Earlier this week, I was introduced to the story of Cambridge, MA librarian Liz Phipps Soeiro, who graciously and thoughtfully declined to accept a box of Dr. Seuss books sent to her by Melania Trump as they were to a number of other high-achieving schools.
I admit my first instincts were mixed — my own feelings about the current administration not withstanding, I thought wow, that was pretty ballsy of her to reject a gift from the First Lady. Maybe she could have just smiled and said thank you…then donated the books to a school more in need.
But on my second (and third) reading of Ms. Soeiro’s incredibly well-considered note, I 100% see why she felt the need to say more.
And I support her.
First of all, she started her letter by describing her school’s great fortune, and how schools with greater financial needs would be better recipients for a gift of books than an award-winning school that’s already got a well-stocked library.
But the crux of her letter was a heartfelt description of what matters to her in children’s literature, which kinds of books her students are actually reading, and why she takes issue with some Dr. Seuss books, as many academics and parents have over the years.
(I know, it sucks when we realize some of our favorite childhood authors were not quite the perfect people we imagined them to be, even if they’ve done some great things too; Google “Willie Wonka racist” and be prepared to fall down an uncomfortable rabbit hole.)
In other words, the same way scientists feel they have an obligation to use their platforms to stand up against science-deniers, and artists and authors of all kinds use their platforms to stand up against censorship and prejudice, so too do librarians use their platforms to advocate for progress in the realm of library science.
Makes sense, right?
Children’s librarians make the most incredible curators and advocates for diversity in children’s literature, in terms of themes, plots, depictions of different kinds of children and families, and and even the diversity of children’s authors and illustrators themselves.
As we have said over and over, the more different children see themselves reflected back in the books they read, the more likely they are to become engaged readers. And as much as we love many Dr. Seuss books (note to Melania: Read The Star-Bellied Sneeches to Barron because I’d love to hear your thoughts on it) they alone will not entirely deliver on what we want from children’s books for our own kids.
And so, Ms. Soeiro used her platform, as advocates and activists do: not just to decline a gift, but do so with the aim of educating and enlightening.
She went so far as to create a second post describing exactly what she values in children’s literature with the hopes that Mrs. Trump (and others) would grow in their vision of the value of books. She wrote:
Mrs. Trump, you sent ten picture books, so I will recommend ten as well — but there are so many more! My wish is that these books will help you see:
-the beautiful resilience of children who stand up to racism and oppression and for social justice and reform;
-children who are trying to connect with parents who are incarcerated simply because of their immigration status;
-children who integrate aspects of their own cultures and countries of origin into their new country;
-children whose parents risked everything to enter the U.S. so they can have a chance at a future free from violence and/or poverty;
-children who challenge society’s social constraints and are accepted and loved as who they say they are.
Okay, so from these points alone, I think I love this woman. Just the kind of librarian you’d love to have in your own school, right?
She then took the time to curate a list of 10 wonderful children’s book options, including some of our own favorites like Red: A Crayon’s Story by Michael Hall, Separate Is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez & Her Family’s Fight for Desegregation by Duncan Tonatiuh, Drum Dream Girl: How One Girl’s Courage Changed Music by Margarita Engle…well, and seven more.
However this morning, I can’t say I was totally surprised to discover that the story hit the conservative news outlets.
I am also not surprised that they’re running with headlines like “LIBRARIAN SAYS SEUSS IS RACIST.”
For full context, her original sentence about Dr. Seuss offers links to academic articles supporting her premise, which reads:
Many people are unaware of is that…Dr. Seuss’s illustrations are steeped in racist propaganda, caricatures, and harmful stereotypes.
So, way to take a single line from a very long letter completely out of context for the ultimate in outrage-based clickbait-y clickbaitiness, Fox News.
(And don’t get me started on how evidently a critical analysis of Dr. Seuss’s early illustrations as harmfully stereotypical is a shocking affront to many of the same people who have spent the last few weeks calling Black NFL players engaged in peaceful protest “racist against whites.”)
I’ll be honest here: What I imagine is that, for better or worse, she was somewhat offended by the pat nature of the gift. Sending a respected librarian from a high-achieving school a bunch of Dr. Seuss books is a lot like the clichéd, too-busy-to-care CEO who sends his assistant out to pick out his wife’s anniversary gift.
Nambé ashtray, Sweetheart?
At minimum, if you’re going to send books to a librarian, a teacher, or heck, a parent…cheat! It’s so easy! While Melania Trump has access to the Dr. Carla Hayden, the current Librarian of Congress. the rest of us have the ALA who has done all the work for us!
Just take a look at the Newbery, Caldecott, or Coretta Scott King winners of recent years, gather those books together and send them out. They will be appreciated.
So where does this leave us?
For the immediate future, I’m not encouraged. There is a well-intended children’s librarian in Massachusetts who is going to have to endure an unreasonable amount of cruelty, personal attacks and threats over her opinion and the way it’s being spun in the conservative media. It’s awful. It hurts me to think about it.
So I hope that those of you who understand her perspective — or even disagree, but support her right to speak her mind — will find your own way to support or defend her. She’s going to need it.
I also hope that some greater good will come out of that; that she will have opened more people’s eyes — whether those people live in the White House or not — as to what’s important to children to get them excited about reading.
But in the long term, I think there’s an larger issue that’s totally overlooked here.
What’s more important than any one children’s book choice, is this thought that Liz Phipps Soeiro chose to include in her letter to Mrs. Trump:
Cities like Philadelphia, Chicago, and Detroit are suffering through expansion, privatization, and school “choice” with no interest in outcomes of children, their families, their teachers, and their schools. Are those kids any less deserving of books simply because of circumstances beyond their control? Why not go out of your way to gift books to underfunded and underprivileged communities that continue to be marginalized and maligned by policies put in place by Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos?
Of course if Melania were to choose the least fortunate school districts for her kind gift of books, that would require an acknowledgment that public schools in this country are being decimated and require more support from the administration. I don’t think that’s going to happen any time soon, from what I’ve seen.
It’s evident to me that Ms. Soeiro is not some Soros-funded (heavy sarcasm here) activist; but an educator and library scientist who is simply using her direct line to the White House to advocate for policies that reflect the values of her chosen profession: caring deeply about children, education, reading, and opportunity for all.
As should we all.
Top photo: Robyn Budlender on Unsplash