Archive for Children’s Literature

Trump is a liar. Tell children the truth. (Public Books)

Anne Villeneuve, illus. from Dear Donald Trump (2018)

Public Books (logo)Over on Public Books today, my essay “Trump is a liar. Tell children the truth” recommends some good books for educating young people about “President” Trump, and brings in a few examples of the type of books that ought to be avoided — indeed, that a conscientious publisher would have never published in the first place.  (Also: given the pace of news these days, I should add that I turned in the piece back in August….)

I had more to say than Public Books could use. Here are the most important bits that got cut, woven together with a few additional reflections.

“Rich Rump”: Trump’s first appearance in a children’s book

Arthur Yorinks and Richard Egielski, Christmas in July (1991)

Public Books didn’t publish the image (above) from Arthur Yorinks and Richard Egielski’s Christmas in July (1991) — a whimsical picture book featuring Rich Rump, a thinly disguised version of Donald Trump. As I say in the essay, the earliest children’s books in which he appears “depicted the basic truths of the man: selfish, vain, heartless, dishonest.” After he became “President,” children’s literature strove for a more “balanced” approach. However, the “both sides” approach to representing Trump — in children’s books or any media — is a very dangerous lie.

Destroying the boundary between truth and falsehood disorients us

It’s become something of a cliché to quote Hannah Arendt, but we should keep quoting her until more people heed her warnings. So: “The result of a consistent and total substitution of lies for factual truth is not that the lie will now be accepted as truth and truth be defamed as a lie, but that the sense by which we take our bearings in the real world—and the category of truth versus falsehood is among the mental means to this end—is being destroyed.”[1]

This quotation comes up a lot these days. But I also think not enough people are paying attention to this fact. Because Trump’s prolific lies damage the psyche — both individually and collectively.

Every 36 hours, Trump lies more than Obama did in eight years

As of August 12, 2019, Trump had made over 12,000 false and misleading claims during his presidency, averaging over thirteen lies per day. In contrast, Barack Obama made eighteen false or misleading statements during his eight-year presidency. Every 36 hours, Trump lies more than Obama did in eight years.[2]

Trump “children’s books” for adults

There are some fun satirical works in the guise of children’s books — one of which, Michael Ian Black and Marc Rosenthal’s A Child’s First Book of Trump (2106), also works as a story for children. Black’s ersatz Seussian verse and Rosenthal’s sketches represent Trump as part unreformed Grinch and part Sylvester McMonkey McBean (the salesman who profits from the Sneetches’ prejudice). As in all allegorical children’s picture books about Trump, he is a negative example.

P. Shauers, Donald and the Golden Crayon

Since they are adult satires delivered via the medium of the picture book, too much of the humor in Ann TelnaesTrump’s ABC, Erich Origen and Gan Golan’s Goodnight Trump, P. Shauers’ Donald and the Golden Crayon (all 2018) and Faye Kanouse and Amy Zhing’s new If You Give a Pig the White House (2019) may go over the heads of children under ten, but all remind us that the humor in allegorical Trump picture books is a vital part of their truth-telling. And anyone over that age — such as most people reading this post, I imagine — might find the books’ dark humor restorative. (If you want recommendations, my favorite three of these picturebooks-for-adults are Trump’s ABC, Donald and the Golden Crayon, and Goodnight Trump.)

Slice through the fog of lies

One of the surprises of writing this piece was that the work actually proved restorative and clarifying. Facing the prospect of writing this (for the Children’s Literature Association Conference, in June), I dreaded reading lots of children’s books about the evil orange bloviator. But reading them — all of the good ones, but especially Martha Brockenbrough’s Unpresidented — helped me awaken from the nightmare in which we are living. It helped me slice through the fog of lies. It reminded me once again that this is not normal.

This is not normal

To any who may find my truth-telling advice too partisan, I would cite historian Dave Renton’s point that “one cannot be balanced when writing about fascism, there is nothing positive to be said of it.”[3] And yes, Trump lacks sufficient belief in the state to be a fascist in the traditional sense; he is more an authoritarian kleptocrat who uses fascist tactics. But my point is this: if identifying evil as evil is now a partisan behavior, then children’s books and publishers must take a side.

This position challenges the “marketplace of ideas” approach we learn in school — the liberal idea that, to quote Mark Bray, “the key to combatting ‘extremism’ is to trust in the allegedly meritocratic essence of the public sphere: If all are allowed their say, then the good ideas will float to the top while the bad sink to the bottom, like live-action Reddit.”[4] But, historically, the public sphere has not triumphed over totalitarian movements. And some topics — such as people’s humanity — should not be subject to debate.

That our shared humanity is now subject to debate shows how Trump’s poisonous ideas have become normalized.  Remember when, in the early days of the regime, people used to say “This is not normal”? Even as Trump’s behavior grows stranger and more dangerous, we hear this far less often.

