How I Spent My Summer “Vacation”

I wrote this for Kansas State University’s Department of English blog — we were asked to write about what we did over the summer.  But I wrote a little more than the blog needs.  So, we’re running an excerpt on the English blog, and I’m printing the full version here.


“Being a professor means you get the summers off!”

— frequently expressed misunderstanding

“HaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHa….  And no.”

— response from professors to this misunderstanding

Writing of the work I did this summer risks losing an (admittedly small) audience after this first sentence. But making academic labor visible helps correct the common (and false) impression that professors do not work in the summers. As is true of many jobs today, there is no clear boundary between work and not-work. Technology allows us to bring work with us everywhere, and creates the expectation that we do just that. Also, academic labor doesn’t really break down into discreet parts. Professors think, write and edit (articles, books, grant proposals, letters of recommendation, committee reports), evaluate manuscripts (of articles and books), prepare for class and grade student papers where and when we find the time.

At the risk of causing your eyes to glaze over, here’s a paragraph on some of the work I did this summer. (Feel free to skip ahead to the next paragraph.) I built my fall on-line Literature for Adolescents class: each week, I created two weeks of curriculum (4-6 video lectures/sets of discussion questions, 2 quizzes) and did related preparation (including reading the books, refining the recurring journal assignment, creating grading rubrics, etc.).  I wrote the introduction to a special issue of the Children’s Literature Association Quarterly on Refugees, Migration and Diaspora in Children’s Literature, and edited the 6 essays that will appear in that issue.  Philip Nel, Was the Cat in the Hat Black?: The Hidden Racism of Children's Literature, and the Need for Diverse Books (Oxford UP, July 2017)I wrote a new Afterword to the forthcoming paperback edition of my most recent book — and presented a version of that afterword at a conference in San Antonio.  With my two co-editors, I worked on editing the second edition of Keywords for Children’s Literature, which has about 60 contributors. We co-editors occasionally met via Skype (my two co-editors are based in Canada and in Denmark, respectively), and we began writing that book’s introduction. I studied German with a tutor, in preparation for fall research in Germany (where I am now). I reviewed a book manuscript for a press, at least one article for a journal, and three dozen applications for an award. I drafted an invited talk I am giving in Stockholm in November. I appeared on a podcast and spoke with a few journalists. Since the waning attention of my remaining reader is doubtless about to evaporate, I’ll end the work chronicle here.

I am very lucky to have a job I enjoy, and to do work that I find meaningful. But interesting work is still work: indeed, the fact that we derive meaning from our work risks refashioning labor as leisure. “Hey, we may work 60 hours week, but at least we like what we do! Many people work many more hours, dislike the work, and are paid even worse!” But that is a dangerous line of thinking. It insists upon gratitude for lesser degrees of exploitation, when we should instead demand that all work receive respect, appropriate compensation and adequate vacation.

inflatable flower, NYC, July 2018

Though it violates the American belief that everyone work all the time (and must feel guilty if they do not), I have been making an effort to do less — and to actually take some time to spend with friends and family. In May, I attended my 30th high school reunion and visited family and friends in New England. In July, Karin and I went to New York City, where we saw three excellent and very different plays: Spongebob Squarepants: The Musical (a delightfully absurd, whimsical spectacle about the [possible] end of the world), Cypress Avenue (a disturbing mixture of comedy and Greek tragedy that satirically takes racism/prejudice to its most extreme), Harry Potter and the Cursed Child Parts 1 and 2 (fun, effective melodrama, magnificently staged and costumed). In August, I accompanied my mother to a family reunion in Switzerland, where we saw relatives from the UK, South Africa, and (obviously) Switzerland. My family is very spread out geographically, and so we don’t get to see each other often: I in particular very much enjoyed catching up with one cousin whom I had not seen in over three decades.

family in Alps

I of course worked during these vacations — but not as much.  For instance, during the family reunion, in the hour before others were up and in the hour after they’d gone to bed, I worked on the introduction to the second edition of Keywords for Children’s Literature.  So, yeah, despite my efforts, I find myself unable to let a day pass without doing any work. (This is a problem, I know.)

So, in sum, I had a great summer — busy, productive, interesting. I even managed a healthier balance of labor and leisure, though should still strive for more of the latter. I hope you all enjoyed your summers and are having an invigorating fall semester, and that you’re able to manage the right combination of hard work and necessary rest.


Images:
  1. Cover to Was the Cat in the Hat Black?: The Hidden Racism of Children’s Literature, and the Need for Diverse Books (Oxford UP, 2017), designed by Lucas Heinrich.
  2. “Rose” from the collection “Grown Up Flowers” by PLAYLAB, INC. (2018), hosted by The Avenue of the Americas Association & Rockefeller Group, 1221 Sixth Ave, NYC. July 2018.
  3. Photo taken by Linda Nel. Lac de Moiry, Grimentz, Switzerland. August 2018.

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The Archive of Childhood, Part 3: Earliest Memories

The third in my occasional “Archives of Childhood” series.



What are your earliest memories?

Recent conversations with family and friends have challenged my assumption that most people remember early childhood. I now wonder if it is mostly creators and scholars of children’s literature — the people who, admittedly, I talk to most often — who recall their formative years most clearly.

My earliest memory dates to my crib days. I remember the mobile that hung above my crib. I liked the shapes. Watching them rotate fascinated me. I lay on my back, looking up at them.

My earliest narrative memory dates to 2 years old. I woke up from an afternoon nap in what was either my crib or a bed with bars on its sides: one of the long sides faced the room, and the other faced the wall. My teddy bear had what we called “googly eyes” — each pupil is a black disc inside a larger clear circular disc. googly eyesWhen you moved the bear, the pupils would jostle around. However, the eyes had come loose. My picking at them made them looser. As I picked at them further, they came off.

Teddy was now eyeless.  I was sad.  My carelessness had blinded him.

So, with Teddy, I climbed over the bars of the crib, and dropped to the floor.  Quite likely, I threw Teddy to the floor first, and then climbed over the bars second.  I remember thinking that if mommy saw that I was sad, she would be more sympathetic and would respond with urgency — swiftly finding a way to restore Teddy’s sight. (Perhaps the eyes could be stuck back on?)

The author, Teddy, and Panda, c. 1972

From the vantage point of adulthood, I now know that she would have been sympathetic even if I were not crying. But the two-year-old me drew upon my sadness to manufacture tears.

When her crying son arrived with his eyeless Teddy, mommy proposed a fix. She would sew new eyes for Teddy. You can see the result in the photo at right. That’s me, at about the age of three, with my good friends and confidants Teddy (whose new threadymade-eyes seem already to have come a bit unraveled) and Panda.

My Book About Me by Dr. Seuss, Roy McKie, and Philip Nel, age 7.At the time, I thought of this incident as “when I got my memory.” In my copy of My Book About Me (in which the young reader answers questions), under “What is the first thing you remember?” I wrote “When I got my memory.” That opaque sentence fragment refers to the Teddy Incident, although only I knew that.

