I applaud the Seuss Foundation for taking a stance on several books that are culturally insensitive. It was brave for the foundation’s leaders to acknowledge that some books penned by our beloved Dr. Seuss perpetuate stereotypes. They are books that have been engrained in our homes and educational system for decades.
Recently, I moderated a session for a conference. During the session, Dr. Wayne Wiegand discussed his book, “American Public School Librarianship: A History.” His text had a passage about books that were demoralizing to some children. I feel that the humiliated children would have benefited if their teachers recognized their pain and pointed out the discrepancies in the book to rectify misconceptions.
As we talked about history, I dared to say something shocking. I explained that the censored Dr. Suess books could be used as teaching materials. However, my comments must be placed within context to understand my reasoning. There is a difference between leaving them as freely accessible materials on the shelves and securing them to use selectively for teaching purposes.
Throughout the session, I mentioned that I would use the books for discussions centered around compare and contrast activities. “This is an accurate cultural representation, and this is not.” Children need to know what shades of discord look like and how to counteract them.
Middle and high school students can cope with seeing appropriate comparisons of cultural representations that are explained and placed in context. They also can benefit from completing exercises that expose both explicit and implicit biases. Lessons that encourage them to conduct research and inform their classmates about divergent perspectives can strengthen their analytical skills and prepare them for college.
I understand the viewpoint that supports removing the books and never revisiting them. School librarians make difficult decisions about their collections every day. Indeed, I am not just limiting my thoughts to racial issues. Resources curated by librarians can bring awareness to many “isms” that cause division in society.
As I looked at the Zoom room pictures and chatbox while talking, I saw one person who replaced his picture with a screenshot that said, “We are one family.” I appreciated the picture. At that moment, I found the picture strangely soothing and authentic.
Should we ignore the hurt that our family members are experiencing because it makes us uncomfortable? We need to understand how to recognize, support, and appreciate each other. In a perfect world, we would begin by politely acknowledging the struggles that each of us has faced.
Understandably, what you can do in your school will depend on your comfort level and the environment in which you work. We are highly trained professionals who can find ways to share materials the embrace our unique qualities. I leave with this quote from George Santayana to remind us why it is crucial to share diverse materials and use them to teach within context. “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
Author: Daniella Smith
Daniella Smith, PhD. is a former school and public librarian. She is currently the Hazel Harvey Peace Professor in Children’s Library Services at the University of North Texas.