Eggs gross me out. They grossed me out as a kid, and the slimy appearance of egg whites still make me wince as an adult. I fully understood and enjoyed Dr. Seuss’ book “Green Eggs and Ham,” the fourth best-selling children’s hardcover title of all time.
I do not like them, Sam-I-Am … I would not like them here or there. I would not like them anywhere.
It was a fun book to read and co-sign as a kid. So imagine my surprise when I heard that this children’s book was banned in China in 1965 “for its portrayal of early Marxism.” The ban wasn’t lifted until almost 30 years later in 1991, the same year Dr. Seuss died. I rolled my eyes and ignored the banned book protests. People are always overreacting to creative arts.
But it was absolutely impossible to ignore the Dr. Seuss trending topic yesterday, specifically these kinds of anti-Japanese drawings and finding out he performed in a minstrel show. And now six Dr. Seuss books have reportedly stopped publication for racist imagery: “And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street” (1937); “If I Ran the Zoo” (1950), “McElligot’s Pool” (1947); “Scrambled Eggs Super!” (1953); “On Beyond Zebra!” (1955) and “The Cat’s Quizzer” (1976). I was no longer rolling my eyes. Now I was paying attention, and it was impossible to defend my favorite childhood author.
But a bigger and troubling question for me was, “What in the world would I have read as a child without Dr. Seuss?” Besides Berenstain Bears, he was my go-to author until I got to pre-teen ages with R.L. Stine and Ann M. Martin.
For the longest time, I wanted to see the banned episode of “Black-Ish” that ABC refused to air. The activist in me thought it was full of all kinds of foul words and righteousness. I envisioned everything from black gloves and afros to marches and chains. When “Please, Baby, Please” was released on Hulu, I signed up for a membership just to watch that one episode and was left thinking, “That’s it? That’s what I waited for all this time?” My imagination thought this episode would put director Spike Lee’s “Malcolm X” to shame. But about the only thing that surprised me was seeing Spike Lee’s actual book “Please, Baby, Please” featured in the show.
While I rolled my eyes at ABC’s overreaction — and by default, showing us exactly where they stand on politics and racism — I was delighted to see that book again. It was the first and only children’s book I could find for my nephews when they were kids. Every other children’s book had blue-eyed, blonde children that looked nothing like them, and I was adamant that they be able to see kids who mirrored their own image. I bought that book for my youngest nephew and Hill Harper’s “Letters to a Young Brother” for my older nephew.
How ‘The Babysitters Club’ influenced black girls like me
As a kid, I counted down the minutes until library book sales started in my elementary school. While I was definitely going to buy any “Ramona” books I could find and check out what was going on in “Fear Street” and “Goosebumps” books from R.L. Stine, I was really trying to dig up all the “The Babysitter’s Club” Super Specials. I had more than 100 “The Babysitter’s Club” books and at least 10 Super Specials, and I wanted to know what those babysitters were up to — specifically Jessica.
I’d paid absolutely no attention to ballet as a child until a hip-hop ballet group came to my school. That intrigued me enough to figure out who Alvin Ailey was. Shortly after, author Ann M. Martin introduced her readers to an African-American ballerina named Jessica in “Hello, Mallory” (1988), plus an Asian character like Claudia who was a main character fairly early on. By the time I found out Jessica could speak sign language (1995), my mind was officially blown. “The Babysitter’s Club” was different, and I wanted to know everything they were doing.
Why the Board of Education should pay attention to Young, Black & Lit
While the Board of Education, mainstream publishing industries and an uncomfortable amount of K-12 instructors don’t realize why this matters so much, being able to see oneself in literature does wonders for a child’s interest in English and Creative Writing. It made me want to be an author in the first place.
So I applaud organizations like Young, Black & Lit, which provides free books that feature black main characters. According to CNN, the organization has distributed more than 5,000 books in the Chicagoland area through book fairs, community groups and schools. Chicago takes a lot of flak for national news coverage and crime rates, but these are the stories that make me puff my chest out and wish would get more coverage.
While I was one of those kids who could devour a Stephen King horror book in sixth grade and could talk endlessly about Archie comic books, I was also a girl who read the autobiography before seeing the “Malcolm X” film in theaters and read the Roots series. It is indeed possible to let a kid be a kid with care-free fiction of all races while reading literature with more depth.
However, it was easier for me to find nonfiction books about black people than it ever was to find brown faces in young adult fiction though. So my childhood reading was often reading about a world of white kids living their best K-12 lives — until Ann M. Martin released another book. I crossed my fingers and hoped Jessica would make an appearance in each one. I even wrote a fan letter to Martin about my interest in being an author. Imagine my surprise when she personally wrote a letter back to me and mentioned my dreams of being a writer. I was dumbfounded. But why was Martin my only option?
According to Young, Black & Lit, 10 percent of children’s books published in 2018 depicted African/African-American characters. That’s more than two decades after I left elementary school — and I could only think of one African-American book character throughout my entire childhood. (If I’d have known who Black Panther was, I’d have collected that entire series, too.)
In a Scholastics study, “USC professor emeritus Stephen Krashen found that students attending schools in Beverly Hills had access to eight times as many books in their classrooms as students attending schools in the high poverty and largely African-American communities of Watts and Compton.”
While my parents were adamant about sending me to a school (right across the street) with an endless supply of books and library classes, my biggest complaint was being able to find characters who looked like me. But some kids cannot find a reasonable amount of books altogether in their schools. What helped me search for more books was having two parents who loved to read and had the finances to pay for me to collect even more books outside of school. Had they not been bookworms, I’m not sure I would’ve latched onto this hobby so tough.
So while we can be frustrated regarding Dr. Seuss’ past works and the lack of African-American characters in K-12 books from public and private schools, what I think we really need to do is start investing in dollars and time to support African- and African-American authors, and other writers of color, who can show K-12 kids examples of ourselves in a better light. Please, Baby, Please. And supporting companies like Young, Black & Lit is one step in the right direction.
Editor’s Note: This blog was written by Shamontiel L. Vaughn. Parts of this post have been republished from her medium “I Do See Color” entry available here.