Below is a Q&A I did with Nel about his book and about the state of children’s literature today. Nel has written and spoken extensively about literature for young people, and next month he will convene a panel at the Modern Language Association convention in New York City titled “Calling Dumbledore’s Army: Activist Children’s Literature,” which will examine children’s literature as a vehicle for social change. Earlier books include “Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children’s Literature” as well as “Dr. Seuss: American Icon” and “J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter Novels: A Reader’s Guide.”
Here’s the discussion I had with Nel:
Q: I get a lot of education books, but the title of yours made it stand out. “Was the Cat in the Hat Black?” Why did you give it that title?
A: Three reasons. First, it’s a riff on the title of Shelley Fisher Fishkin’s “Was Huck Black?: Mark Twain and African American Voices.” She’s interested in how considering the influence of black voices on Twain’s famous character helps desegregate American literature. In the book’s title chapter, I’m interested in how the mixed racial heritage of the Cat in the Hat helps desegregate children’s literature.
Second, the Cat in the Hat is in the title because he’s the ideal metaphor for the often unseen ways in which racism persists in children’s culture. To be clear (and contrary to some of the news stories on the book), my argument is not that the Cat in the Hat is racist. As a character, he is racially complicated, inspired by blackface minstrelsy and by an actual person of color — Houghton Mifflin elevator operator Annie Williams, an African American who wore white gloves and a secret smile. Also, with reference to the blackface influence, it’s not at all unusual to find apparently discarded racial images and ideas circulating in children’s culture. Blackface minstrelsy persists in the white-gloved hands of Bugs Bunny and the outlandish outfit (including white gloves) of Mickey Mouse. The Cat is not unusual.
What makes the Cat so interesting and representative (and suitable for a book title) is that, during the same decade “The Cat in the Hat” was published, Dr. Seuss was both speaking out against racism and recycling racist caricature in his books. In other words, the Cat is somewhere in between the actively anti-racist work of “Horton Hears a Who!” (1954) and “The Sneetches” (1961, first version published in Redbook in 1953) and the works that recycle stereotypes — “If I Ran the Zoo” (1950), “Scrambled Eggs Super!” (1953), or even “And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street” (1937). Seuss’s career is a great example of the insidiousness of racism. At the same time he’s doing powerful anti-racist children’s books, he’s also recycling racist caricature. Seuss is a reminder of how racism infects our minds in ways that we’re not aware. He’s a reminder that people who say “I don’t have as racist bone in my body” do not understand how racism actually works — a subject the book addresses via different children’s books in other chapters.
Third, I want people to think about the effect that childhood culture has on the minds of young people. That’s why I’m asking a question. The question is not only, was the “Cat in the Hat” black? But what would it mean to us if he were? What do we do when we realize that cherished childhood books and films and games may also harbor stereotypes? Seuss is one of our most popular and influential children’s writers, but the book is not only about him. It is (as the subtitle says) more broadly about the hidden racism of children’s literature and the need for diverse books. Because he is so well-known (and racially complicated), the Cat is a useful character for starting that conversation.
Q: Has anything changed in children’s literature in terms of representations of nonwhite people? And if so, when did it start to happen and why?
A: Yes, children’s literature has changed. Kate Capshaw and Anna Mae Duane’s new book, “Who Writes for Black Children?: African American Literature Before 1900″ (2017), finds examples of texts read by and written for black children in the 19th century. In the 20th century, there are three distinct periods of the development of African American children’s literature, the first of which is in the 1920s and 1930s. From 1920 to 1922, W.E.B. Du Bois published “The Brownies’ Book,” a monthly magazine “for the children of the sun,” co-edited by Jessie Fauset. It published works for children by many notable African American writers, including James Weldon Johnson, Nella Larsen and an 18-year-old Langston Hughes. In 1932, Hughes and Arna Bontemps would become the first two writers of color to have original work for children issued by a major publishing house: Hughes’s “The Dream Keeper and Other Poems” (Knopf), and Hughes and Bontemps’s “Popo and Fifina: Children of Haiti” (Macmillan).
The second period emerges from the anti-racist sentiment post-World War II. Jesse Jackson (the novelist, not the civil rights leader) published “Call Me Charley” (1945) and “Anchor Man” (1947) — both via Harper. In this second period, mainstream presses do publish books by black authors, but never enough and often addressed more to white audiences. For instance, Jackson’s books are about a black child finding acceptance in a white community.
