The Night They Burned “The Cat in the Hat”

book burning

Found at Blunderbuss Magazine

The older couple held hands and cried at the book burning party. Like everyone else in town, they were compelled by government edict to attend and witness the “liberating” event. Only State approved books were allowed in schools anymore. The State had been collecting those publications deemed “racist,” “sexist,” and every other forbidden “ist” on their list and storing them in a warehouse near the town square just for this occasion.

Fortunately, children under six were exempt from attending, so their grandkids were spared this atrocity, being cared for at home by their son.

“How did the world come to this, Jeannie? I thought book burning went out with the Nazis.”

“There are always Nazis, Mike. They’re just called by different names.”

“What a terrible world we live in.”

“At least they’re not kicking down our front door and confiscating our library.”

“That’s true, darling. But we have to keep reminding the little ones not to tell their teachers what we read to them at home.”

“Do you think it will ever get better, Mike?”

“As long as we teach Jimmy and Autumn to grow up as critical thinkers, to trust themselves and those who love them rather than the State, then yes, it will. Someday they’ll be running the nation and then it won’t be the State anymore. It’ll be a free country again.”

“We won’t live to see it, will we?”

“Probably not, Jeannie, but our grandchildren will. Our hope for the future is in them.

I haven’t gotten blatantly political on this blog in quite some time, but I read a series of stories in social media this morning that bothered me, and when I’m bothered, I process my thoughts and emotions by writing (some authors have told me they are “blocked” when they become upset which just astounds me).

It all started with a story I found on Facebook published by a conservative news agency. I had to fact check it since news organizations that lean either one direction or the other politically and socially aren’t always totally trustworthy. I found the story published by a number of venues including the Washington Post and it’s called ‘Racist propaganda’: Librarian rejects Melania Trump’s gift of Dr. Seuss books.

You can click on the link I provided above to read the story, but basically, it tells the tale of First Lady Melania Trump donating some books to what I gather to be a rather posh public school in Cambridge, Massachusetts on the occasion of National Read a Book Day. Apparently, the school’s librarian Liz Phipps Soerio took exception to some of the donated books, specifically those penned by Dr. Seuss (Theodor Seuss Geisel). You can read Ms. Phipps Soerio’s letter to the First Lady at The Horn Book blog.

I’m 63 years old and in all those decades, I never, ever imagined that the “cat” in The Cat in the Hat was supposed to represent a white man in blackface.

I regularly read Seuss’s There’s a Wocket in My Pocket to my 27-month-old granddaughter and I can’t see anything amiss about it. Green Eggs and Ham and One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish were among my children’s favorites when they were young (although since my wife and kids are Jewish, we read the former book as “Green Eggs and Lamb”).

In her letter to the First Lady, Phipps Soerio references an article published at the School Library Journal website called Is the Cat in the Hat Racist? Read Across America Shifts Away From Dr. Seuss and Toward Diverse Books written by Grace Hwang Lynch, citing an analysis of Seuss’s works by Katie Ishizuka.

Even after reading all this, I still can’t see it, but I guess I could be accused of lacking perspective.

dr seuss

Dr. Seuss (Theodor Geisel) and some of his beloved characters.

Yes, I’m aware of how during World War Two especially, American propaganda campaigns depicted Germans and Japanese in a very unflattering light, and yes, historically in film, art, and literature, people of color were horribly stereotyped. However, is this enough to ban (or burn as I have fictionally illustrated above) Dr. Seuss books forever?

I did find a rebuttal piece to Ms. Hwang Lynch’s article (and Ms. Ishizuka’s analysis) as a link in the comments section of Ms. Hwang Lynch’s missive called Can We Forgive Dr. Seuss? published at Fresh Writing, which hosts a series of essays produced by first year students at the University of Notre Dame.

The short answer to that question is “yes.” The essay’s author, Kelly Smith, ended her piece with this:

“His views towards the Japanese took a complete turn towards the end of the war, and he focused his energy towards to enlightening the public to his new way of thinking. Through his educational films and allegorical apology of ‘Horton Hears a Who!’, he became the Dr. Seuss generations have come to love. When we celebrate Dr. Seuss, we don’t just celebrate a cat sporting a hat, dubious eggs and ham, or a grouch who hated Christmas. When we celebrate Dr. Seuss, we celebrate Theodor Geisel, a man who had flaws, but who also had the understanding and courage to change his views to better himself, and perhaps even better the world.”

Geisel was a human being who originally adopted the attitudes of the era in which he grew up, but he also was capable of changing and improving himself. Simply rejecting or banning his books prevents us as a people from learning from his journey, much in the way that destroying statues prevents us from learning our own history as a nation.

