Tackling Racism in Children's Books: Conversations in Seussland

In Was the Cat in the Hat Black?, author Philip Nel examines the racist illustrations present in a number of Dr. Seuss’s works, and points out racism present in other children’s classics. Many of these books are on our shelves.

For more context about the impetus for this post, read this first

When reading to young children we all want to share loving, happy, warm stories that make them feel good. It is all too often we wish to share a little piece of our childhood with them without taking time to consider the work from a constructive standpoint. We have many such “classics” in our history. Dr. Seuss’ early work deserves a second look before sharing with your child. Titles such as If I Ran the Zoo and And To Think That I Saw it on Mulberry Street are great examples of how our nostalgia filters may impede our ability to remember every aspect of a work.

I would like to share my experience of reading titles such as these with my child. It was a lot more surprising than I expected it to be. I have read tons of books to my kids, and often I try to screen them first for content. When it comes to classics remembered from childhood, I, like most parents, am eager to share them with my children. But my recent experience has me seriously needing to pause and reread and reconsider. Not only did the work itself and what I missed as a child make me think, but my young five-year-old daughter made me consider a lot of things as well. I thought about what I am teaching her. I thought about the long-term effects that consistently showing her racist imagery may have. Most of all I thought of the effect that could have on the masses.

In my home, being socially conscious of racism and having deep conversations about race is important for a multitude of reasons. One reason is that I am black, my husband is white, and our children are biracial. Having children of more than one race can really put into perspective the importance of sharing, teaching about, and discussing different races and cultures. We strive to make sure they are informed, understanding, tolerant, and aware of actions that happen out of ignorance. (When I say ignorance I am referring to a lack of knowledge about something.)

Dr. Seuss admitted that some of his earlier works were created from a place of ignorance, so we started with And To Think That I Saw it on Mulberry Street.

Most of us may remember this book as one about a boy who liked to tell tall tales. Other than teaching our kids about lying, this book seems harmless, right? Well, let’s just take a look at some of the imagery. This my friends, and some of the text, is where we encounter the true issues. As my husband and I sat reading to our daughter, we came across a page that I curiously awaited her reaction to.

an illustration from And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street, "A Chinese man eating with sticks"

 

“A Chinese man who eats with sticks” the text read, and depicted a very stereotypical image of a young Asian man with a dǒulì on his head, geta on his feet, wearing a Kāṣāya, and holding a bowl of rice and two exaggerated chopsticks. There was also a stereotypical Middle Eastern man depicted. This is a great opportunity for conversation on these images, I thought to myself as I placed a hand on my husband’s shoulder to get him to pause his reading.

Me: “Do you think all Chinese people eat with sticks?”
Anja: “Yeah.”
Me: “Well some use spoons and forks like we do, and those “sticks” have a name. Do you know what they are called?”
Anja: “Yes...well um, no.”
Me: “They are called chopsticks. There is a long tradition of using them for meals in China.”
Anja: “I know how to use chopsticks! Keep reading Daddy!”

OK, so maybe this was not the in-depth conversation I was hoping to have with my daughter about this. There is still time for me to bring up and figure out how to have a more meaningful conversation with her about it, however. I felt that I had gone about it the wrong way initially. So for our second book, If I Ran the Zoo, I took a different approach. I waited a day to give her time to be fresh for going at this conversation again. As she gets dressed for school, I try again.

Me: “Anja do you know what race is?”
Anja: “Yes.”
Me: “What is it?"
Anja: “You run and you have to win it.”
Me: “Well, yes that is one type of race, but I am talking about another type, with people.”
Anja: “Oh yeah! There are obstacles you have to jump then you win it.”

Anja gives me an innocent smile and continues to put her shoes on. OK, I think, This is going to be a little harder than I thought. As I contemplated how to approach my guileless, fun-loving child with a harsh subject like race without shattering her precious little face it hit me: this doesn't have to be a bad thing. This is an opportunity for both of us to learn something. It will teach me, a young black mother of two young biracial children—one Neurotypical and the other Autistic—how to approach hard and sometimes nasty topics with them in a way that is more educational than traumatizing. It will teach them...well, hopefully something.

After a hard day’s work and a 2-hour drive I arrive home to my little bundles and excitedly tell them, “We are going to read a story!” They exclaim their “yays” and hop in their chairs with anticipation as my husband looks at me skeptically. I only clued him in to some of what was going on because I wanted honest reactions from the entire family. We begin our saga with reading If I Ran the Zoo by Dr. Seuss.

