Most parents I know love reading to their children. They like the ritual or the quality time or just the rare parenting experience of knowing what you are “supposed” to do. Most parents can’t screw up “bedtime story”: pick book, read book, collect “good parent” points, the end.
But I hate reading to my children. There are lots of reasons (Where the Wild Things Are loses some of its magical luster around the 79th reading). But mainly it’s because I find the messaging and morals laced into most children’s content to be trash. Actually, the kid in the Where the Wild Things Are is a colonizer who shows up in a land he doesn’t understand and bluffs his way to the throne. The kid in The Giving Tree is an ungrateful, privileged punk, and the tree is a doormat that never stands up for itself. Thomas the Train Engine is the story of a jackboot paymaster who spends all his time telling sentient beings that they can never be more than what they were designed to be. Winnie-the-Pooh is a mediocrity; Piglet is a coward; Eeyore is suffering from clinical depression and needs drugs; while Tigger does too many drugs and needs to respect personal boundaries—and none of it is OK.
And don’t even get me started on the racism, sexism, anti-Semitism—or often all three at the same time—inherent in many children’s books. Or the relentless, crushing “straightness.” I had serious “discussions” with my children, warning them that if they ever pulled some Peter Rabbit shenanigans, they’d likely be shot to death by the police. And while my kids think they “love” Curious George, they actually love the stories I made up to go along with the pictures, because there was no way I was reading them uncut stories about the colonizer in the yellow hat and his monkey-child.
If it were up to me, I’d make Drew Daywalt (The Day the Crayons Quit) and Mo Willems (Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus) rewrite all white children’s literature. They get it.
Every parent of color I know (and most of the white ones I’m willing to associate with) have encountered the terrible moment of flipping a page in a children’s book (especially a “classic”) and seeing an image or some text that you simply cannot transmit to your children. It comes seemingly out of nowhere, in a book you think you remember or from an author you thought you could trust. It’s, frankly, scary: like you’ve just uncovered a dead body and have nanoseconds to cover it back up before the kids see and are scarred for life.
The first time it happened to me, I was reading from a compilation of Dr. Seuss books and was in the middle of If I Ran the Zoo. The book is about a white kid (of course) who goes around the world collecting animals, and I hit a page with an Asian caricature that looked like it was lifted from a WWII anti-Japanese propaganda leaflet. I reflexively closed the book and told my then-3-year-old that I saw a “spider.” When I opened it back up, I turned to a completely random page in another story and gaslit him into thinking I was picking up from where I left off. (I didn’t get to the panel where the kid goes to “Africa” until after I put the kid to bed.)
Yesterday, Dr. Seuss Enterprises, the company responsible for the legacy of the late Theodore Seuss Geisel, announced that it would no longer publish If I Ran The Zoo, along with five other stories, because “these books portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong.” The company said that it wants to ensure that the Seuss catalog “represents and supports all communities and families.”
Predictably, the conservative media has reacted to the news as another episode in the “cancel culture” wars. The perpetually outraged Ben Shapiro tweeted: “We’ve now got foundations book burning the authors to whom they are dedicated. Well done, everyone.”
It makes sense to me that the people least willing to learn are the ones most concerned about preserving racism in literature. If conservatives were in it for the ideas and not just the racism, they’d be hailing the decision by Seuss Enterprises as an example of “the marketplace of ideas” at work. People have rejected these books with their wallets, which is what Republicans generally tell us is the only thing that matters. Nobody actually reads If I Ran the Zoo or And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street (one of the six stricken books, in its case for its stereotyped depictions of Asians). They’re not on anybody’s top-10 Seuss books or part of anybody’s cherished memories. People only get these books as gifts (usually from people who haven’t actually read them) or as part of compilations the publisher included to upsell the stories that people actually want to buy.
Removing them from the catalogue allows Seuss Enterprises to focus on the books people actually like, and the ones that provide something of value beyond “I’ve drawn racist caricatures of like 10 different ethnicities and made up words to make it rhyme. YOLO.”
Seuss was not racist all the time. Not every story is trash. Some of them are downright righteous. The Lorax is a pro-environment, anti-capitalist manifesto that seems particularly relevant as we raise a generation that will need to battle global climate change. Yertle the Turtle is about saying truth to power and rejecting arbitrary authoritarian will; it’s a story Republicans should read before their next CPAC coronation. And there probably isn’t a parent alive who hasn’t at least tried to expand the palette of their little picky eaters by reciting Green Eggs and Ham.
Many will also note that The Cat in the Hat has not been decommissioned by Seuss Enterprises. The Cat in the Hat is very popular, and profitable, and largely benign, but is also, you know, kind of about a cat walking around in blackface performing a minstrel show. It’s problematic. But it’s also problematic in a way that’s over the heads of nearly all children. At least he’s not a captured-from-somewhere-in-Africa monkey.
Rejecting some Seuss books, while contextualizing others, and preserving the good ones is not “cancel culture,” it’s the other thing Republicans don’t like: nuance. There shouldn’t be any problem at all with the people who profit off of Dr. Seuss’s legacy deciding that some aspects of his legacy are bad (and could hurt their profits!) and trying to move forward in a world that rejects stereotypes and racist caricatures in children’s books.
But I can’t explain that to people like Ben Shapiro, or to most conservatives, because they’re not interested in the marketplace of ideas. They’re not interested in nuance or social evolution. What they want is for racism to be OK. They want it to be OK for them to be racist or for their children to be racist to my children. Most of all, they want it to be okay to ignore racism and their own contributions to white supremacy as they go about their daily lives. They do not want to not think about the racism they’re imprinting just by reading a stupid bedtime story.
Trust me, I see where those conservatives are coming from. I too would like to put my brain on autopilot while I read my kids a bedtime story. But I can’t. Every new page is a potential land mine of bad messages, white-supremacist ideations, or outright racism. Even stories I pre-read or know well can turn into critical conversations if my kids ask a question (as they are encouraged to do) that reveals some underlying layer of white cultural bullcrap I’ve failed to notice. Why isn’t Charlie Black in the Chocolate Factory, as Dahl originally wrote him until his agent told him to change it? Why didn’t any Black children win a ticket? It’s not “fun,” at the end of a long day, to have to choose which disappointment to transmit to your children. Do you go with “Black kids just didn’t win any tickets this time”? Or “The author didn’t include any Black people in his made-up fantasy, sorry”?
I bet white parents think the slavery of the Oompa Loompas (who were Pygmy Africans in the draft) is the racial pitfall in that book. Please. Black parents can explain slavery tropes in the time it takes to tuck the children in. It’s the “why can’t Black people win anything” questions that will keep you up at night.
White parents, even the ones who get overt racism when it is drawn for them, don’t have to deal with their kids questioning their own exclusion from the stories that are read to them. White parents can pick and choose if and when to have “conversations” about race; they don’t just pop out while trying to get through a few pages of Jack and the Beanstalk. Oh, I get why conservatives don’t like reexamining classic literature. Exams are hard and stressful, especially when you don’t know the right answers.
As I said, I don’t like reading to my kids. But I do it anyway. I appreciate Seuss Enterprises making that difficult, stressful, critical job a little less randomly frightening.
Now if only we could get J.K. Rowling to be less of a Once-ler.