Dr. Seuss in the Crosshairs

Librarian's treatment of the First Lady's gift of the beloved children's books is not an anomaly.

The other day, when a librarian at a Cambridge, Massachusetts, elementary school made headlines for rudely returning ten Dr. Seuss books sent to her by Melania Trump – maintaining that Dr. Seuss was a racist and implying that pro-charter school Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is, too – the surprise wasn’t this graceless response to a gift but the fact that the White House had actually mailed identical packages to fifty school libraries, one in each of the states, meaning that forty-nine librarians had apparently not taken the opportunity to grandstand.  

How could that be? After all, libraries today are hotbeds of just the kind of thinking that led Liz Phipp Soeiro to wag her finger at the First Lady about De Vos and Dr. Seuss – who, she snottily lectured in an open letter to Mrs. Trump, is “a bit of a cliché, a tired and worn ambassador for children’s literature,” his books “steeped in racist propaganda, caricatures, and harmful stereotypes.” The schools receiving the Dr. Seuss books had been chosen for having attained a certain level of academic excellence; but Phipp Soeiro found such criteria offensive, explaining that her school was special not because of its pupils’ accomplishments but because the student body is “beautiful and diverse…made up of children from all over the world; from different socioeconomic statuses; with a spectrum of gender expressions and identities [at a grade school!]; with a range of abilities; and of varied racial, ethnic, and religious backgrounds.” 

Phipp Soeiro further informed Mrs. Trump that her school, in a well-off neighborhood, is far less in need of free books than schools in certain other localities, and appended a list of ten books to “offer you a window into the lives” of children residing in those places, who, she complained, are affected (negatively, natch) “by the policies of your husband’s administration.” Phipp Soeiro expressed the wish that these books would help the First Lady to 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.”

Phipp Soeiro’s letter to Mrs. Trump and her introductory comments on the accompanying book list make it clear that the librarian viewed herself as an enlightened educator (from, of all places, Cambridge, Massachusetts, that Ground Zero of the American intelligentsia!) addressing a clueless idiot. Phipp Soeiro’s remarks ooze with certainty that Mrs. Trump, the billionaire’s wife, knows nothing whatsoever about children living in oppression and poverty. Reading the school librarian’s condescending remarks, you’d never know the First Lady grew up in exceedingly humble circumstances under the Communist dictatorship of Marshal Tito in Yugoslavia; that she was the daughter of a factory worker; that she had to be baptized in secret because Christian sacraments were frowned upon by Tito’s regime; and that she speaks six languages. (How many languages does Phipp Soeiro speak?) 

Among the books Phipp Soeiro recommended to Mrs. Trump: Auntie Yang’s Great Soybean Picnic, about a homesick Chinese immigrant to the U.S; The Boy & the Bindi, about a Hindu boy who wants to have a red dot on his forehead just like Hindu women do; Drum Dream Girl: How One Girl’s Courage Changed Music, about a girl “who broke Cuba’s traditional taboo against female drummers”; Mama’s Nightingale: A Story of Immigration and Separation, about a Haitian girl whose mother is jailed in the U.S. for being an illegal immigrant; Somos Como Las Nubes / We Are like the Clouds, about “Dreamers” from Central America; and Two White Rabbits, also about a refugee child. You can see immediately why Phipp Soeiro dislikes Dr. Seuss: no agenda! 

As Boston Herald columnist Howie Carr observed: “So in effect this librarian is lecturing an immigrant – a legal immigrant – on her lack of empathy for…illegal immigrants.” (Carr’s ellipsis.) If Michelle Obama had sent her the books, writes Carr, Phipp Soeiro probably would’ve put them “in a glass display case in the library and framed her letter.” No doubt. By the way, this isn’t the first time Phipp Soeiro has given the Trumps the finger: a few months ago, in response to President Trump’s travel ban, she “invited a representative from the Council on American Islamic Relations and an attorney from the Muslim Justice League to speak to an audience including some 25 Muslim families about their rights.”

To be sure, after the Phipp Soeiro story went public, the embarrassments began to mount: a photo surfaced of Phipp Soeiro herself at some school event, dressed up as the Cat in the Hat and clinging to a copy of the Dr. Seuss book and a Cat in the Hat puppet; a whole bunch of photos surfaced showing Mrs. Trump’s infallible predecessor, Michelle Obama, reading aloud to kids from one of Dr. Seuss’s “racist” books; news stories surfaced in which our revered former President Barack Obama himself was quoted as telling a group of children that one of his “favorite stories” was by Dr. Seuss; the Cambridge school district distanced itself from Phipp Soeiro’s action, announcing that it had “counseled” her on “donations policies and the policy against public resources being used for political purposes”; and the mayor of Springfield, Massachusetts, hometown of Dr. Seuss (real name Theodor Geisel), called Phipp Soeiro’s comments about the local hero “ridiculous” and exemplary of “’political correctness’ at its worst.” 

But despicable though she may be, we shouldn’t expend too much effort on singling Phipp Soeiro out for criticism. For when it comes to ragging on Dr. Seuss – author of six of the twenty bestselling children’s books ever – she’s only echoing innumerable bien pensant types for whom the cartoonist’s magical wit and imagination are canceled out by a handful of images dating back to early in his career. A recent article draws attention to three of them. Two depict African cannibals in much the way cartoonists used to depict African cannibals. Are they racist, as some critics claim? Or are they just cartoons? The third is a drawing of a Japanese man. A caption reads: “Wipe that sneer off his face.” 