This book was longer than my child-mind remembered and boy did it have some things to shock my memory. We turn to a page that depicts three men—intended to be of Asian descent—walking in a line with an animal cage atop their heads. “Those guys are China!” my excited 5-year-old daughter yells. “Yeah China!”, her 4-year-old autistic brother mimics.

illustration from If I Ran the Zoo - Asiatic caricatures balancing an animal cage on their heads

Cue my momentary parental panic: I’ve raised an intolerant child, and an intolerant mimic.

Ok mama, remember this is a teaching moment, I told myself. Here is how that teaching moment went.

Me: “What makes you think they are from China dear?”
Anja: looks at me with obviousness. “Their shoes.”
Me: “What about their shoes?”
Anja: “They are wearing kung fu shoes!”

As she makes a dramatic martial arts gesture I search my mind for what to say next. I know at this point what I say will matter because it will have great effect whether she realizes it or not.

Me: “OK so maybe some people in China wear shoes like these, but have you ever seen a Chinese person that really looks like this?”
Anja: “No.”
Me: “Is it fair that they have to carry the animal cage on their heads while McGrew gets to ride on top?”
Anja: “Yes...well no. It’s not fair.”

I see that my daughter is starting to make connections in the image that she hadn’t before. I see her little mind working around the complexity of adult thought, and she looks very displeased. We continue to read and come across a page with a man sitting atop an animal similar looking to a camel.

illustration from If I Ran the Zoo - caricature of a man wearing a turban, riding a camel-like animal

Once again, my little one had the spark in her eye and something to say.

Me: “Where do you think he is from?”
Anja: “He’s from the big desert place.”
Me: “How do you know that?”
Anja: “He rides a camel, and he looks like that evil guy from the movie with the princess in the desert.”
Me: “Aladdin?”
Anja: “Yeah that’s the one! Princess Jasmine!”

Ok, now we are getting somewhere, I think.

Me: “What do you think about McGrew saying he would put the man in a zoo? Do people belong in zoos?”
Anja: “Yes. Well they visit them and look at the animals. The man should visit the zoo.”
Me: “Do people belong in cages?”
Anja: “No! Why would people be in cages?”
Me: “They shouldn’t be.”

The realization that his animal had been stolen from him had not hit her. She knew, though, that McGrew had some misguided intent. I did feel proud that she so matter-of-factly told me that people visit zoos and are not a part of them. We have progressed from the first scene of the Asiatic characters having kung fu shoes to this character—possibly a Middle Eastern representation—not belonging in a zoo. Maybe I am teaching her something that is good, I mused.

The next page, with imagery I was very much not looking forward to going over, comes up. This page depicts two (what I will refer to as) natives, balancing a strange long-necked animal on a beam. The characters are drawn very dark, and are wearing what looks to be some sort of grass skirt—the skirt being the only clothing these characters have on.

illustration from If I Ran the Zoo - two caricatures balancing a bird between them on on a stick

Naturally, their opposable thumbs must mean they are human and I must ask my daughter the question.

Me: “What do you think of these guys?”
Anja: “Those aren’t guys, those are monkeys.”

Cue my heart jumping into my throat then dropping to my stomach.

Me: “What if I told you they are supposed to be people? They are supposed to represent someone that is black or from Africa. Do you think there are people that look like that?”
Anja: “No way.”
Me: “Do you think mommy looks like that?”
Anja: “No.”

She also disagreed with the Russian character. His lips were too big, and his beard was weird for her. At this point she seemed to be done with mommy’s questions about the people in this book, and Dr. Seuss's inability to draw them.

illustration from If I Ran the Zoo - caricature in fur hat with wild beard, carrying a bird

While I would say I still have questions for her, and things I would like for her to consider, these conversations were a step in the right direction and therefore, a success.

Whether or not you choose to share classic books such as these with the children in your life, we encourage you to have open conversations with them on the topic of race. It’s important; there is a wealth of research in support of that fact. In the absence of conversations on the topic, children can come to problematic and factually inaccurate conclusions. Here is a guide to talking with young children about race, from the Association for Library Service to Children, a division of American Library Association.

This post was written by Katia Montal, a staff member at NPL who worked on our Tackling Racism in Children's Books project, and has since left to pursue new opportunities.

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