I then thought of my life as before acquiring memory and after acquiring memory — as if the beginning of memory happens all at once. After the Teddy Incident, I had memories. Prior to the Teddy Incident, I had no memories.

This early understanding of memory derived from the fact that after that day, I remembered what had happened on the day previous. Two days later, I looked back on the previous two days and found that I could remember both Teddy’s temporary blinding and events of the following day.  Three days later, I looked back on the previous three days and learned that I retained bits of all three days — though I cannot now recall anything that happened on the latter two days. At the time, I could and it was a revelation: I had gained the capacity to look back and reflect on my past! And it all began with the Teddy Incident — when I got my memory.

Yet I did have even earlier memories, but — in my childhood mind — they were mere impressions and not actual memories. A real memory had some narrative, or perhaps a sharper emotional content. For me, those “real” memories began with sorrow over my accidentally, briefly blinded teddy bear, and my mother’s compassionate response.

I have many other memories from my earliest days. Do you? Or is it unusual for memories to extend back that far?

Maurice Sendak, 2011

As I say, perhaps such extended memories more commonly afflict people who write and study books for young people. Maurice Sendak* once noted that his “needle [was] stuck in childhood.”

So is mine.


* Pictured above, late in his life.  I neglected to note the source of the photo, but I used it in my tribute to him, the day after he died. On this blog, there are quite a few posts tagged Maurice Sendak. Why not peruse a few?

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Ruth Krauss in 1951

Ruth Krauss: photo from 1951 Herald Tribune Book News

In honor of Ruth Krauss’s 117th birthday (today, which she would have celebrated as her 107th birthday), here’s a photo you likely have not seen before.  It appeared in the May 12, 1951 issue of the Herald Tribune Book News, which described Krauss’s latest book (I Can Fly, illustrated by Mary Blair) as follows: “Very small girl pretends to be every sort of creature. Amusing rhymed text, beautiful full color. For 3 to 5 years.”  I don’t know when the photo was taken, though I think it is roughly contemporaneous.  She has this hairstyle in the 1940s and 1950s.  I do know that I have never seen this photo reproduced anywhere else.

New York Times Book Review: Ruth Krauss' The Carrot Seed

The Carrot SeedRuth Krauss and Marc Simont, The Happy Day (1949)In 1951, Krauss was the author of one massive hit — The Carrot Seed (1945), illustrated by Crockett Johnson (also her husband) — and The Happy Day (1949), which won a Caldecott Honor for Marc Simont’s artwork.  Of her other seven books from that period (1944-1951), only The Backward Day (1950, also illustrated by Simont) and Bears (1948, illus. by Phyllis Rowand) are remembered today.  And Bears is known primarily for Maurice Sendak’s re-illustrated version, published in 2005.

Maurice Sendak in his 20s, New York City

Also in 1951, the 50-year-old Krauss met the 23-year-old Sendak (pictured above), who was then an F.A.O. Schwarz window display artist who had illustrated two books for Harper.  The meeting would transform both of their careers.  He would illustrate eight of her books, often spending weekends at her Connecticut home, where she and Johnson — as Sendak says — “became my weekend parents and took on the job of shaping me into an artist.”

Ruth Krauss and Maurice Sendak, A Hole Is to Dig (1952): "Mud is to jump in and slide in..."

Ruth Krauss and Maurice Sendak, A Very Special House (1953)Their first collaboration was the cultural phenomenon A Hole Is to Dig (1952, from which you can see a two-page spread, above this sentence).  Their second was A Very Special House (1953), which won Sendak a Caldecott Honor — his first of many.  They would collaborate on eight books between 1952 and 1960.  More importantly, their collaborations officially launched Sendak’s career as the great 20th-century artist for children.

Krauss could not have known any of that when this photo was published.  Nor could she guess that, though she and Sendak would later have a bit of a falling out, he would come to visit her during her final year of life.  Because he needed to tell her how much she meant to him.  And to kiss her goodbye.

This photo of Ruth, sitting cross-legged on the grass, captures her youthfulness — a youthfulness that allowed her to lie convincingly about her age well into her old age.  It also evokes her affinity for children: she liked to sit with them, and listen as they told stories.  Because she treated them as her equals, children accepted her into their community. They would talk or play, and she would listen. And take notes.

Front cover by Chris Ware for: Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children's Literature (forthcoming from UP Mississippi, Sept. 2012)There are many posts on this blog tagged Ruth Krauss or Maurice Sendak.  In honor of her birthday, why not read a few?  And, of course, you can learn more about them both in my biography of Krauss and Crockett Johnson — check it out of your local library today!


Source for press clippings (at top of post): Betty Hahn, wife of Ruth’s cousin Richard Hahn and a very important source for her (Ruth’s) early years, sent me these.  Thanks, Betty!  Source for photo of Sendak in his 20s: The year before he passed away, Maurice sent me a scan of this photo for use in my bio. (I’d asked for a photo of him at the time he met Ruth.)

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Literature for Adolescents (Fall 2018): sneak preview

English 545: Literature for Adolescents (2018)

This fall, I am teaching English 545: Literature for Adolescents on-line for the first time.  That is, this is the first time I’m teaching the course on-line.  It’s the umpteenth time I’ve taught the course, and the second time I’ve taught on-line.

One thing I learned from teaching on-line this past spring: Build the entire course before the term begins.  And, yes, I learned that because I failed to do it.  So, I am building it now.  This week, I finished the curriculum for the first two weeks.  In case others may find it useful, I’m sharing that below.  (Scroll down.)

A word or two about what’s not in this blog post.  Missing are the ensuing discussion, my responses to students’ responses, quizzes, my responses to the quizzes, the full syllabus, and resources on the course’s Canvas site.  In other words, this is a partial representation of those first couple of weeks.

Here are the main literary texts we will read:

  • Laurie Halse Anderson, Speak.
  • M.T. Anderson, Feed.
  • Kristin Cashore, Graceling.
  • Cherie Dimaline, The Marrow Thieves.
  • Nancy Farmer, The House of the Scorpion.
  • Kiese Laymon, Long Division.
  • E. Lockhart, The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks.
  • Malinda Lo, Ash.
  • Walter Dean Myers, Monster.
  • Benjamin Alire Saenz, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe.
  • J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye.
  • Francisco X. Stork, Marcello in the Real World.
  • Angie Thomas, The Hate You Give.
  • Jacqueline Woodson, After Tupac & D. Foster.
  • Ibi Zoboi, American Street.

There will also be a few versions of “Cinderella” (both in preparation for Malinda Lo’s Ash and to get students thinking about the “YA” in many fairy tales), and a few secondary texts, all of which I will either link to or provide a pdf (available via Canvas).  I’m really excited about the novels, three of which are from 2017 — and thus I’m teaching them for the very first time.  I’m also teaching Ash (2009) for the first time.​

Thomas, The Hate U Give Malinda Lo, Ash Zoboi, American Street Cherie Dimaline, The Marrow Thieves

I never teach a class exactly the same way twice.  I’m always trying to improve.  Now that I’m teaching on-line, I am also trying to improve my skills as a creator of videos!  That learning curve is represented below: the second video is (I think) the weakest, and video #1 has some strengths but needs snappier editing.  By three and four, the edits are improving.  And the fifth (the first one on E. Lockhart’s Frankie Landau-Banks) is the best thus far.



