National Reading Month: 2021

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Why is reading so important?

Studies have shown that reading for pleasure makes a HUGE difference in your child’s educational performance. Those who read for fun on a regular basis tend to perform better on reading tests and also develop a broader vocabulary, increased general knowledge, and a better understanding of other cultures. It stimulates the imagination and expands their understanding of the world. The most magical thing about reading is that it can transport you to another world.

An article titled, A Report: The Impact of Reading Books on People, discusses how reading impacts various aspects of our lives. People who read books tend to be better informed and better able to hold their own in society. They are more able to reflect on their own conduct and others. They tend to have a better awareness of their surroundings and can transport themselves into another’s shoes. In addition, those who read books are better informed about topics such as health risks and access to care all while having positive effects on the brain!

But how? Studies from various disciplines have been conducted to figure out how we gain these skills from reading books and why reading is important for society as a whole. The infographic below depicts the impact that reading books have on people and society.

For the purpose of this blog, we wanted to focus on how reading shapes an individual’s worldview. Especially children! The skills developed from reading benefit the way we view the world around us and how we can contribute to it. This is so important when connecting with other individuals. Curiosity about other worlds, wanting to understand others and the desire for connection is necessary to break free of the current mold. Additionally, reading aids in the development of the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes (empathy).

And that brings us to… Dr. Seuss.

Many of us have seen the recent headlines regarding the insidious racism unearthed in Dr. Seuss’s books, Seuss Enterprises halting publication of 6 Dr. Suess books, and the rumor that several of Dr. Seuss’s books were banned from Loudoun County Public Schools. To clear up the latter, a statement from Loudoun school’s, Wayde B. Byrad, explained that while they were not banned, the school has provided guidance to schools in the past couple of years to not associate read across America day with only Dr. Seuss’ birthday. The hope was to encourage readers to read all types of books that are diverse and inclusive.

Regardless, this has sparked a conversation regarding the hidden racism in children’s books. Children are able to categorize and express preference by race as early as three months. They begin to report negative attitudes toward out-group members by three. When exposed to racism/prejudice this young, children tend to embrace and accept it without fully understanding the feelings. By age 6, white children in America have already developed a pro-white/anti-black bias. Consequently, children’s books provide impressions and messages that can last a lifetime by shaping little ones’ worldviews. Additionally, research has shown that books with pictures can shape racial attitudes. So, if children’s books center whiteness, it erases the stories of POCs or other oppressed groups while normalizing these groups in stereotypical, dehumanizing, or subordinate ways. The Dr. Seuss controversy has shined a spotlight on how deeply racism and discrimination are embedded in our culture.

Philip Nel’s book, “Was the Cat in the Hat Black?: The Hidden Racism of Children’s Literature, and the Need for Diverse Books.” is a great place to start. In an interview, Nel stated that the title is a metaphor for the often unseen ways in which racism persists in children’s literature. Nel’s argument is not that the Cat in the Hat is racist, but that he is a racially complicated character. He’s inspired by blackface minstrelsy and by an actual person of color, an elevator operator Seuss met named Annie Williams, who wore white gloves and a secret smile. Nel mentions that the reference to blackface minstrelsy persists in the white-gloved hands of Bugs Bunny and the outfit of Mickey Mouse. He explains further that what’s interesting about Dr. Seuss is that he was speaking out against racism in his children’s books while recycling racist caricatures for his characters. Nel explains, “In other words, the Cat is somewhere in between the actively anti-racist work of “Horton Hears a Who!” (1954) and “The Sneetches” (1961, first version published in Redbook in 1953) and the works that recycle stereotypes — “If I Ran the Zoo” (1950), “Scrambled Eggs Super!” (1953), or even “And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street” (1937).”  Dr. Seuss is the perfect example of how racism can infect our minds unnoticeably. But, Nel’s book isn’t only about Dr. Seuss. It’s more broadly about the hidden racism of children’s literature and the need for diverse books.