Only the truth can liberate the lie-entangled mind

Motivating this essay — though absent even from its draft versions — is postwar Germany’s need to reeducate children raised under the lies of the Third Reich. For the past few years, America’s children have been growing up in a country whose leader is a kleptocratic white-supremacist sociopath — a man who not only brags about sexual assault, but who appointed sexual-assault-hobbyist “Blackout Brett” Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. They’ve been living in a world where this sort of behavior gets normalized — where a pathological liar’s lies get treated as if, perhaps this time, they may have some truth value, and so on tonight’s program, we invite an expert and a con artist to debate the cloak of lies in which the Trump administration has swathed the day’s cruelty.

Enough! Trump is and has always been a liar. Draw on this irrefutable basic fact of the man’s character when you report on, write children’s books about, or say anything at all about Trump. Call out his lies. Tell the truth. As Michael Chabon recently wrote in a different context, “Truth lives. It can be found. And there is no encounter more powerful than the encounter between the slashing, momentary blade of truth and a lie-entangled mind.”[5]

In sum: Children’s books can be that blade of truth.


Thanks…

For the Public Books article, thanks to Nina Christensen for introducing me to Dumme Donald bygger en mur i børnehaven (Stupid Donald Builds a Wall in Nursery School), and for translating the title. Thanks to Elina Druker for translating the book’s original Swedish title. Thanks to Jules Danielson for introducing me to The Wall and to both Jules and Betsy Bird for confirming that Christmas in July is the first children’s book to feature Mr. Trump.


Related posts:


[1] Hannah Arendt, “Truth and Politics,” Between Past and Future (London: Penguin Books, 1993), 252-3.

[2] Glenn Kessler, Salvador Rizzo, and Meg Kelly, “President Trump has made 12,019 false or misleading claims over 928 days,” Washington Post , 12 Aug. 2019.

[3] Dave Renton, Fascism: Theory and Practice (Pluto Press, 1999), 18.

[4] Mark Bray, ANTIFA: The Anti-Fascist Handbook (Melville House, 2017), 146.

[5] Michael Chabon, “What’s the Point?” The Paris Review, 23 Sept. 2019.

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Mundo Azul, Berlin

Mundo Azul, Choriner Straße 49, Berlin

This is the bookstore I want to live in. Mundo Azul (Choriner Straße 49, Berlin) is an international celebration of beautiful children’s picture books — some of which I knew, many of which I did not, and all of which are well worth reading. While browsing, I had the sense that the proprietor, Mariela Nagle, had selected each one intentionally. She displays them not because they are popular — though there are some well-known titles, along with many that were (to me) discoveries. She displays them because they’re art that she wants to spend more time with, and that her patrons should get to know.

And then there’s the space itself.

Two rooms of books, carefully displayed on wooden shelves, many book-covers facing outward — catching the eye, drawing you in for a closer look.

There are places for sitting and reading.

(Or for taking silly selfies with your friends.)

Ada Bieber and Philip Nel display 3 books: Jessica Love’s Julián Is a Mermaid; Megumi Iwasa’s Viele Grüße, Deine Giraffe (German translation illus. by Jörg Mühle); Ruth Krauss and Maurice Sendak’s Löcher Gibt’s, Um Sie Zu Graben (A Hole Is to Dig in German).

And what is that tiny sign in the middle of that bookshelf over there?

Yes! That one! On the little easel.

“Silent books”? Does that mean what I think it means…? Yes. Perusing the books confirms that they are all wordless. An entire shelf devoted to wordless picture books! When Mariela Nagle noticed my interest, she strolled over with a new one she had just gotten in — from Portugal, which (she says) has more independent children’s book publishers than anywhere.

I think I got that right. Mariela, if I am mistaken, please correct me! I visited the shop with no intention of writing about it — so, I took no notes. I only decided to write about it afterwards, as I walked away thinking of all the people who would love this shop! Instead of writing only to them, I decided to shout it from the rooftops! Or, at least, from the laptops — via this blog.

This is the book Mariela showed me. It’s a wordless, anti-capitalist parable.
On the subject of anti-capitalist parables, I like this one even better. It has words — Karl Marx’s. (Thanks to Ada Bieber for directing me to it… and to the store!)

If ever you are in or near Berlin, you must visit Mundo Azul. Plan to spend the afternoon. Yes, all of the afternoon. And it is OK if you do not speak German. Mariela speaks German, English, and Spanish (and possibly other languages — I neglected to ask).*

If you cannot get to Berlin, I highly recommend browsing…

After you’ve done that, you’ll of course start saving up for a trip to Berlin….

Vielen Dank an Mariela und Ada! Es war wunderbar!


* Update, 11 July 2019: I met up with Mariela this evening at “Drawings from East & West: Sino-German Picture Book Exchange Salon,” and I asked. She also speaks Italian and French.

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“The Cat Is Out of the Bag”

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).

As we reconsider the works of Dr. Seuss on what would have been his (well, Theodor Seuss Geisel’s) 115th birthday, I encourage you to take a look at Katie Ishizuka and Ramón Stephens’ “The Cat is Out of the Bag: Orientalism, Anti-Blackness, and White Supremacy in Dr. Seuss’s Children’s Books,” just published in Research on Diversity in Youth Literature last month. To give you a sense of the article’s impact, it has been downloaded over 18,000 times (as of this writing) and is mentioned in an NPR story.

