Was the Cat in the Hat Black?: The Hidden Racism of Children’s Literature, and Why We Need Diverse Books

Was the Cat in the Hat Black?

Here’s some news I’ve been itching to share: Oxford University Press will publish my next book, Was the Cat in the Hat Black?: The Hidden Racism of Children’s Literature, and Why We Need Diverse Books. Also, this coming Monday, I will be turning in (to Oxford) the complete manuscript of the book. Though it’s too early to confirm a publication date, I’m hoping it will be out by late 2016.

Dr. Seuss, Cat in the Hat's hatNo, the entire book is not about the Cat in the Hat, though Seuss’s famous feline features prominently in one chapter. The book is about different manifestations of structural racism in the world of children’s books: the subtle persistence of racial caricature, how anti-racist revisionism sustains racist ideas, invisibility as a form of racism, whitewashing young adult book covers, and institutional discrimination within the publishing industry. The book takes its title from the Seuss chapter (which looks at, among other things, the influence of blackface minstrelsy on the Cat) because several of his works illustrate how racism hides openly — indeed, thrives — in popular culture for young people. Since the hidden racism of children’s literature is my central theme, a Cat-in-the-Hat riff on Shelley Fisher Fishkin’s Was Huck Black? became the title.

Here’s my opening paragraph:

        Fifty years after the Civil Rights Movement, we have a new civil rights crusade — the Black Lives Matter movement, inspired by the 2013 acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s murderer, and galvanized by the 2014 Ferguson protests. Fifty years after Nancy Larrick’s famous “All-White World of Children’s Books” article (1965) asked where were the people of color in literature for young readers, the We Need Diverse Books campaign is asking the same questions. These two phenomena are related. America is again entering a period of civil rights activism because racism is resilient, sneaky, and endlessly adaptable. In other words, racism endures because racism is structural: it’s embedded in culture, and in institutions. One of the places that racism hides — and the best place to oppose it — is books for young people.

As the Publishers Weekly blurb says, Was the Cat in the Hat Black? is indeed an “attempt… to do for children’s books what The New Jim Crow does for the justice system.”

"Nel Walks ‘Cat’ to OUP" (Publishers Weekly)

I realize that this is a tall order: Michelle Alexander’s book is both powerful and beautifully written. But this is indeed my aim. I want not just to get more people thinking about racism’s resilience in children’s literature. I want people to act. I want not merely to recognize the dire need for more children’s and young adult books that better represent the experiences of non-White people. I want people to join the movement for diverse books. So, rather than just conclude, Was the Cat in the Hat Black? ends with a call to action — “A Manifesto for Anti-Racist Children’s Literature.”

Roald Dahl, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964)Finishing this book (on top of teaching, writing other things, grading, editing, and everything else) is one reason this blog has recently been a little quieter than usual. As regular or even irregular readers of Nine Kinds of Pie have likely already guessed, fragments of this work-in-progress have appeared here. My earliest (and admittedly flawed) thinking on what developed into Chapter Two started as “Can Censoring a Children’s Book Remove Its Prejudices?” Parts of an autobiographical post appear in the introduction. Indeed, I gave an earlier, article version of the title chapter its own blog post. Scattered here and there across the blog are glimpses of me thinking about racism in children’s literature. Many of these pieces will vanish when the blog does, but others — almost always in a significantly revised form — find their way into the book.

So, a hearty thanks to those who have read and commented here, answered my questions, offered feedback when I’ve presented portions of this work, or educated me via your books and articles. I’ve learned so much from all of you. (Hint: Look for your names in the book’s Acknowledgments!) I couldn’t have done it without you. Thank you.

13 Comments »

  1. Joe Kelly Said,

    December 4, 2015 @ 9:26 pm

    Phil, I’m looking forward to the end of 2016. I saw part of this argument in your brilliant–I mean brilliant–lecture you gave a Charleston a couple of years ago. (Also the best PowerPoint presentation I ever saw.) I look forward to seeing you on all the talk shows.

  2. mcliious Said,

    December 4, 2015 @ 10:26 pm

    Looking forward to this!

