Are Books You Read To Your Children Controversial?
Dr Seuss Enterprises, late this winter, ceased publication of six titles due to images that may be considered racist. Closing publication on those books opens the door to questions, including what libraries are doing with these particular titles; and, on a broader look at content that may be perceived as questionable in children’s books, what are parents to do when they come across material they question? What are some good alternatives for parents looking to broaden their children’s perspectives?
“On the issue of Dr Seuss Enterprises ceasing publication of six titles with hurtful and wrong portrayals of people — the Intellectual Freedom Committee (IFC) of the Connecticut Library Association has no opinion, as it is not an issue of censorship,” according to a statement from the association.
“Likewise, the appearance of censorship by a library that chooses to remove the six titles from their collection is a misrepresentation of the routine and ordinary process of collection development, collection maintenance, and weeding,” the statement continues.
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 are the Dr Seuss books no longer being published.
Weeding is something libraries do to control quantity and relevance of materials, often removing such materials as cookbooks and health-related materials that quickly become outdated, according to C.H. Booth Library Director Douglas Lord.
The Connecticut Library Association statement includes a recommendation for libraries to weed books that reflect racial and gender bias, and to consider moving classics that may be used by children’s literature classes to the adult 800s.
Lord explains that “the Dewey Decimal System 800s are, loosely, ‘Literature and Rhetoric’ which would include the history of literature.”
Lord said that if a library is large enough or has a special emphasis on that area, it could consider keeping them. C.H. Booth Library owns each of the Dr Seuss titles in question except for The Cat’s Quizzer, and Lord said they have been removed from shelves. What will happen with the books remains unknown, Lord said.
“A small, popular-materials public library such as the C.H. Booth has neither the space nor the higher-education emphasis that a major university library does. Over 10,000 books are published every year in the USA alone, and we put out about 600 new things per month. So we run out of space pretty quickly and make these ‘space’ decisions every day. A grocery store can’t keep all the cans of tuna, either,” Lord said.
“These titles are not widely considered classics amongst Dr Seuss’s oeuvre; even if they were, our collection does not lean heavily into curricular support, so it still wouldn’t make sense to move the six books into the 800s,” Lord said.
“Simply put, the books contain imagery that is, at best, not objective nor accurate; and at worst it is harmful. We tend to weed such items in other areas — for example, outdated medical information. As children are among, if not our most vulnerable and impressionable population, we must remain mindful of the impact such materials can have,” Lord added.
Alana Bennison, children’s librarian at C.H. Booth Library said, “Not every book is appropriate for every child. It is the parent or guardian’s job to determine what is appropriate for their child. That’s why it is so important that children have the opportunity to discuss both the text and illustrations found in picture books with a caring adult. The books that the Seuss foundation have ceased to publish have some illustrations that many find offensive. If a patron chooses to read one of those titles to their child, they should be aware of the stereotypical illustrations and be ready to discuss them.”
Bennison said some children’s books stand the test of time and become classics. “They stay in print, enjoyed by multiple generations — think Goodnight Moon or Charlotte’s Web. In my opinion, one of the reasons there is such a heated discussion surrounding those titles in question is the emotional attachment so many people have to Dr Seuss books. Many of us learned to read using his books. Seuss was one of the first children’s authors to highlight rhyming text. A key pre-reading skill is being able to replicate rhyming words — that’s why we sing nursery rhymes with very young children,” Bennison said.
Theodore Geisel, who used the pen name Dr Seuss, “was a product of his generation and personal experiences; his values and his art evolved over time. Later in life he expressed regret about some of his early illustrations. That said, his body of work is large and there are many worthwhile titles to share with children,” Bennison added.
“Libraries are collections that have been acquired over decades. We weed or remove books all of the time based on several criteria: content, condition, popularity. For example, the children’s department has over 40,000 items. New titles are added as less popular, worn out or dated materials are removed. We try very hard to keep our nonfiction titles up to date. Scientific information changes frequently as new discoveries are made, et cetera. Well-loved books often go out of print and can’t be replaced even though they were popular with children,” Bennison said.
She added, “Publishers only reprint titles that they are pretty sure will keep selling or, in the case of libraries, that children will continue to borrow. Even the most iconic and popular authors have books that are no longer in print. Sometimes a series is given a new cover or released in a graphic format because the content is still interesting to children (Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys, Goosebumps, Baby Sitter’s Club, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Boxcar Children, to name a few). Sometimes a book really is judged by its cover. Will Captain Underpants and Diary of a Wimpy Kid still be popular in 50 years? I have no way of knowing. Will children still be reading Harry Potter in 2070? I hope quality story writing remains available for future generations. Fantasy and historical fiction has a better chance of surviving; realistic fiction can be tricky.”
It is not only up to parents to decide what to eliminate from their home libraries, but also their decision as to what to add.
Newtown’s Kristen Provost Switzer and her spouse, Scott, have fostered seven children and currently have three children — two pre-adoptive and one biological — all under the age of four. Provost Switzer said that hers is a multiracial, multicultural family, and they read a variety of books such as Anitracist Baby, A Is For Activist, and An ABC of Equality.
“Hearing your 2-year-old say, ‘D is for democracy’ — there’s no better feeling,” Provost Switzer said.
Provost Switzer said she belongs to parenting groups and hears about books that she believes are important to building her children’s perspective.
“It’s really opened our minds up to all the other books we can introduce to our family,” she said.
The family has also been turned on to books from the Little Feminist series and Nursery Rhymes For Social Good, as well as LGBTQ titles, and those about Native American values.
Provost Switzer said a children’s library should include materials from as many marginalized voices as possible.
Although nontraditional children’s books make up a good portion of the family library, Provost Switzer said her children love Dr Seuss books, The Little Engine That Could, The Little Red Hen, and others.
Provost Switzer said her children also love Peter Rabbit. She considers the book to be a bit too violent, but allows her children to enjoy the book.
‘Let Them Go’
Alice Hutchinson, owner of Byrd’s Books in Bethel, said the store did not carry those six Seuss books no longer being published.
“In our case, there’s no decision to make here,” said Hutchinson, adding that the books are lesser-known Seuss books that are difficult to find.
These books “were not reflecting our current sensibility and sensitivity,” Hutchinson said.
“They weren’t selling well and they have questionable content, so it was time to let them go,” said Hutchinson, adding that there are plenty of other children’s books, including Dr Seuss titles, that are appropriate for children.
“He was a wonderful author, he was very child-focused,” Hutchinson said. “We love Dr Seuss.”
Pia Ledina, owner of the Turning The Page bookstore in Monroe, is a former school librarian in Newtown, who said of the Dr Seuss books, “I understand how difficult it can be to separate nostalgia about loving his books ‘when we were young’ from the idea that these titles are no longer being published because the publishing house has decided they are no longer appropriate to print, given today’s understanding that they are hurtful.”
Ledina added, “It is important, though, to understand that this is very different than when a book is banned — this was a business decision made by a corporation. Books that are beloved go in and out of print all the time, and librarians across the country have every intention of ensuring that these books will still be available for reading and discussion.”
“If we as parents or individuals come across something in a book that we feel is inappropriate or hurtful, we always have the choice to just stop reading it. We can even share our opinions with others, but we cannot and should not force our personal views about a book on others or require that it be taken off the shelves, because the very book that we feel is inappropriate might be a book that someone else truly needs to read,” Ledina added.
“I am not saying that everyone should read racist books. I am saying that we all have the right to read whatever we want to read,” Ledina said.