National Reading Month officially kicked off last week with celebrations across schools in the nation. While many classrooms look different this year due to distanced virtual learning and other COVID restrictions, there was more than one noteworthy exclusion from this year’s narrative.
Since its onset, National Reading Month was closely tied to Dr. Seuss, as Read Across America Day has always been around or on his birthday, March 2. However, there was noticeably less focus on Seuss this year since the recent controversy surrounding racist depictions and undertones in some of his books.
As summarized by USA Today, research from the Conscious Kid’s Library and the University of California San Diego found that “of the 2,240 (identified) human characters, there are forty-five characters of color representing 2 percent of the total number of human characters… of that fraction, 43 have Orientalist depictions, and two align with the theme of anti-Blackness.” The same study also found that there are no depictions of women of color in any of Seuss’ books, and the men of color who are depicted are often put in “subservient, exotified or dehumanized roles.”
In response to this backlash, Dr. Seuss Enterprises stated last Tuesday that they would no longer print six books that feature insensitive imagery. These titles include And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, If I Ran the Zoo, McElligot’s Pool, On Beyond Zebra!, Scrambled Eggs Super! and The Cat’s Quizzer.
So, what do these changes mean for the future of Read Across America Day and the rest of National Reading Month moving forward? Luckily, The National Education Association (NEA) has been shifting focus from Seuss to more diverse and inclusive work over the past few years to give more space to inclusive stories. They stated in the Miami Herald that they are “independent of any one particular book, publisher or character,” and that “there’s a growing need for schools and libraries to include and promote diverse books.”
The National Education Association (NEA) website has many ways to teach inclusive lessons and shine spotlights on diverse authors and topics. This month the focus is on Cultivating Compassion; with three main books of the month that all tackle various forms of adversity. Tiara’s Hat Parade is a story written by Kelly Starling Lyons, a founding member of The Brown Bookshelf, that explores themes of community, culture and family while following a young black girl’s journey to revive her mother’s business. Each Tiny Spark is a novel about a girl with ADHD who tackles injustice and prejudice in her Atlanta community. And They Called Us Enemy follows a young boy’s experience in Japanese internment camps during the second world war.
Despite some critics sparking debate on “cancel culture” and even false stories circulating about Seuss books being banned in school districts, the NEA is firm in their decision to distance themselves from Seuss, and their sentiments are shared higher up too, as President Biden’s Read Across America Day Proclamation had no mention of Seuss, a difference from his predecessors’ proclamations, former President Trump and Obama.
As Seuss’s recent controversies have left many Read Across America traditions outdated this year, it has opened the door for new talk surrounding inclusive children’s media and shifted the focus on more diverse authors and stories, a trend that will continue for many more National Reading Months to come.