by Philip Nel
February is Black History Month, which is a time to celebrate Black voices and Black lives while also recognizing the work that must be done in the present to ensure diversity and racial justice is part of the future. One part of this necessary work is highlighting the importance of creating ongoing conversations around diversity and representation, beyond the single month of February. A place to look to in creating such conversations is that of children’s literature. Movements like the We Need Diverse Books movement advocate for diversity in children’s literature, fighting for the publishing industry to create books in which all children see themselves reflected while simultaneously arguing against problematic representations of race. A critical part of this work is to examine where such representations have occurred and continue to occur, identifying where conversation and change is necessary. Philip Nel’s Was the Cat in the Hat Black? does exactly that.
A scholar in children’s literature, Nel examines how racist stereotypes and representation in children’s books perpetuate racism in adulthood, shielded by the presumed innocence of childhood culture. Analyzing works dating back to the early 1900s, Nel illustrates how, historically, children’s literature has incorporated both overt racism and subtler racism and also establishes the contexts from which such racism has emerged. He identifies how publishers have attempted to obliterate racist representations through omission of race, and how such omissions create more harm than good. Though much of his focus, as the title would suggest, is on analysis of Dr. Seuss’s works, Nel also evaluates both older works and newer pieces. Finally, while much of the book is dedicated to identifying the problematic nature of many children’s books, Nel establishes how children’s books can also combat racist ideologies, concluding with 19 suggestions for how to begin the process of change and minimize the diversity gap currently present in children’s literature.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book. It is worth noting that Nel is clearly an academic writer, which is evident through the tone of the book and the consistently cited research. As such, I found this to be a slower read: both due to the density of the content and the richness of its delivery. I found I often would read, put the book down for a bit to consider it, and then begin again. Despite its density, however, I could not stop thinking about this book; Nel’s writing is engaging and the arguments are well-considered, founded in research, and thought-provoking. I would highly recommend this book to anyone looking to approach children’s literature from a critical evaluative lens and to anyone seeking ideas for discussing representation with young readers.