WEEK 1

week #1, discussion #1: Intro.

I’ll repeat the questions from the video below.

1. What’s your name? And what do you prefer to be called?

2. Where are you from? And where are you located now, while you’re taking this class?

3. Here are our course’s objectives. Listen to them because at the end, I will ask you (A) which of our course objectives are you most looking forward to meeting? And (B) which objective do you think will be the most challenging for you?

This class will introduce you to a range of literature for adolescents, and develop your critical skills in reading these works. We will study works that feature adolescent characters, depict experiences familiar to adolescents, and are taught to or read by adolescents. We will approach these works from a variety of critical perspectives (including formalist, psychoanalytic, queer theory, feminist, Marxist, historical, postcolonial, ecological) — perspectives that many high schools want their teachers to know. In summary, this course will be about different kinds of literature read by young adults, approaches to thinking about this literature, and adolescence’s relationship to power. We will develop these skills via writing a once-weekly journal, participating in class discussions, taking a weekly quiz, and completing these and any other assignments on time.

Now that you know the course’s objectives, (A) which of our course objectives are you most looking forward to meeting?  And (B) which objective do you think will be the most challenging for you?  (C) Do you have any other objectives?  If so, please list them.

4. Your adolescence is very likely far more recent than mine. And yet I know that high school and college are different — that you have very likely changed at least a little since high school… and possibly quite a lot. So, my third question is this.  Describe your adolescence in one word.  And why do you choose that word to describe your adolescence?  The why is important.

5. Have you taken an on-line class before?

Format for answer: VIDEO


week #1, discussion #2: Adolescence, YA Literature, and… J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (through Chapter 10)

Part I: Adolescence & YA Literature

Repeating (below) the questions from the video (above) —

1. What is adolescence?

2. What are the social characteristics of adolescence?

3. Drawing on Lee Talley’s essay, what is “Young Adult”?

Format for answer: TEXT


Part II: J. D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye (1951), through Chapter 10

Those two questions I asked you on day 1 — now is the time to answer them.

1. On page 1, Holden tells us “I had to come out here and take it easy.” Where is here? From where is he narrating this story?  And how do you know?  Beyond the quotation I called your attention to, offer a supporting quotation or quotations from the text that tells you where he is when he is telling the story (as opposed to where he is when it happens).

2. Once more, M.H. Abrams’ classic definition of the unreliable narrator:

The fallible or unreliable narrator is one whose perception, interpretation, and evaluation of the matters he or she narrates do not coincide with the implicit opinions and norms manifested by the author, which the author expects the alert reader to share. (A Glossary of Literary Terms, 6th ed., p. 168)

And… I asked you to track Holden’s unreliability.  So. offer a couple of examples where you see the narrator’s perception in tension with those “implicit opinions and norms” of the book.

Format for answer: TEXT


Questions to think about for next class (not this one) —

1. Symbols! This is why English teachers like the book. Holden keeps returning to ideas and objects that he invests with significance — this is how he conveys his emotional truths.  The red hunting hat.  The question of where the ducks go in the winter.  The “Little Shirley Beans” record.  Childhood (his own and his sister Phoebe’s).  And, of course, the title of the novel itself.  So, my question is this: track a symbol.  Where does it recur and why?  That is, what does it mean?

2. By the end of the novel, what (if anything) has Holden learned?  And what’s next for Holden?

3. In addition to finishing the novel, I’ve also asked you to read my “7 questions we should ask about children’s literature.” Pay particular attention to the first of those 7 — What does this book present as normal? Apply that question to the novel, following up with these more specific questions that I have borrowed (and slightly modified) from Nathalie Wooldridge:

  • What or whose view of the world, or kinds of behavior does the book present as normal?
  • Why is the book written from this perspective? How else could it have been written?
  •  What assumptions does the book make about age, gender, race, class, sexuality, and culture (including the age, gender, race, class, sexuality, and culture of the reader)?
  • Whose perspectives does the book present? Whose perspectives does the book silence or ignore?

4. Why has this novel become such a cultural touchstone? Should it be a cultural touchstone?  Indeed, should it be on this syllabus?  That last question is not a trick question.  First of all, I’m always changing this syllabus, and I don’t always include The Catcher in the Rye.  Second, you should question what’s on this syllabus.  For this class, there are millions of books to choose from.  Should Catcher in the Rye be among these 15?

Again, these last 4 questions are for next time.


week #1, discussion #3: J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (to end)

Answer the question that corresponds with your group number.  Post your comment, drawing on examples from the book — remember the importance of close reading.  Quote from the text to support your arguments. And then please respond to at least one other person in your group — ideally to two or three.  Post your initial comment before the due date (end of Friday) for this discussion.  If your responses to others’ occur after that, it’s OK — the discussion will still be enter-able for a week after the due date.  Try to chime in as soon after the deadline as you can. I realize that we are all having a conversation asynchronously.  Do your best.


1. As I say, I think all the symbols are why English teachers like the book. Holden keeps returning to ideas and objects that he invests with personal significance — this is how he conveys his emotional truths. He’s not likely to say, directly, “I’m afraid of adulthood” or “I miss my brother Allie” or “I feel vulnerable.” No, he’s going to put on his red hunting hat. He’s going to wonder about where the ducks go in the winter. He’s going to search for and then carry around the “Little Shirley Beans” record.  He’s going to talk about childhood (his own and his sister Phoebe’s).  And, of course, his fantasy of becoming a catcher in the rye  So, I asked you to track a symbol.  Where does it recur and why?  That is, what does it mean?


2. By the end of the novel, what (if anything) has Holden learned? And what’s next for Holden? Holden talks about wanting to be a catcher in the rye: “Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around — nobody big, I mean — except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff.  What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff” (173). He talks about pretending he’s a deaf mute, living in a cabin near the woods (198-99, 204-05). He tries to erase all of the fuck yous realizes he can’t: “If you had a million years to do it, you couldn’t rub out even half the ‘Fuck you’ signs in the world.  It’s impossible” (202).  People keep “asking me if I’m going to apply myself when I go back to school next September.  It’s such a stupid question, in my opinion.  I mean how do you know what you’re going to do till you do it?  The answer is, you don’t.  I think I am, but how do I know?  I swear it’s a stupid question” (213).  That he asks himself this question at the end tells us what?  Will he apply himself? Will he follow Antolini’s advice to learn from other writers?


3. So, I also asked you to read my “7 questions we should ask about children’s literature” and to pay particular attention to the first of those 7 — What does this book present as normal? Apply that question to the novel, following up with these more specific questions borrowed (and slightly modified) from Nathalie Wooldridge:

  • What or whose view of the world, or kinds of behavior does the book present as normal?
  • Why is the book written from this perspective? How else could it have been written?
  • What assumptions does the book make about age, gender, race, class, sexuality, and culture (including the age, gender, race, class, sexuality, and culture of the reader)?
  • Whose perspectives does the book present? Whose perspectives does the book silence or ignore?

