The first lady had donated books to one school in every state as part of 2017 National Read a Book Day on Sept. 6, and she promoted the event on Twitter. The event is part of a daily series of “National Today” holidays created by a PR and digital marketing agency based in San Francisco called PR Hacker, which include National Garlic Day (April 19) and National Eat Ice Day for Breakfast (Feb. 4).
Schools were chosen, according to the White House website, with help from the Education Department and selected for having “high standards of excellence” that have been recognized by state and national awards. It says that each selected school was receiving a package of 10 Dr. Seuss books, including “Green Eggs and Ham,” and “The Cat in the Hat.”
The selected school in Massachusetts was the Cambridgeport School, where library media specialist Liz Phipps Soeiro was not happy with Trump’s donation. She wrote a letter to the first lady and published it on The Horn Book website, saying she didn’t want the books for the school. She noted that her school is well-funded but many are not.
Meanwhile, school libraries around the country are being shuttered. Cities like Philadelphia, Chicago, and Detroit are suffering through expansion, privatization, and school “choice” with no interest in outcomes of children, their families, their teachers, and their schools. Are those kids any less deserving of books simply because of circumstances beyond their control? Why not go out of your way to gift books to underfunded and underprivileged communities that continue to be marginalized and maligned by policies put in place by Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos? Why not reflect on those “high standards of excellence” beyond only what the numbers suggest? Secretary DeVos would do well to scaffold and lift schools instead of punishing them with closures and slashed budgets.
She also wrote:
You may not be aware of this, but Dr. Seuss is a bit of a cliché, a tired and worn ambassador for children’s literature. As First Lady of the United States, you have an incredible platform with world-class resources at your fingertips. Just down the street you have access to a phenomenal children’s librarian: Dr. Carla Hayden, the current Librarian of Congress. I have no doubt Dr. Hayden would have given you some stellar recommendations.Another fact that many people are unaware of is that Dr. Seuss’s illustrations are steeped in racist propaganda, caricatures, and harmful stereotypes. Open one of his books (If I Ran a Zoo or And to Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street, for example), and you’ll see the racist mockery in his art. Grace Hwang Lynch’s School Library Journal article, “Is the Cat in the Hat Racist? Read Across America Shifts Away from Dr. Seuss and Toward Diverse Books,” reports on Katie Ishizuka’s work analyzing the minstrel characteristics and trope nature of Seuss’s characters. Scholar Philip Nel’s new book, Was the Cat in the Hat Black? The Hidden Racism of Children’s Literature, and the Need for Diverse Books, further explores and shines a spotlight on the systemic racism and oppression in education and literature.
Fortune magazine, reporting on the rejection, quoted the first lady’s office as saying in an email to the magazine:
“Mrs. Trump intends to use her platform as First Lady to help as many children as she can. She has demonstrated this in both actions and words since her husband took office, and sending books to schools across the country is but one example. Turning the gesture of sending young school children books into something divisive is unfortunate, but the First Lady remains committed to her efforts on behalf of children everywhere.”
As for the school district, the Boston Globe reported that it was distancing itself from the letter by Phipps Soeiro. It quoted a district statement as saying:
“While we enthusiastically support the political engagement and passion of our employees, in this instance the editorial posted online gave the impression that the statement reflected the position or actions of the Cambridge Public Schools. Our school district did not authorize any such statement.”