Thinking Out Loud – Teaching with an Asterisk*

In the world of baseball, there are several hall of fame players who have an asterisk by their records because their feats were in some way marked by underhanded behavior. Steroids. Gambling. Cheating.

Recently, the Seuss estate listed a number of books by Theodor Geisel/Dr. Seuss which will no longer by published because the egregious racial and ethnic stereotypes in the works “are hurtful and wrong.”

I agree and applaud the decision by the Seuss estate. I don’t think the decision is part of cancel culture. These books will still exist on bookshelves and libraries and probably on eBay. If they live another life of serving as examples of how writers unwittingly perpetuate racial and sexual stereotypes, that change is okay with me.

The Seuss books are not the only purveyors of stereotypes and oppression. There are many. Some were award winners in their day. Even authors fall into this category. More than a few well known and successful authors have been accused of using their positions as authors and teachers to take advantage of women.

As a writing teacher, I do not cancel any of these books or authors. When I recommend reading Sherman Alexie because of the way he moves plot through dialogue, I don’t leave out the part about his predatory behavior as an author. When I recommend the Newbery winning Julie of the Wolves by Jean Craighead George because of its strong main character, I also say its portrayal of Alaskan native people is one dimensional.

In short, I teach with an asterisk.

Why? Because authors need to be responsible for their words and actions on and off the page. We are writers of children’s literature. We can’t continue to write harmful stereotypes. Nor can we act egregiously. As a teacher, I think it’s important to make students aware of the landscape of children’s literature and their responsibility if they choose to pursue this career.

Books are written by humans. We are flawed. I was born into racist, capitalist, and sexist culture. I am stained with its influences. Raising up a book, pointing to its perpetuation of stereotypes and throwing it in the flames will not change our world. I believe raising up that same book and showing how it disseminates oppressive stereotypes will further our awareness by looking straight at them.  Being offended by a book or an author and throwing them away is not awareness, it is another kind of censorship–the very opposite critical thinking.