I am asking you these questions because I want you to think critically about this novel and all novels we read.  You do not need to agree with or like or enjoy each novel on the syllabus.  I ask that you make an attempt to understand each work, but I also invite you — I encourage you — to raise critical questions about each work — backing up your critique with examples from the book.


4. Finally, a big question: Why has this novel become such a cultural touchstone? Should it be a cultural touchstone? And should it be on this syllabus? As I said last time, that question is not a trick question.  (1) I’m always changing this syllabus, and I don’t always include The Catcher in the Rye.  (2) You should question what’s on this syllabus.  Of the millions of Young Adult books we could read, should Catcher in the Rye be among the mere 15 on the syllabus?  Key here as in all questions is defending your answer with examples from the book.

Format for answer: TEXT


Don’t forget: journal entry due Sunday night!


Next time: E. Lockhart’s The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks.  Its placement next on the syllabus is not accidental.  So, you might consider her novel as being in conversation with Salinger’s novel.  What would Lockhart’s book say to Salinger’s book?  Each book features a protagonist inclined to rebel — against what does each protagonist rebel?  And what does each protagonist accept?  You might compare/contrast a bit as you read.


WEEK 2

week #2, discussion #1: E. Lockhart’s Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks (2008), through “Broken Date”

1. Let’s start with an exercise in close-reading.  How does the novel’s opening letter position you, the reader?  (Read the letter that opens the novel.)

A. What are the key words or phrases in that opening letter? Why?

B. What questions does the letter raise about the novel you are about to read?

C. What clues does the letter give you for the novel that you are about to read?

D. And where does the letter position you in relation to the novel’s main character, Frankie Landau-Banks? What sort of relationship does it invite?  Are you sympathetic?  Unsympathetic?

Sketch out some answers to these questions, referring to specifics in that opening letter — actually quoting them — in your response.  Feel free to refer to moments beyond that opening letter, too.


2. What questions does Frankie (and the novel itself) raise about masculinity and femininity? That is, how might it invite us to think critically about the gender roles that we’re encouraged to inhabit — “acceptable” versions of masculinity and femininity?  Point to a few examples.  And one last question for part 2 of our discussion: If she landed in The Catcher in the Rye or he landed in her novel, what would Frankie say to Holden?


3. What is the panopticon? How does it work as a system of control? And… what might it tell us about adolescence — or, if you like, about Frankie?

Don’t forget to cite specifics from the novel in your answers!

Format for answer: TEXT


week #2, discussion #2: E. Lockhart’s Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, to end

1. Here is a more succinct version of this question than what’s included in the video: Does the novel propose the idea that women/girls and men/boys use power differently?  In what ways might it be helpful to think of power as distinctly gendered?  In what ways might that not be helpful to understand power as gendered?

Here is the longer version, which I offer mostly for the citations therein. Several times, Frankie notes how the Loyal Order of the Bassett Hounds — that bastion of patriarchal privilege — fosters bonding, “togetherness,” “connection” (see pp. 195, 221, 222). She longs for such a bond herself… but doesn’t get one. At the end, we learn that, while Trish is a “loyal friend,” “Trish’s lack of understanding is a condition of that loyalty” (338). Does Frankie’s lack of a female cohort undermine the feminist critique of patriarchy, expressed elsewhere in the novel? Is it positing that women’s power works differently (a version of Elizabeth’s argument in the debate, pp. 160-165)? If so, does that difference contradict Frankie’s frequent critique of the “double standard” she faces as a girl?  Or, whether it is or is not contradictory, might it be positing an alternate form of power?


2. Near the end of the novel, Porter asks, “Why did you do all that, Frankie?” She answers his question with two questions: “Have you ever heard of the panopticon?” And “Have you ever been in love?” (329). What do these two questions tell you about her motivations?  And why do you suppose Lockhart does not have Frankie elaborate?  Finally, how might these two questions influence our interpretation of the novel?


3. E. Lockhart has said that there will be no sequel to this novel. Her narrator, however, does offer two possibilities for Frankie’s future (336-337): “They sometimes go crazy, these people” or they “change the world” (337). Defending your answer with examples from this book, which future is more likely? Make sure you refer to the final chapter.


Please respond to at least one other comment in your group.  As before, post your initial comment before the deadline; your second (and third, etc.) can fall after the deadline.

Format for answer: TEXT


Don’t forget: journal entry due Sunday night, and quiz due Monday night.

For next week, we’re reading Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak (1999).  Talk to you then!



Incidentally, I’ve been posting these on YouTube because the Hale Library fire knocked our course infrastructure system (Canvas) for a loop.  Its video-sharing apparatus (MyMediaSite) hasn’t been working.  So, I decided to use my YouTube channel.  I haven’t yet decided if I will post all Literature for Adolescents course videos on YouTube… or just do so until the university’s Canvas site stabilizes again.*

The main downside is that students will be able to see the videos far ahead of two weeks in advance.  Following the advice of other on-line teachers, I make visible curriculum for only two weeks into the future.  The philosophy behind that is you don’t want a student to rush through the class.  They should proceed at roughly the pace of the semester, learning as they go, improving their discussion responses etc. in response to feedback from me and other students. Showing them two weeks into the future allows them to better manage their time — and work ahead if their schedule demands that.

The upside is the possibility that these videos might be useful to other teachers or students of Literature for Adolescents.  If you do find any of these useful, let me know.  Also, if you spot any mistakes or have suggestions, let me know — though keep in mind that you are not seeing all of the teaching.  I will be joining the students’ discussion — typically via text, though sometimes via video.  And my responses to their discussion will sometimes result in additional readings — always brief ones, but useful ones.

That’s all for now.


* A public thanks to everyone working in K-State’s ITS, Telecommunications, and all who have been putting in long hours to get the university fully on-line again.  I appreciate it!  And so do my fellow faculty members!

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Routledge: out with the old, in with the new

Routledge logo

I’m pleased to announce that Kenneth Kidd and Elizabeth Marshall are the new editors of Routledge’s Children’s Literature and Culture Series. (At IRSCL in Toronto last August, I announced that this transition was in the works. It is now official.)

Dr. Jack ZipesI became editor of Routledge’s Children’s Literature and Culture series in 2011, when I succeeded founding editor Jack Zipes. He founded the series in 1994, which makes this the longest-running series devoted to the study of children’s literature and culture from a national and international perspective. In my seven years as series editor, I’ve edited 30 or so books that have been published. There’s another half dozen that are not out yet but are either forthcoming or under contract. It’s been a busy seven years, and I’m very proud of the authors, editors, and contributors we’ve published. I’ve learned a lot from all of them and I am grateful to them for choosing to publish with Routledge. They make this series what it is, and I thank them.

Jack edited this series for 17 years. After doing the job for a mere seven years, I can only begin to appreciate what that means, especially given that he did this in addition to a prolific career as a scholar and educator.

