In response to concerns about racist content in the “ABC of It” exhibit at the Kerlan Collection expressed before and during a public forum by several children’s book authors and others, and amplified through social media, the venerable children’s literature archive housed at the Elmer L. Andersen Library at the University of Minnesota’s Minneapolis campus has tweaked its exhibit.
According to several critics of the exhibit who spoke with PW, the displays, as well as the book that serves as its catalog, The ABC of It (Univ. of Minnesota Libraries, Kerlan Collection/distributed by Univ. of Minnesota Press, Feb.), shone a spotlight without comment upon some classics that are considered by some to be racist, such as The Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss and Caddie Woodlawn by Carol Ryrie Brink. While The Wizard of Oz is not considered offensive to modern sensibilities, its author, L. Frank Baum, has been widely condemned for his newspaper editorials calling for the extermination of Native Americans.
The “ABC of It” is an adaptation of a 2013–2014 exhibit at the New York Public Library that was curated by children’s literature historian Leonard S. Marcus. While the Kerlan uses Marcus’s 2013–2014 text, it replaced the objects from the NYPL exhibit with materials from the Kerlan’s own collection. Marcus also wrote The ABC of It; the Kerlan’s curator, Lisa Von Drasek, who curated the current exhibit, wrote the foreword.
“The ABC of It” officially opened on February 27 with a reception and program featuring a conversation between Marcus and Von Drasek. Several of the authors and others PW spoke with for this story complained that the program did not allow for audience participation, preventing them from addressing both Marcus and Von Drasek directly with their concerns.
Children’s author John Coy told PW that he spoke with Marcus before the program that evening. “I told him that a number of people had questions about the Dr. Seuss portion of the exhibit and others. I hoped he and Lisa would discuss these together but that never came up in their conversation and there was not a question and answer period following it for the people who wanted to ask about it. [We] were shocked when there was no opportunity for any of it to come out.”
In response, Von Drasek told PW via email that because the discussion went past its scheduled ending time, she made the decision not to allow audience questions, saying, “It was more important to move the event over to Andersen Library for the book signing so that there would be ample time for people to see the exhibit and get their books bought and signed. The building could not remain open late.”
Children’s author Trisha Speed Shaskan, who volunteers at the Kerlan and received docent training for the exhibit, said that when she previewed the exhibit before it opened, she “immediately saw problematic books on display. I felt that the exhibit fell short in terms of not including the racist history of some books.”
Citing a recent NPR report, Sarah Park Dahlen, a professor in the library and information science master’s program at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, Minn., told PW that the racism of Theodor Geisel (Dr. Seuss) has been very much in the news in recent years and for that information not to be included in the exhibit was “a sin of omission. How do you have an exhibit like this and not address racism and white supremacy? We have to acknowledge it even though we might feel nostalgic for the stories we read as children.”
Shaskan says that she suggested to Von Drasek that footnotes be added to the signage to provide context about the books that are considered problematic, and a bibliography with suggested readings be provided to visitors. In response to her concerns, Kerlan personnel initially placed bibliographies of suggested readings and supplementary materials about racism in children’s literature and banned books on the second floor of the exhibit area. The exhibit is spread out over three levels of the library.
“Placing materials in a place people wouldn’t see it—we didn’t think this was enough,” Dahlen said, noting that the materials were non-circulating, and thus had to be perused by visitors while there.
During a March 6 panel celebrating the exhibit with a panel of children’s book authors including Joyce Sidman and Shannon Gibney, as well as Coy, moderated by Von Drasek, the issue became public when Coy and Gibney criticized the exhibit for being neither representative nor inclusive. There had already been for several days chatter on social media concerning the lack of representation in both the book and the exhibit.
“On every level, this book is so sloppy,” Gibney said. “This exhibit is so sloppy. It’s not just what’s in the exhibit—it’s also what’s not in the exhibit that’s problematic. A white world view really comes through. A sanitized narrative is not welcoming to people of color and to indigenous peoples.”
Before the panel took place, Coy had relayed his concerns to Von Drasek, who ordered that same day that more signage be added to certain displays. As of March 6, not only are bibliographies of suggested additional reading being made more accessible to visitors, but so are copies of the essays and articles that previously were non-circulating. The University Libraries at the University of Minnesota also announced that a panel discussion on racism in children’s literature is being organized in tandem with the exhibit; a date has not yet been scheduled.
In a March 6 email sent to a group of about 10 Minnesota children’s book authors and others, Von Drasek informed the recipients of the tweaks being made to the exhibit and the plan to hold a public forum on racism in children’s literature, writing, “We appreciate our critical friends pointing out where we can do better and must do better as teachers and learners, as curators and librarians to be inclusive and reflective in our practice.”
“I’m happy this forward movement is happening, but we would like Marcus to be a part of the conversations regarding the exhibit,” Shaskan said. Dahlen added that “everything happened after the opening,” that if the Kerlan had acted when Shaskan had first made her suggestions, more people would have benefited from the dialogue, especially the approximately 350 people who attended the February 27 program.
“This was a missed opportunity at the opening,” Shaskan pointed out. “The Kerlan could have shared this context with the wider public.”
For his part, Marcus told PW via email that he is happy “that the current version of the exhibition has generated thoughtful discussions and appreciates the efforts that the university is making to respond to community concerns.”