The third period begins in the 1960s. Aided by Nancy Larrick’s classic essay “The All-White World of Children’s Books” (Saturday Review, 1965), the Council on Interracial Books for Children and the Black Arts Movement, writers of color begin to become a real (if still small) presence in mainstream publishing, and begin telling their own stories in larger numbers — still not enough books, but definitely addressing the experiences of readers of color. From Lucile Clifton’s “The Black BC’s” (1970) and Mildred Taylor’s “Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry” (1976) up through Kadir Nelson’s “We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball” (2008) and Rita Williams-Garcia’s “One Crazy Summer” (2010), books both celebrate the experiences of people of color and acknowledge that racism is not merely personal — it’s structural.
So, over the last 150 years, there has been change, but we still have a long way to go. In the United States, half of school-age children are nonwhite. Yet only 22 percent of children’s books published in 2016 featured nonwhite children, and only 13 percent of children’s books published in 2016 were by nonwhite creators. There’s still a huge gap between the school-age demographic and the types of stories getting told.
My hope is that in the United States, we’re now entering a fourth phase, in which the percentage of books featuring non-whites published annually gets closer to the percentage of nonwhite children, and in which multicultural children’s literature represents a wider range of stories. Much multicultural children’s is history, realism, autobiography, biography. There are very few fantasy novels, dystopias, or science fiction books for children featuring people of color. As I say, my hope is that we are moving in this direction. It’s too early to declare that we’re in this fourth phase, but that’s what I hope — and what we must fight for.
Q: Can you talk more deeply about the value for students of all colors to have literature that represents, literally, the world of experience?
A: Sure. To clarify, I wouldn’t say that literature needs to be a “literal” representation of “the world of experience.” There are many ways to get at the truths of our various life experiences. I just finished reading N.K. Jemisin’s “Broken Earth” trilogy, speculative fiction that explores the effects of structural racism, exploitation of nature and challenges of motherhood. All of its truths are drawn from the world of experience but set in a parallel universe.
Though literal realism isn’t required, it’s important for all children to meet characters of all races and many varieties of experience. Because representation is about power. If you’re mainly reading books about straight white boys and men, the message you receive is that straight white boys and men are — and should be — at the center of the universe. A steady literary diet of such books risks creating arrogant, self-centered white boys, and it risks telling all others that their stories are just not as worth telling, that they are less important. In contrast, reading books by Ibi Zoboi or Jacqueline Woodson or Daniel Jose Older is good for everyone. Children whose identities intersect with their characters’ identities see themselves reflected in the books they read. They learn that their stories matter, and that they are not alone. And the white boys reading these books can expand their understanding of humanity and cultivate empathy for lives different than their own.
Literature expands our emotional lives. Stories show us how we are connected — offering “a glimpse across the limits of our self,” as Hisham Matar says of art more generally. Books for young people reach selves still very much in the process of becoming; minds that have not yet been made up; future adults who can learn respect instead of suspicion, understanding instead of fear, and even love.
Q: Do you have favorite books to recommend for children to read?
A: For younger children, these picture books: Jim Averbeck and Yasmeen Ismail’s “One Word from Sophia,” in which the race of the precocious, funny, nonwhite protagonist is incidental to the narrative; Julie Kim’s “Where’s Halmoni?” which finds two children searching for their grandmother in a world inspired by Korean folklore; Sarvinder Naberhaus and Kadir Nelson’s “Blue Sky White Stars,” for its gorgeous vision of a multicultural America; Francesca Sanna’s “The Journey,” for visual metaphors that express the emotional turbulence of a refugee family seeking a new home.
For middle-schoolers (and older readers) who love comics, G. Willow Wilson’s Ms. Marvel graphic novels featuring Pakistani American Kamala Khan in the title role. For teens (and older readers) who love comics, Thi Bui’s “The Best We Could Do: An Illustrated Memoir.”
For teens, right now I’m reading Cherie Dimaline’s “The Marrow Thieves,” a fascinating dystopia set in a future Canada where all but the indigenous have lost the ability to dream. I’d also recommend Angie Thomas’s “The Hate U Give” and Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely’s “All American Boys” — both riveting, character-driven realistic novels that explore the movement for black lives.