Routledge: most books edited by Philip Nel

I lack Jack’s stamina. So, I’m stepping down from my editorship — or, to be more accurate, I am beginning that process. As Jack did when he passed the editorship on to me, I too will continue to edit any books that I’ve signed. For the new editors’ first year, Jennifer Abbott — the excellent in-house Routledge editor we work with — will include me in all editorial correspondence. Kenneth and Beth are in charge, but I’ll be available as needed. In fact, since last June, Jen has already been copying the new editors on correspondence regarding all new projects.

So, my stepping down is really more of a gradual phasing out.

In my years as editor, I have learned that, unless you have Jack Zipes’ superhuman strength, editing a book series is a two-person job. I’m delighted that the new editorial team will be:

  • Kenneth Kidd, Professor of English at the University of Florida in Gainesville, and the author or co-editor of six books (including one in the Routledge series); and
  • Beth Marshall, Associate Professor of Education at Simon Frasier University in British Columbia, and the author, co-author, or co-editor of three books (including one in the Routledge series).
Dr. Elizabeth Marshall Dr. Kenneth Kidd

Don’t let their youthful good looks fool you.  Between them, these two award-winning scholars bring nearly 50 years of experience in the field of children’s literature — and two different disciplines (English, Education).  I couldn’t be happier that the series is in such good hands. I look forward to seeing where they take the series!

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Farewell to Facebook. Mostly.

Goodbye Facebook

I’ve been meaning to write this post for a few months.

Over the past year or so, I’ve been gradually drifting away from Facebook. Lately, the drift has become a decisive move. Last month, I downloaded my Facebook data — in order to better see precisely what Facebook was collecting.  Then, I removed Facebook from my phone and tablet.

There are many reasons for my move — most recently, Facebook’s pursuit of treason for cash. But, more generally, I am stepping away because — like so many “free” platforms — Facebook is a parasitic business that monetizes your attention and personal data. I don’t feel comfortable supporting Mark Zuckerberg’s reckless, lucrative, criminal enterprise. So, I’m on his platform less often.

But I haven’t yet closed my account. Two groups with which I am affiliated have Facebook presences; I feel a professional responsibility to maintain an account in order to manage those. It’s possible that I may occasionally pop in to post birthday wishes. I suspect, though, that my infrequent engagement with this predatory platform means I’ll miss a lot of Facebook friends’ birthdays. I’m sorry about that: I really enjoyed posting a different song each year.

Note to Self podcastMy move away from Facebook began with Manoush Zomorodi’s Note to Self podcast, which I started listening to at the beginning of 2017. Its “Bored and Brilliant” series (2015/2017) introduced me to the Moment app, which allows you to monitor your use of your iPhone or iPad. (If you have an Android phone, it recommends the BreakFree app.) Moment showed me how often I was using my devices, and helped me cut back.  Subsequent series — its “Infomagical” series (2016) and its “Privacy Paradox” series (2017) — also helped. I deleted apps I wasn’t using. I turned off notifications. I tidied up my apps into little folders.

If you wonder whether your use of technology may be hindering or even harming you, I highly recommend these three Note to Self series. If you have already noticed the ways in which apps and social media ensnare and prey upon your attention, then perhaps you have already taken the necessary steps to reclaim your life. Whatever you ultimately decide to do, I recommend reflecting on your relationship to technology. Not coincidentally, such reflection is the focus of the Note to Self podcast.

I used to make the effort to, say, check Facebook only twice a day — an effort at which I did not always succeed. However, in the past month or so, I have found it quite easy to stay off of Facebook. I actually find myself putting off checking Facebook. I’m simply not comfortable being there. Its willingness to aid Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election is a major catalyst — selling Trump ads at much lower rates than Clinton ads (because Trump ads got more clicks), taking Russian money (in Rubles, even!) to fund pro-Trump propaganda & fake news, or allowing Cambridge Analytica to harvest its users’ data (again, in support of the mendacious traitor who currently occupies the White House… well, when he’s not at one of his golf courses).

Mark Zuckerberg in Washington, DC, 9 Apr. 2018. Photo by AP

In his testimony yesterday, Mr. Zuckerberg said his slow response to Russian meddling is “one of [his] greatest regrets,” and promised to ban apps that are “doing anything improper.”  Earlier that day, he said he will make sure Facebook is “a positive force in the world.”  There is zero reason to believe him. First, he has made promises like this before — as in this 2009 interview, below.

Second, there is no regulation that would compel him to keep these promises. Third, and as Tim Wu points out, the flaws of Facebook are not a bug but a feature. Facebook is designed to surveil its users:

The problems are central and structural, the predicted consequences of its business model. From the day it first sought revenue, Facebook prioritized growth over any other possible goal, maximizing the harvest of data and human attention. Its promises to investors have demanded an ever-improving ability to spy on and manipulate large populations of people. Facebook, at its core, is a surveillance machine, and to expect that to change is misplaced optimism.

Exactly.  If you sign up for Facebook, you’re donating your personal data and time to an enterprise built on manipulating you and selling others whatever you tell it about yourself. Because that’s what Facebook is.

Beyond the obvious fact that I don’t want to continue enriching Mr. Zuckerberg or supporting his poisonous enterprise, I simply don’t like being on Facebook. It feels like a sinister, perilous place to be.

I know, of course, that social media has always been far more dangerous for women, people of color, gay people, the trans community, and all whom society renders more vulnerable. And I am aware that many daily behaviors implicate all of us in injustices of various kinds. (How much child labor went into making your cell phone? Who made that chocolate and under what conditions? How much money does Twitter make from Russian bots or the traffic generated by Herr Twitler?) I realize that it’s nearly impossible to disentangle ourselves from all dubious products and practices. But Facebook is one that I can step back from.

I’ll miss knowing what’s going on in people’s lives, and I may well miss useful professional information. But I won’t miss the misinformation, the clickbait, the amplification of outrage, or that queasy, soul-sucking feeling of being on Facebook.

So, that’s why you have been seeing much less of me on Facebook — and will see even less of me in the future. I have yet to delete my account, but that day may come, too. We’ll see.

Twitter bird logoIf you need to reach me, email and Twitter (@philnel) remain more reliable ways of doing so. Those who know me know that Facebook was never the best way to reach me (though I once had the app on my phone and tablet, I never installed Facebook Messenger). But for those who weren’t aware, now you are.

Be safe out there.  Take care of yourselves.  And drop me a line if you need anything, OK?


Image sources: “Goodbye Facebook” from Anusha Sachwani’s “Facebook to Pull Support from These Devices!” (BrandSynario, 29 Mar. 2017); Note to Self logo from Note to Self podcast (WNYC); AP photo of Zuckerberg in Washington DC from “Mark Zuckerberg plans to tell Congress that as long as he’s CEO, advertisers won’t take priority over Facebook’s users” (Business Insider, 9 Apr. 2018); Twitter button.

