University of Cambridge > Talks.cam > Pedagogy, Language, Arts & Culture in Education (PLACE) Group Seminars > Was the Cat in the Hat Black?: The Hidden Racism of Children’s Literature, and the Need for Diverse Books

Was the Cat in the Hat Black?: The Hidden Racism of Children’s Literature, and the Need for Diverse Books

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Racism is resilient, duplicitous, and endlessly adaptable. So, it is no surprise that America is again in a period of civil rights activism. A significant reason racism endures is because it is structural: it’s embedded in culture and in institutions. One of the places that racism hides—and thus perhaps the best place to oppose it—is books for young people. What we learn in childhood imparts both subtle and explicit lessons about whose lives matter.

Was the Cat in the Hat Black? presents five serious critiques of the history and current state of children’s literature’s tempestuous relationship with both implicit and explicit forms of racism. The book fearlessly examines topics both vivid—such as The Cat in the Hat’s roots in blackface minstrelsy—and more opaque, like how the children’s book industry perpetuates structural racism via whitewashed covers, even while making modest efforts to increase diversity. Rooted in research yet written with a lively, crackling touch, Nel delves into years of literary criticism and recent sociological data in order to show a better way forward. The text concludes with a short and stark proposal of actions everyone—reader, author, publisher, scholar, citizen— can take to fight the racism that infects our children’s books and our lives. While Was the Cat in the Hat Black? does not assume it has all the answers to such a deeply systemic problem, its audacity should stimulate discussion and activism.

Philip Nel is an American scholar of children’s literature and University Distinguished Professor of English at Kansas State University. He is best known for his work on Dr Seuss and Harry Potter. Nel’s biography of Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss was published in 2012 by the University Press of Mississippi. He is also the co-editor of Keywords for Children’s Literature.

This talk is part of the Pedagogy, Language, Arts & Culture in Education (PLACE) Group Seminars series.

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