By: guest contributor Carole Soden
The recent questions about racist etc. problems with Dr. Seuss books could not have come at a better time for me. I just finished an article in the Christian Science Monitor by Harry Bruinius entitled “In #MeToo age, can we love the art but deplore the artist?” The author discusses something that many of us have been wondering, namely, whether socially condemned behavior can discredit a person’s artistic vision.
Lately, I have been very interested that we seem to be all for banned books, but we actually practice selective banning by removing books that are not politically correct in today’s world without an attempt to use them in any way. I feel this is sort of a “throw the baby out with the bathwater” approach. (Disclaimer – not all books can be saved)
Some of the criticisms leveled at Seuss include the fact that 98% of his books were dominated by white males, or that many of his “foreign” characters display typical stereotypes. This is absolutely true but looking back in time when I first started teaching in 1967 this was true of most books. I know because I took home books and altered hair, skin etc. color and had a artist friend help me with various eye types so my class books would reflect the diversity of my students. (At that time, red haired characters and strong, adventurous girls were still rare, and The Snowy Day published in 1962 with the first black main character was still pretty much a stand alone sensation)
I think that students (even the very young) can have discussions regarding these problems in historical context. For example, it is well known that Seuss created anti-Japanese war posters. At the time in which he did this, Americans did not know who would win the war, Pearl Harbor had occurred and the general sentiment was very much against the Japanese. What a wonderful opportunity to point out to students how unfair this was, and how it was based on our unsettled and fearful sense, and to ask for possible solutions they might have so this won’t ever happen again.
I tell students my own story about how I once formed a prejudice against Russia and the Russians after working in Afghan schools and seeing the horrible things which happened to these children during the Russian invasion. (Watching children pick shrapnel pieces out of their limbs, and having children without arms or legs in my class contributed greatly to this.) This is what prejudice is – a preconceived opinion which is not based on reason, and this is why we fight against prejudice.
I still read Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn with my middle school students and these books provoke a lot of valuable discussion. I have taught these books in classes that are ethnically mixed and I give students the historical background for them and allow them to decide how they will address some of the themes and the use of the “N” word. I want my students to be aware of the evil things that happened in history and to figure out ways to stop them from happening ever again. They also need to know Mark Twain’s place as an author and what he added to American novels in general. Students are always impressed by the fact that Huck chooses Hell over reporting Jim, and by the understanding of how strong the belief in hellfire and damnation was during that period.
I love the way Dr. Seuss imaginatively pulls students to think out of the box and to use their imaginations to go “on beyond zebra.” My students love Dr. Seuss and I am happy to keep his books, and still point out some of the stereotypes and problems with them. I’ve had students perform undated plays of these books for our younger students, and I’d love to see an Art student or two reimagine the art in the books to reflect our new values. I also enjoy adding newer books to our Read Across America Program. I fully understand why some libraries feel more comfortable not using Dr. Seuss books but I feel there is also another approach. I’m not trying to start a controversy but simply show other ways to deal with a real problem.
Carole Soden accidentally fell into teaching when she accompanied a friend to an inner city tutoring job at the Pruitt–Igoe Housing Development in St. Louis, Missouri and saw how much the students craved being read to and how much they responded to books. She went right back to my college and added “Education” to her major. She started teaching in 1967 and has never wanted to do anything else. After she married, she spent many years teaching in International or local schools in countries such as Afghanistan, Lesotho, Ethiopia, the Philippines, Pakistan and the island of St. Kitts in the Caribbean. She’s taught almost every grade from preschool to University, and soon discovered that her forte was teaching reading and literature. While she’s dedicated to having students learn from books, foremost in her mind is helping them to love reading and books, and she’ll do that in any creative way that she can. Along the way, she started collecting foreign books, received a Masters in Library Science from Portland University and filled her own library with thousands of children’s books. Now, semi-retired, she’s still passionately helping with projects and finding books to interest her students, authors to inspire them and simply sharing the ideas and joy that come from reading.