It’s an ad for war bonds. It was drawn in 1943. It’s been denounced for employing stereotypes that “fue[l] the loss of the individuality of the Japanese people.“ In fact the principal enemy of “the individuality of the Japanese people” was not Dr. Seuss but the brutally authoritarian, oppressive, and imperialistic government of the Empire of Japan. Nowadays, of course, it’s bad form in the overwhelmingly leftist American academy – not to mention the library biz – to acknowledge imperialism, past or present, by non-Western powers. On the other hand, demonizing cherished but no longer politically acceptable authors and “deaccessioning” works that are ideologically double plus ungood is a vital element of the leftist cultural agenda – just as teaching prospective soldiers of the revolution (among them librarians) to recognize and deep-six such works is a core part of humanities education. 

In short, Phipp Soeiro is only doing what she’s been taught. By the profession’s own present standards, she’s a model librarian – certifiably so: in August the School Library Journal named her a “Hero of Family Outreach,” gushing that her “library’s collection reflects Phipp Soeiro’s commitment to social justice.” And make no mistake: social justice – nothing more and nothing less – is what the children’s book game today is all about. 

Just check out Amazon’s list of children’s bestsellers. When I looked at it a couple of days ago, the number-one spot was occupied by Princesses Wear Pants, which, according to the publisher, “celebrates fashion and girl power.” (Remember: “boy power” bad; “girl power” good.) The book’s message: “being a princess is much, much more than beauty.” Every morning its heroine, Princess Penelope, “runs right past her frilly dresses to choose from her beloved collection of pants,” then goes on to “command the royal air force sporting her sequined flight suit” or, perhaps, to “work in the kingdom’s vegetable garden with pocketed overalls for all of her tools.” Her nemesis, Lady Busyboots, finds pants inappropriate for a princess, but “Penelope’s courage (and style choices) result in her saving the day!” Every-girl-a-princess, much-more-than-beauty, girl-power: in 2017, this is the formula for a top kids’ book. 

Immediately following Princesses Wear Pants on Amazon’s list were a pair of products from the Pantsuit dynasty. She Persisted: 13 American Women Who Changed the World, bearing the byline of Chelsea Clinton, is a “feminist book” for kids – and the subject of a lawsuit by one Christopher James Kimberley, who accuses Chelsea’s publisher of having stolen an idea he submitted to them and passed it on to America’s own princess. Booklist praised She Persisted for “show[ing] children that women’s voices have made themselves emphatically heard” and Family Circle applauded it for “remind[ing] little girls that they can achieve their goals if they don’t let obstacles [such as Travelgate, Filegate, Whitewater, “bimbo eruptions,” and kerfuffles over Benghazi, the Haiti ripoff, shady cattle-futures trades, private servers, Saudi “speech fees,” etc.?] get in the way.”  

Number three on Amazon’s list was the illustrated children’s version of Hillary’s own masterpiece It Takes a Village. Clinton fans may recall that the 1996 original adult title was also a center of controversy: somehow Hillary forgot to acknowledge her ghostwriter, Barbara Feinman. But never mind the ticklish authorship issues: both Clinton books – Chelsea’s feminist broadside, Hillary’s plug for statist collectivism – are just what children’s book editors and librarians hunger for nowadays. Indeed, the children’s book industry loves the Clintons: coming in January, like it or not, is A Girl Named Hillary: The True Story of Hillary Clinton, which will “show girls everywhere that they can accomplish anything they set their minds to!” (Well, almost.) 

Among other current children’s bestsellers is – I kid you not – I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsberg Makes Her Mark, in which the doddering lady in black is presented as a role model who, by “standing up for what’s right for people everywhere,” has taught little girls everywhere the lesson “that disagreeing does not make you disagreeable!” Also high up on the bestseller lists are Girls Think of Everything: Stories of Ingenious Inventions by Women; Women in Science: 50 Fearless Pioneers Who Changed the World; and Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls, which is “packed with 100 BEDTIME STORIES about the life of 100 EXTRAORDINARY WOMEN from the past and the present.” There’s much, much more along the same lines, but you get the idea. 

Needless to say, there’s nothing whatsoever on the list that exalts manhood, that tells boys they are princes or potential heroes, or recounts the accomplishments of great men. That would amount to cheering on the evil patriarchy, and in this benighted era of “rebel girls” and baldfaced feminist propaganda masquerading as children’s literature, every award-winning teacher and librarian knows that boys need to be encouraged to repress their testosterone-powered impulses, to conform to estrogen-driven values, and to sit down, shut up, and step into the background so that their distaff classmates can throw off the shackles of generations of gender oppression and revel in “girl power.” That’s why we shouldn’t focus too much on Liz Phipp Soeiro: she’s only a symptom of a horrible malady – illiberal, anti-intellectual, and drenched in philistinism – that has infected America’s educational system, contaminated its children’s book industry, and done immeasurable damage to the once noble profession of library science.