I don’t have anything further to add, having written quite a bit on Seuss — including the influence of blackface minstrelsy on the Cat in the Hat. You can find that in the title chapter of Was the Cat in the Hat Black?: The Hidden Racism of Children’s Literature and the Need for Diverse Books (2017), which will be out in paperback on the 29th of this month. The paperback includes a new Afterword on “Why Adults Refuse to Admit Racist Content in the Children’s Books They Love” — in which I read some of the hate mail that the hardcover inspired, with the goal of educating people who are reluctant to reflect on their “problematic faves” from childhood.

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)
Was the Cat in the Hat Black? (paperback out 29 Mar. 2019)

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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Children’s Literature and Comics/Graphic Novels at MLA 2019

MLA 2019 logo

Going to the MLA Convention in Chicago? Here are all the sessions on children and YA literature, and on comics.  Or, at least, this is what I could find.  If I’ve missed anything, please let me know.  Thanks!


012: Comics Fandom in Transition

 12:00 PM–1:15 PM Thursday, Jan 3, 2019

 Hyatt Regency – Roosevelt 3

Presentations

1: Fandom as Import and Export in the Digital Age: Dojinshi, Comiket, and Fujoshi around Latin American Boys’ Love

Camila Gutierrez, Penn State U, University Park

2: Hi-Diddly-Ho, Tetsuo! How Bartkira’s Fandom Reimagined and Remixed Akira and The Simpsons

Charles Acheson, U of Florida

3: ‘The Concrete Representation of Our Most Subtle Feelings’: Comics Fandom in the Digital Era

Jaime Weida, Borough of Manhattan Community C, City U of New York

4: The Hybrid Lettercol: Ms. Marvel and #KamalaKorps

Leah Misemer, Georgia Inst. of Tech.

Presider

Aaron Kashtan, U of North Carolina, Charlotte

Sponsored by the GS Forum on Comics and Graphic Narratives


029: Selling Childhood

 12:00 PM–1:15 PM Thursday, Jan 3, 2019

 Hyatt Regency – Atlanta

Presentations

1: Pricing Black Girl Pain: The Cost of Black Girlhood in Street Lit

Jacinta Saffold, Assn. of American Colleges and Universities

2: Selling the Ferocious Child: Riot Grrrl’s Radicalization of Consumption

Katherine Kruger, U of Sussex

3: Teenage Writers, Marketplace Consciousness, and the Deregulation of Childhood in the Age of Neoliberalism

David Aitchison, North Central C

Presider

Michelle Ann Abate, Ohio State U, Columbus

Sponsored by the GS Forum on Children’s and Young Adult Literature


076: The Graphic Novel in Spain

 3:30 PM–4:45 PM Thursday, Jan 3, 2019

 Sheraton Grand – Ontario

Presentations

1: Picturing Peripheries: Basque Identities and Blackness in the Graphic Novel Black Is Beltza

N. Michelle Murray, Vanderbilt U

2: Espacios en blanco: Migration, Memory, and Oblivion in Contemporary Spanish Graphic Narrative

Lena Tahmassian, U of South Carolina, Columbia

3: ‘Nobody Expects the Spanish Revolution’: Forms of Politicization in Gran Hotel Abismo (2016), by Marcos Prior and David Rubín

Xavier Dapena, U of Pennsylvania

Presider

H. Rosi Song, Bryn Mawr C


150: Girlhood Teleologies: Age, Sexuality, and Development in the Long American Nineteenth Century

 7:00 PM–8:15 PM Thursday, Jan 3, 2019

 Hyatt Regency – Michigan 3

Presentations

1: The Girl in the Contract: Slavery, Consent, and True Girlhood

Lucia Hodgson, Texas A&M U, College Station

2: Settler Discourses of Ability and Reform in The Scarlet Letter

Jessica Cowing, C of William and Mary

3: Perpetual Childhood: Cognitive Disability and the Representation of Childish Women

Allison Giffen, Western Washington U

Related Material: For related material, write to luciahodgson@tamu.edu after 17 Dec.

Presider

Nazera Wright, U of Kentucky

Respondent

Anna Mae Duane, U of Connecticut, Storrs


166: Archives of Images, Archives of Texts: Comics as Sources for Historical Research

 7:00 PM–8:15 PM Thursday, Jan 3, 2019

 Hyatt Regency – Randolph 3

Description: Comics studies is a growing interdisciplinary field, largely (although not always) grounded in critical literary techniques. As comics scholarship grows, however, the potential of comics for researchers in other disciplines, history among them, is quickly becoming apparent. Panelists address the variety of ways that scholars can use comics as sources for historical research by showcasing projects that utilize sequential narratives in this way.

