After spending the past few days nearly suffocated in the news that Dr. Seuss Enterprises (a foundation that I thought was about preserving the man’s work) was pulling six of his books from print, my head started spinning. It’s cut me to the quick, and I’m a bit more upset about it than I expected. Aside from the painful thoughts of erasing literature and the history that goes with it, censorship, and a host of other political arguments, both for and against the move; I began to reflect on my own experience of these books and others, growing up. I began to unpack my recollection of the books I read, and their influence on who I have become as an adult, mother, wife, and author. It’s been an interesting few days of emotional highs and lows… and at last, this is what I’ve come to. I appreciate your indulgence.
I attended a “progressive” elementary school. The year I started public kindergarten, 1969, it was a new approach to learning, for its time. I was exposed to lots of different lessons, in all sorts of different forms. Some lessons were real-world… third grade, where we learned about public messages in our television production studio in the basement underneath the library… fourth grade choir, where we sang folk songs with political and sociological messages… fifth grade band, where we learned to work in concert, understanding the nuances of our combined passion… sixth grade science, where we dissected cow’s eyes and learned that there are more similarities than differences between animals and humans.
Some lessons were “under the radar”… nature walks through the trails that surrounded the school, where we learned to be respectful of nature and stay on the path… gym class, where we learned the value of including everyone in the game, and the strength and confidence competition creates – without destroying friendships… and the equality that is created within a student body when the building is shaped like a circle, the classrooms were “pie slices” and no one was “above” or “below” anyone else.
My love of literature, instigated at home, and nurtured in that school, was the one element of education that shaped my life more than any other. Teachers expected us to read one hundred books a year. The reading level didn’t matter – the fact that we read, did. Voracious reading today, sustains me in my literary career and envelops me in a community of like-minded souls who are incredibly progressive and inclusive in their thinking. In third and fourth grade, we were taught to write book reports and essays. Now, I use those same skills when writing book reviews and blog posts. In fifth and sixth grade speech class, we were expected to present in front of our class every week, on an assigned topic or form. Today, I use those same skills at book readings, in teaching creative writing workshops, and in hosting book festivals. I am grateful for the diversity of skill sets and understanding that my teachers instilled in me, and that my family encouraged. All of this prepared me well for the life of a supportive friend, mother, wife, business owner, and author.
We read lots of different books in elementary school. Some we read silently, invoking our imagination to decipher meaning and impact with internal, personal reflection. Some we read aloud in class, discussing with our teacher and peers shared ideas, concepts, influence, and symbolism. Still others were read aloud to us in the library, so we could drown in the pure entertainment that is storytelling. Never once, was there a political message, an agenda that was culturally mandated, or a requirement of “equal time” for authors, characters, or story. We learned about history, and the communities that came before us, how they lived, and their belief systems through story. We learned about science and how imagination informs invention through story. We learned the differences in regional dialect, the use of slang, and the strength of the spoken word as it is all presented in story.
I was fascinated with the imaginations of the authors I read, as I still am today. We read “The Snowy Day” by Ezra Jack Keats. It never occurred to me that this was a story about a Black child. To me, it was simply a story about a snowy day and a child’s personal experience of that day. We read “Ping” by Marjorie Flack and Kurt Wiese. It never occurred to me that this story was about an Asian family and their occupation. To me, it was simply a story about a little duck, and how important it was to be mindful of your responsibilities, and how your actions impact others. We read “Tom Sawyer” and “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” by Mark Twain. It never occurred to me that I was reading a tale of the trials of slavery and marginalizing the Black experience. To me, it was simply an adventure story, embarked upon by very different friends, who shared with each other their understanding of life. We read “Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel” by Virginia Lee Burton. It never occurred to me that this was a story about manipulation and greed. To me, it was simply a story of confidence, self-reliance, and the pride one can take in a job well-done.
I suppose all of those stories and their messages could have been interpreted either way, depending on the guidance I had in reading them. I believe, in that fact, lies the key. I had guidance in what I read, and an opportunity for honest, open discussion about everything I encountered on the printed page.