Ms. Phipps Soeiro in her online letter also included a link to a list of ten books she recommended to Ms. Trump as more acceptable alternatives. I haven’t read any of them so I can’t render an opinion, but on the surface, they seem like they’d be fine and appear to be more positive representations of people of color.

All that said, I have an ongoing concern that the American public education system is shifting away from actually educating children (as in reading, writing, and arithmetic) and more toward social indoctrination. No, I’m not speaking against people being treated fairly with kindness and respect, but ultimately parents have the responsibility to instill their children with their values and morals, which may or may not precisely line up with public education in general and the values of Ms. Phipps Soerio in particular.

Oh, I did find the First Lady’s rebuttal to Ms. Phipps Soerio’s commentary at Fox News (yes, I know…I tend not to read them very much, but to be fair, I sample news sources from across the vast political and social spectrum in an attempt to stay informed) rather illuminating.

It was illuminating mainly because it included a photo of former First Lady Michelle Obama (I added it below) reading a Dr. Seuss book to a group of school age children in the East Room of the White House accompanied by actors dressed as “The Cat in the Hat” and “Thing 1” and “Thing 2”. Most of the kids were wearing “Cat in the Hat” hats (which looks adorable).

If people like Ms. Phipps Soeiro choose to reject a gift of books because of their personal social and political beliefs, they are free to do that (although it’s my understanding that her actions were not authorized by her employer), however as a people and a nation we must remain free to choose what forms of art and entertainment we access, which includes what we read to our children.

You may think my fictional story about a time in the near future when book burning will be a legal requirement to be ludicrous, but any totalitarian society seeks to control what information can be accessed by its population. George Orwell’s novel 1984, which apparently is still quite popular, is one of the best fictional examples of this, along with Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (although Bradbury’s concern was more about how he saw television dumbing down America…I’m glad he didn’t live to see the smartphone completing the job).

My final point is all this is happening during Banned Books Week (September 24-30, 2017) which is stunningly ironic. You can find out more about our right to read at BannedBooksWeek.org.

obama reading

First lady Michelle Obama, with Dr. Seuss characters the Cat in the Hat, Thing 1, and Thing 2, reads to local students as part of her “Let’s Move, Let’s Read!” initiative, Wednesday, Jan. 21, 2015, in the East Room of the White House in Washington. The book, Dr. Seuss’s “Oh, The Things You Can Do That Are Good for You: All About Staying Healthy,” has been updated with the help of the Partnership for a Healthier America and includes healthy foods and exercises. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin) (AP)

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21 thoughts on “The Night They Burned “The Cat in the Hat”

    • Greetings, Bo.

      I wrote my short story and essay not so much as a rant but as a reasonable rebuttal to the points brought up by the sources I’ve cited. In this case, I don’t think the librarian in question is the sole custodian of the moral high road. I also wrote the wee piece of flash fiction to illustrate that, if the world were completely run by the Progressive Left, it might not be the utopia that some people imagine. Any idea or philosophy, taken to the extreme, results in totalitarianism. That’s why we need a balanced government and society. No one faction should possess too much power.

      Also, I really do like the books of Dr. Seuss and will continue to read them to my granddaughter. I may even buy a new copy of “The Cat in the Hat.”

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  1. I noticed that the librarian in question has retreated from social media. Both her twitter and Facebook accounts have been disabled. Actually, I don’t blame her. I’m sure she was quite unprepared for the massive public backlash to her comments on the Horn Book blog.

    I did find a news story about Ms. Phipps Soeiro showing photos of her dressed as “The Cat in the Hat” from 2015, the same year Michelle Obama was reading a Dr. Seuss book to students at the White House and also the same year that Barack Obama said that Seuss was still one of his favorite authors.

    Here’s a link to the article: http://www.masslive.com/news/index.ssf/2017/09/dr-seuss-is-racist_librarian_d.html

    I have to assume either that her attitudes toward Seuss have “evolved” in the past couple of years or she was reacting more to the gift giver, in this case current First Lady Melania Trump, than to the gift itself. That’s an assumption of course, but how else do you resolve the dissonance between these photos of her from two years ago and her comments of a few days ago?

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  2. Burning The Lorax — movies, books, trees — billboards, family values, and phonics.

    https://thinkprogress.org/the-lorax-speaks-for-the-trees-get-over-it-conservatives-a37d6a2c471e/
    ……

    Talk about shoe-horning a children’s book masterpiece into your narrow world view. The book was written in 1971[*]–40 years ago [this article from a few years ago], quite some time before this right-wing stereotype of environmentalists took over.

