Horton Hears A Whinge

Most of the time, I’m very proud to be a primary school teacher in New Zealand. We work hard, we love our students, and we continually strive to improve our practice and get better.

Well, most of us. 

I lose a bit of faith in my profession occasionally when I go on the NZ Primary Teachers Facebook group. In amongst the amazing resources, good conversation and admittedly repetitive book recommendations, there exists a reactionary aspect that I find super depressing.

This was really evident yesterday in a discussion about Dr. Seuss.

The news? That Dr. Seuss’s estate had chosen to cease publication of six of his early works, citing racial imagery that they considered “hurtful and wrong.” They’re right. Dr Seuss’s early work contains a lot of racism, which was acknowledged by none other than Dr Seuss himself,  when he went back to make edits to the wording and illustrations in at least one of his works.

The six books that won’t be published anymore. Rest in Pulp.

Seems simple, right? Dr. Seuss wrote over 60 books. We’ve still got 90 percent of his work available for purchase. And the old copies of the out-of-print books aren’t going anywhere. They’re not banned. They won’t be burned. No one’s going to come and growl you for owning them.

This nuance was too complex for a few Seuss stalwarts. Highly agitated by the decision to stop publishing a half dozen books that nobody ever recommended in the “what should I read to my students next?” conversations, they ranted in the comments about the “fun police” and how the “world has gone bonkers”.

What would be banned next? one teacher lamented. Rainbow Fish? The BIBLE?!

What if I want to teach my kids about racism? I will need this book to show them the racial imagery!

Okay, dudette. 

1: It’s not banned. (The Bible, however, is heavily edited for children. Who wants to read Judges 19 to their kids? No one teaches that. Yuck.)

2. You still can teach If I Ran The Zoo if you really want. The book still exists.

3. Why the everloving FUCK would you want to?

I’m going to try not to swear in the rest of this post, but I feel this warranted an f-bomb. If you, white teacher, are planning to use racist imagery to teach primary school children about racism, then stop teaching immediately. That’s not how you do it. You do not need to show a cartoon image of Asian men with “slanty eyes” to teach racism to your multicultural students. Trust me, your Asian students have put up with this sort of nonsense from people already. The West is chock-full of anti-Asian racism, which has been connected with murder.  Children of colour do not need some dopey teacher with good intentions paving the road to a racist hell. And before you say “but Lou, that link leads to an American site, New Zealand is much kinder!”, here’s a link to our own ugly toxicity.

Most importantly, this isn’t up for debate. It is literally in the Teachers’ Code of Professional Responsibility and Standards of the Teaching Profession. We need to be protecting our students from harm, respecting diversity and culture, being fair, and effectively managing our assumptions and personal beliefs.

Whoomp, there it is.

Use your reading comprehension, teachers. Here we go:

Dr Seuss has not been “cancelled”. 

This is not “cancel culture”. Dr Seuss’ own estate is simply choosing to take six old books out of publication. This happens to books all the time. If we still published everything ever written, our planet would be drowning in pages. (I don’t moan because they stopped publishing Sweet Valley books. Those books were icons of my childhood, so you can cope with these ones vanishing. )

You can still purchase and teach all of his other books. The Lorax is great. Horton Hears a Who is cool. Go for it! It’s a free country! None of his books are banned, and there’s no plans for them to be!

OR, you could take a break from Seuss and teach a book from this century? There’s lots of good ones. As teachers, it’s our job to expose children to great books. This doesn’t just mean old classics. This means diverse books of all kinds, by diverse authors. This means that as teachers, we should be reading modern children’s literature and keeping up with “Best of 2020” lists, etc. We should be recommending new books. Don’t recommend the Famous Five, The BFG, or Holes to other teachers. We all know them. Everyone knows they’re good. Find newer stuff!

I introduced my reluctant reader students to Raina Telgemeier and Kazu Kibuishi this way, and they’re now massively popular authors. If you haven’t heard of them, teachers, you’re out of touch. My boys were queued up to read my copy of Smile until our librarian ordered Raina’s back catalogue. I had to tape up my Amulet series because it couldn’t handle the quantity of kids passing it around. Kids love when you can introduce a book to them. Libraries can be overwhelming with the amount of choice. A teacher saying, “try this, it’s awesome!” can be super helpful to all kinds of readers.

My worn out old Amulets, before the duct tape repair that kept their pages from completely falling out.

A couple of years ago, I was searching for a good book for my Year 5&6 class. I chose Morris Gleitzman’s Once, a story about a Jewish boy during World War 2. I chose it knowing I would have to provide context about the war, about antisemitism, and about the Nazi regime  to children aged 10 & 11. So I did. (And hey, I managed to do it without showing them any antisemitic children’s books or illustrations!)