  3. Joe S. Sanders Said,

    December 5, 2015 @ 7:11 am

    Phil, this is great news! Congratulations! Really can’t wait to see the book.

  4. Daria Said,

    December 6, 2015 @ 3:09 am

    I was interested in reading this post (which I found by chance, following a Facebook link) and I will definitely keep an eye out for the book. But I was wondering: why use the word ‘crusade’ to talk about the Black Lives Matter movement? Besides the literal meaning, the OED defines the word as follows: “An aggressive movement or enterprise against some public evil, or some institution or class of persons considered as evil.” My point: the word more often than not has a negative connotation (as being OTT, etc), and placed in the opening sentence of a book, it would almost be enough to make me stop reading at once – in any case, it would seriously make me doubt the ideological position of the writer. I’m just mentioning this as it is probably not your intention to depict the Black Lives Matter movement in this way?

  5. pragmaticmom Said,

    December 6, 2015 @ 8:14 am

    I’m sure you are aware that Dr. Seuss was a racist himself. He created a lot of anti-Asian American propaganda during WWII:

    http://www.businessinsider.com/before-dr-seuss-was-famous-he-drew-these-sad-racist-ads-2012-3

  6. Philip Nel Said,

    December 6, 2015 @ 8:41 am

    Thanks, Joe, mcliious, and Joe for the kind words!

    Daria: I am indeed using the word in the sense of “An aggressive movement or enterprise against some public evil” (OED). Racism is a public evil. I intend the word in a Civil Rights sense, echoing its use in (for example) the 1963 Birmingham Children’s Crusade.

    pragmaticmom: Yes, I know about Seuss’s racist artwork, and address it in the Seuss chapter of this book. I’ve also addressed it in my earlier book, Dr. Seuss: American Icon (2004).

  7. Daria Said,

    December 6, 2015 @ 1:36 pm

    Thanks for the clarification – it makes sense now.

  8. Clem B Said,

    December 7, 2015 @ 10:07 am

    Sounds brilliant, Philip – very much looking forward to it, especially after hearing you talk about it at IRSCL. Congratulations!

  9. Philip Nel Said,

    December 8, 2015 @ 12:55 am

    Thank you, Clémentine!

  10. Extra Reading, for next Monday | Children's & YA Literature: Theory and Method Said,

    December 9, 2015 @ 5:27 pm

    […] http://www.philnel.com/2015/12/04/wtcithb/ […]

  11. Shaun Baker Said,

    December 10, 2015 @ 8:20 pm

    I am incredibly excited about this book and can very easily see this becoming a staple of the research I use to help my students of Ethnic Children’s Literature at VT. I already use the article version of the titular argument for my students now!

    Looking forward to catching up at ChLA, boss.

  12. Philip Nel Said,

    December 10, 2015 @ 11:23 pm

    Thanks, Shaun!

  13. William joyce Said,

    October 2, 2017 @ 8:00 am

    My book “The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr Morris Lessmore ” is not about Hurricane Katrina as you claim in your book. The intitial writing of Morris came years before that storm. The book is about the death of my dear friends Bill Morris and Coleen Salley both legends amoung children’s Librarians. As I worked on the book and film my daughter died and my wife was stricken by ALS. They are the main characters featured in the book. And Morris is a version of myself. Within this evolution of the book Hurricane Katrina struck my state. The idea of a storm blowing away peoples lives became the catalyst for what happened to Morris and my own storm of grief. But the actual storm called Katrina became a strand in an allegory. It was never the focus or the point. This book was not an effort to document the awful calamity of Katrina. The book is about my own loss. The helplessness I felt losing my friends and family from events that have no link to Katrina. Though the outrage and helplessness I felt after that storm galvanized me to take action. I did a New Yorker cover about the storm and addressed the issue of race in that illustration. The cover was infamously bumped and a small scandal inssued. I also did a photography exhibit called “Faces of Katrina” which documented the story and aftermath of the storm and encompasses the full range of people and races affected. It is brutal and truthful and meant to illustrate the very issues you accuse Morris Lessmore of ignoring. But Morris was about my own storm of grief. Your premise is incorrect. It does my book and the people it honors a terrible disservice. All this information is easy to discover on the internet. You need only to have looked.

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