It was just after the news broke about Dr. Seuss that I pulled my kids onto the living room couch for family read-aloud time. I decided that we were going to read Dr. Seuss’ “And to Think That I Saw it on Mulberry Street.” I cradled the book in my hands, feeling very much like I was palming explosive contraband.
The kids settled in on either side of me. My youngest, my sensitive 9-year-old son, snuggled close to my chest. My 15-year-old daughter raised her eyebrows as she looked down at my choice of books. She was aware of the announcement from the Dr. Seuss Foundation that it would be effectively “canceling” six of the author’s books due to their racist imagery.
“Sit down,” I said, patting the cushion beside me.
She did so wearily, crossing her arms. She was used to family nights where we would either play a board game, watch a movie or read a book, but she was apprehensive about this book.
“Don’t worry, I’ll explain,” I told her.
Finally, she melted and leaned her head against my shoulder. The gesture said, “I trust you, Mom.”
I started to read the book and every few pages I stopped so we could discuss what we were seeing.
“What’s this?” I asked them, pointing to a wildly stereotypical caricature of an Asian character.
“It’s racism,” my daughter quipped.
My son looked up at me, moony-eyed and confused.
“I don’t get it,” he said.
“Racism doesn’t disappear because we shut our eyes and pretend it doesn’t exist. We must arm our children with the tools to spot it ― and then fight it.”
The comment encouraged a conversation about harmful Asian stereotypes. We talked about misrepresentation, ethnocentrism and underrepresentation. After reading “And to Think That I Saw it on Mulberry Street,” we read Belle Yang’s book “Hannah is My Name,” a beautiful story about a young Taiwanese girl who immigrated to the United States. We examined the differences between the two stories ― the farcical treatment of the Asian characters in Seuss’ book versus the empowerment and voice given to Yang’s protagonist.
I explained that the latter comes from the fact that Yang herself is a Taiwanese woman and how this lends authenticity to her text that is sorely missing in Seuss’ books. Without this comparison, my children would have never known how a marginalized author’s voice can change the narrative and also help to subvert harmful stereotypes.
I believe as parents it is irresponsible to avoid children’s books that include racist ideology. Racism doesn’t disappear because we shut our eyes and pretend it doesn’t exist. We must arm our children with the tools to spot it ― and then fight it.
This is a hard truth I have had to grapple with as I silently watched each one of my childhood treasures receive the ax of condemnation. While I struggled with the pain of the denouncement of such books as “The Jungle Book,” “Peter Pan,” and ”The Little House on the Prairie,” I also found myself experiencing an awakening. I remember this moment vividly. I remember running to my desk and sitting down to write a list of my favorite childhood books. As my list grew longer, I noticed a pattern: There was an absence of any characters that looked or spoke like me.
To be honest, there is an impenetrable wave of whiteness that engulfs these novels and a simultaneous silencing of othered voices. Because of this, when I was in high school, it wasn’t strange to me when “To Kill a Mockingbird”’s Atticus Finch swooped in to save the downtrodden Tom. It was what was normal to me. All of my literary heroes were white, and the people of color in books were woefully one-dimensional and easily forgettable cardboard figures.
Later on, I didn’t bat an eyelash while reading about Huckleberry Finn sliding down the Mississippi River with his dehumanized Black companion Jim. To me, reading these books confirmed an essential truth about myself that I had been taught and then resigned myself to: I was Black, and I would never be the hero.
Now, as a mom and an educator, I look at these books with a discerning eye. When I read the books with my children, we immediately discuss the book’s time period, the author’s intent and the harmful depictions of marginalized people. For my students, the majority of whom are white, I find it equally important to apply these same concepts.
“I remember running to my desk and sitting down to write a list of my favorite childhood books. As my list grew longer, I noticed a pattern: There was an absence of any characters that looked or spoke like me.”
Huckleberry Finn, a staple in our 11th grade English curriculum, has been on the banned book list for many years, but I contend that this is an important text to teach. Although Twain uses the n-word 219 times in Huckleberry Finn, there is a method to the madness. Removing the word desensitizes the horrific nature of the time period. It delegitimizes Jim’s struggle. Removing the book from the curriculum altogether serves as an erasure of history. It doesn’t just erase Mark Twain’s words, it erases Jim ― the echo of the lived experience of so many American slaves.
Instead, I believe it’s better to give students the tools to dissect and critically explore these types of books in order to ensure a healthy discourse. Furthermore, it is important to realize these texts are not vehicles of complete evil and that we can’t just throw the baby out with the bathwater. It is more nuanced than that. After all, there is a reason Jim, an uneducated slave, is the pinnacle of morality in the Huck Finn text.
It is for these very reasons I will never stand for canceling books. It is antithetical to learning and growth. We must remember that the world does not simply exist in shades of black and white. We thrive and excel in areas of gray. We cannot eliminate the past. We must read these racist books and we must learn from them. We must have tough conversations with our children about when and why they were written. It helps prepare them for the world at large. We can’t hide from these talks or from calling out racism wherever we see it. But we must go further and discuss the whys and hows if we want to bring about real understanding and real change. We must be brave and face these challenges head-on.
So, while I won’t throw out my childhood copies of “Babar” and “The Little Princess,” I will gleefully fill my bookshelves with the barrage of inclusive children’s books that have recently flooded the market. Thanks to such initiatives as #ownvoices and We Need Diverse Books, my children and my students can meet culturally diverse characters who defy the stereotypes of those earlier novels.
Thankfully, unlike me, they are growing up in an era where they can discover and engage with characters that look and feel like they do and, most incredibly, they can be the hero of their own stories.
Nashae Jones is a writer and an educator who lives in Virginia with her husband, daughter, and son. She is signed with Madeleine Milburn Literary Agency and she is currently working on her debut children’s novel. You can find her on Twitter at @jones_nashae.