This past week Dr. Seuss’ estate made the decision, in part, at least in response to public pressure, to remove six of their titles from further publication. The reasoning was fairly straight forward. While the legendary children’s author has a catalog that features books on the insanity of nuclear war (The Butter Battle Book), environmental justice (The Lorax) and the moral necessity of standing up for the vulnerable in material ways (Horton Hears a Who), there are a handful of books that contain troubling and, yes, racist, imagery.
For example, If I Ran a Zoo contains a young man’s desire to capture and cage a dark-skinned chieftain. That this was common practice around 50 years before the writing of this book should be troubling.
And the fact that this book, along with others in the discontinued line, contain dehuamanizing imagery of Asian people naturally brings parents and educators who are paying attention angst. Add to this point the exponential rise in attacks on Asian-Americans in our current moment.
Now, I am not a professional educator. I am not a civil liberties lawyer, nor am I particularly convinced that children should receive the blatantly racist messages of bygone eras to protect a dead author’s work. When the book burning commences I suppose I shall have to admit I was wrong. But til then, I can share what I do know.
What I am is a theologian, a leftist, and, most relevantly to this conversation, a stay at home dad. At this point in my life, I read an absurd amount of children’s books to my girls (ages 2 and 5 as of this writing). And so I do have a particular lens, even when I am reading to my children (which is roughly 5,629,340 hours per week).
And so I can help! You recently lost six books out of your library, you say? Here are six to replace them:
We Are Water Protectors
The Caldecott Medal winner for 2020 (I always start with Caldecott books in my library searches), is about the indigenous resistance to pipeline construction. Images of a “black snake” that carries harmful oil through indigenous lands, the bravery of the people and their love for the earth make this a winner. Not to mention that the courageous narrator is a girl and the art is stunning. “Take courage! | I must keep the black snake away | From my village’s water. | I must rally my people together.”
Just try and read this one without wanting to join hands with Standing Rock resisters and first nations activists all over North America!
This is my two-year-old’s favorite book. It’s about an outcast father and his son who save their village from a hungry giant by singing and playing the ukulele. This is a whimsical tale with some really fun art. Pete Seeger wrote the book, though it’s an old folk story and there’s a clip on Reading Rainbow that features Seeger and LeVar Burton having fun with it.
Did I mention my two-year-old loves this one? She loved the library copy so much I had to replace it after she tore out pages to carry around the house with her. And I was all too happy to oblige.
Last Stop on Market Street
This is one my wife Peggy picked out and it’s a wonderful book. It won the Coretta Scott King Award in 2016 and for good reason. The story follows a little boy and his grandmother on a city bus on a Sunday afternoon. As they pass through their city they get to know all the fun and interesting people on the bus. Their final destination? A soup kitchen to serve their community. Honestly, I think this is a better message to send to my kids than capturing and caging humans, but what do I know?
Also, this book makes me a bit wistful to once again live in a city blessed by adequate public transportation. And, really it makes me think about how our dependence on fossil fuels is largely a collective choice that could be replaced with better choices.
Beware of the Frog
Ok, so the most remarkable theme of Dr. Seuss’ books is his imagination and whimsy. This book has all the absurdity you would otherwise be missing. The plot is essentially that a killer frog is guarding a little old lady at the edge of a dark wood. After saving her multiple times, she gives him a kiss, then turns into a frog herself. This makes the male frog happy but results in her turning around and eating him. In other words, it’s silly and it’s genius.
It also teaches valuable lessons. Imagine learning as a little girl that you have your own agency whether you’re a boy or a girl?
Another of Peggy’s picks. The story focuses on the first day of school for a little girl in a wheelchair. She has the hardest time fitting in and tries all sorts of tricks to make a friend. The book is frank about the difficulties of fitting in and it’s so inviting for kids with “normal bodies” to embrace difference among themselves and their peers.
“I’m not crying, you’re crying,” I say to the stuffed animals each time I read this one.
The Cat Man of Aleppo
Another Caledcott book, this is a true story of a man named Mohammad Alaa Aljaleel who runs a rescue shelter for animals in war-torn Syria. This one…wow. There’s nothing quite like explaining the insanity of civil war that becomes a proxy war engaged in on a bipartisan basis by your own government to a 5-year-old. This book has started some really important conversations in my house (“What is war, dad?”) and focuses on compassion, on doing what you can do in a tragic situation, and caring for the victims of violence.
This would be an excellent pairing with the aforementioned Butter Battle Book, in other words!
Instead of spending the next several weeks distracting us with sitting senators insincerely reading Green Eggs and Ham while they have actual work to do, check out these books from your local library. They’re quite good. And there are scores of great children’s books that don’t depict folks in dehuamanizing terms, instead choosing to open up future generations to do improve our world in ways we could only imagine today.