Thursday Thoughts: On Seuss, Selection, Criticism and Censorship

Thanks to Sam Bloom for turning me onto a recent a guest post article on the Intellectual Freedom Blog! Carole Soden, former international school teacher and library school graduate, shared her thoughts on “Why I Am Keeping Seuss Books.”

Here’s Why I Personally Am NOT…

  • Selecting Seuss Books to Read in Storytime
  • Recommending Seuss Books to My Patrons
  • Buying Seuss Books for My Baby Nephew Who is the Size of a Banana
  • Removing Seuss Books from the Library Shelves Overtly or Covertly (I repeat, NOT doing this)

Carole accuses librarianship of taking a hypocritical “throw the baby out with the bathwater approach” when it comes to books with questionable/racist/problematic content.

Lately, I have been very interested that we seem to be all for banned books, but we actually practice selective banning by removing books that are not politically correct in today’s world without an attempt to use them in any way.”

There’s a lot of language in this post that bothers me, starting with the underlying assumption that choosing not to use or recommend a particular book = censorship.

elmo fire

You cannot possibly promote every book equally. You cannot give every new book that comes into your library equal display time or prominence. You cannot even buy every new book! You cannot recommend all the books during a reader’s advisory interaction. You cannot read every picture book in storytime.

As librarians and library workers, we make many complicated and nuanced choices all the time about which voices to elevate. Just because you choose to read or recommend one book over another does NOT mean you are censoring other materials. It means (hopefully) that you’re paying attention to the reader’s information needs, or community interests, or early literacy content of the picture book in front of you. You’re wrestling all the time with what is the best book for this particular purpose (e.g. storytime, purchasing for the collection), and questioning how do I know that? When you decide to use or not use a book, you’re using your professional best judgement at the time, not participating in “selective banning.”

I once worked in a library system where we were only allowed to display books with barcodes on the back. At the time, this meant only displaying books that were purchased within very recent years. Were our displays more visually attractive? Yes. Did more materials get checked out? Yes. Was it difficult at times to find enough titles to fill displays? Yes. Was it censorship? NO. It was a decision made by the library system at large with very specific goals in mind.

Some of the criticisms leveled at Seuss include the fact that 98% of his books were dominated by white males, or that many of his “foreign” characters display typical stereotypes. This is absolutely true but looking back in time when I first started teaching in 1967 this was true of most books.”

Ah, the old “But XYZ was a product of its time!” argument. Just because a book was written at a time when racism and inaccurate representation in children’s literature was the supposed norm, doesn’t excuse the content or the decision to use it today.

I think that students (even the very young) can have discussions regarding these problems in historical context… What a wonderful opportunity to point out to students how unfair this was, and how it was based on our unsettled and fearful sense, and to ask for possible solutions they might have so this won’t ever happen again.”

I agree – children’s literature is a great launchpad for important conversations! But I wonder… why launch these discussions and learning from a place of hate? Wouldn’t it be more accurate to learn about historic prejudice and racism from the viewpoint of people who actually experienced it – #OwnVoices authors? Why start and center such an important conversation around derogatory and problematic content?

The last paragraph is full of a lot of things to unpack, starting with…

I love the way Dr. Seuss imaginatively pulls students to think out of the box and to use their imaginations to go “on beyond zebra.” My students love Dr. Seuss and I am happy to keep his books, and still point out some of the stereotypes and problems with them.”

You love Dr. Seuss. I get it. Lots of people do. I  myself have a soft spot myself for The Lorax, it being one of three books I remember my biological mother ever reading to me and one of the few (very, very few) good memories I have with her.

You say your students love Dr. Seuss. I’m sure many do, but not all. I wonder how comfortable all of your students really were during your discussions about stereotypes and problems. I wonder how they felt being confronted with a stereotypical, disrespectful image of their culture or identity. I wonder how old they were. I wonder, given that you were a teacher in a position of authority, if they really felt like they could share the personal impact of these discussions.

I also wonder, how did your students’ families feel about Seuss? Particularly Japanese American families whose relatives could have been placed in internment camps, or other marginalized groups mocked and degraded by this author? There was a recent thread on Storytime Underground about this issue – concerned community members pushing back against a Dr. Seuss Storytime.

In the interest of full disclosure, I’m going to share a little about my personal learning journey. Years ago, I read Dr. Seuss with my students when I was a new teacher. The first year I celebrated Seuss’s birthday with a pre-kindergarten class, I had no idea about the author’s past or the problematic content in his works (which speaks volumes about both my ignorance and my teacher preparation program as an English major and Elementary Education minor).