Presiders

Joshua Kopin, U of Texas, Austin

Patrick Jagoda, U of Chicago

Speakers

David Carlson, writer

Elizabeth “Biz” Nijdam, Whitman C

Margaret Galvan, U of Florida

Maryanne Rhett, Monmouth U

Rachel Miller, Ohio State U, Columbus


307: Image-Text Encounters in South Asian Graphic Narratives

 1:45 PM–3:00 PM Friday, Jan 4, 2019

 Sheraton Grand – Colorado

Presentations

1: Pulping India in Imperial Britain: Sarath Kumar Ghosh’s Short Fiction

Monika Bhagat-Kennedy, U of Mississippi

2: The Golden Age of Bangla Comics: Narayan Debnath’s Bantul the Great and Handa-Bhonda

Anwesha Maity, U of Wisconsin, Madison

3: Tracing the Creation of an Indigenous Visual Idiom in Amruta Patil’s Adi Parva and Sauptik

Anuja Madan, Kansas State U

4: Graphic Migrations: Stories about Refugees, Gender, and Citizenship

Kavita Daiya, George Washington U

Related Material: For related material, write to amadan@ksu.edu or kdaiya@gwu.edu

Presider

Kavita Daiya, George Washington U


322: Visual Translations of Early Japanese Literary Texts

 3:30 PM–4:45 PM Friday, Jan 4, 2019

 Sheraton Grand – Ohio

Presentations

1: Visualization as Participatory Reception: The Thirty-Six Immortal Waka Poets from Text to Image

Gian Piero Persiani, U of Illinois, Urbana

2: Filling the Empty Center: (Fe)Male Voices in the Manga Comics Afterlives of The Tale of Genji

Lynne Kimiko Miyake, Pomona C

3: Chihayafuru and the Future of the Classics

Lindsey Stirek, Ohio State U, Columbus

Related Material: For related material, visit mla.hcommons.org/groups/japanese-to-1900/after 1 Oct.

Presider

Naomi Fukumori, Ohio State U, Columbus


325: Climate Change and Contemporary Young Adult Fiction

 3:30 PM–4:45 PM Friday, Jan 4, 2019

 Hyatt Regency – Atlanta

Presentations

2: Solarpunk: A Growing Trend in Young Adult Speculative Fiction

Jennifer Harrison, East Stroudsburg U

3: Growing Down: Coming of Age in a Time of Climate Crisis

Lauren Rizzuto, Simmons C

Presider

Clare Echterling, U of Kansas

Allied organization: Children’s Literature Association.


410: Fandom Spaces

 8:30 AM–9:45 AM Saturday, Jan 5, 2019

 Hyatt Regency – Columbian

Presentations

1: The Leather Pants Phenomenon: Fan Affect and the Rise of Fandom Stars

Sarah Olutola, McMaster U

2: The Curriculum of Fandom: What Are Writers Learning on Wattpad?

Jen McConnel, Queen’s U

3: Professional Spaces for Fan Fiction: Prolonging the YA Series

Carrie Sickmann Han, Indiana U–Purdue U, Indianapolis

Presider

Susan M. Strayer, Ohio State U, Columbus

Sponsored by the GS Forum on Children’s and Young Adult Literature


438: Sesame Street at Fifty

 10:15 AM–11:30 AM Saturday, Jan 5, 2019

 Hyatt Regency – Roosevelt 1

Presentations

1: ‘Culture Free’? The Adaptation and Demarcation of Sesame Street in 1970s Europe

Helle Strandgaard Jensen, Aarhus U

2: Tell Me How to Get to Sesa(meme) Street: The Lore and Language of Digitally Street Smart Internet Users

Bonnie Tulloch, U of British Columbia

3: How Sesame Street Saved My Life

Jeane Copenhaver-Johnson, Ithaca C

Presiders

Philip Nel, Kansas State U

Naomi Hamer, Ryerson U



528: Making Comics, Making Meaning

 1:45 PM–3:00 PM Saturday, Jan 5, 2019

 Hyatt Regency – Randolph 3

Presentations

1: Epistemologies of Slowness: Teaching Visual Literacy Using Comics

Joshua Kopin, U of Texas, Austin

2: Panel/Page: A Research Drawing Jam

Leah Misemer, Georgia Inst. of Tech.

3: Drawn Words: The Significance of Lettering in the Pedagogy and Work of Kevin Huizenga

Alexander Ponomareff, U of Massachusetts, Amherst

Respondent

Susan E. Kirtley, Portland State U

Presider

Margaret Galvan, U of Florida

Sponsored by the GS Forum on Comics and Graphic Narratives


GS Children’s and Young Adult Literature Forum: Business Meeting

3:30–4:45 PM Saturday, Jan 5, 2019

Hyatt Regency – Burnham


615: Cash Bar Arranged by the Forum GS Comics and Graphic Narratives

 7:15 PM–8:30 PM Saturday, Jan 5, 2019

 Hyatt Regency – Plaza Ballroom A


661: Visuality, Race, and Childhood in the Golden Age of American Print Culture

 10:15 AM–11:30 AM Sunday, Jan 6, 2019

 Hyatt Regency – Columbus H

Presentations

1: Black Girls’ Nineteenth-Century Autograph Albums

Nazera Wright, U of Kentucky

2: Rainbow Work: Color Sense and Colonial Enchantment in Golden Age Picture Books

Erica Kanesaka Kalnay, U of Wisconsin, Madison

3: Performing Black Childhood: Leigh Richmond Miner’s Photographic Illustrations of Paul Laurence Dunbar’s Poems

