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Dr. Seuss vs. Read Across America

February 28, 2019

Read Across America Day is approaching, and I almost missed it.

I like the concept of Read Across America Day.  It was centered around Dr. Seuss’s birthday (March 2), and for a while adults such as teachers or librarians would wear one of those Cat in the Hat hats while reading a book like… The Cat in the Hat.  It was a cool concept.

When I was a kid in the early 1970s, I wasn’t aware of anything like Read Across America week (it hadn’t been invented yet).  I think our literacy program was Shut Up and Read, and teachers didn’t care if you read as long as you shut up.

It was smart to base Read Across America on Dr. Seuss.   Decades ago when we elementary school kids went to the library, it was a stampede to the Dr. Seuss section.  Back then, Dr. Seuss was like the kid’s version of today’s James Patterson, only the Dr. Seuss books were better written.  Once the Dr. Seuss books were fought over and taken (I got a loose tooth fighting over Green Eggs and Ham), we had to settle for Babar or the Clifford, the Big Red Dog.  They weren’t bad, but they weren’t Dr. Seuss.

In the last couple years, Dr. Seuss has been taken out of Read Across America because of a few offensive illustrations in some of his books.  And yeah, I can understand why the illustrations are considered offensive.  I can see why a teacher doesn’t want to highlight those illustrations to elementary school kids (“Hey, everybody, look at how Dr. Seuss drew THIS guy!”).

Maybe it’s not a big deal, taking Dr. Seuss out of Read Across America.  It’s not like those atheists who still give presents on Christmas.  You can celebrate reading books without reading Dr. Seuss.  It’s possible.  But when I was a kid, Dr. Seuss really was the best.

When you look back at books, cartoons, and comic strips from over 50 years ago, a lot of them had stuff that is considered racist today (but wasn’t considered racist back then… or people didn’t think about racism back then… or people didn’t care about racism).

I’m not sure what to do about it.  It’s easy for me to not worry about it because I’m an old white guy.  I mean, I don’t want other people to get upset over old stuff that I enjoyed, but I don’t want that stuff to disappear either.

This isn’t the first time that modern standards have been applied to older literature.  Just last year, the American Library Association withdrew Laura Ingalls Wilder’s name  from a children’s book award because of a few passages in her Little House on the Prairie books.  Classic novels like Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird get banned or pulled from reading lists because of a forbidden racial slur (that I frequently hear in current popular songs).  The solution seems to be to no longer promote the books but still make them available.

I don’t have a problem with the National Education Association backing away from Dr. Seuss during its reading week.  I’ll be honest, though.  Most of the children’s books the NEA promotes don’t seem all that appealing to kids.  Out of the ten books on the homepage, I’ve read four of them (reading children’s books in the local book store doesn’t take much time), but three of them sucked… the joy out of reading.

These unappealing children’s books were primarily message or lesson books.  Their purpose was not to entertain kids or make reading a fun experience.  The purpose was to teach a lesson.  I don’t even care what the lesson was (that’s for other bloggers to complain about).  The books weren’t entertaining.  The art wasn’t interesting.

I’m not going to say which books I’m talking about because that’s not my point.  Today’s children’s books that are being promoted by the NEA are nothing like the children’s books that I was directed to in elementary school.  I’m sure a lot of children’s books back in the 1960s and 1970s weren’t very good either, but my teachers didn’t promote them.  My teachers gave us the good stuff.

Of course that all changed in junior high with The Yearling.  Yeah, The Yearling won a Pulitzer Prize in 1939 (what were they thinking?), but it sucked… the joy out of reading.

Anyway, a great children’s book has illustrations that attract kids who hate to (or don’t know how) to read.  Look at Dr. Seuss or The Berenstain Bears or whatever.  Even kids who can’t read will follow the pictures, and that inspires them to WANT to read.  Most of today’s children’s books (with a few exceptions) have passive illustrations that don’t really tell the story, and they don’t inspire struggling readers to take initiative.

The purpose of stuff like children’s books and Read Across America is to inspire kids to read.  If it takes a Dr. Seuss book to inspire kids, go with a non-racist Dr. Seuss book.  Just preview the book first.

  1. Or perhaps, depending on the age of the kids, read the book, show the racist photo, and start a discussion as to why it is insensitive/racist. It will open up an important dialogue about race. You can even have a discussion about whether adults should ban books, reissue the book with updated pictures, apply new norms to old literature, etc. My school district is pretty diverse and pretty open about race, but if a school or school district isn’t, it can be kinda scary to start a discussion like that, even with kids. Still, it’s worth exploring, because kids are aware of racism (and lots of other things) even if we think they aren’t, and then we don’t (necessarily) have to throw the baby (an otherwise great book) out with the bathwater (the offensive illustration).

    • “…depending on the age of the kids,…”

      That’s probably the key. Those discussions in school might not be a bad idea, but I’m not sure an elementary school teacher wants to deal with stuff like that on Read Across America Day.

      Then again, the NEA website that I linked was promoting a children’s book about a transgender teenager, so I guess there are sensitive issues that they don’t mind discussing with elementary school kids on Read Across America Day.

  2. I really don’t understand why they remove the books from the reading list when they contain an offensive word or a racially insensitive picture, but don’t mind if the books talks about rape and murder – as in To Kill A Mockingbird, where people being stabbed and shot are okay, but the n-word is not.

  3. Some of the best books.

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