The second time I celebrated Dr. Seuss’s birthday with a kindergarten class, I felt uncomfortable – I had heard things about Seuss at a statewide reading conference, but I was at a new school and “everyone else was doing it,” and I was already in hot water with my principal for pushing my kindergartner’s right to dramatic play, so I was not about to rock the boat in a big way like that again. We had fun making oobleck, and we crafted striped word family hats, and we ate green eggs and ham, and I blew out a fuse while trying to fry eggs while we watched The Lorax movie… and I fumbled through an awkward discussion when one of my super astute kinders noticed a white dude holding a gun on top of a cage being carried by Asian characters with slanted eyes while reading If I Ran the Zoo. When I blogged about our “Seuss-tactical week!” on my teacher blog at the time, I was so embarrassed I didn’t mention this interaction or ask the questions I was starting to wonder.

if i ran the zoo

One thing I am learning as I wrestle with a new diagnosis is that there is room for every feeling (thank you to the wise coworker who shared this with me)!

You can recognize problematic/inappropriate/racist content AND still love the positive memories you have around reading Little House on the Prairie AND still be thankful it inspired your love of historical fiction today AND provide even better reader’s advisory service by also suggesting readers might enjoy the Birchbark House series. I can fondly remember being read Dr. Seuss books by a caregiver as a child AND make better choices by reading different books now with my storytime kids and families. I can feel shame and embarrassment over the things I got wrong as a young teacher AND learn more, grow and do better.

When the content of classics get criticized, no one is saying you can’t have those happy memories or that you need to burn those books. It is, however, our professional responsibility to critically evaluate children’s literature, be aware of bias/prejudice/racism at play, and consider these things when we choose materials for library displays/collections/programs/advisory lists/lesson plans/whatever.

I’d love to see an Art student or two reimagine the art in the books to reflect our new values.”

What new values are these, I wonder? The fight against racism and ignorance is not new. Neither is the fight for accurate representation, #WeNeedDiverseBooks and room for #OwnVoices in children’s literature.

Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop wrote the oft-quoted “Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors” article in 1990 (seriously, is there a more famous or oft-quoted article in library land?)! She wrote Shadow and Substance: Afro-American Experience in Contemporary Children’s Fiction even further back in 1982. #DiversityJedi have also been doing this work for a LONG time. (Who are #DiversityJedi? Check out the Resources below!)

I fully understand why some libraries feel more comfortable not using Dr. Seuss books but I feel there is also another approach. I’m not trying to start a controversy but simply show other ways to deal with a real problem.”

You want to give Seuss a platform in a classroom where you have time and space for age-appropriate, deep discussion and you’ve checked in with your families beforehand, fine. But NO WAY am I going to waste my precious limited half-hour of storytime reading something inaccurate and potentially triggering to my families. With all the amazing new and diverse books out there, why would I choose to elevate a voice that is both racist and anti Semitic? Why would I center the narrative around a racist white male instead of reading something that celebrates and respects who my families are and where they come from? Especially in the context of a short program like storytime, when our goal is to create a welcoming, engaging, and inclusive environment that fosters early literacy skills?

Librarians, if you want to read Dr. Seuss in storytime or do a Dr. Seuss display this month, you have every right… AND I would encourage us all to think about the difference between what we can do and what we should do.

I talked earlier about using our professional best judgement in that moment of time. My best judgement right now, based on the community I serve, my particular corner of public library land, the research I’ve read, the critical evaluation of the original content that I’ve done, and the core competencies of my profession all tell me NO. I should not read Dr. Seuss aloud to my storytime families. I should not recommend his books to my patrons, who will undoubtedly find them without my name-dropping anyways. Many other books celebrate imagination and foster phonological awareness. I don’t need to use Dr. Seuss.

Lastly, in regards to the last sentence of the article about showing other ways to deal with problematic content in kidlit – there wasn’t actually a lot of guidance given about having conversations with kids about racism. There were a few anecdotes, only one of which referenced a specific grade level.

Here’s a whole bunch of resources that I’ve found really helpful to my professional development and thinking around these issues, including how to have conversations with young children about race and critically examining the racist content in Dr. Seuss’s works. PLEASE let me know what I’ve missed so I can keep learning and adding to this list!

Professional Standards

ALSC Competencies for Librarians Serving Children in Public Libraries
http://www.ala.org/alsc/edcareeers/alsccorecomps
Please note II.5 in Reference and User Services, which states “Models customer service with children and their caregivers that is culturally respectful and developmentally appropriate, and works to overcome systems of discrimination, exclusion, and ethnocentrism.”

ALSC White Paper: The Importance of Diversity in Library Programs and Material Collections for Children by Jamie Campbell Naidoo, PhD
http://www.ala.org/alsc/publications-resources/white-papers/importance-diversity

NAEYC: Standards for Professional Development Preparation
https://www.naeyc.org/resources/position-statements/standards-professional-preparation
The 2009 standards are currently under revision. One of the proposed draft revisions expands upon the elements of Standard 6: Professionalism as an Early Childhood Educator, to include “Engaging in ongoing, proactive work to dismantle biases and prejudices within themselves, their program, and the community.”