Katharine Capshaw, U of Connecticut, Storrs

4: A Black Modern Childhood: Illustration and Photography in W. E. B. Du Bois’s The Brownies’ Book

Shawna McDermott, U of Pittsburgh

Presider

Shawna McDermott, U of Pittsburgh


697: Graphic Narratives of Disability as Multisensory Transactions

 12:00 PM–1:15 PM Sunday, Jan 6, 2019

 Hyatt Regency – Columbus G

Presentations

1: You Are Not Your Illness: Narrativizing Identity in Disability and Illness Memoirs

Sohini Kumar, Stony Brook U, State U of New York

2: A Visual Cure: Exploring the Role of Drawing in Marion Milner’s The Hands of the Living God: An Account of a Psycho-analytic Treatment

Emilia Halton-Hernandez, U of Sussex

3: Traumatic Narrative Drawing in Jacques Tardi’s ‘Basket Case’

Anthony Cooke, Georgia Southern U


704: Graphic Medicine’s Textual Transactions

 12:00 PM–1:15 PM Sunday, Jan 6, 2019

 Hyatt Regency – Toronto

Presentations

1: Graphic Medicine and Patient Education: Using Graphic Narrative to Improve Patient Care

Brian Callender, U of Chicago

2: Subject to or Subject Of: Medicine, Subjectivity, and the Representation of Disability in Una posibilidad entre mil

Elizabeth Jones, U of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

3: Multimodal Graphic Medicine and the Material Question of Spoons

Rachel Kunert-Graf, Antioch U

Respondent

Erin Lamb, Hiram C

Presider

Lan Dong, U of Illinois, Springfield

Sponsored by the GS Forum on Comics and Graphic Narratives


722: Aesthetics, Politics, and the Postcolonial Graphic Narrative

 1:45 PM–3:00 PM Sunday, Jan 6, 2019

 Hyatt Regency – Gold Coast

Presentations

1: Comic-Chronotope in Postcolonial Graphic Narratives: Contextualizing Clandestine Immigration

Susmitha Udayan, U of New Mexico, Albuquerque

2: Human Rights in the Postcolonial Islamic Graphic Novel

Esra Mirze Santesso, U of Georgia

3: Graphic Narrative and the Aesthetics of Complicity

Muhib Nabulsi, U of Queensland

4: Graphic Narratives, Transnational Aesthetics, and Political Critique in Singapore: Sonny Liew’s Frankie and Poo

Weihsin Gui, U of California, Riverside

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Migration, Refugees, and Diaspora in Children’s Literature (ChLAQ)

Children's Literature Association Quarterly 43.4 (Winter 2018): coverSeparating children from their parents is a violation of basic human rights and does not deter asylum-seekers.  Hostile to facts and compassionate only towards himself, Mr. Trump has pursued this policy with reckless indifference to its consequences.  As of the end of last month (over four months after the court-imposed deadline to reunite these families), over 140 children had still not been reunited with their parents.  And that figure does not include the over 15,000 children locked up in Trump’s child detention centers.

Writing about Migration, Refugees, and Diaspora in Children’s Literature — the theme of this special issue of the Children’s Literature Association Quarterly — will not stop the US government’s (or any other government’s) crimes against humanity. And yet, I edited this special issue, which features smart essays by six sharp scholars: Debra Dudek, Carmen Nolte-Odhiambo, Leyla Savsar, Anastasia Ulanowicz, Maria Rosa Truglio, and Sara Van den Bossche.  Why?  Not because we expect our words to awaken the consciences of those in power — if, indeed, the people who support these policies possess consciences.  We write because we speak as we can, in the venues available to us.  Because all scholarship is, in some measure, a record of the time in which it was written.  Because children’s literature can cultivate empathy.  Because children’s literature can (to borrow Rudine Sims Bishop’s famous term) serve as a mirror to young people who have been displaced — geographically, culturally, emotionally.  Because words and images can change minds.

Or, at least, that is what I believe. As I write in my introduction,

When children’s literature cultivates an empathetic imagination, it can bring people of all ages closer to understanding the displacement felt by migrants, refugees, and those in diasporic communities. Such literature can affirm the experiences of children in those communities, letting them know that they are not alone….

As scholars of children’s literature, we are not, alas, in charge of shaping humane policies for our governments. But we can, to borrow the words of Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen, help people to envision “a world without borders as we have known them—a world in which nation-states are not prized or assumed.” We can guide readers to books that harness the imagination’s power to nourish empathy, and we can steer them away from those that reinforce bigotry. Thanks to our professional training, we understand that such work is necessary and complicated: A work’s propagation of prejudice can be both subtle and overt. Art is often ideologically ambivalent, humanizing in some ways and dehumanizing in others. Another thing we can do, then, is to teach people how to spot the difference. Careful, thoughtful readers can resist lies, misinformation, and scapegoating. By helping us develop the necessary critical literacies, the articles in this issue foster these vital skills.

The issue is available via ProjectMuse.  If you are affiliated with an institution that subscribes to Project Muse, please access the articles that way.  Doing so generates revenue for the Children’s Literature Association — an organization of which I am a member.  If you lack access to the issue, I am glad to send you a pdf of my introduction.  Just drop me a line.  (Email address is at right, under “A note on mp3s,” even though I have long since removed mp3s from this blog.)

