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Meena Harris: Pulling racist Dr. Seuss books makes kids’ literature better and more inclusive

By Meena Harris Special to the Washington Post

On March 2, Dr. Seuss Enterprises announced it would no longer be publishing six of Dr. Seuss’s books because, in the company’s words, they “portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong.”

I have two young daughters, and I’ve spent countless hours looking for books that would reflect their experiences and encourage their ambitions. As a new parent, I was surprised and frustrated by how hard it was to find those books. Often, I was forced to improvise on the fly – changing pronouns from “he” to “she” or “they,” and sometimes even resorting to coloring a White character’s skin with a brown marker. So I took this news as a small but significant milestone for the millions of other parents of color who have struggled with the same challenges I have.

But instead of sparking a public discussion about what the future of representation in children’s literature can and should look like, this decision has led to a tiresome dialogue about so-called “cancel culture.” Fox News dedicated much of its broadcast Tuesday to the claim that leftists were trying to erase Seuss’s entire legacy, connecting it to a broader paranoia on the right about the renaming of schools and tearing down of Confederate statues.

But “cancel culture” is a bad-faith distraction that had nothing to do with this decision. (“Go, Dog Whistle, Go!”) Dr. Seuss Enterprises, which owns the rights to his books and characters, worked with a panel of experts to hold itself accountable by acknowledging that the six titles it will cease publishing included racist imagery and stereotypes that have no place in today’s children’s literature.

It was not a referendum on whether Dr. Seuss was racist. It was not an attempt to make parents feel guilty for having “Green Eggs and Ham” on their bookshelves. It was simply a response to the urgent and unaddressed problem of racism and underrepresentation in the content we share with our kids. And that’s the conversation we should be having – not just about the Seuss books, but about children’s literature as a whole, which still has a long way to go.

Raising kids in a multicultural society requires ensuring that they don’t carry the same biases that we do. When you grow up in a world that has harmful messages and images that are constantly, and in many ways unconsciously, communicated through so many staples of our childhoods, it communicates an exclusionary message. It’s not just Seuss – we see these same issues come up again and again with beloved books and movies like “The Jungle Book,” “Babar,” “Curious George,” and much of the Disney canon.

So much effort is put into teaching adults to unlearn the deep-seated racism they picked up at a young age. Shouldn’t we be just as committed to making sure that the next generation of kids don’t learn those ideas in the first place? (“Oh, The Time You’ll Save!”)

Children’s books have a profound impact on young, developing minds. They are crucial to early vocabulary development, offer morals and lessons, and shape how children understand the world around them. At a very young age, children can begin to internalize harmful racial stereotypes based on the environment and media they’re exposed to, with a number of studies showing children as young as three can harbor racial bias.

But the problem isn’t just the presence of stereotypes in children’s literature. There’s also an absence of inclusion. According to the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s school of education, about half of new children’s books in 2018 centered White characters while about 1 in 4 focused on people of color.

The remaining quarter were about animals or other creatures, which means, yes, animals have about the same representation in children’s literature as children of color. That doesn’t just make kids of color feel left out – it could even hinder their ability to learn, with a University of Toronto study finding that children can more easily understand lessons from books featuring humans than animals.

It makes sense that giving children characters they can identify with would deepen their engagement with the story. So that’s why – even though I never imagined I would do it – I decided to write children’s books myself.

I wrote my first two books, “Kamala and Maya’s Big Idea” and “Ambitious Girl,” because I wanted my daughters to see themselves reflected in the books they read, the toys they play with, the content they watch. And when they look at those reflections, I don’t want them to see stereotypes or punchlines – I want them to see three-dimensional characters and heroes.

Inevitably, though, when I do read my daughters stories with representation that falls short, I encourage them to follow along with a critical eye. I ask questions about what’s missing: why don’t we know the women characters’ names? Why don’t they speak? Or even, where are they?

Improving representation and avoiding racism in children’s books shouldn’t be controversial. But for so long, children’s stories have represented, and been authored, by the dominant culture. So it makes sense that for those who are comfortable with the status quo, efforts to make children’s literature more inclusive can be seen as disruptive rather than necessary.

If you revere Dr. Seuss, why not let us continue to turn to him for moral inspiration on the things he got right? “The Sneetches” condemns discrimination. “Horton Hears a Who” promotes the value of unheard voices. “The Lorax” pleads for environmental protection, and “The Butter Battle Book” warns against nuclear brinkmanship. These messages have stood the test of time – and fighting for more inclusive children’s literature is directly in line with that vision.

Instead of focusing narrowly on Dr. Seuss and his place in the perpetual culture war, children’s literature has an opportunity to give more access to authors and illustrators of color. To diversify the gatekeepers and decision-makers in the publishing industry. To give a generation of kids who look like my daughters (and kids who don’t) a chance to learn from characters that reflect their experiences.

Ending the publication of children’s books that portray harmful stereotypes is just one part of the solution. The other is proactively telling new stories that are inclusive so that every child can see themselves as the protagonist in a story full of possibility.

Meena Harris is founder and CEO of the Phenomenal Woman Action Campaign and author of “Kamala and Maya’s Big Idea.”