May 25, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

NEA Focuses Read Across America on Diversity Not Dr. Seuss

Read Across America (RAA) and Dr. Seuss have always been linked. RAA events typically involve children in red-and-white striped hats, listening to a Dr. Seuss classic. In past years at the premier event in Washington, DC, local elementary students have heard Michelle Obama read The Cat in the Hat and the National Education Association (NEA) president recite Green Eggs and Ham.

This year, however, they will listen to author Jesse Holland read an excerpt from his novel Black Panther: Who is the Black Panther? The 2018 Read Across America theme is “Celebrating a Nation of Diverse Readers” and the NEA press release notes that the hundreds of fourth graders in attendance on Thursday March 1 will be wearing “a rainbow of colors.”

NEA president Lily Eskelsen Garcia will be joined at the event by three authors of color–Holland, Kwame Alexander (The Crossover) and Gene Luen Yang (American Born Chinese).  Along with Holland reading the excerpt from his book, Alexander and Yang will help the students develop their own haiku. The event is “to kick off” Read Across America Day, which is March 2.

Eskelsen Garcia and the authors will also participate in a Facebook Live event at 1 p.m.

“It’s critical that all students see themselves represented in the popular culture,” Eskelsen García said in a statement. “During this year’s Read Across America and National Reading Month, our theme is ‘Celebrating a Nation of Diverse Readers,’ and we are emphasizing the importance of books that are telling children of color that they belong in the world and the world belongs to them. It can be a scary place out there right now for our students, but a book can transport them to a world that is safe, a world they feel they belong in, and a world in which they believe they can make a difference.”

The first Read Across America Day was March 2, 1998. It is no coincidence that date also happens to be Theodor Geisel’s birthday. When the NEA wanted to create a day to encourage children to read, it only made sense to pick the day Dr. Seuss was born. But a connection to the legendary children’s author no longer comes without criticism.

Allegations that The Cat in the Hat and other Seuss books and illustrations are racist have created an emotional debate around the author and RAA.  A September 2017 SLJ article “Is the Cat in the Hat Racist? Read Across America Shifts Away From Dr. Seuss and Toward Diverse Books” highlighted scholars who have analyzed Seuss’ books and political cartoons and identified racism in his illustrations and character development.

 

Read Across America is a year-long program, but the highlight is Read Across America Week, which is typically centered around Dr. Seuss and his stories. It culminates with millions of students celebrating his March 2 birthday and Read Across America Day at elementary schools around the country.

This year is likely a turning point for the program and its annual events. The NEA has a contract with Seuss Enterprises through August 2018. They have not said if they will continue to use the images or connect the program to Dr. Seuss after that.

“This is really going to be a transitional year for us,” Steven Grant, an NEA spokesperson, who has managed the Read Across America program since 2005, told SLJ in that September 2017 story. “We’re going to be trying different things and moving in some different directions to see if that works.”

It may prove to be a difficult transition for educators who have had their popular Seuss-centric Read Across America week activities set for years.

“The goal is to encourage the educator, because we can’t force him or her to do anything,” Grant said

Kara Yorio About Kara Yorio

Kara Yorio (kyorio@mediasourceinc.com, @karayorio) is news editor at School Library Journal.

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Comments

  1. Colleen C. Yarnell says:

    I wish the NEA would keep their Read Across America website updated. Every year I plan a couple months in advance yet cant find things like current resources or themes. Its is very frustrating. Also your survey is too simplistic. I didnt ditch Dr Seuss. He and his books are still there. I just encourage students to use any book that interests them

  2. Susie Harkey says:

    I think that it is very sad that school librarians would ditch Dr. Seuss who changed how children learned to read! How quickly we forget Dick and Jane, the white suburban children with their perfect mother and father who lived happily together with their dog Spot, were a beginning reader’s only choice for so long. How many families looked like that? I’ve used The Sneeches and The Lorax to teach about inclusion as well as social justice and responsibility for years. Seuss’s characters In these books, like many others he wrote, are not even people. I see them as any man; all different colors shapes and sizes. To purposely leave out Dr. Seuss feels a lot like banning books and promoting our personal opinions to me, something we as professionals have always been against. If the NEA wants to create some other celebration of diverse books fine; but let’s face it – a celebration of reading was created around the man’s birthday, leaving him out of the celebration is just wrong. Let’s look at history for what it so often is, painful to remember and important to understand and learn from, but certainly not something to erase and forget! While Geisel’s opinions at a particular point in time are unimaginable to us today, it is part of our history in America. Do we erase George Washington from President’s Day Celebrations in schools because he practiced the abhorrent act of owning slaves? Of course not! Do we vilify him as a murderous traitor against his country, which technically one could argue? No, we accept historical figures as being subject to the times and circumstances surrounding them. Measuring their actions with today’s moral compass doesn’t make sense, so we don’t do it. After 22 years in education, Washington is still the first president my students name when we talk about President’s Day. Likewise, Dr. Seuss is an historical figure in American children’s literature. He is the first author many children can remember by name, as well as his by his unique style of writing and his distinctive illustrations. That is STILL something profoundly positive and his contributions should be recognized when we celebrate reading with children.

    • Karen Draper says:

      Thank you, Susie. Your word ring true. We should NOT judge history based on our views from today. We need to understand and stop taking offense at everything, especially when an offense is not meant. As a society, we do need to be aware, but I believe that we too often take offense rather than find the positive. Start a conversation as to what could be improved rather than just find fault. Why not try to see through the eyes of a child. They do not see racism or prejudice. They see funny, silly characters and rhyming stories that are fun to read. We can not judge Dr. Seuss based on his images done during a war that brought about a great deal of hurt from both sides. We need to stop trying to put today’s values on history’s errors. We need to instead remember and learn from the past to create a better future where it cannot happen again. We need to remember ” A Person’s a person no matter how small” I would like to add no matter what they look like!

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