I’ll conclude with the two autobiographical paragraphs from my introduction:

I proposed this special issue, in part, because I am from a family of immigrants and am the descendant of refugees. The Nels were among those 2 million seventeenth-century French Protestants (Huguenots) whose flight from persecution introduced the word refugee into the English language. Today, my extended family (nuclear family plus cousins, uncles, and aunts) lives in five countries on four continents. We are a migratory group. In migrants, refugees, and the diasporic, I see my own family.

But I also see my family in the people who caused such displacement—from the active Islamophobe who supports a “Muslim ban” to the passive inheritors of White supremacy. I am aware that my being born in the US has everything to do with my parents being White South Africans and not Black South Africans. Their Whiteness granted them access not just to the education that made finding an American job possible, but also to the basic human rights that significantly increased the chances that they would survive and flourish. Indeed, my own flourishing is built upon a range of intersecting structures of oppression.

I’ve written more on this subject elsewhere on this blog — perhaps most directly in “Charleston, Family History, and White Responsibility” (June 2015).  For the past few years, that post has only been available via its archival presence on the Wayback Machine, for reasons explained in the footnote below.*  But there are plenty of other autobiographical posts hosted here, some of which address White Privilege and White Responsibility.

But,… returning to the special issue.  Remember: human rights do not depend upon citizenshipHumanity has no borders.


Thanks to the editorial consultants for this issue: Evelyn Arizpe, Clare Bradford, Ann Gonzalez, Gabrielle Halko, Gillian Lathey, Kerry Mallan, Robyn McCallum, Mavis Reimer, Lara Saguisag, Lee Talley, Jan Van Coillie, Lies Wesseling


Other writing (by me) on this subject:


* My father was furious at me for speaking the truth. In an effort to keep the peace, I deleted the post (though, while writing this post now, have added a link from that post to the Wayback Machine’s archival record). This effort failed; dad stopped speaking to me shortly thereafter. Incidentally, ideas expressed in it emerge in Was the Cat in the Hat Black?: The Hidden Racism of Children’s Literature and the Need for Diverse Books (notably, the end of Chapter 3), but (unlike the original post) do so without identifying specific individuals.

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Fight Stupidity; Keep Reading: A Dispatch from the Internationale Jugendbibliothek (on KSU English blog)

Over at Kansas State University’s English Department blog, I have a post on my three months at the Internationale Jugendbibliothek in Munich.  I’ll excerpt a little bit here (the first paragraph, and the conclusion) but go over there to read the whole thing (and to see more photos).


Since the first of September I have been at the Internationale Jugendbibliothek (IJB) in Munich, Germany. Why? As part of a larger cross-cultural study of diversity in children’s literature, I’m exploring how multiculturalism functions in Germany, via German picture books — chosen in part because they pose the smallest barrier to my limited (but improving!) German, and in part because what we read when we are young can have a profound impact on the adults we become. We read these books when we are still figuring out who we are and what we believe.

*        *        *

Internationale Jugendbibliothek, early November 2018

Founded in 1949, the Internationale Jugendbibliothek does a version of this work in its advocacy for international cultural education, via promoting good books for young readers. Embodying that international spirit, its staff and the fellows who study here come from around the world. During my three months at the IJB, I’ve met — and befriended — people from France, Iran, Japan, Lichtenstein, the Philippines, Romania, Saudi Arabia, Slovenia, Tunisia, Ukraine, and of course Germany.

Getting to know people from around the world has not only expanded my own perspective, but has developed professional relationships and friendships that will last throughout my life.

I will leave you with a phrase I saw on a shoulder-bag in Pasing train station one morning: “Lesen gefährdet die Dummheit,” which means “Reading endangers stupidity.” While combating ignorance does of course depend upon what we read, I nonetheless endorse the optimism of that statement. Fight stupidity. Keep reading.


As I say, this is but an excerpt. So, for the rest, go over to the English Dept. blog to for the rest (plus more photos).

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Context, Privilege, and Pain

Last month, there was some on-line discussion about this quote (from me) in a CNN.com article:

But Nel argues that the answer isn’t simply removing “problematic” children’s classics like Mark Twain’s “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” which uses the N-word 219 times, from school reading lists.

Such stories, “if used carefully, appropriately and in context can be a way to educate people about racism,” he says.

Teaching problematic children’s classics can allow children of color to critique and disagree with a book, express anger at oppression and find the language to talk about racism while also teaching white children to identify racist ways of thinking and challenge their own racialized assumptions, Nel explains.

My thanks to all who have participated in this conversation, and my apologies for joining it a little late.

Mica Kennedy (@MicaKenBooks on Twitter) embeds the above quotation and then asks, “These texts are inherently damaging — yet somehow, it’s the job of black children to rise above and make this a teaching moment?  I. Think. The. Hell. Not.”

Dr. Debbie Reese (@debreese on Twitter) writes, “This CNN article quoting Philip Nel just makes me angry each time I look at it. Native/Kids of color will do what?!”