    Dr. Seuss’s point isn’t that the Lorax is impotent — the point is that it’s up to us to stop unsustainable industries: “UNLESS someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”

    ……

    https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2017/09/20/they-said-melania-trump-was-the-face-of-success-she-made-them-take-down-billboards-with-her-face/?tid=a_inl&utm_term=.4bd247d90c05
    ……

    “Just imagine how far you can go with a little bit of English”

    The Slovenian-born former model was chosen because she was “the most recognized emigrant to the U.S. …”

    ……

    https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/arts-and-entertainment/wp/2017/09/28/donald-trump-was-proud-of-his-1990-playboy-cover-hugh-hefner-not-so-much/?utm_term=.139f3655559e&tid=a_inl
    The racy Playboy magazine cover featuring the circa-1990 version of Donald Trump graced the billionaire’s New York office for years — right next to awards from religious groups and clippings from other magazines that didn’t feature naked pictorials.

    The cover and the extensive interview inside the March 1990 edition were a feather in Trump’s cap, placing him in elite company with other political and entertainment luminaries spotlighted by the magazine.

    In the famous Playboy cover photo, Trump is wearing tuxedo pants, a cummerbund and a bow tie.

    But Playmate Brandi Brandt has donned his jacket — and nothing else.

    “I was one of the few men in the history of Playboy to be on the cover,” he boasted to a Washington Post reporter taking a tour of his office during the 2016 presidential campaign.

    Trump embraced the association: During his bid for the presidency, he was known to autograph copies of the magazine, offering a quick scrawl during campaign stops.

    He continued his relationship with Playboy …

    ……
    (Which included his own featuring in a pornographic video.)
    [But he falsely accused a Hispanic woman of being in a porn flick.]
    {I hope I don’t have to point out, the right has been outraged with Playboy, etc.}

    https://www.netmums.com/coffeehouse/children-parenting-190/primary-school-age-4-11-years60/1311690-phonics-vs-sight-reading-l-s-all.html
    Both when I was growing up and when I was teaching my children, phonics were considered the conservative or right way (or “right” way) to teach reading. Parents of children learning according to a phonics program/curricula were not (NOT) to present their children with Dr. Seuss. And one of the criticisms against “look and say” — and Seuss — was that liberals, commies, the left or wrong, don’t want our kids to be literate. I went to a Nazarene school for my first and second grades, where there was a “Christian flag” next to the American.

    * I was learning to read years before 1971,
    and being steeped in conservatism.

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  3. This was linked to from the Washington Post article you shared, James. (Note the NEA is regularly demonized as “the left” and the epitome of what not to do, like the Obamas, by the right.):
    http://www.nea.org/grants/read-across-background.html
    Background on Read Across America
    What is NEA’s Read Across America?

    NEA’s Read Across America is an annual reading motivation and awareness program that calls for every child in every community to celebrate reading on March 2, the birthday of beloved children’s author Dr. Seuss.

    NEA’s Read Across America also provides NEA members, parents, caregivers, and children the resources and activities they need to keep reading on the calendar 365 days a year.

    In cities and towns across the nation, teachers, teenagers, librarians, politicians, actors, athletes, parents, grandparents, and others develop NEA’s Read Across America activities to bring reading excitement to children of all ages. Governors, mayors, and other elected officials recognize the role reading plays in their communities with proclamations and floor statements. Athletes and actors issue reading challenges to young readers. And teachers and principals seem to be more than happy to dye their hair green or be duct-taped to a wall if it boosts their students’ reading.

    The Beginning

    In May 1997, a small reading task force at NEA came up with a big idea. “Let’s create a day to celebrate reading,” the group decided. “We hold pep rallies to get kids excited about football. We assemble to remember that Character Counts. Why don’t we do something to get kids excited about reading? We’ll call it ‘NEA’s Read Across America’ and we’ll celebrate it on Dr. Seuss’s birthday.” And so was born on March 2, 1998, the largest celebration of reading this country has ever seen.

    The Purpose of Read Across America

    Motivating children to read is an important factor in student achievement and creating lifelong successful readers. Research has shown that children who are motivated and spend more time reading do better in school.

    Read Across America Sponsors

    At the national level, the National Education Association sponsors and spearheads the program with support from more than 50 national nonprofit and association partners. Locally, everyone-from schools to libraries to community centers to churches to hospitals to bookstores-is invited to host local events to celebrate and promote children’s reading.

    Read Across America Partners

    In addition to the 3.2 million elementary and secondary teachers, higher education faculty, education support professionals, school administrators, retired educators, and students preparing to become teachers who make up NEA membership, some 50 national organizations and associations give their support.

    Get Involved!

