fish, Two Fish, with a dash of racism, or read about culture, history, food, music, and families in books written for today’s audiences.
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