On September 26, Liz Phipps Soeiro, school librarian at the Cambridgeport Elementary School in upscale Cambridge, Mass., wrote a “thank-you” letter to First Lady Melania Trump for a gift of ten Dr. Seuss books Melania had made to the school in honor of Read a Book Day. The letter would make Miss Manners blanch.
It begins with a classic example of passive aggressiveness: “[M]y school doesn’t have a NEED for these books. And then there’s the matter of the books themselves. You may not be aware of this, but Dr. Seuss is a bit of a cliché, a tired and worn ambassador for children’s literature,” Soeiro wrote. This was followed by some heavy-handed sarcasm: “Sent second-day air, no less! That must have been expensive.” And then there was the sheer ingratitude, coupled with a little political dig at Melania Trump’s presidential husband and his Cabinet choices: “Why not go out of your way to gift books to underfunded and underprivileged communities that continue to be marginalized and maligned by policies put in place by Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos?”
Soeiro must have been wool-gathering when her mother told her that the polite way to handle a gift you don’t want is to write a gracious note to the sender (it’s the thought that counts, remember?) and then quietly hand off the gift to someone else who might appreciate it, throw it into the trash, or whatever. It’s your property to dispose of in any way you like.
Readers of the much-publicized “Dear Mrs. Trump” letter were quick to call out Soeiro for her self-righteous boorishness, and also to dig up a photo of Soeiro dressed up as Dr. Seuss’s most famous cartoon-animal creation, the Cat in the Hat, for a school celebration of Dr. Seuss’s birthday only two years ago. Photos of former First Lady Michelle Obama reading Dr. Seuss to children just a few years ago also surfaced. In 2015, Michelle Obama’s presidential husband—whose politics were probably more to Soeiro’s liking—told schoolchildren in Washington, D.C., that he was “still a big Dr. Seuss fan.”
But Soeiro’s school-textbook lesson in rudeness (the Cambridge school district later made it clear that she actually had no authority to accept or reject the books) was not the most disturbing part of the story. What was the most disturbing was the high speed at which Theodor Seuss Geisel (1904-1991), author of the just-yesterday-beloved children’s classics, has been consigned to the dustbin of political incorrectness. In her “Dear Mrs. Trump” letter, Soeiro wrote: “Dr. Seuss’s illustrations are steeped in racist propaganda, caricatures, and harmful stereotypes.” This despite the fact that Geisel was a lifelong liberal Democrat who subtly worked progressive lessons such as anti-consumerism and concern for the environment into his entertaining favorites. His 1961 book, The Sneetches and Other Stories, was all about racial equality (the “star-bellied” versus the “plain-bellied” Sneetches).
But in 2016, Katie Ishizuka, cousin of Kathy Ishizuka, editor of School Library Journal, wrote a lengthy blog post calling attention to the anti-Japanese cartoons, deemed offensive by today’s standards, that Geisel, at the behest of Franklin D. Roosevelt, had crafted as part of World War II propaganda. Then, just this past August, Philip Nel, an English professor at Kansas State University, published a book, Was the Cat in the Hat Black? The Hidden Racism of Children’s Books and the Need for Diverse Books, arguing that the beloved Cat’s striped high hat and white gloves had “roots in blackface minstrelsy.” A few weeks later, on September 17, San Francisco commentator Grace Hwang Lynch wrote an article for School Library Journal, “Is the Cat in the Hat Racist? Read Across America Shifts Away from Dr. Seuss and Toward Diverse Books.” Liz Phipps Soeiro’s letter to Melania Trump denouncing Geisel’s “racist propaganda” followed exactly nine days later. She must have burned that Cat in the Hat costume of hers in a hurry.
Even more depressing than Dr. Seuss’s overnight demotion among school librarians are the dreary-sounding “diverse” children’s books with which they plan to replace the good doctor’s oeuvre. Soeiro appended to her letter a list of ten picture books that she said dealt with such themes as “children who are trying to connect with parents who are incarcerated simply because of their immigration status” and “children who challenge society’s social constraints and are accepted and loved as who they say they are,” And indeed the descriptions of the books sound as overtly didactic as Soeiro describes them: Edwige Danticat’s Mama’s Nightingale: A Story of Immigration and Separation deals with a little girl feeling sad because her illegal-immigrant mother is behind bars. The Boy and the Bindi is about a Hindu boy’s venture into cross-dressing by adopting “the forehead dot usually exclusive to Hindu women. Duncan Tonatiuh’s Separate But Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez & Her Family’s Fight for Desegregation is about just that. Beth Lo’s Auntie Yang’s Great Soybean Picnic is about…soybeans.
Furthermore, Soeiro’s list is all-too-typical of the dismal-sounding “diverse” literature that school librarians and book publishers are pushing onto children these days. The Hornbook, the children’s literature website where Soeiro published her letter, is replete with enthusiastic write-ups of books devoted to such subjects as women in computing, a Puerto Rican boy who thinks he can’t play Spider-Man, and more illegal immigration. The New York Public Library’s list of recommended books for kids features tales of women in computing (again), dealing with death, and enslaved blacks.
One of Dr. Seuss’s mottos was: “Kids can see a moral coming from a mile off.” He tailored his books accordingly, clothing his morals with gentle fun. I’m going to miss him now that he’s been banished—and so, I think, will a lot of kids.
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