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Sherman Alexie & #MeToo

Sherman Alexie, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time IndianAs many teachers do, I teach Sherman Alexie’s Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.  When confirmed reports of his sexual harassment and other abuses of power became public, I knew I had to talk to my class about it — I had already taught Absolutely True Diary in my on-line Multicultural Children’s Literature class earlier in the semester.  Thinking that our conversation might be of use to others who are confronting this issue, I’m sharing my initial question, my response to their conversation (which highlights recurring themes), and a quotation from one of the students (shared with her permission).  Because I have to prepare our on-line conversations several weeks in advance, this begins in early March but their responses were only due in late March — and my response followed.


6 March 2018

Because I’m preparing these discussions about three weeks in advance, this will appear as “due” after March Break. And that is in fact when it is due. I don’t feel I can add anything further to our current week. But I also don’t feel that I can ignore this. So I am making this visible now (March 6th) even though you’re not obliged to discuss it until March 27th.

For the past month, those of us in the children’s literature / young adult literature community have known that Sherman Alexie is among those accused of sexual harassment. Last week (Feb. 28), Alexie issued a denial/apology. Yesterday (Mar. 5), three of his accusers went public.

This raises an important question for us — as students, future teachers (some of you), or current teachers (me and some of you).  Should we continue to teach an author who has harmed others?  And that is the question I am posing to you right now.  Should work by Sherman Alexie be on future iterations of this syllabus?  Or ought we instead replace him with, say, a work by another indigenous writer — perhaps Cherie Dimaline’s The Marrow Thieves —?

This is a hotly debated question, and — from our previous conversations — I know that you will express yourselves with care and consideration for divergent points of view.  Those who argue for often note that those who create great works of art may not lead exemplary Roxane Gay. Photo by Jay Grabiec.lives; their own personal failings are irrelevant to the greatness of their art. And, certainly, as a colleague of mine observed via email, in our English classes we teach many writers who, in their private lives, were horrible human beings.  Those who argue against might say that there is no legacy so important that we can look the other way. As Roxane Gay puts it, “I no longer struggle with artistic legacies. It is not difficult to dismiss the work of predators and angry men because agonizing over a predator’s legacy would mean there is some price I am willing to let victims pay for the sake of good art.” She suggests instead that we turn to artistic work created by those “capable of treating others with respect.”   If these are two opposing poles of the debate, there are of course many positions between them.  And there are other ways of exploring possible answers to this question.

As I say, it’s a difficult, messy question.

I have my own answer to it, which I will share after our conversation — and, indeed, which might be changed by our conversation.


Time passed — including March Break — and the students’ conversation unfolded on-line.  It was the most contentious conversation we’ve had this semester, but — to their great credit — they remained civil even when they strongly disagreed.  I then wrote my promised response, which I reproduce below.


30 March 2018

Hi, everyone. Sorry I’ve been a little quieter this week. Have been a bit under the weather. Indeed, your El Deafo discussion (two weeks from now) lacks my second planned video because my voice is still a bit wonky.

Anyway.  To this discussion!

Thanks, as ever, for wrestling with a difficult and painful subject. You may be interested to know that — here on campus — we held a discussion on this subject before March Break.  The English Department blog published a summary of that discussion on Tuesday of this week.

In your discussion, some liken the removal of a book from a course syllabus to censorship. I see the parallel being made, but — as the creator of many syllabi — I would argue that removing a book from a course syllabus is not the same as censorship. The book is not banned. It is still for sale, and still in the library. Also, since I regularly revise my syllabi, I am often taking books off and putting others on. I do this for many reasons, including the never-ending quest to improve the course, the need to stay current (new books keep getting published), and my own need to refresh the syllabus (if I teach the same works over and over, then I risk getting stale).

Cherie Dimaline, The Marrow ThievesAnother theme I notice in your discussion is the idea that removing this book would consequently remove Native American literature from our Multicultural Children’s Lit syllabus. It wouldn’t. We could read Erika Wurth’s Crazy Horse’s Girlfriend, Cherie Dimaline’s The Marrow Thieves, Cynthia Leitich Smith’s Rain Is Not My Indian Name, or Louise Erdrich’s Birchbark House.  Debbie Reese makes some Native YA Lit recommendations in this blog post. There are many Native children’s and YA books to choose from. Indeed, there should be more than one on this syllabus. There isn’t because the class strives to cover as wide a range of identities as it can, which (I realize) risks making this book the “single story” that Adichie warns against.

I would, however, agree with those who note that (and I’m paraphrasing here) monstrous people have made great art, important art, influential art. Faulkner’s “go slow, now” approach to ending Jim Crow was immoral and unjust, but if I were teaching a class on twentieth-century American literature, I would assign Faulkner. If I were teaching a class on twentieth-century Native American Literature, I think I would also assign Alexie — bringing in the full context, the women who have spoken on the record, the women who have spoken off the record, those who defend Alexie and those who accuse him. We could have a more developed version of the conversation we’ve had here.

But I don’t teach a Native American Literature course. I teach a Multicultural Children’s Literature course and I teach a Young Adult Literature course. Alexie’s Absolutely True Diary has been on both of those syllabi. It will not be on either syllabus in the future. There are many reasons why, but here are four.

  1. William Faulkner is dead. Sherman Alexie is alive. If I assign Alexie’s books (and thus mandate that my students buy his books), I am continuing to pay his salary. I would rather pay the salary of a person who has managed to create good art without harming others. Since there are plenty of such people, I will be assigning Cherie Dimaline’s The Marrow Thieves next time.
  2. The books I assign in both classes go on to become books that future teachers assign: Secondary Education majors take Literature for Adolescents, and I know that this class has some Education majors in it, too. So, in assigning a book, I am in essence recommending that book for tomorrow’s teachers. I am making it part of the children’s literature / YA literature canon, enshrining it in the curricula of tomorrow.
  3. Sherman Alexie’s treatment of women is diametrically opposed to the goal of a class like Multicultural Children’s Literature. As I say in that opening video, the books we read are about increasing understanding, and respecting others. I cannot in good conscience promote the work of a man who does the opposite of what this class aspires to do.
  4. As his denial/apology indicates, Alexie does not understand why his behavior was wrong. If he understood, apologized, made efforts to make amends, well, there would at least be the possibility that I might assign him again in the future. But he doesn’t get it. He says “I genuinely apologize” but also “There are women telling the truth about my behavior and I have no recollection of verbally threatening anybody or their careers.” So, which behaviors are true, then? He says, “I have made poor decisions,” but declines to name what those decisions were, which makes it hard to believe that he is “working hard to become a healthier man who makes healthier decisions.” If he does not understand why his behavior was wrong, then he cannot learn from his past. You need to know why a mistake is a mistake in order to change.

Because, yes, as some of you have correctly noted, humans are flawed. We make mistakes. We have regrets. We do things we should not do. And we would be naïve to expect our artists, writers, actors, musicians, to be paragons of virtue. But, for me, a pattern of predatory behavior crosses a line.

