Discriminatory Children’s Books: What Do We Do With Them? - Thee Sim Ling
Dr. Seuss, or Theodore Seuss Geisel, has been considered a reading icon all over the world for decades. However, it was recently announced that six Dr. Seuss books will be pulled off the shelves. These books 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.
A study published in 2019 named “The Cat is Out of the Bag: Orientalism, AntiBlackness, and White Supremacy in Dr Seuss’s Children’s Books” came to the alarming conclusion that racist narratives and imagery in the books aimed at children in kindergarten and elementary school formed racial bias in impressionable youth. Researchers looked at how people of color were portrayed in Dr. Seuss's books, if they were even portrayed at all. In all 50 books published by Dr. Seuss, only 2% of human characters were people of color. And all of these people of color, it is impossible to ignore that all of them were male. Girls and women of colour, as well as those who identify as nonbinary or other genders, were practically non-existent in the Dr. Seuss universe. Even for the 45 characters of colour that were featured, they were always cast in dehumanized and racist ways. For example, in And To Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, Dr Seuss wrote about a “Chinaman” who ate with “sticks”. Even though Geisel later changed it to a “Chinese man”, as well as removing some offensive elements, the stereotypical clothing and chopsticks in the accompanying illustration still perpetuated racism.
Geisel has not been the only beloved author who has been “canceled”. Other authors who have faced criticism for their unsettling beliefs have included Roald Dahl for his anti-Semitism, Enid Blyton for her portrayal of Black people and C.S. Lewis for his description of darker-skinned people. Indeed, as a Gen Z reader, I have noticed many instances of subtle discrimination in the books I read, even from my favourite authors. I have picked up on the colonialism found in how Willy Wonka brought back the Oompa-Loompas from Africa in Charlie and The Chocolate Factory. I have also seen many examples of racism, sexism, ableism, classism and more in the books of Agatha Christie.
Sadly, I am sure that even you, dear reader, have come across insensitive and offensive stereotypes in the books you read. In the face of this, we must ask ourselves this question: should we remove books that are harmful to marginalized groups from our shelves?
Many readers think yes. For example, Alice Randall wrote about the backlash a school faced when they voted to remove To Kill A Mockingbird from their eighth-grade reading list. Even though the famed book has helped start thoughtful discussions around racism and justice that are very important in this day and age, is it really a book that can be taught in the classroom? The whole novel centers around a Black man being charged for the rape of a white woman. The lies of Mayella Ewell about Tom Robinson are far deeper than a simple conflict of good versus evil.
Throughout the novel, there are no Black characters with actual agency stepping up to fight for their rights. Tom Robinson’s plight unconsciously tells Black children that they are unlikely to be treated fairly in the courts, and the other Black characters in the novel are scarcely developed. This novel also contrasts the Me Too era that we now live in — believing sexual assault victims instead of writing off their accusations as deceit. The novel also touches upon an ableist idea that since Tom Robinson is “crippled”, he could not have committed a crime — or have done anything else in life, for that matter. Granted, To Kill A Mockingbird has its literary value, but as Randall rightly points out, it’s not the only book out there that can spark discussions among teachers and students. Monster, a 1999 novel by award-winning Black author Walter Dean Myers also talks about a Black male being charged for a crime and defended by a white lawyer. However, the narrative focus is on the accused Steve Harmon, while still asking the same questions that Harper Lee asks in her book. Randall says, “Though it holds sentimental pride of place for so many as the first book they read about race and injustice, To Kill A Mockingbird is more than a book about race and injustice, and it is not the only book about race and injustice.”
Removing discriminatory children’s books is not as simple as waving a wand, though. Classic books become classics for a reason, and it is hard to change mindsets engraved in the adults that take care of children and youth. Teachers usually use books to teach writing techniques and concepts in the classroom, and in a busy school year, they find it easier to choose books that they are already familiar with.
There is also the fear that banning books just because of their discrimination is a form of censorship. Books have been written for centuries, meant to spread knowledge and enlighten humankind. One of those ways is educating readers about discrimination. Stereotypes, prejudice and hate crimes are ever-present in modern day society. For them to be absent in our books would be to pretend that they do not even exist in real life. Books are a way of expression and everyone should have the freedom to express themselves. Fatima Shaik tried to avoid exposing her kids to racist slurs, but when she started writing a historical novel about a young slave, she found she could not evade talking about the n-word. Literature from decades ago allows readers to better understand conflict and prejudice in the times they live in. “Our kids need our protection but also our honesty. So books that describe a racist society as a racist society are not bad. They are necessary.”
Scholar Philip Nel perhaps says it best. The author of the book Was the Cat in the Hat Black?: The Hidden Racism of Children’s Literature, and the Need for Diverse Books argues for people to keep reading books with problematic portrayals. “ I think that to erase the crime does not erase its effects. It’s still there and we still have to deal with it, and in some ways, the unvarnished awfulness of it, as painful as it is to look at, can be a way to do that, and can be a way to help make it visible elsewhere.”
How should we approach books that perpetuate discrimination and stereotypes? We should definitely not try to ban them or remove them from our shelves. We should read them carefully, as well as read other books written by marginalized authors which portray minority groups differently. We should ask ourselves questions on the stories we read and discuss them with our peers and adults we know. How would I feel if I was this character? Are there assumptions made about this character? Which character is in power, or is considered superior? Have I seen this character somewhere before? Why are all the characters from one particular group of people? What do you think of this? Reading is not just about passive absorption, it’s best enjoyed when we actively engage with the author’s words on the page which allow us to grow into the best we can be.