Hearing today, how so many voices are crying for diversity, yet simultaneously overlooking a greater opportunity for gentle inclusion, regardless of differences, frustrates me. The voices make me consider how other stories might be interpreted, and what might be removed from our shelves, and denied to our children for their own interpretation.
Indulge me a moment longer, as I reflect on one of my all-time favorite stories, “Winnie The Pooh” by A.A. Milne. This author and his tales of adventure and discovery were the reason I wanted to become an author so badly. In these stories, I found acceptance, love, reflection, understanding, and excitement. Stories of this bear and his band of dedicated, devoted friends will never leave my shelves… but I wondered, if Dr. Suess’ work can be marginalized – a thing I never thought possible – what of A.A. Milne’s work? What interpretation might these same individuals create to realign the Pooh stories? I imagine, they would begin by dissecting character…
Kanga: She is portrayed as a kind, nurturing, gentle soul. But, she could also be seen as one who is consistently taken advantage of and used in moments of manipulation because of her kind nature. And by the way, why is she the only female in this group? In one easy stroke, both women and altruism have become offended.
Tigger: The free spirit, the risk-taker, the embodiment of pure energy. Although, he could also be seen as one who has ADHD, one who can’t focus, one who needs constant reprimanding. Again, in one simple mistake of interpretation, special needs individuals are offended.
Rabbit: Detail oriented, a leader, one who insists on following a plan and takes charge, often guiding the others (albeit making mistakes sometimes). Sure, but, he could also be interpreted as being saddled with OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) which makes him less reliable because of his constant need for unachievable order inside of chaos. And there you have it, mental illness has been offended.
Piglet: The tender-heart, the cautious soul, the courage seeker. Give it a little thought, and he could also be retold as an enabler, an introvert with a tiny, inconsequential voice. Yup, once again, the emotions self-doubt and the speed at which different people learn and adapt has been offended.
Owl: The wise one, the one who thinks before he takes action, the researcher. And yet, he could also be seen as the nerd, overbearing, and an over-inflated megalomaniac. In one tiny moment positive self-esteem has now been offended.
Roo: The helper, the cheerleader. However, he could also be seen as the tagalong, the nuisance with no experience to offer the group. Positive attitude and enthusiasm have just been offended.
Pooh: The artist, the dreamer, the poet. Give it a moment, and he could also be seen as the airhead, the one with no direction or goals, a poor example to follow. Emotional, even-tempered thoughtfulness has now been offended.
Eeyore: The unassuming recluse, the independent observer, the one most comfortable in routine. Now, with very little work, he could also be seen as the embodiment of depression and paranoia. We’ve just offended those with a lack of confidence and mental health challenges.
Christopher Robin: The believer, the indulgent one, the patient one. How easy it would be to see him as an embarrassment to those who don’t believe, can’t indulge, and don’t have patience. At last, we’ve now offended hope.
If you haven’t discovered my meaning yet, let me make it very clear. Whenever we read literature, especially with children, we need to remember to include guidance and conversation to find meaning and understanding. The slippery slope of erasing books from our common experience because we are overly sensitive about offending with exclusivity is one that only gets slipperier as time moves forward.
Diversity expects that we see each other as different. Acceptance insists that we understand life’s experiences as unique to every individual. Civility requires that we are patient with those differences, and in our process to understand them. Eliminating the questions don’t make us smarter, more accepting, or more inclusive. Finding the answers and engaging in an open, honest discussion of our differences, does.
So sure, take away these books that offend you, for whatever reason. The problem will still be there. And it will get bigger because of the elimination of a forum to explore and discuss our commonalities along side our differences. The solution lies in acknowledgement and acceptance of our differences, and an enthusiastic celebration of those contrasts, not in hiding behind a wall of false equality and sociological perfection.
I don’t want to be the same as everyone else. I want to thrive in my uniqueness, and I want you to thrive in yours. Simple acceptance shouldn’t be this hard.
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