In response, Dr. Laura M. Jimenez (@booktoss on Twitter) writes, “There is so much wrong with the paragraph. So, so, so wrong. Mostly, @philnel’s white privilege is visible. Hell, his privilege is having a damn parade!”

These critics helpfully highlight the context absent from that quotation, and I am grateful to them for doing so. While such texts can provide a teaching moment, it is not the job of Black children to (if I may quote Mica Kennedy) “rise above and make this a teaching moment.” I can see how the above quotation might convey that impression, but I emphatically do not recommend a pedagogical practice that relies upon Black, indigenous, and children of color to educate their peers. Thanks to Ms. Kennedy, Dr. Reese, and Dr. Jimenez for their critiques.

This blog post is my attempt to publicly counter the potential harm that may be done if people walk away from the CNN.com article with the wrong impression. I wouldn’t want the excerpted quotation to enable the perpetuation of racist harm in classrooms. For example, let us imagine that a child or parent of color objects to a teacher’s inclusion of Huckleberry Finn or Little House on the Prairie, and this teacher then cites that quotation as justification for his or her argument. Indeed, should that (or something similar to that) happen, please direct the teacher to this blog post. Then, you can tell the teacher, “Actually, no. That is not what he meant at all.”

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)Here’s a little context missing from the CNN.com quotation, but present in Was the Cat in the Hat Black?: The Hidden Racism of Children’s Literature and the Need for Diverse Books (2017). Bowdlerized versions of racist classics aspire to remove the racism but instead re-encode it more subtly. So, if (and only if) one is going to read those books, better to read the un-Bowdlerized versions and to do so in context — in the context of books that offer accurate representations and that debunk the racism.

That said, and as also noted in Was the Cat in the Hat Black?, there are excellent reasons for not teaching or reading such books at all. Here are two paragraphs from Chapter 2 of the book:

Advocates of bowdlerizing or banning these novels correctly point to the powerful role that the original versions of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Doctor Dolittle have played in dehumanizing people of color. As New York librarian Isabelle Suhl wrote in 1968, “what justification can be found by anyone—and I ask this particularly of those adults who still defend Lofting—to perpetuate the racist Dolittle books? How many more generations of black children must be insulted by them and how many more white children allowed to be infected with their message of white superiority?” Racist texts can inflict real psychic damage on children of all races, but the child who is a member of the targeted group sustains deeper wounds than the child who is not. The racial ideologies of Dahl, Lofting, Travers, and Twain all but ensure that children who are (and have historically been) the targets of prejudice will suffer in ways that White children will not. The White child who encounters the n-word or Prince Bumpo or an Oompa-Loompa has the unearned privilege of not seeing people of her or his race being stereotyped. That said, as Suhl notes, such books damage White children, too, conveying to them that they are more important, and that dominating people of color is acceptable. Prejudice harms different groups in different ways, and its harmful effects are not distributed equally. Even assigning such a text risks reinforcing structural racism.

Indeed, there is a case to be made for removing racist books from grade-school curricula. Julius Lester has admitted that he is “grateful that among the many indignities inflicted on me in childhood, I escaped Huckleberry Finn.” He adds that, “as a black parent,” he sympathizes “with those who want the book banned, or at least removed from required reading lists in schools. While I am opposed to book banning, I know that my children’s education will be enhanced by not reading Huckleberry Finn.” John H. Wallace goes even further, arguing that Huckleberry Finn “should not be used with children. It is permissible to use the original Huckleberry Finn with students in graduate courses of history, English, and social science if one wants to study the perpetuation of racism.” We could develop this line of reasoning further, and argue that the best way to hasten the decline of a racist classic—and thus the racism it may propagate—is not to teach it at all, at any level.

Julius Lester on Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn

The chapter then goes on to explore how racist children’s books — used in context of accurate, anti-racist children’s books — might be pedagogically useful. And it is quite specific in calling out the racism of these novels. For instance, as Jonathan Arac, Julius Lester, and many others have pointed out, Twain’s Huckleberry Finn is not the progressive anti-racist classic that it’s promoted as being.

Satire or Evasion: Black Perspectives on Huckleberry FinnFor more on why not to teach Huckleberry Finn, see Satire or Evasion?: Black Perspectives on Huckleberry Finn, edited by James S. Leonard, Thomas A. Tenney, and Thadious M. Davis (1992). The book includes Julius Lester’s “Morality and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and John H. Wallace’s “The Case Against Huck Finn,” both of which I quote above.  See also Jonathan Arac’s Huckleberry Finn as Idol and Target: The Functions of Criticism in Our Time (1997), which addresses how the novel’s “hypercanonization” has obscured its racism.


On the potential dangers that racist literature poses to Black, indigenous, and children of color, see Oyate’s “Living Stories”.


For advice on how to tell whether a book is racist, see Oyate’s “How to Tell the Difference” and “Additional Criteria.”

Racism damages everyone, but inflicts greater pain on its targets. As I say in the CNN.com article, “The stories that children read at a young age tell them who matters and who doesn’t matter, who’s human and who isn’t human. A story doesn’t have to tell us that explicitly. It can tell us that by failing to represent certain groups of people — omission tells us that these groups of people are not important.”

