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Decision on Dr. Seuss books brings diversity to the forefront

When Dr. Seuss Enterprises, the company overseeing the late author's estate, including many of the most famous children's books ever written, recently decided to cease publication of six of his titles because of racist imagery and stereotypes, the shock wave of reactions was quick and divided.

"Suddenly, people were calling in wanting (copies of the six books) and were aghast we didn't have them in stock," said Kelsy April, whose duties as general manager of Bank Square Books in Mystic includes buying newly released titles for the children's section. "But we don't carry them because no one was looking for these books to begin with. If people come into the store wanting Dr. Seuss, we'll always have the ones that are timeless and great. But we only have so much room and Seuss wrote almost 50 books. To be completely honest, the ones they pulled weren't among his great books in any context."

The six, which date back as far as 1937, are: "And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street," "If I Ran the Zoo," "McElligot's Pool," "On Beyond Zebra!,"  "Scrambled Eggs Super!" and "The Cat's Quizzer."

Regardless of their literary merit or popularity in the Theodore Seuss Geisel canon, the titles have become representative of various aspects of a much larger national divide. Many people are upset the titles were pulled and claim the cancel culture movement is responsible. Others said the action by Dr. Seuss Enterprises was long overdue.

But for area professionals — teachers, librarians and booksellers — their thoughts and policy decisions go beyond simply deciding whether to remove six books from libraries or a teaching curriculum. For one thing, the Seuss books are aimed at young readers who don't have the judgment to select reading material beyond entertainment value. For another, is it better for controversial books — often written during a different era of cultural norm — to vanish, or is there educational value in having the material available and presented with context?

Further, even when potentially banned or censored books are aimed at adults, are such actions violations of the First Amendment right to free speech? And who, ultimately, is responsible for making the decisions and policies?

Essentially, the questions in the fallout of the Dr. Seuss Enterprises decision centers on three variations: whether their removal from libraries, schools and bookstores is the optimal solution; whether the books should remain in circulation and placed alongside other children's books for perusal by anyone; or whether to relegate them to reference or designated areas for contextual discussion and enlightenment?

Historically in America, decisions to ban or censor books have been made by various school districts, churches or civic groups for reasons largely centered on race, gender stereotypes or faith. A small but representative sampling includes such familiar titles as "James and the Giant Peach" and "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" by Roald Dahl, "Where's Waldo" by Martin Handford, "The Giving Tree" by Shel Silverstein, "Winnie-the-Pooh" by A.A. Milne, "Little Black Sambo" by Helen Bannerman, "Tintin in the Congo" by Hergé and "Little House on the Prairie" by Laura Ingalls Wilder.

"Public libraries experience these situations more times that I can count," said Jennifer Miele, director of library services at Groton Public Library. "We even have a term for it: 'Reconsideration of Materials.' When someone has a complaint, concern or issue, a material goes under review — typically with a board of trustees and sometimes with a small staff committee. We take censorship very seriously."

Miele explained the material is reviewed "holistically and with a set criteria" and many of the challenged fall on the "Banned Books" or "Challenged Books" lists found on the American Library Association website.

In Connecticut, it is up to each city or town library to make their own policies, Miele says, because "our state library and board do not have the authority to require libraries to purchase or remove specific collections ... (and) libraries tend to favor not censoring or removing materials as much as possible."

At the Public Library of New London, Director Madhu Bajaj Gupta says the first step in these situations is to engage in ongoing discussions with staff as well as personnel from other libraries. "Definitely, this is a debatable topic because there are sensitive images in these books," Gupta said. "The thinking is to move them to our reference collection. I think they should be available if someone wants to see them, but we encourage parents to foster critical thinking and to discuss the history and the ideas of diversity, equality and inclusion."

In area schools, the swift and substantial controversy as a result of the Dr. Seuss Enterprises decision only adds to a difficult period. For the year, a priority has been trying to effectively navigate public education during the coronavirus pandemic.

In an email, Jason S. Hartling, superintendent of Ledyard Public Schools, said, "With everything going on related to COVID, Dr. Seuss hasn't been a topic of discussion at all at this point. We've been laser focused on our return to schoolwork."

Diversity and inclusion

Where libraries and bookstores are stand-alone entities and can make their own decisions, school district superintendents, school boards and principals often have to develop and establish policies for several facilities within their jurisdiction.

"It's been interesting because we've always had Dr. Seuss Day during the week of Read Across America," said Tamara Gloster, assistant superintendent for the Norwich Independent School District. "The timing resulted in a lot of anecdotal conversations. We have an equity committee, and we have to determine what our policy about equity is going to look like."

Read Across America, sponsored by the National Education Agency, was in partnership with the Dr. Seuss Enterprises Foundation until 2019, and typically celebrated with a Dr. Seuss Day on or around March 2, the author's birthday. In the last few years, the NEA has removed the focus from Seuss and instead is promoting programs, books and authors that are aimed at diversity and inclusion.

In Norwich, Gloster says, the equity committee will host focus groups with faculty, parents and members of the public to discuss what to do about the Seuss books.

"Some of our schools had Dr. Seuss Days," Gloster said. "Others in the district decided to focus more broadly on the idea of Reading Across America and aim for more inclusion. We want to be careful and obviously there are books of (Seuss's) that are still on the shelf for a very good reason."

"There are two schools of thought concerning social justice and equity," she said. "Some people have made this issue part of the culture of removal from our culture. Others say, 'At the time this was written, the author had this or that perspective ...' And we can ask what are the best teaching points: 'Why should this be taken off the shelf' or 'What can we learn from this going forward?' It's important to not rush through this and be thoughtful and inclusive and focus on all of our students."

