Cat in the Hat cover

“Was the Cat in the Hat Black?” Philip Nel, New York: Oxford University Press, 2017. 278 pages, $30.

This important and challenging new book is a wonderful resource, particularly for teachers and parents. It’s written by K-State University distinguished professor of English Philip Nel, who is one of the world’s leading scholars in children’s literature, with previous published works on Crockett Johnson, Ruth Krauss, Harry Potter, and Dr. Seuss.

Although his main points are clearly and forcefully presented in this new book, many supporting arguments are quite nuanced and beyond what can be adequately and fairly presented in a brief review. Also, be aware that the book’s title really only refers to one issue covered in one chapter; the subtitle is actually what the book as a whole is about.

After an introduction describing the scope of the topic, Nel offers five thematic chapters, each exploring a different aspect of the problem of racism in children’s literature, plus a concluding chapter offering specific strategies to improve the situation. Although applicable more widely, most of Nel’s examples and arguments deal with anti-black racism, primarily in the U.S.

The first topical chapter deals with racism in Dr. Seuss, who, Nel recognizes, was a complex figure whose ideas on race apparently evolved greatly from his first works in the 1930s and his 1940s wartime propaganda cartoons to the bulk of his books written in the fifties and sixties, including even what could be seen as anti-racist works like Horton Hears a Who and The Sneetches. Still, Nel notes subtle persistence of racial stereotypes, such as the influence of the black minstrel image on The Cat in the Hat’s titular character.

Chapter 2 explores what Nel calls “how to read uncomfortably.” He sharply disagrees with those who say we should either ban books now considered racist or bowdlerize the offending sections in a revised version, e.g., substituting “slave” for the n-word in Mark Twain’s descriptions of Jim in Huckleberry Finn, redrawing the Oompa-Loompas in Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964) to look less African.

Rather, Nel argues that these works should be read in their original form, racist warts and all, but that they should be used as teachable moments for young readers. He further argues against the common dismissal of such literary verbal racism as “that’s just the way everybody thought then.” Children should also know that not everyone did think that way in any given historical period; for example, a sizable white minority in 1850 favored the abolition of slavery.

The third chapter talks about “racial erasures” where African Americans are not even mentioned or, even worse, are turned into white characters. Nel explores in detail William Joyce’s “The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore,” a story (and short film) set during Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. The problem, from Nel’s perspective, is that, while most of Katrina’s victims were black, all of the characters in Joyce’s story are white. Nel argues that this treatment confirms the ideology of “racial nostalgia” for a perceived simpler “pre-multicultural” time, even if that time never really existed. He also disputes the claim that a work cannot be considered racist if it portrays no characters of color; their mere absence is a type of racism.

Chapter 4 looks at “whitewashing,” where minority characters are present but may be played by white actors in the case of film, or imaged by white models on a book’s cover. He gives several examples of just such book covers. Nel argues, quite correctly, that a character presented as white on the cover of a book will likely be thought of as white when a reader starts reading, especially if the character is mixed-race or somewhat racially ambiguous.

The last topical chapter deals with the structural racism of the book publishing industry. Nel gives this questions careful scrutiny and identifies multiple reasons for it, as well as some suggestions for how to fix the problem. It is not simply the case that most editors are racist. They may or may not be but they work in an industry where covert structural and institutional racism is rampant, though often unrecognized.

The publishing picture is also unbalanced by genre. The proportionately fewer books that are published with African American characters are almost always in the categories of realism, history, or non-fiction, with very few in other genres.

The concluding chapter offers 19 concrete suggestions for action to reduce racism in children’s literature and its effects. While a few of these are specifically directed at publishers or writers, most are relevant to readers, parents, and the general public.

For those with scholarly interests, there are extensive notes and a bibliography. This book will be very thought-provoking for parents and a helpful resource as they deal with racism in children’s books.

Richard Harris is a professor emeritus of psychological sciences at K-State.

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