Censorship and Inclusiveness in Children’s Literature Part 1: Who gets to say what is O.K.?

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Provided by the American Library Association. Do they pick now?

Recently, Dr. Seuss Enterprises, the company that manages the late author’s publications, of Dr. Seuss’ books have announced that six of his books are being taken out of publication because of their racist overtones. In other words, the owners of the copyrights have opted to take the books out of publication. I suppose other options might be to just leave them and ignore the complaints about them or to alter them.

This announcement comes on top of the recent movement the National Education Association (NEA) has made to separate Dr. Seuss’s birthday, March 2, from “Read Across America” Day, which is a campaign designed to encourage reading.

Just for clarity, we are talking about 6 books out of the more than 60 that Dr. Seuss wrote, and most of them are not among his most well known books. The only one you might recognize is his first, And to Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street.

The Real Reason We Need Less Seuss in Schools

Now I’m going to stop right here and make a lot of people annoyed by saying that I’ve always felt that Dr. Seuss is overrated. As far as I’m concerned, his best contribution is creating the first trade books for beginning readers that are designed to be fun and engaging. I kind of like The Cat in the Hat, just kind of, but that’s it.

I like his books for little kids, but there are many others that I like too.

I’m very annoyed by how much schools make of Dr. Seuss because, as an educator, I would prefer to see schools put their resources into introducing kids to all the great authors that they don’t already know about. The fact is, most little kids know about Dr. Seuss because their parents do. If nothing else, they watch How the Grinch Stole Christmas and anyway, Dr. Seuss is no longer just an author, it is a major corporation and merchandising company.

Why do the schools advertise Dr. Seuss for free?

There are so many great authors out there who produce work that is just as high quality, if not higher, and may appeal to children, who, like me, don’t care for Dr. Seuss all that much.

If kids don’t get exposed to a range of great authors, they may start to think there is nothing for them and get turned off to reading.

In short, I’m glad the NEA has taken Dr. Seuss out of “Read Across America” day, but for reasons that have nothing to do with theirs.

I have concerns about theirs.

How Censorship Masquerades as Inclusiveness

I am concerned about the way that children’s authors are increasingly coming under fire for any attitude that slightly digresses from the message of inclusivity that educators and librarians, or at least their professional organizations, want to promote.

To be clear, I am totally in favor of inclusiveness. But I despise censorship, and I am worried about the direction in which these organizations are heading.

Courtesy of the American Library Association. Infographic showing the relative reasons that books were censored in 2019. When books or media are removed from libraries for any of these reasons, that means we, as readers, lose our ability to make informed decisions about what we read and what is ok for our kids.

I’m also concerned because it seems to me that children’s authors are being held under a microscope in a way that we would never consider doing with authors who write for adults. This is a double standard that is particularly disturbing because children’s literature is a field in which women have historically been more access than they have to general literature.

Many works of literature go out of print because they become obsolete and are no longer relevant except for historical study, and one of the reasons they can do so is because there is little or nothing of literary merit that overrides the negative aspects of the work. For example, you rarely, if ever, see the story “Little Black Sambo” in print anymore, at least not in its original form, because there is nothing in particular in it that overcomes its racist and patronizing point of view.

So if the works have no redeeming merit, such as the books that Dr. Seuss’s publishers have taken out of print, that’s fine. But let’s think carefully before we start erasing our literary past, including literature for children, in the name of “inclusiveness.” Doing that is nothing but a lie.

Children are not dumb. They know a lie when they see one. And they can handle the concept that people do good things, sometimes very good things, and the same people do bad things. They do that sometimes because they are a product of their times, and no one knew better. They do that sometimes because they are human, just like we all are. It’s ok to agree about some things and not others.

Kids can get that, and in fact, feel reassured by it. They know that they want to be good but sometimes are bad. They also worry that they won’t be loved if they have anything bad in them.

I think another thing to do is to get away from the “hero worship” that we inflict on kids. The best way to teach them inclusivity is to teach them about lots of different people and things, and take the time to examine and discuss the good and bad aspects of both.

The American Library Association (ALA) is being particularly schizophrenic about their approach to this issue. Traditionally, the ALA, which is the professional organization for librarians, is opposed to censorship and sponsors “Banned Book Week” each fall.

The ALA is not affiliated with the NEA, but if you look at the annual banned book lists that the ALA produces, you will see that many of the books that have been “banned” or “censored” are intended for children and young adults. The books get on the list when libraries or library patrons request that the books get removed from the shelves, and this usually doesn’t happen with books meant for adults.

But in 2017, the same organization who decries the suppression of certain children’s and young adult books in libraries removed Laura Ingalls Wilder’s name from what is now called the Children’s Literature Legacy award because of the racism in her books. I am annoyed and offended by her name, a prominent female writer’s, being stricken from use for this reason.

So on the one hand, they denounce censorship, but on the other, they censor the work of an author that had the nerve to use her own family, ramshackle and sketchy as they sometimes were, to show what life on the frontier was like. Conflicts and mixed feelings about native Americans were a part of that as were a lack of understanding about other races.

In other words, her work is honest.

There is also an award for Young Children’s Literature, named the Geisel Award after Dr. Seuss. If they stripped Wilder’s name from a medal, I hope they also remove Geisel’s, but of course, that leaves us with the question: where does it end?

I would suggest that they remove the names from all the awards. I guarantee you that if we start analyzing the work of Randolph Caldecott, for whom the more famous Caldecott Medal for children’s picture book illustrations, or the life of bookseller John Newbery, for whom the overall award for Children’s Literature, the Newbery Medal, is named, we would be sure to find some of the same problems.

We separate authors of literature for adults from their work, and we do the same with artists. Let’s be consistent with artists who create primarily for children, and do the children the honor of being honest with them.

They need to know about the world they live in if they are going to make it better.

To Understand more about censorship, try this great quiz from Book Riot!: Is it Censorship? Watch out for the trick question!

Courtesy of the American Library Association. This infographic shows where censorship happens. Remember that public libraries include the children’s collections.

More in This Series:

Part 3: Dr. Seuss’ Racist Imagery

Part 2: Laura Ingalls Wilder and the American Library Association

If you want to know what your library is up against: The Most Frequently Banned Books of 2019

Share your thoughts! We want to hear your perspective and most definitely your reading recommendations!