Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Geisel - Reconciling the Man, the Award, and the Legacy

Today's post was co-written by Robbin Friedman and Danielle Jones. Robbin is a children's librarian at the Chappaqua Library. She writes reviews for School Library Journal, serves on ALSC's Budget Committee, and reads a lot of science fiction. Danielle is a youth and teen librarian in Portland, Oregon. She has served on the 2018 Sibert Committee and the 2016 ALSC Notable Children’s Books Committee. 

You all know the story. Theodor Seuss Geisel, writing under the goofy pen-name Dr. Seuss, produced nearly 60 children’s books, one unbeloved adult book, and hundreds of cartoons during his decades-long career in publishing. After several successful books, his publisher challenged him to write an early reader primer that would offer entertainment and a limited vocabulary. The 1957 publication of The Cat in the Hat has been seen as revolutionizing early readers with the possibility that they could be engaging while supporting early literacy. 

The Geisel Award—funded through an endowment from the San Diego Foundation’s Dr. Seuss Fund—was first presented in 2006 and is administered by the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC) to be given annually “to the most distinguished American book for beginning readers.” Concentrating on the factors that made the Seuss’ Beginning Readers so popular for generations learning to read, the criteria emphasize the ways a book fosters engagement and motivates readers. 

Recently, ALSC has been reevaluating the organization’s prestigious awards' namesakes. Responding to growing concerns that racist content in the namesakes’ books doesn’t align with ALSC’s mission, an Awards Program Review Task Force was created. Notably, they found the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award to have an “inconsistency between Wilder’s legacy and ALSC’s core values.” In 2018, after research, a survey of the division’s membership, and a recommendation from the task force, the ALSC board voted to rename it the Children’s Literature Legacy Award. The task force continued to collect information on additional award names, including the Newbery, Caldecott, Sibert, and, yes, the Geisel. 

For these awards, the concern remains: Do the messages conveyed by the work of honoree-in-name align with ALSC’s mission and goals? Do award books “demonstrate integrity and respect for all children’s lives and experiences?” How do we apply these questions to Seuss? 

Many have begun to debate Dr. Seuss’s prominence in the field of children’s literature. Advocates point to Geisel’s long history of racist tropes in children’s books and political cartoons. Scholars including Philip Nel, Katie Ishizuka, and Ramon Stephens have written extensively about white supremacist images and ideas in Dr. Seuss’s work, including the anti-black minstrel background of the Cat in the Hat and anti-Asian depictions appearing over decades. 

Does our society’s continued reverence of his work perpetuate racist ideas among the youngest readers? Do these images and tropes exclude some readers from his buoyant universe and take space from positive, inclusive representations? Celebrations like the National Education Association’s Read Across America Day (held on March 2, Geisel’s birthday), have de-emphasized his importance in their mission, focusing instead on diversity. 

Others argue Seuss holds a special position among writers of beginning readers for his ability to pair entertainment with early literacy, and some assert that intergenerational love for his work carries its own weight and value. As with the Wilder debate, some proponents caution against historical revisionism, arguing we must live with our history and teach the context. Geisel Honoree Grace Lin contends that Dr. Seuss evolved in his thinking and his later work reflects attempts to make amends for earlier bigotry. Lin celebrates the artist’s growth as a human being, as demonstrated in later beloved books, and proudly stands by the award with his name and image. 

So, Guessing Geisel community, what does the medal mean to you? How do you think we should honor our most distinguished books for beginning readers? 

As a reminder, Guessing Geisel is in no way affiliated with nor reflective of the views of this year’s Real Committee for the Theodor Seuss Geisel Award, whose selections will be announced at the ALA Midwinter Meeting Youth Media Awards. Opinions stated here do not reflect the attitudes or opinions of ALSC, SLJ, Booklist, or any other institutions with which the authors are affiliated. Our thoughts on eligibility or the strength of a contender are entirely speculation.

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