At Lyme/Old Lyme schools, Superintendent Ian Neviaser said, "We have not established a policy on these books. We currently have removed them from circulation as a part of our regular review of our collections to be sure we are portraying all people in an authentic light and trying to create a more balanced collection with different cultures represented."

"Seuss isn't the first author with incidents of stereotypes in children's books and considering that, we are hoping to continually assess and expand our collection of authentic literature that sheds light on stereotypes so that they can be identified as just that."

Changing history

Area authors of children's books and young adult fiction were reluctant to speak about the issue. Others, perhaps less immediately associated with the genre, did offer thoughts.

Rhonda Ward, the New London Poet Laureate, wrote in an email, "I think that there is a lot that can be learned from not only acknowledging past error, but using those errors to show where we've been, where we are, and where we're trying to get to. Erasing history is not an antidote to resolving sins of the past. While I admire the intent of taking the Seuss books out of circulation, I feel it would have been a great opportunity to start some of the tough conversations that need to be had in order for the United States to become 'a more perfect union.'"

Jessica Galán is the education features editor for Latino Stories, an online magazine/resource for the study of Latinx literature, books, authors and culture founded by Coast Guard Academy professor Jose B. Gonzalez of Quaker Hill. She says that, as an educator and a mother of three small children, she feels Dr. Seuss has written many invaluable books for children.

"I don't think people should buy or read — or not read — Seuss books because it's suddenly topical or hip to do so, and I don't know whether the estate made this decision because it doesn't want to get hit with the times," said Galán, who is also a teacher in Hartford County. "I think some of his books should be read because they're classics for a reason and they'll always be classics."

"But it's also important to look through the critical lens of people of all colors and backgrounds, and to emphasize social justice. Does banning books solve that? No. As a person of color, I was offended by Confederate statues, but if you take them down, that's changing history," she said. "Move the books or the statues to another area where parents have access and bring their perspective to the situation. That way, we can bring new conversation to the table that respects all colors."

Similarly, Ward said, "Knee-jerk reactions such as (the Dr. Seuss Enterprises decision) hinder the process of acknowledgment of, acceptance of, and reconciliation for the wrongs of the past. It strikes me that some feel it is easier to simply remove the stain without acknowledging that it ever existed."

Libraries, bookstores and schools ultimately will make their respective decisions. But many say instead of removing books, increasing diversity in the arts is an overdue and valuable development.

"We have in our collection — and constantly review new books — from all over the world," Gupta said. "There are so many cultures and ideas and we value that." She credits a staff that includes Korean, Indian, Hispanic, white and African American members for "proudly representing all colors and beliefs," and says the available material on the shelves reflects that diversity.

History has never been consistent about who has been allowed to write, or what gets published and, ultimately, what works get banned or stay. The criteria for all this changes with the times.

"Culture is inevitably a gatekeeper of literary production," said Margaret Sönser Breen, a New London resident and professor of English and Women's Gender, and Sexuality Studies at the University of Connecticut at Storrs. "When well-known books that we treasured as a child are no longer readily available, we might experience this shift as a loss — a loss that resides, at least in part, on the invocation of a 'we' never necessarily fully considered or regarded."

"Who is included and whom would we want included in that group? The expansion of 'we' so that it reflects, in the words of Dr. Seuss Enterprises, a commitment to 'serve all children and families with messages of hope, inspiration, inclusion and friendship' is undoubtedly a good thing," she said. "Yet, attending any such awareness is the unsettling realization that even books well-loved for generations are not as capacious in their welcome of a community of readers — particularly young readers — as we might have thought or hoped."

r.koster@theday.com

Beyond Dr. Seuss

The Day reached out to get some recommendations on new and old children's books that represent diversity of authorship and subject matter.

Madhu Bajaj Gupta, director of the Public Library of New London, consulted with her staff and suggested:

"Sulwe" by actress Lupita Nyong'o — The story, about a young girl who wishes for her dark skin to be lighter, focuses on colorism and learning to love oneself.

"The Day You Begin" by National Book Award winner Jacqueline Woodson and two-time Pura Belpré Illustrator Award winner Rafael López — A story that embraces the idea that every child is unique and can find the courage to connect despite feeling lonely or frightened.

"Harbor Me" by Jacqueline Woodson — The author of "Brown Girl Dreaming" captures the magic that can happen when a group of students meet weekly to share their stories with no adults listening in.

"Round is a Mooncake" by Roseanne Thong — A conceptual tale in which a young Asian girl uses the geometric shapes in her neighborhood as objects of discovery, both Asian and universal.

"Eyes that Kiss in the Corners" by Joanna Ho and Dung Ho — A picture book about learning to love and celebrate Asian-shaped eyes through associations with parents, grandparents and ancestry.

"Your Name is a Song" by Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow — Sad that her name is mispronounced in school, a young girl takes comfort when her mom teaches her about the musicality of African, Asian, Black American, Latinx and Middle Eastern names on a walk through the city.

From Kelsy April, general manager at Bank Square Books in Mystic with her comments:

"Another" by Christian Robinson — "Good for folks who like whimsical illustration."

Any title by Oge Mora — "More good whimsical illustration."

Any title by Jesse Sima — "Super fun read-a-loud stories."

"Imagine a Wolf" by Lucky Platt — "A book about imagination."

Anything by Josh Funk and any title by Chris Van Dusen — "Both authors have good rhyming and write silly, imaginative books; they're white males but are good alternatives to Seuss."

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