May 23, 2018

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Was the Cat in the Hat Black? by Philip Nel | SLJ Review

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redstarNEL, Philip. Was the Cat in the Hat Black?: The Hidden Racism of Children’s Literature, and the Need for Diverse Books. 288p. bibliog. index. notes. Oxford Univ. Aug. 2017. Tr $29.95. ISBN 9780190635077.

In five essays, children’s lit expert and Seuss scholar Nel (The Annotated Cat) critiques the insidious nature of racism in kids’ books. These often eye-opening pieces help prove the author’s case that Nancy Larrick’s landmark article “All-White World of Children’s Books” is unfortunately as relevant today as it was when it was first published in 1965. The title entry will challenge kid lit lovers to see beloved authors and books through the lens of critical race theory. Was the Cat in the Hat modeled after black face minstrelsy figures? Should “classics” be reprinted with the slurs and offensive depictions from the original versions? Why do materials containing racial erasure and whitewashed covers continue to receive acclaim and marketing budgets? Noting today’s new wave of civil rights activism, Nel successfully argues that just as children’s books propagate the structural racism that is often embedded in media, they can also be used as a tool to oppose it. While he makes some of his points more convincingly than others, this volume adds nuance and new layers to the current conversation on the need for diversity in children’s books. His conclusion, “A Manifesto for Anti-Racist Literature,” provides actionable steps that producers and consumers of children’s literature—authors, scholars, parents, librarians, educators, and publishing professionals—can take to dismantle the white supremacy inherent in the industry. Informative and crucial black-and-white illustrations, photos, charts, and diagrams are peppered throughout. Extensive notes and bibliography will inspire further study on the subject. VERDICT A necessary purchase for academic and professional reading collections.–Shelley M. Diaz,School Library Journal

This review was published in the School Library Journal February 2018 issue.

Shelley Diaz About Shelley Diaz

Shelley M. Diaz (sdiaz@mediasourceinc.com) is School Library Journal's Reviews Team Manager and SLJTeen newsletter editor. She has her MLIS in Public Librarianship with a Certificate in Children’s & YA Services from Queens College, and can be found on Twitter @sdiaz101.

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  2. While Nel has made some interesting points in his book about the undeniable racism in children’s literature, he largely lacks historical perspective. His manifesto is logically flawed, as he seems to pick and choose when he can challenge the opinions of authors, illustrators, and editors of color. Particularly disturbing is the undercurrent of antisemitism in his work, showing the very same blindness of which he accuses those who underestimate the destructive nature of racism. Nel completely fails to acknowledge the importance of Geisel’s principled stand against Nazism, fascism, and xenophobia in pre-World War II America. Geisel was a German-American who courageously stood up for Jews threatened by Hitler.

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