Tear your hair, groan at the glum tale of Melania Trump versus the school librarianwrites Libby Purves from across the pond in the Times.
Weep at the compassion fascism which can only value human experience when it involves newsworthy suffering, and which meets merriment and fantasy with a pious reproof.
Poor Melania Trump, trying to get her head round the role of first lady, sent a gift of books to elementary schools in 50 states for National Read a Book Day. … It is hard to think of a more harmlessly benign gesture, even if the poor woman is married to Donald Trump.
But that could not be forgiven by one school librarian in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Liz Phipps Soeiro. In a long open letter she thanked the first lady — with a sneer about the wasteful postage — but said that while her students liked the “beautiful bookplates with your name and the indelible White House stamp” they would not keep them. First, because more deprived schools have greater need, though even hers struggles “to retain teachers of colour and dismantle the systemic white supremacy”. Second, because Melania’s favourite is “a cliché, a tired and worn ambassador for children’s literature. Dr Seuss’ illustrations are steeped in racist propaganda, caricatures and harmful stereotypes.”
She patronisingly gives another list, books about “children who stand up to racism and oppression . . . trying to connect with parents who are incarcerated simply because of their immigration status”. … They may be excellent, and there is an honourable place in children’s literature for hardship, injustice and resilience. From Serraillier’s The Silver Sword to The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas there are historical examples, and modern miseries have a place too.
But the left-liberal piety of the list and Ms Soeiro’s letter have a grim and quelling quality. Fair enough to swipe at unequal educational chances, but there’s a real sneer in her “it was a wonderful gesture, if one that could have been better thought out”. No sisterhood for Melania!
The Seuss-is-racist angle needs unpicking. Real American racism, especially after Charlottesville and Ferguson, creates a neurotic hypersensitivity. The fashionable targeting of Seuss is part of that, even though Michelle Obama read him to her daughters. Theodor Seuss Geisel was originally an advertising cartoonist in the 1940s who, like many others, used “blackface” and other ethnic shortcuts in his work. So last week the magazine Business Insider leapt on the bandwagon, bewailing his “deeply disturbing” drawings and warning of “sad, racist ads”.
So I looked at them. Most are for the insecticide Flit. … Oh, and there’s a cartoon of Hirohito, snag-toothed and slit-eyed. But hell, it was the 1940s. People were scared. And his Adolf Hitler is grossly unflattering too. Anyway, in no time at all Seuss was drawing the famous piano cartoon of Uncle Sam saying: “Look, maestro, if you want to get harmony, use the black keys as well as the white!”
His children’s books, merrily scanned recitable fun, include benign messages. In one, a boy who meets a frisky pair of empty green trousers is scared because they are different, but the animated pants begin to cry so he realises that they are “just as scared as I!” and makes friends.
Seuss said he never started with morals — “kids can see a moral coming a mile off” — but noted that all stories had one. His Yertle the Turtle mocks fascist leadership, as the over-ambitious turtle is capsized trying to reach the moon. The Grinch and Lorax condemn materialism and pollution. They’re dated but fun: not “harmful” propaganda. Seuss should frolic alongside newer authors, because once you learn to read you are made free of everything, whether you pick up Auntie Yang and “A Story of Immigration and Separation” or JK Rowling and Jacqueline Wilson, Dahl and Sendak and Nesbit, Alice in Wonderland and Just William and the Beano. Even Little Lord Fauntleroy.
The librarian’s rejection was hastily disowned by her school board, but there is a wider battle to fight. A battle for fantasy and nonsense, for different perspectives; for entering into other lives and attitudes past and present. When you’re two, the very joy of words and jokes connects you to another’s imagination and thence to the wider world. When you’re six, stories about medieval knights or Victorian explorers can obliquely help your own struggles. Black or white, boy or girl, wizard or muggle, you need many doors to many worlds.