Today, librarians, teachers, and parents will take an extra moment to encourage their children to read for Read Across America Day. It’s a holiday often associated with Dr. Seuss, on his birthday, and many children will hear his classic children’s books read aloud, dress up in silly hats, and we’ll call it another good day for kids’ lit.
But as a champion of diverse children’s books, I join many colleagues in saying that it’s time to put aside Seuss. This is a moment to pause and reflect on what we consider “classic” children’s books, and how those books have contributed to a lack of diversity within children’s publishing that is very hard to dig our way out of.
In recent years, critics such as Stephen Sawchuk and Philip Nel have pointed out the problematic nature of Seuss books—most notably Katie Ishizuka (The Conscious Kid Library) and Ramón Stephens (University of California, San Diego) in their article “The Cat Is Out of the Bag: Orientalism, Anti-Blackness and White Supremacy in Dr. Seuss’s Children’s Books.” Now, more than ever, at a time where anti-Asian sentiment and acts of hate are at an all-time high, it seems imperative to take a critical look at how Asians—and any BIPOC characters—are represented in literature.
It seems like a simple task to look towards new classics—and yet, we continue to hang onto Seuss. Why? Frequently, I hear from parents that Dr. Seuss is a core part of their childhood and nostalgia is part of the reason they keep him around. That ideology is problematic, as nostalgia never is, nor should be, a reason to keep books that overtly degrade the BIPOC community. If our vision for the next generation is to raise one that is anti-racist and conscious, then we cannot be neutral or make excuses. And as far as the books’ messages—well, there are plenty of fantastic, well-written children’s books, both modern and classic, that accomplish the same tasks without centering on racist caricatures.
But our continued return to Dr. Seuss on Read Across America Day year after year is reflective of a deeper problem: the challenge that the publishing industry as a whole faces with diversity and the whiteness that continues to perpetuate. As an independent publisher of diverse children’s books at Mango & Marigold Press, I too frequently hear that we keep things the same because “we’ve always done it that way,” or “it works,” and my question is always, works for whom?
There are two reasons why representation matters in children’s literature. The first is that all children deserve to see themselves in the pages of their books. I know from experience, from the smile on a child’s face as they grasp a book with characters who look just like them, have names like theirs, or have cultural experiences that they recognize, that representation is priceless to these kids.
But honestly, that is just the beginning.
These books, these stories need to and should be on all bookshelves.
Books are, as Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop says, mirrors, windows, and sliding doors. We must give children, all children, the opportunity to see the world through the lens of those who live it from an early age. Watering down stories so they can align with a dominant lens only serves to uplift those in power.
Kids are not born with the belief that there’s only one kind of beauty, or just one way to do things. By providing them with diverse books, we open up the world to these readers and encourage their wonder and awe. Beyond that, we show kids that diversity is the nature of humanity, not an initiative.
Certainly, we are more conscious about diversity in our literature today than we ever have been before. But parents’ and educators’ drive to provide new voices and experiences to children through books will be futile if the publishing industry doesn’t provide the content they need.
I have had a firsthand view of how difficult it is to make inroads into publishing if you are a member of the BIPOC community with a mission to increase representation in kids’ lit. In fact, I founded Mango & Marigold Press six years and 20 books ago because I was worried about my own daughter. I was a first-time mother, excited to fill her shelves with books, and I couldn’t find a single one that reflected her Indian American heritage accurately and appropriately. I learned quickly that I was not alone. According to the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, only 30% of all children’s books published in 2019 were by or about BIPOC individuals.
There is much chatter about diversity in kids’ literature—from blockbuster, celebrity-authored books to lauded “diverse imprints” at major publishers. But many of these initiatives, while well-intentioned, ring hollow. I have received many drafts from authors that have undergone rounds of notes from editors at traditional publishers, and are nearly unrecognizable by the time they make their way to me. These stories deserve to have space and place that allows them to be told through the lens of the BIPOC experience, and not filter through the lens of a dominant white narrative. I often tell my authors that it takes audacity and tenacity to write their truths, and I do my utmost to honor their stories as they are told.
Like all things important and worth doing, changing the face of kids’ lit is difficult and complex. Read Across America Day is only one day in a long year of reading, but for parents, it’s the right time to pause and take stock of the stories we are sharing with our children. And for the publishing industry, it’s an opportunity to consider how it might actively become a part of the charge to support BIPOC authors, communities, and independent presses.
So, today and every day, let’s focus on looking forward—in the books we as parents choose to share, and the ones we as publishers choose to release. Instead of looking behind us at the nostalgic classics, let’s become excited about the potential of bringing our children into a world where they understand the rich complexities of different people and cultures—one in which they feel included, no matter their culture, race, or gender, because they understand that everyone is truly different. Let’s forge new classic children’s literature—together.
Sailaja Joshi is the founder of Mango & Marigold Press, an independent publishing house that shares stories of the South Asian experience.
Correction: This article has been updated. An earlier version incorrectly cited Kathy Ishizuka of School Library Journal, and not Katie Ishizuka, as the author of the Dr. Seuss study “The Cat Is Out of the Bag.” We regret this error.