    Contact your local school, NEA local association, library, bookstore, or local chapter of NEA’s Read Across America partner organizations about events that are taking place in your community. Explore this Web site fully for information, ideas, and resources.

    Begin Planning Now!

    NEA’s Read Across America Resource materials offer numerous opportunites for involvement in children’s reading throughout the year. The only thing you need to do is plan how, where, and when you will read to a child or teen in your life – everyday. Don’t forget to join the Read Across America Fan page and Cause page on Facebook and check out the Read Across America Channel on Schooltube.com for videos.

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    • Hi Marleen,
      First of all, my wee bit of flash fiction plus the accompanying essay isn’t in support of the Trump Presidency, so I’m setting aside the criticisms against the POTUS and First Lady (although if her image was used without her permission, she had every right to ask that it be removed from billboards…just as any celebrity how they’d feel).
      The issue, and I’ve included all this in my original write up, is the stereotyping and maligning of one of the world’s most loved children’s authors. He may have a “checkered past” but from what I’ve read, he clearly changed his attitudes in regards to race decades ago.
      Liz Phipps Soeiro is certainly entitled to her opinion, but in expressing it so publicly, she has embarrassed herself, her co-workers, her employer, and her school district. It really just comes down to a major error in judgment on her part. She had no authority to refuse the gift according to what I read in the news. Further, historical photos show Ms. Phipps Soeiro promoting Dr. Seuss’s books and even depicts her dressed as a Seuss character. On top of that, the Obama’s both appear to have been fans of the Seuss books, so it’s hard for me to believe that those books are universally considered racist.
      That Fox News criticized the “Lorax” movie doesn’t impact what I’ve written and why I’ve written it. I don’t watch their news station and only sparingly read their articles, preferring to sample a wide variety of information sources. Fox, like any other news outlet, writes editorials and so they can say what they want. As a private citizen so can Ms. Phipps Soeiro, but when she expresses her personal beliefs as a representative of the school she works for, she’s crossed the line. As a private citizen, I also have the right to disagree with her and blog about it.

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  4. I didn’t criticize the first lady.

    Facts about the president speak for themselves, except to those who have hardened their hearts or are having their consciences seared. The larger reason I shared that information about him is because it shows how out of step he is with what the right has billed itself as — and this is fair to bring up because you have decided to blame “the left” and go into a “thing” (almost a tirade — hence the first response you got, from “BO” somebody)… for what one little librarian did. She wasn’t chosen by millions of people (indicating a voting base). And she was reprimanded by her district. She is not going to ruin our country or the public schools — or even a district. But you’re acting like the sky is falling, and not only because of her but because of “the left” — while the left is on your side in this. If one little lady crossing a line with her speech {again, for which she has reaped official repercussion and hasn’t been affirmed as speaking for the school} gets you so worked up, then I can conclude (which I don’t) similarly that Lou Dobbs was desiring to burn books/movies (yet he’s only an example of widespread sentiment and power, not watching FOX isn’t an excuse not to notice). Melania, though authorized, was burning billboards (which she wasn’t). All the conservatives (not the left) in education (very many church-based) against Seuss being included in reading programs or at home by parents were and are book burners (each may or may not be, and they are liberty to be so with their own stuff). The “right” certainly involve themselves in deciding what information or books they think people should not have, and not in the sense of minding their own business. As inappropriate as what the woman did was, she did nothing against your right to buy or keep “The Cat in the Hat.” She didn’t destroy the ten various single copies of Seuss books mentioned either. And she doesn’t represent what the left is all about or the schools are about. You can be repetitive, but what you need to do is be reflective. You can say whatever you want, but it’s out loud so to speak. I wouldn’t have said anything if you hadn’t chosen to take the false depiction of book burning to the knee-jerk level of totalitarianism and the left — it’s bigotry… an ironic reflex, given they didn’t back Liz the librarian. Your child (grandchild) and you are free to wear floppy hats, white gloves, and bowties, even at school [whenever either if them is attending public school] on March second [if you volunteer or get a visitors pass as normally required]. The people you are calling Nazis, the people who started the observance of wearing the hats that you like and all that, aren’t against you on the hats or on reading “The Cat in the Hat.”

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  5. Oh, yes. James said in his story, “We won’t live to see it, will we?”
    But that the kids would.

    [I responded more to what he said was the background for the story (the straw man and unlikelihood of a utopia) than to the story itself. But he was wistful for a utopia kind of feeling in his story.]

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    • Marleen, you’re citing a piece of flash *fiction* that projected a dystopian future based on a totalitarian society. Fiction, not fact. That was fiction.

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  6. Maybe had I said “Yes” instead of “Okay…” it would have been more clear that I knew it was from your fiction. But I had thought I already pretty much said it.

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