Philip Nel wants people to take children’s literature just as seriously as adult literature — even when it comes to difficult topics.
In his latest book, Nel, a K-State English professor and author, writes about the intersection of art and politics in children’s literature. “Was the Cat in the Hat Black?” by Philip Nel was published Aug. 7 and consists of five chapters in which Nel talks about the hidden racism in children’s books.
“Children’s books are the most important books that we read because we read them when we are still figuring out who we are, how the world works,” Nel said. “We read them when we are at our most impressionable.”
In the book, Nel argues that to change children’s literature we have to structurally alter the publishing industry and make commitments to hire more people of color in all phases of the industry.
Nel said the publishing industry and children’s literature is overwhelmingly white. He said 50 percent of school-aged children are non-white in the U.S., but 20 percent of children’s books published last year had main characters who were non-white. Not all of the books with main characters of color are written by non-white authors.
“To see yourself in a book tells you that you matter,” Nel said. “And to be ignored tells you that you don’t.”
He said “The Cat in the Hat” served as a good metaphor for the book because he is a well-known character and the title seemed like it would get people’s attention or make them wonder and want to pick up the book.
“The title ‘Is the Cat in the Hat Black?’ made the most sense because ‘The Cat in the Hat’ is a racially complicated figure and the book is talking about racism in children’s literature,” Nel said. “The Cat in the Hat is both influenced by blackface minstrelsy and by art created by people of color and by an actual person of color.”
Using animals to represent racial diversity
Nel said the Cat emerged in the 1950s, when Dr. Seuss was both speaking against racism and recycling racist caricature in his children’s books. Seuss published “The Sneeches” in 1953 and “Horton Hears a Who” in 1954, both of which had anti-discrimination messages. In that same decade, Nel said, Seuss wrote “If I Ran the Zoo” where Gerald McGrew travels around the world to get animals for his zoo.
“As he travels around the world, Seuss brings in race in caricature,” Nel said, referencing Seuss’ description of helpers “who wear their eyes at a slant” and Seuss’ drawings of Africans as caricature.
“If you want to think about the Cat in particular, he’s a black cat, he invades a white home and causes chaos,” Nel said. “On the one hand, that’s actually good because the children are bored out of their mind until he gets there. On the other hand, he is essentially other.”
The ways in which the Cat, or other cartoons in children’s literature, are racialized are not obvious to most people, Nel said.
“What’s interesting about children’s literature is racism often hides in it in ways that we don’t notice, in ways that we don’t see, in ways that we’re not even consciously aware of,” Nel said. And that’s worth talking about because that’s actually how racism works.”
Nel said people aren’t openly racist, rather people don’t usually realize how racism affects their thinking and it informs assumptions about both the world and daily life.
Seuss serves as an example of that, Nel said. He said Seuss was probably not aware that he was recycling racist stereotypes as he wrote anti-racist work.
“I think Seuss was anti-racist and racist,” Nel said. “And I don’t think that is a contradiction.”
Nel said Seuss wrote a blackface minstrel show for his high school and acted in it in blackface. During World War II, Seuss was writing anti-racist work, while also stereotyping Japanese people, Nel said.
“Seuss’s views on race are complicated and so the cat is also racially complicated,” Nel said. “And I don’t necessarily think it’s ways that people are gonna notice but I think it’s one of the ways in which subconsciously ideas enter our mind.”
Criticism leads to conversation
Nel said he’s seen an overall positive response to his writing, though there has been some negative response.
“You will always face some sort of resistance when you challenge conventional wisdom,” Nel said. “But that’s not an excuse for being silent. If you see something in the world that is wrong, you have a moral obligation to speak out against it.”
Many people think because they’re personally not racist or they personally don’t pick on people or treat them differently because of their race, they’re in the clear, Nel said, but that’s not how racism works. Racism is often invisible to white people but it still gives them an advantage, he said.
“Whether we endorse racism or don’t endorse racism, all white people are beneficiaries of white supremacy all the time. And as the major beneficiaries of white supremacy, we have the strongest moral obligation to speak out against it.”
Nel said he is open to criticism because it leads to conversations where people hopefully can learn from each other. He also said he tries to be conscious of his limitations on race because he is white.
Children also experience racism
In “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” the Oompa Loompas were originally African pygmies, which were revised to white creatures in the 1973 edition. Even after the change, the Oompa Loompas are still happily enslaved, Nel said.
“It suggests to children that there are some people who are clearly happier in a subservient position,” he said. “And that’s a way that enters children’s minds.”
Children, from their earliest days, experience race. For some children it’s more invisible than for others, Nel said. He said parents of white children can choose whether to talk to their children about racism, while parents of children of color don’t have that choice because their children will experience racism.
“Children of color face racism in their lives, and a responsible parent will try to help them cope with that, and one way you can help them cope with that is through children’s books,” Nel said. “You can have a safer conversation in a classroom, in a home, about racism, than you can if you just have to encounter it on your own.”
Teaching children that it’s OK to find a book offensive or and that it’s OK if a book makes them angry is important because it provides a target for their anger, Nel said.
“I think that children understand more than they can articulate,” Nel said. “And if you are wounded by something but lack the language or the experience to make sense of that, that creates a deeper wound.”
His goal in writing his books is to teach people that children’s literature is as important as adult literature. He hopes people take children’s literature seriously, and he hopes people read his work and take a different approach to teaching children’s books to children.
“I don’t know how many people I will reach, but you have to try,” Nel said.
He said talking to children about race is not fun or comfortable, but it’s necessary. He said he understands people’s impulse to want to keep children innocent and protect them by avoiding difficult conversations, but keeping the truth from them doesn’t help.
“Ignorance is not a protection,” Nel said. “Ignorance is a liability. Ignorance puts them in greater danger.”