Resources for Critical Conversations & Deep Thinking (aka Resources that Help Me Do Better)

ALSC Blog Post: Diversity Jedi
https://www.alsc.ala.org/blog/2018/06/diversity-jedi/
Who are Diversity Jedi? What kind of work do they do? Can everyone wear a ribbon or claim this hashtag? These are some of the questions former ALSC President Nina Lindsay explores in this dual conversation starter and apology. All Diversity Jedi do incredibly important work we can learn from. This post is a good starting place to find and get connected to them!

Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC)
https://ccbc.education.wisc.edu/about/default.asp
The CCBC is a unique examination, study and research library at UW Wisconsin-Madison. They do a lot of research around children’s and young adult literature, including tracking diverse publishing statistics. Catch up with the most recent 2018 statistics on Children’s Books Published By and About People of Color and First/Native Nations here. Follow #DiversityJedi to catch up with expert analysis!

The Conscious Kid: Critical Conversations
https://www.theconsciouskid.org/criticalconversations
The Conscious Kid is an education, research and policy organization dedicated to reducing bias and promoting positive identity development in youth. One of my favorite sections of their website is the conversations with various academics and authors and activists around social justice issues.

Lee & Low: The Open Book Blog
https://blog.leeandlow.com/
I love the intersection of race, diversity, kidlit and education. Lots of resources here for the classroom teacher!

Reading While White: Resources for Further Research
http://readingwhilewhite.blogspot.com/p/resources-for-further-reading-websites.html
Don’t forget to check out the blogroll titled “Kindred Spirits” while you’re here. So many great people to connect with and learn from!

RDYL: Research on Diversity in Youth Literature (Journal)
https://sophia.stkate.edu/rdyl/about.html
This recently founded OPEN-ACCESS, peer-reviewed journal dedicated to issues of diversity, equity, social justice, inclusion, and intersectionality in youth literature, culture, and media is an absolute treasure.

Resources for Talking with Kids About Race

Meredith Steiner: Talking with Young Children about Race
https://www.alsc.ala.org/blog/2018/05/talking-with-young-children-0-5-about-race/
Lots of great ideas and links to even more resources!

Raising Race Conscious Children: 100 Race-conscious Things You Can Say To Your Child To Advance Racial Justice
http://www.raceconscious.org/2016/06/100-race-conscious-things-to-say-to-your-child-to-advance-racial-justice/

Seuss-Specific Resources

Katie Ishizuka and Ramón Stephens: The Cat is Out of the Bag: Orientalism, Anti-Blackness, and White Supremacy in Dr. Seuss’s Children’s Books (Research Article)
https://sophia.stkate.edu/rdyl/vol1/iss2/4/
This scholarly research article thoroughly tackles and dismantles the claims that Dr. Seuss’s children’s books are anti-racist.

Pragmatic Mom: Rethinking and Examining Dr. Seuss’s Racism
https://www.pragmaticmom.com/2017/05/examining-dr-seuss-racism/
Mia Wenjen shares highlights and thoughts from Katie Ishizuka’s earlier report prepared for the Read Across America Advisory Committee. Mia’s blog post “The Racist Side of Dr. Seuss You Didn’t Know About” is also well-worth reading!

Resources on Analyzing Children’s Literature & About Criticism vs. Censorship

ALA: Intellectual Freedom and Censorship Q&A
http://www.ala.org/advocacy/intfreedom/censorship/faq#ifpoint13
Please note the difference between selection and censorship!

Reading While White: Challenging Accusations of Censorship
http://readingwhilewhite.blogspot.com/2016/07/challenging-accusations-of-censorship.html

The Council on Interracial Books for Children: 10 Quick Ways to Analyze Children’s Books for Racism and Sexism
http://fcs.sites.mjc.edu/10QckWys2AnlyzChldn.pdf

Resources for Finding Aforementioned Fantastic, Diverse, Not Dr. Seuss Picture Books

We Need Diverse Books: Our Story (App)
http://www.diversebooks.org/ourstory/

Kid Lit Collective: We’re the People Reading Lists
https://wtpsite.wordpress.com/

Everyday Diversity (Blog)
http://everydaydiversity.blogspot.com/

Storytime Saves the World: Social Justice, Diversity and Inclusion (Presentation)
https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B-90_Ka77clOMDRNcl94aHFKZk0/view

Storytime Underground: Storytime for Social Justice Toolkit
https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B-90_Ka77clOX1gtM2FjR0tSa0E/view

3 thoughts on “Thursday Thoughts: On Seuss, Selection, Criticism and Censorship”

    1. Sarah, thank you so much for stopping by and reading! I appreciate your time and kind comment. And thank you so much for all your work with RDYL. My university doesn’t give alumni access to databases, so I really appreciate having open-access to current critical thinking around such important topics.

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