I have to admit that I’ve been buried in work deep enough to almost miss the fuss about Dr. Seuss. Apparently, his family after deliberations with a panel of experts, decided to stop any further publication of 6 titles.
Was anyone else amazed to find out that so many of Seuss’s books are still being published?
And, did anyone else have just a little skepticism about all of this? I mean, did you wonder if accountants were also in these meetings? The NY Times wrote the following.
Last year, more than 338,000 copies of “Green Eggs and Ham” were sold across the United States, according to NPD BookScan, which tracks the sale of physical books at most retailers. “One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish” sold more than 311,000 copies, and “Oh, the Places You’ll Go!” — always popular as a high school graduation gift — sold more than 513,000 copies.
“And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street,” one of the six books pulled by the estate, sold about 5,000 copies last year, according to BookScan. “McElligot’s Pool” and “The Cat’s Quizzer” haven’t sold in years through the retailers BookScan tracks. Putting the merits of the books aside, removing “Green Eggs and Ham” would be a completely different business proposition from doing away with new printings of “McElligot’s Pool.”
The sceptic in me wonders if the decision was gaslightlingly wrapped in ethical reasoning rather than economic practicalities. Marketing genius, don’t you think? And, we should wonder this because the more egregious of the author’s works, which are still earning profits, remain in print.
It’s that “(c)lassic children’s books are perennial best sellers and an important revenue stream for publishers” as written in the NYTimes that makes me wonder what it will take to end or change Curious George because it’s more a multimillion dollar franchise than it is a children’s books even though both the franchising and children’s books are steeped in imperialism. Other books with anthropomorphic monkeys have had changes. But, Curious George continues to publish new books annually.
I know that the work of Dr. Phil Nel, Dr. Katie Ishizuka and Dr. Ramón Stevens played important roles in getting the Seuss estate to admit to racism in these books and I applaud each of these researchers for recognizing the shoulders upon which they stand. When that first word, image or sentence is repaired it makes room for the next and the next and the next. Debbie Reese on American Indians in Children’s Literature maintains a log of many of the changes that have occurred in youth lit to address misrepresentations.
I often refer to Racism & Sexism in Children’s Books. I can’t tell you how much I treasure this book which is a collection of articles from the Council on Interracial Books for Children. This work is canon. The articles collected in the volume examine books including Dr. Dolittle, Mary Poppins, The Cay, The Slave Dancer, The Five Chinese Brothers and even Donald Duck. The CIBC’s work was preceded by Langston Hughes who in 1932 criticized Little Black Sambo “as a typical “pickaninny” storybook which was hurtful to black children, and gradually the book disappeared from lists of recommended stories for children.”
And certainly there have been people of all racial and ethnic groups, disabilities and LGBTQIA+ folx challenging and changing representation. Roald Dahl was criticized for anti-Semitism in The Witches and anti-Blackness in Charlie in the Chocolate Factory.
Recalls and revisions aren’t new in publishing. Change still does not come easily and I’m certain the decisions are based far more in economics than in any sense of justice and equity because if that mattered then imperialism, racism, anti-Semitism, anti-Islamic, ablism, homophobia and misogyny wouldn’t be so rampant in children’s literature. There would be more than advisory boards, special positions for minoritized editors, illustrators and authors and more than lists of “diverse books”. I give enough away for free, I’m not providing a blueprint here.
Too many people claim we need to keep books filled with misrepresentation, imperialism and bigotry around first, because getting rid of them is censorships and second, because we need the books to teach what racism looks like. I could just say bullshit but, let me be a sliver more professional.
Choices are always made around what books to publish, to acquire and to keep in a collection. Librarians are encouraged to develop a policy to justify their purchases. As an example, many libraries have a policy not to acquire self-published books and well, because it’s a policy we’re not supposed to see this as censoring books that have a higher representation of Black authorship than those published by traditional publishers.Black authors are given so many of the same reasons as to why their books will not be published but, few people will identify this censorship for what it is. This practice of controlling what goes into the hands of young readers is dominated by White publishers, librarians and booksellers who have systems in place to keep Black stories out. Why don’t we call this privilege censorship?
“The history of the black child in literature has never been a particularly attractive subject in children’s books. It is difficult to conceive of a less honorable enterprise among writers. It has often revealed the most irresponsible kind of censorship — that based on the denial of some vital area of human experience, and, in this case, resulting often in the black child’s total eclipse or his total misrepresentation.” source
As to the second point, that young people need these books to know what prejudice, bias and stereotypes look like instead of bullshit, let me as why? Does anyone need to taste poison to know the flavor? Why is anyone trying to justify that we keep teaching hate?
I do think it’s going to take a long, long time to remove racism from children’s literature, from book reviews, libraries and classrooms. I do know that I will continue to work to remove it and I know I’m not alone; I know there are activists doing heavy, heavy lifting. Shout out to #disruptTexts, The BrownBookshelf and The Conscious Kid.
I hear from parents who want tools, who want lists and articles for their teachers and that’s where this work has to be directed. Hughes and Bontemps worked via the US mail. Few knew what they were doing, but they got it done. Now, as our work appears on blogs and other social media sites, we think we’re gaining visibility and to some extent we are but honestly, we’re in an echo chamber.
Scholars and librarians have always done this fought this battle but, we have to find a way to connect with parents, teachers and young people themselves. This isn’t just about the books, it never was.
I’ve got to get back to work!