They were free to ask any question they wanted – and they did, even about the main character’s circumcision! All of them loved the book, and wouldn’t leave me alone until I read the second one. I refused to continue after that, because I wanted to introduce them to other literature. So most of them requested the other 4 books in the series from the library themselves. They absorbed every copy in the Auckland library circuit and ended up having to reserve copies on a waitlist. It spread to the neighbouring Year 5&6 class. I had to instigate a school-wide spoiler ban. Several of the children went on to read other war-themed books, and one precocious and intelligent ten-year-old even began her own independent research project on the Nazis and the Holocaust, with full support from her parents. She began reading the Diary of Anne Frank. She ended up giving a Slides presentation to the rest of the class, completely of her own accord.

We have the power to inspire kids with our choice of texts. Don’t waste this opportunity by reading the same books and authors they’ve read every year.

Educate yourself before you participate

Yes, there are conversations about if the Cat in the Hat is appropriate. If you want to participate in that conversation, get educated about African-American stereotypes. Don’t just prance in claiming that you “just can’t see the problem!” Refusing to acknowledge other perspectives in a discussion doesn’t add anything of value and it just makes you look foolish. As teachers, we wouldn’t put up with it from our students. 

If you don’t want to educate yourself on the issues, that’s your choice. But in that case, just abstain from the conversation. You don’t have to have a strong opinion on everything, especially if you don’t know the facts. As teachers, we need to be comfortable saying, “I don’t have enough information to have an opinion on that.” In fact, we as people should all be able to say that. Being reactionary doesn’t benefit our profession, and it can damage our students.

And for heaven’s sake, read more than just the headlines before reacting. It’s embarrassing.

We get it, you liked the book as a kid. That’s okay.

Don’t pretend that anyone’s calling you racist for enjoying the books as a kid. You didn’t know the background of the images when you were a kid. That’s fine. But now you know, so what are you going to do?

Here’s a story. When I was a kid, I liked golliwog toys. I thought they were cute and friendly-looking. I had no idea what a minstrel was. When I learned the background in my late teens, I reflexively tried to insist that they were okay, that they didn’t mean anything here in New Zealand, it was different here. But you know what? I was wrong. When I was told I was wrong by a justifiably unimpressed African American girl online, I didn’t like it at first. It was hard to hear, because I didn’t like to think that I’d contributed to racism. I was a textbook case of white fragility. But once you’re told, you can’t plead ignorance anymore. And as an adult, I have a greater understanding of racial context and I know golliwogs are not okay. It’s about learning and growing. No one’s going to cancel you for liking these stories and toys as a kid. You can have a fond memory of them. But you can also change and grow as a person and acknowledge that context matters.

And as teachers, if we can’t have a growth mindset, then we need to leave the profession. We cannot expect our students to do things that we cannot be bothered doing. And that includes growing out of racist ideas.

32 replies on “Horton Hears A Whinge”

Very nicely put, too.
And thanks for the recommendations, too.
I look forward to giving them a bit of a squiz.

Thanks very much! Yes, there are some amazing things happening in children’s literature these days. If we limit ourselves to the old classics, no matter how good they are, we’re doing our students a disservice. Plus it’s great fun seeing their faces light up over new work that they can relate to.

I think you are spot on with your comments on this. It is beyond doubt that the books pulled by Dr Suess’s estate are simply not appropriate these days. But you make an excellent point it is OK to have liked these books, and other similar ones, as a child. As a mid-60’s pākehā, I now positively cringe at what we watched on television and read growing up in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s. I mean, the Black and White Minstrel Show? Love Thy Neighbour ? Sheesh. Completely unacceptable today and rightly so. But all still actually available on YouTube, as I discovered. Times change and we need to change with them and that’s is what we should be doing.

Good on you for your excellent post.

Thank you, yes!

As Maya Angelou said, “when you know better, do better.” I like to think we all know better than we did as children. 🙂

This is such an intelligent, well written antidote to the awful posts that keep popping up in my social media. Thank you

Thank you, I really appreciate you saying that. We should all be saying no to racism and pushing back on this sort of thing in our social media feeds. Anti-Asian racism in particular is on the rise and we all need to be making clear that it’s unacceptable.
Thanks for reading!

This is awesome. I’m a high school teacher and on the forums I get so mad when they ask for resources that are older than the kids grandparents. Yes, we really need to be reading some of the cool stuff that is coming out now. I’ve also been telling people that even Dr Seuss would have loved to redo or unpublish those books. He changed as the years went on and when people pointed things out to him. Like we all should as a society.