Though my sense is that not all of you do, I believe the accusers. Why? Many reasons, the first of which (as I say) is that there is a pattern of behavior here. When there’s a pattern, we cannot say, “oh, it was just this one isolated incident.” Also, it’s really really hard to speak publicly about being sexually harassed or assaulted. Women who do get slut-shamed, called liars, blamed for seeking publicity, harassed further, and may face professional consequences. When a woman makes the decision to speak up, she is putting herself at risk. That’s why so many of those men named in the #MeToo movement have gone unnamed until now. Calling out the predatory behavior of powerful men (or women, but it’s usually men) is risky. It’s necessary to call them out, but it requires a level of bravery and emotional strength that not all people have — and nor should they be required to have. Surviving the traumas of harassment and assault takes a lot out of a person. (Big understatement.)

#MeToo

The emotions in this discussion have been more raw than they usually are — which is quite understandable, of course. I mention it here for several reasons, the first of which is that a couple of days have elapsed since the discussion and my response. I wish we could have had this conversation in person because then we could have addressed some of these questions in person. The asynchronous nature of this class means that we could not. But, since we could not, you should know that you all did far better than all of the on-line discussions I’ve seen on this subject. There have been much more contentious posts on recent School Library Journal articles, for example. This discussion never even approached that level of vitriol. Indeed, it was remarkably vitriol free.

That said, I recognize there may yet be some frayed nerves and lingering bad feelings. So. If anyone would like to talk with me about this, please let me know. I am willing to set up a Zoom chat for anyone who’d like it — or multiple Zoom chats. And, whether people seek those or not, I ask that you do your best to sustain the professionalism you’ve managed to sustain throughout the term. We do not have to agree with each other, but we do have to make an effort to understand and respect each other.

For the record, I respect the variety of opinions offered here. I’ve given you my response because I promised that I would. But, as I’ve said before, you do not need to agree with my assessment of a book or, in this case, whether to teach the work of a particular author.

For those who want to read more about this, Debbie Reese has a chronicle of the Alexie story as it unfolded (when you click on the link, scroll down).

Finally, if I may, I’d like to close with the wise words of your classmate Maria Vieyra, who (in this discussion) writes:

None of us are epitomes of perfect ethical behavior, morality, or wisdom, but I believe most of us can agree that there should be consequences for predatory sexual behavior because it does indeed hurt people. And monetary costs from boycotting a book are a small form of justice that we are all able to be a part of, and I do not think it is too heavy a price to pay for the sake of the victims and the future.

Well said.

To all of you: Thanks ever so much for taking the time to wrestle with this contentious and difficult issue. I hope that, though your own responses may differ, you all have arrived at a deeper understanding of what’s at stake in either retaining a book or removing it.


So… that was our class discussion. Also, I didn’t mention this in my response above, but most students thought I should continue to teach Alexie.  Five students — all of them women — argued against teaching his work. (18 students participated in the discussion.)

I would not claim to have the “right” answer to the question of whether to teach Alexie. This is just my answer.  I would say, though, that each syllabus is a political document that is built on moral choices.  What we include on a syllabi and what we omit from that syllabi are deeply enmeshed in morality and in politics — which, of course, makes the creation of any syllabus fraught, complicated, and on some level unsatisfying.  (Or, at least, that’s my experience: I am never 100% happy with any syllabus I’ve created.)

Art is always political.  So is teaching.  We cannot pretend otherwise.

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What to do with Dr. Seuss?

The objects of your nostalgic longing may disappoint you, if you are willing to look at them openly and honestly.  If you read, create, or write about children’s literature, today — the 114th birthday of Theodor Geisel (a.k.a. Dr. Seuss) — would be a good time to admit this to yourself.  OK, the time for such admission is really long overdue, but do not be too hard on yourself. The power of cultural inertia is hard to resist.

That said, do resist. Make the attempt. As Seuss himself wrote in a different context, “face up to your problems / whatever they are.”

Read Across America: An NEA ProjectThis particular problem is one to tackle today because Seuss’s work contains both much to admire and much to oppose. Yet, because of his status, people are much more comfortable admiring than looking critically at his work. In the U.S., he is revered as a patron saint of children’s literacy, and children’s literature. In 1997, the National Education Association adopted his birthday as a day to celebrate “Read Across America Day.” It still uses his Cat in the Hat as its mascot, even though — starting this year — it’s shifting its focus to diverse books.

I am partly to blame for this shift.

Philip Nel, Was the Cat in the Hat Black?: The Hidden Racism of Children's Literature, and the Need for Diverse Books (Oxford UP, July 2017)In a report that helped inspire this change, Katie Ishizuka-Stephens cites the essay that became the title chapter of my Was the Cat in the Hat Black? As I point out, Seuss’s Cat is racially complicated. He’s partially inspired by blackface minstrelsy, African American elevator operator Annie Williams (who wore white gloves and a secret smile), and Krazy Kat (the black, ambiguously gendered creation of bi-racial cartoonist George Herriman).

I’m happy that Ishizuka-Stephens’s report has persuaded the NEA to shift their “Read Across America Day” focus to diverse books. Half of U.S. school-age children are nonwhite. But of children’s books published in 2016, only 22 percent of children’s books published featured nonwhite children, and only 13 percent were by nonwhite creators. Celebrating stories in which our multicultural young people can see themselves is a better choice than celebrating Seuss.

Which is not to say that Seuss must be thrown out of our classrooms — though that is of course an option. It is, rather, to suggest that we consider which Seuss we use, and how we use it.

At left: Dr. Seuss, from “Four Places Not to Hide While Growing Your Beard” (Life, 15 Nov. 1929). At right: Dr. Seuss, The Cat in the Hat (1957).

Racial caricature in Seuss’s work can help people understand how racism works. Seuss did both racist work and anti-racist work, often at the same time. In the 1940s, he created political cartoons, some of which dehumanized people of Japanese descent, and others of which were critical of both anti-Semitism and racism against African Americans. In the 1950s, Seuss published Horton Hears a Who!, hailed by one reviewer as “a rhymed lesson in protection of minorities and their rights”; wrote his first version of The Sneetches, an anti-racist fable; and published an essay that critiques racist humor. During that same period, he recycled racist caricature in his books.  In If I Ran the Zoo, protagonist Gerald McGrew travels to “the mountains of Zomba-ma-Tant / With helpers who all wear their eyes at a slant,” and to the “African Island of Yerka” where he meets two stereotypically rendered Black men.

That Seuss is doing both racist anti-racist work at the same time can be confusing because many of us see racism as an “either/or”: people are either racist or not racist. Indeed, that’s how Seuss himself understood racism. In a June 1942 cartoon titled “What This Country Needs is a Good Mental Insecticide,” he draws a long line of men waiting to get inoculated against the “racial prejudice bug.” The insecticide goes in one ear, and the racist bug tumbles out the other.  I wish we could fumigate racism from our minds, and applaud Seuss’s optimism. Unfortunately, racism is not a bug. It’s a feature. Racism is not aberrant. It’s ordinary. It’s embedded in institutions and in culture — such as the cartoons and books of Dr. Seuss.

