Published in Eastern Visayas Journal on April 7, 2021
Dr. Seuss’ books are highlighted for Read Across America Day on March 2nd, which also coincides with the author’s birthday. His beloved books such as Cat in the Hat, Oh! The Places You’ll Go!, and Fox in Socks are read in millions of classrooms and bedrooms all over the world. This year, the late author made international headlines when Dr. Seuss Enterprises took proactive action and announced that they were discontinuing six of the titles for racist and insensitive imagery. The six titles are And To Think 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.
I do not remember reading these titles when I was a young student, so I decided to check out these books from our school library to read them myself. The illustrations in question, instantly recognizable in Dr. Seuss’ unique style, were reflections of the era they were written in. What was acceptable then has changed now. In today’s diverse reading landscape when the need to be sensitive to hot button issues is paramount, these images can be easily interpreted as disrespectful and, indeed, racist.
The announcement caused an immediate revival of interest in his books. The day after the announcement, USA Today reported that six of his titles took the Top 10 spots of the USA Today’s Bestseller List. While none of the current bestsellers are those that are planned to be discontinued, they emphasize the fact that the quickest way to whet students’ or public’s reading appetite is to place a title or an author on a censored or challenged book list. It is the allure of the forbidden. According to the American Library Association, eight of the 2019 Top 10 Most Challenged Books were questioned for LGBTQIA+ content. The two other challenged titles that round up the top 10 are The Handmaid’s Tale and the Harry Potter series, books that are considered pop culture phenomena and global multimedia blockbusters.
A third of the challenges to books were made by parents. The American Academy of Pediatrics reported that exposure to violence not only in books but in other forms of media contributes to aggression in children. Given this backdrop, what can parents do to ensure their children continue to read? How can we help nurture and develop habits of reading for learning, pleasure, and leisure? This task requires a fine balance. When Filipino students are at the bottom of PISA reading assessments, the need to read is more critical than ever. On one hand, parents will need to read with their children or monitor what they read. Engage them in thoughtful conversations on sensitive topics so that they can help shape their children’s mindset. Libraries will have books that may be considered offensive, but this does not mean that young children need to read them. This is where parental control comes in. Schools have approved lists of books for study to enable students to see multiple viewpoints and become critical thinkers. On the other hand, we need to let students read on topics of personal interest. Let them explore various genres of literature. It is one of the effective ways to develop a lifelong love of reading. Books engage students to safely discover different ways of thinking, travel to distant lands, help them learn from the past, and encourage them to create new ideas.
Lessons of history show that trends and preferences ebb and flow with the times. Will challenged books be once again acceptable? We will have to wait and see.