The call for change is based on the hope that by diversifying children’s literature, we allow children to meet characters of all races and with a variety of experiences. If a child only sees a white, cis-gendered, heterosexual family, we put the white, heteronormative, cis-gendered story at the center of society and risk continuing the cycle of majority rules. When children see character’s identities they relate to in a book, they learn that their stories matter and they are not alone. And the children who already identify with the white, cis-gendered, heterosexual families can cultivate empathy for lives different than their own by expanding their understanding of humanity.

But was Dr. Seuss actually racist?

Growing up with Dr. Seuss’s books, I was shocked when I looked back on his books with a new lens. If you are still finding it difficult to find racism, orientalism, anti-blackness, and white supremacy in Dr. Seuss’s books, check out this article. The study was designed to look at the extent to which white characters and characters of color are portrayed and to address the implications regarding the reinforcement of racial bias in young children.

The study also gives details about Dr. Seuss’s life that I was completely unaware of. Before, and during Seuss’s career as a children’s book author, Dr. Seuss had published hundreds of racist political cartoons, comics, and advertisements for newspapers, magazines, companies, even the US government. In the 1920s, he published anti-black and anti-Semitic cartoons in Dartmouth’s humor magazine. The cartoons ranged from depictions of a Jewish couple with huge noses as merchants on a football field with “Quarterback Mosenblum” refusing to give the ball up until a bargain price was established to drawings of black people as gorillas, monkeys, cannibals, often holding spears, surrounded by flies, and wearing grass skirts. And that’s only brushing the surface. By the 1940s, he was creating an advertising campaign featuring racist depictions of native people. He even put his children’s book writing on hold until after World War II to focus on being a cartoonist for a New York newspaper, PM. PM’s cartoons exhibited explicit anti-Japanese racism and depicted the Japenese with pig snouts, as snakes, monkeys, or cats. His work fueled paranoia and suspicion of the entire ethnic group during the war. During 1945-1946, Seuss worked for Frank Capra in the army to create films called Know Your Enemy: Japan and Our Job in Japan which served to indoctrinate US servicemen to “re-educate” the “backward” Japanese. He then returned to writing children’s books.

For those whose argument sounds something like, “But it was a different time back then…” Ebony Thomas, a professor of children’s and young adult literature at the University of Pennsylvania has a well-crafted response in the quote below.

A step in the right direction…

Dr. Seuss enterprises issued a statement that Dr. Seuss’s books from the late 1930s-1970s portray people in problematic and hurtful ways. So they decided to halt publication on six of Dr. Seuss’s books that depict racist imagery (And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry StreetIf I Ran the Zoo, McElligot’s Pool, On Beyond Zebra!, Scrambled Eggs Super!, and The Cat’s Quizzer). We’ve also started this conversation which will hopefully lead to dynamic change in the way we view children’s books.

How do we recognize hidden racism in children’s book?

It’s a daunting task. Many of us were shocked when we looked back at children’s books we read as kids with a new lens. I suggest reading the two articles below to learn tips on how to identify discrimination regarding race, religion, sex, sexuality, etc.

Some of the tips include:

  • Check out illustrations for stereotypes, tokenism, or passive roles.
  • Check out the storyline, lifestyles, relationships between people.
  • Note who the heroes are.
  • Consider the author/illustrator’s background.
  • Look at the copyright date. Did you know books with characters of color did not appear until the mid-1960s? Even then, the stories were written by white authors, edited by white editors, and published by white publishers. Authors of color writing about their own experiences didn’t emerge until the 1970s. Non-sexist books were not published before 1973.

Need recommendations for books to help children understand race, anti-racism, and intersectionality?

Look at the following resources for lists of books that do just that!

Our most recent blog, February: Black History Month, has even more anti-racist book recommendations. One of our older posts, A New Worldwide Speech Commitment , has additional resources for both BLM and the LGBTQ+ community. 

Wondering how to start the conversation about race?

Check out our blog, Resources for BLM, for tips and additional resources. This blog also contains some of Worldwide Speech’s favorite anti-racism books!

Additional Resources

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