*   *   *   *   *

Thanks to Allie Jane Bruce for alerting me to the existence of this debate. When the CNN article ran, I was (and still am) traveling, and so I noted the appearance of the piece but didn’t have a chance to do more than glance at it.

Goodbye Facebook

As you may or may not have noticed, my use of social media has declined over the past year or so. I check in on Facebook once every couple of weeks. I am still on Twitter, but (with the exception of three days in Atlanta and two in England) have been on Central European Time since the first of August. So, I am sure I’m missing conversations that I should be noticing.

I also don’t fault the CNN piece for lacking the full context. Several reasons. First, the exigencies of news media tend to lose the nuances. Elisions are endemic to the medium. Second, journalism is a tough job: writers have to balance a range of information in a very compact form, and yet manage to sustain a reader’s attention. They also may not have full editorial control. A third reason that this may not be the journalist’s fault at all: I have no recollection of the interview. When the journalist kindly wrote me to say that the piece had been published, I then noted (via our earlier embedded emails at the bottom of the note) that we had talked back in April. So, during our interview, it’s entirely possible that I failed to emphasize the context provided above. If that’s the case, then the fault is entirely mine.

Two more concluding thoughts. First, I should not take for granted that everyone is aware of the unavoidable elisions and compressions of the news media. Over the course of my career, I’ve been interviewed hundreds of times. As a result, I take for granted that the entire arc of one’s argument may not appear in full. However, I recognize that my experience is unusual and so I need to do a better job monitoring — and, in cases like this, responding to — how statements are represented.

Second, and as noted in Was the Cat in the Hat Black?,

While it is impossible to grow up in a racist culture and not absorb some of its messages, it is very easy to be unconscious of what you have absorbed. That is how dominant ideologies work: their messages seep in subtly, persistently, without your noticing. When I was preparing to teach the book in a college class, I picked up Helen Bannerman’s Little Black Sambo for the first time. As I read it, I had the unsettling experience of realizing that I already knew the story. This was not the first time I had encountered Little Black Sambo. Had I read Bannerman’s version? Or perhaps an edition with more grotesque racial caricature, such as John R. Neill’s? What other half-remembered stories (suffused with racial caricature or otherwise) were lurking in my subconscious? As I mentioned in the introduction, only when I reflect upon the racist culture of my childhood—the Gollies, the Uncle Remus stories, Little Black Sambo, the near-absence of narratives featuring people of color—can I begin to contemplate how it shaped my own racial and, yes, racist assumptions about other people. A writer, artist, or critic may not intend to perpetuate stereotypes, but—especially when left unexamined—ideology trumps intention…. [W]ell-intentioned people can still act in ways that reinforce racism, unaware that they are doing so. Since the United States is such a segregated country, White people live in an environment structured to prevent our awareness of race and racism. These geographies and the culture itself make it easy for Whites to avoid reflecting upon our raced selves. All who work in the field of children’s literature and culture need to reflect, and strive to do better.

As the critiques generously provided by Ms. Kennedy, Dr. Reese, Dr. Jimenez and others indicate, I need to do better.  Here are some resources to help all of us do better:

  • American Indians in Children’s Literature, established in 2006. Debbie Reese’s site offers “critical perspectives and analysis of indigenous peoples in children’s and young adult books, the school curriculum, popular culture, and society.”
  • Brown Bookshelf, established in 2007: “A group of authors and illustrators who came together to push awareness of the myriad of African American voices writing for young readers.”
  • CrazyQuiltEdi‘s Diversity Resources, from Edi Campbell.
  • Latinxs in KidLit. As it says, “Exploring the world of Latinx YA, MG, and children’s literature.”
  • Lee & Low Books have many diversity initiatives, including the Diversity Baseline Survey for publishers, its Diversity Gap Studies, and many blog posts on diversity, race, and representation.
  • Oyate’s Resources “that teach respect for Native peoples, and help parents and educators to provide their children with historically accurate, culturally appropriate information about Native peoples.”
  • Reading While White, a group of White librarians pledges to “hold ourselves responsible for understanding how our whiteness impacts our perspectives and our behavior.” They publish thoughtful essays and book reviews, and offer useful resources. As they say, “As White people, we have the responsibility to change the balance of White privilege.”
  • Research on Diversity In Youth Literature, open-access journal edited by Sarah Park Dahlen and Gabrielle Halko.
  • Teaching for Change, founded in 1990, is dedicated to using education to promote social justice. As its website explains, it “provides teachers and parents with the tools to create schools where students learn to read, write and change the world.” The organization offers an anti-bias curriculum, resources for teaching about the U.S. Civil Rights Movement, recommended books, and ways for parents to get involved.
  • We Need Diverse Books is Ellen Oh, Malinda Lo, and Aisha Saeed’s “grassroots organization of children’s book lovers that advocates essential changes in the publishing industry to produce and promote literature that reflects and honors the lives of all young people.” It includes resources for writers (including advice, awards, and grants) and readers (on where to find diverse books), and opportunities for you to get involved.

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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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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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