Classic books are full of problems. Why can’t we table them?

This week, millions of students and teachers participate in Read across America, a national literacy program celebrated annually around the birthday of Theodor Geisel, better known as Dr Seuss. For more than twenty years, teachers and students donned costumes – often the iconic red and white striped hat of the Cat in a Hat – and devoured books like Green Eggs and Ham.

But some of the Seuss classics have come under fire for the way they portray people of color. In And to think that I saw him on Mulberry Street, for example, a character described as Chinese has two lines for his eyes, wears chopsticks and a bowl of rice, and wears traditional Japanese-style shoes. In If I ran the zoo, two men believed to be from Africa are depicted shirtless, without shoes and wearing grass skirts while carrying an exotic animal. Outside of his books, the author’s personal legacy has also been called into question – Seuss wrote quite a minstrel show in college and played the lead role in noir.

In light of this, the National Education Association renamed Read Across America in 2017, get away from the books of Seuss and Seuss-themed activities. They introduced a new theme of “celebrating a nation of diverse readers”. Their site now strong points works by and about people of color.

But in many schools and libraries, the week is still all about Seuss. Classrooms are decorated with colorful gold and blue fish, and children dress up as their favorite iconic characters, like Thing 1 and Thing 2, dreaming of the places they will go.

This tension between the Seuss and non-Seuss classes is emblematic of a larger debate unfolding across the country: should we continue to teach classic books that can be problematic, or avoid them in favor of works that represent more positively people of color?

Part of the reason this debate is so complicated is because of the resistance of classic books. Think about the works that line the shelves in your school. In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the word N occurs more than 200 times. But for generations people have argued that the book is vital to understanding race relations in America in the late 1800s. And the trope of greedy, money-hungry Jews is pretty clear in The merchant of Venice. Yet Shakespeare is hailed for his deep understanding of human nature which continues to be relevant today.

Jaya Saxena, a writer whose work examines inclusiveness in young adult literature, is in favor of an overhaul of the canon. But she understands why teachers could continue to teach her. She says when she was in high school her teachers used the classics to teach literary devices and writing styles, not necessarily to prioritize certain narratives or worldviews. The merchant of Venice, for example, is a prime example of allegory.

“The point was, this is what this book does well,” Saxena said. “Maybe these weren’t everyone’s favorite books, but they were good examples of … the art of writing.”

And when planning lessons from year to year, it’s easier for teachers to prioritize books they already know. But when these books contain offensive stereotypes, teachers must decide whether and how to continue teaching them.

“Not engaging [with problematic texts] At all, there is too great a risk of not learning or not understanding where the problems lie, ”says Larissa Pahomov, who teaches English at a high school in Philadelphia. “I think there is a way of looking at material that is stereotypical [and] racist and identify it for what it is, and then hopefully in so doing neutralize its effect. “

When Pahomov read Flight over a cuckoo’s nest with her elders last fall, she took care to teach students how to read the work through a critical lens that took into account the author’s background. In class discussions, she made sure to emphasize this context to her students as they reviewed the work.

“What resources did he draw from to write this book and this character? What was the reaction of Native Americans to this particular book? What has been the reaction of the psychiatric treatment community? women? There were so many angles to discuss it, ”she says.

Pahomov notes that because his students are teenagers, having these conversations is possible. But books intended for the youngest? These discussions can get much more complicated.

Which brings us back to Dr. Seuss.

In a study published earlier this month in the Journal of Diversity in Children’s Literature, researchers Katie Ishizuka and Ramon Stephens found that only two percent of the human characters in Seuss’ books were people of color. And all of these characters, they say, have been “portrayed through racist caricatures”.

These cartoons have a powerful effect even at an early age. To research shows that even at the age of three, children begin to form racial prejudices, and by the age of seven these prejudices become fixed.

“One of the reasons is the images and experiences they are exposed to regarding marginalized groups and people of color,” says Stephens. “And so [Seuss’ books] being mainstream and being spread around the world has big implications. “

If children open books and “the pictures they see [of themselves] are distorted, negative [or] laughable, they learn a powerful lesson about how they are devalued in the society in which they are a part, ”wrote Rudine Sims Bishop, specialist in children’s literature, in a item.

But when they see themselves portrayed in a positive way, it can have an equally powerful effect.

This is one of the reasons why first-grade teacher Emily Petersen says she won’t be reading Dr. Seuss with her students this week, if ever.

“If I look at a 6 year old and choose which story [I’m] I’m going to teach them to read, I’m definitely going to choose the one that affirms and celebrates identities in a new way, “she says.

For other teachers who wish to help students assert their identity, the NEA offers grants and resources to help schools focus literary works by and on people of color.

But the forces that have kept Dr Seuss on the shelf for decades are strong. Often, schools plan their Read Across America events months in advance. Costumes, books and activities from previous years are ready to go. It can be difficult for teachers to deviate from these plans, especially when they have celebrated the same way year after year. And with over 650 million of his books circulating around the world, just like his infamous cat, it looks like Dr. Seuss will keep coming back.

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About Marcia G. Hussain

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