100%! He would absolutely support what’s being done – he wanted all children to be able to read his books and feel included! Thanks for reading. 🙂

Oh Lou, thank you for writing this! There are just too many points here that I can shout a hearty exclamation of agreement to – f-bombs and all. I find the NZ Teacher group on FB so damn frustrating for all the reasons you’ve so clearly laid bare. As a former teacher and teacher educator I find myself having to scroll away on a regular basis. Also, as a lifelong fan of Dr Seuss (I was reading Seuss before I started school) I was so pleased at the decision made by his estate. Very socially responsible of them. So seeing the uninformed whomping-on of some of the group just had me shaking my head in dismay.

Three cheers for Lou
For who?
For Lou!

Thank you so much! Yes, I frequently have to “just keep scrolling” on the page! There are so many excellent discussions, but then things like this pop up and show such glaring gaps in our profession’s progress. We’ll just have to keep pushing. I’m glad to know plenty like you are out there, though!

It’s good to be able to talk about these books and discuss why they are not appropriate anymore.

I really enjoy the Reina Telgemier books too. My children have read them many times – they can identify with some of the characters, which for them, makes the stories even more enjoyable.

Last week I came across a review that mentioned her story “Ghosts” is not really acceptable ( I don’t feel like I will stop my children reading it (we’ve read it together, and my daughter likes to get it out from the library to read again), but I now feel I’ve learnt more about how the Spanish Missions are portrayed and can help my children understand that there’s more to the story!

Thanks for sharing that! Yes, when I read that one it didn’t quite hit with me or my students in the same way that her other books did, but I wasn’t quite sure why. That article explains it well! It’s so helpful to get this context and this information added to my understanding. I read a great book called 1492 a few years back which was a real eye-opener about the initial “discovery” of America (the whole concept of ‘discovering’ a country that’s already inhabited is ludicrous, but don’t get me started! 😀 )

I think Raina’s come at this in an attempt to be diverse after reading how white main characters dominate children’s literature. Totally understandable goal, as white authors it can be a tricky path to tread. I reckon that, like you say, you can keep offering it, but provide that background understanding to kids.

Anyway, thanks so much for reading and adding to the awareness!

The Spinoff brought me here and I want to say well done for your article. After almost 40 years of teaching in 3 countries I can agree that the staffroom can at times be the most petty and destructive place and at other times the most creative and supportive place. It all depends on the culture of the school. Thanks for you honesty, the ‘f’ word is undervalued.

100% agree with all you have said. I have similar feelings towards the Primary Teachers page but I don’t think it is at all a representation of NZ teachers – just a vocal minority. Please don’t let this group contribute to you losing faith in the profession. Just like any social media platform, it is heavily used by those with something to whine about – sometimes trivial and sometimes bigoted racist views. And unfortunately these are probably also the teachers most unlikely to come across your article on the Spinoff! My colleagues and the teachers I surround myself with are not like this at all and it gives me great optimism in the values we are hopefully instilling in our students! Hopefully if we speak loud enough we’ll drown out the whiners!

Totes fan girling on this post e hoa!! Know better, do better. Know better and don’t do better, please find a new job and don’t educate our tamariki for a living!

That fb group made me despair about teachers in general, so much so I left the group and made an effort to find things to like about every teacher in my kids school…. cause I know for sure they are all like that. But the endless anti-racism education really got me exhausted and down. I really appreciate this critique!!!

A great read, thank you. I often have long expletive-laden rants about comments on this page in my head and am impressed with your articulate response!
I particularly agree with your white fragility comments. I recently read Robin Diangelo’s book on this topic and think it should be required reading for teachers.

Yes, it’s a great introduction to the ideas, especially with so many NZ schools attempting cultural awareness PD but not being sure how to go about it. I also really recommend How To Be An Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi, he puts forward the idea that we can be racist one minute and antiracist the next, depending on what our actions are in each moment. So many people seem to think racism is some permanent state of being and so they’re reluctant to look at themselves, when it’s actually totally possible to unlearn! Thanks for your thoughts!

Excellent post. Thank you.

(And you made me pick up a Bible for the first time in ages. Judges 19 — urk! No wonder I’d blotted it from my brain.)

Yes, no one really seems to put that story in children’s bibles – it’s almost as if we don’t want our children exposed to certain things! Funny that! Thanks for reading 🙂

Not a teacher but I love this Lou! Your role is so important in forming the minds of our rangatahi and with you as their teacher they can take over over the world! Ngā mihi.

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