On Dr. Seuss and Read Across America Week

Many folks who read this site probably know that I worked for 12 years in politics, but you may not know that time is bookended by teaching and librarianship. My first year out of college, I taught ninth grade English before going to work for a state rep over the summer that changed my career trajectory. After deciding to leave political work many years later, I went to graduate school to become an archivist, which means my masters degree is in library science. Between that last campaign and moving to North Carolina the next fall, I worked in a public library in Georgia, where I split my week between three departments, one of which was the children’s department. I come with that background to give some context to the “canceling of Dr. Seuss.”

After work yesterday, my mother, who watches Fox News throughout the day, asked me if I supported President Joe Biden and “liberal libraries” canceling Dr. Seuss on his birthday?

This was news to me, which, as someone active in the professional organizations, was surprising to say the least. So, I did what any good librarian would do and searched the topic on Twitter and Google to figure out what had happened. A perusal of the Blue Bird let me know that Fox mentioned Dr. Seuss’ cancellation 139 times between 4 AM and midnight yesterday, and a Google search found news articles and (many more) opinion pieces on the cancellation from the New York Post, Reason, and National Review. That was before you got to the pieces in mainstream media about this phenomena that most of us outside of the conservative news bubble had likely missed.

What I learned was two fold and not necessarily related: 1) Dr. Seuss Enterprises was going to stop publishing six books that contained insensitive portrayals of minority groups, and 2) President Biden’s Read Across America proclamation didn’t specifically name Dr. Seuss. Let’s start with the second point, and then tackle the first.

Read Across America Week was created by the National Education Association (NEA) in 1998 to celebrate reading, obviously. The first week of March was selected to coincide with Dr. Seuss’ birthday because his name is synonymous with early readers. However, NEA moved away from a Dr. Seuss-centric Read Across America two years ago to support a diverse readership.

From the article:

Our student populations are ever-changing and evolving and every year there are new children’s books that reflect that diversity. That’s why NEA’s Read Across America is rebranding with a new logo to appeal to students of all ages and backgrounds and a continued mission of “Celebrating a Nation of Diverse Readers.”

Of course, children still love Dr. Seuss, and his birthday on March 2, also Read Across America Day is still an ideal time for a school-wide reading event when you can serve green eggs and ham, but with the broadened scope of NEA’s Read Across America, there are activities, resources, and ideas to keep students reading all year long.

Whatever gets the kids to read — and there are so many good options now, which underscores NEA’s point. It’s not “canceling” Dr. Seuss as much as making room for other authors and their charming characters, too. Also, it’s letting the readers have choices to which they relate. This last part is so important, particularly when working with reluctant readers.

If you’ve not recently spent time in the children’s section of a library or bookstore, I highly encourage it. In a recent post, I mentioned how much I love Pigeon. There’s also the very cool Pete the Cat. Elephant and Piggy. Paddington. Mouse. Matilda. David. Clifford. Eva. Arthur. Juana and Lucas. Ramona. Amelia Bedelia. Corduroy. Curious George. Maisy. Peppa Pig. Madeline. The Berenstain Bears. This list is by no means exhaustive, and that’s mostly picture book characters only! Also, these aren’t all newer characters. I read books about Ramona and Curious George in the early 1980s.

It makes sense that President Biden would follow NEA’s direction to make this a broadly inclusive event. His proclamation was likely written at the organization’s request, so his staff was probably trying to tie in with the NEA’s current theme, as this is how many of the ceremonial proclamations are created. Also, given that NEA only recently pivoted away from a Dr. Seuss-centric event, it follows that Presidents Obama and Trump would have released proclamations celebrating the previous stated focus, which at the time was Dr. Seuss.

Long story short, this doesn’t seem to have any “there” there.

So, what of the “canceling” of the six books? Well, that’s being done by Dr. Seuss Enterprises, which controls the rights to Dr. Seuss’s dozens of books because the company realizes they contain material that doesn’t stand up well in today’s society. Yes, there was a study done to identify racist images in his books, and yes, it found particularly problematic images or statements in six out of the 60 books he wrote. Society changes over time. In this case, we’ve collectively become increasingly uncomfortable with racism, which has coincided with demographic shifts that also make us a more diverse population.

Dr. Seuss Enterprises is a for-profit company, and they’ve come to this conclusion not because of a pressure campaign by the left, but rather because of free market factors. I’ve not seen the six books slated for removal from the catalog on many (if any) reading lists in my time as a librarian. Perhaps readers are choosing other titles in the catalog — or titles by other authors — because that was the content they enjoyed and were comfortable reading. Perhaps Dr. Seuss Enterprises realizes that one of the major selling points for their brand is Dr. Seuss’s overwhelmingly positive image, something they have great interest in maintaining. It’s probably some of both. Given how often I’ve heard conservatives say “let the markets decide,” they can understand that this is exactly that.

I don’t find much “there” here, either.

What I do think is that this is a way to upset and scare people. As I noted above, society changes over time. Sure, changes can be scary, but reading is a skill I used as a child to help me make sense of change. I still read to learn, and as I become more informed, it helps me worry less. For this Read Across America Week, I hope you’ll pick up one of those diverse children’s books and meet some new friends that will make your world a broader place.


Add a Comment