Dr. Seuss, "What This Country Needs Is a Good Mental Insecticide" (PM, 10 June 1942)

It’s upsetting to learn that a beloved children’s author used racist caricature. So, many people — especially White people — seek explanations and offer excuses. In response to recent criticism, his grand-nephew Ted Owens has said of Seuss: “I know one thing for sure — I never saw one ounce of racism in anything he said, or how he lived his life, or what his stories were about.” Mr. Owens’ claim relies on perception and intent. But racism does not require either. People can perpetuate racism without intending to. I don’t think Seuss intended to. Because he was unaware of the degree to which his visual imagination was steeped in caricature, he recycled racist stereotypes even as he was also writing anti-racist parables. Dr. Seuss was the “woke” White guy who isn’t as woke as he thinks he is.

Robin Bernstein, page 1 from "Signposts on the Road Less Taken: John Newton Hyde's Anti-Racist Illustrations of African-American Children"“Now, wait just a minute,” some may object. “Seuss was a man of his time. We should not impose contemporary standards on him or his work. People thought differently then.” But that is a gross oversimplification. All people in any given historical moment do not think about race in precisely the same way. As Robin Bernstein has shown in her work on nineteenth-century anti-racism, the range of available racial beliefs remains constant over time, but the distribution of those beliefs change. In the past and in the present, both extraordinary and perfectly ordinary people have opposed White supremacy. Similarly, both remarkable and unremarkable people have supported White supremacy. To claim that people 60 years ago were racist but people now are enlightened both naturalizes past racism as inevitable and implies that social change is a natural, ongoing march towards a brighter, fairer future. Yet, as we are reminded daily, our current president and his party are actively working against precisely such a future. Progress moves in fits and starts, makes gains and endures setbacks, and always requires people committed to making a positive difference.

Dr. Seuss, Horton Hears a Who! (1954)Seuss can be part of this positive difference. His more progressive books — The Lorax (1971) or The Butter Battle Book (1984), to name two examples — might teach children about the need to care for the environment or to oppose the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Horton Hears a Who! could teach them to stand up for those who are targeted by bigots: the Whos’ size is an arbitrary mark of difference that could represent any such visible sign of human variance. As for the books featuring racist caricature, one option is to remove them from the curriculum. Another is to read them critically. With the guidance of a thoughtful educator, Seuss’s racist caricature can help young people understand that racism is not anomalous. It permeates the culture. Seeing this caricature can also let them know that it’s OK to be angry at art — that anger can in fact be a healthy response to work that demeans you.

We might also follow Roxane Gay’s advice. As she writes, “There is no scarcity of creative genius, and that is the artistic work we can and should turn to instead.” Gay is writing in the context of the current #MeToo movement, suggesting that we discard work built on the dehumanization of others. We could follow her advice by pushing Seuss aside and instead celebrating diverse books — doing what the NEA is doing in its program even if it (curiously) retains the Cat in the Hat as its mascot.  Ishizuka-Stephens has assembled a great collection of  “21 Books for an Inclusive Read Across America Day.”  That’s an excellent place to start.

Wrapping yourself in an unreflective nostalgia for the art you grew up with may comfort you, but if that art denigrates women, or caricatures people of color, or otherwise harms minoritized communities, then you bear responsibility for the pain that this art inflicts. I realize this is a hard truth to face and that some who read this will — instead of facing themselves and acknowledging their responsibility — attack the messenger. Some may indulge in projection, locating in the messenger those faults that they refuse to admit in themselves. Others will find different strategies of denial, displacement, or dismissal. In so doing, they will continue to be part of the problem.

Boym, The Future of NostalgiaFor those who prefer to be part of the solution, know that you need not abandon nostalgia. It’s OK to be nostalgic, as long as that nostalgia is what Svetlana Boym called “reflective nostalgia.” It “dwells on the ambivalences of human longing and belonging and does not shy away from the contradictions of modernity. Restorative nostalgia protects the absolute truth, while reflective nostalgia calls it into doubt” (xviii).  As Boym wrote, reflective nostalgia reminds us that “longing and critical thinking are not opposed to one another, as affective memories do not absolve one from compassion, judgment or critical reflection” (The Future of  Nostalgia 49-50).

So. Reflect. Dwell on those ambivalences. Develop your capacity to reflect.  Activate your compassion.

And buy diverse books. Teach diverse books. Read diverse books.


Posts related to Was the Cat in the Hat Black?, including glimpses of the work in progress:


Some previous posts on Seuss

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Oppose Concealed Carry Reciprocity: Don’t Be Fooled by HB-2042

No guns (sign)On February 13 at 10:30 am in Topeka, the Kansas Senate will hear testimony on House Bill 2042, which appears to offer sensible gun regulation but in fact does nothing of the kind. (Try to contain your surprise.)  I cannot be there myself.  So, I have submitted my testimony in advance.  I am also posting both text and video of my testimony here. If you can be at the capitol, please go.  If not, please contact your representative.   Thank you!



Testimony opposing HB-2042

Philip Nel

13 Feb 2018

My name is Philip Nel. I am a Professor at Kansas State University, but I offer this testimony as a citizen only — not as an employee. I would be pleased by the fact that HB 2042 mandates that 18-to-20-year olds get a permit and that anyone on a university campus get a permit to carry a weapon. I would be pleased, but the bill also includes Concealed Carry Reciprocity (CCR) — that NRA-promoted legislation says that all states must admit firearms from any state, irrespective of how unregulated that state’s guns are. So, if you’re from one of the twelve states that allows concealed-carry without a permit, then you can also carry in Kansas without a permit. In other words, CCR effectively supersedes HB-2042’s permit requirement.

In effect, HB 2042 makes matters worse by allowing people under 21 to concealed-carry, too. It invites yet more guns into the state and into our workplaces. Thanks to the state’s Guns Everywhere Law, guns have already been forced into college dormitories, libraries, laboratories, classrooms, and offices. The actual name of that law is of course “The Personal and Family Protection Act,” so-called because the law does nothing of the kind and because those who named it are liars. Similarly, those who claim that Concealed Carry Reciprocity will make Kansans safer are also not telling you the truth. Which, at this point, surprises no one.

The university where I teach does not need more guns. It needs more funds. Now, I realize that guns and funds rhyme. So, just to be clear: Guns are weapons that can kill people. Funds can employ faculty and staff who educate people. To be extra clear, I’ll use these words in a sentence. The arrival of guns on campus caused a former colleague to leave Kansas State University for a job at another university in another country.  Funds could help hire a new faculty member to teach the courses that he is no longer here to teach.

So, I ask the Kansas legislature to oppose HB-2042. Instead of endangering the lives of your constituents, do something that helps them. Pass sensible gun regulations, and provide adequate funding for education at all levels. Instead of arming citizens with bullets, arm us with reason — via a good education.

Thank you.


Philip Nel: photo by Michael HenryTo any academics who may be reading this: Is your university in a state or country with (relatively) competent governance? Or is it a private university (and thus not required to weaponize)? Does it seek an expert on children’s literature? Well, seek no further! Here is my curriculum vitae and a page devoted to my books (with selected reviews of same):

Drop me a line. (Email address is at right, under “A note on mp3s.”)  I’d love to hear from you!


Related writing on this subject (by me, and on this blog unless otherwise indicated):

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