As a short respite from worrying about all that is going on in the world, I was absorbed by the recent brouhaha surrounding the Massachusetts school librarian who rejected Melania Trump’s book donation of Dr Seuss books, saying they should go to less privileged communities. The librarian, Liz Phipps Soeiro, offered an alternative list of books. I should underline that among the titles are two Caribbean-themed books: Edwidge Danticat’s Mama’s Nightingale, in which a Haitian American child’s mother is imprisoned for having no papers; and Drum Dream Girl: How One Girl’s Courage Changed Music, by Margarita Engle, about a “Chinese-African-Cuban girl who broke Cuba’s traditional taboo against female drummers.” Here are excerpts from the article (The Guardian):
Trump had sent a collection of 10 Seuss books, including The Cat in the Hat and Green Eggs and Ham, to schools across the country to mark National Read a Book Day. One school in each state, identified by the US department of education as having achieved high standards of excellence, received a package along with a letter signed by the first lady telling pupils that “the key to achieving your dreams begins with learning to read”.
But Liz Phipps Soeiro, an award-winning school librarian at Cambridgeport elementary school in Massachusetts, turned down the offer, saying that her school has no need for the books. In a letter posted on the Horn Book site, she suggested that Trump should send the books to schools with fewer resources.
“Why not go out of your way to gift books to underfunded and underprivileged communities that continue to be marginalised and maligned by policies put in place by Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos?” Phipps Soeiro asked. “Why not reflect on those ‘high standards of excellence’ beyond only what the numbers suggest? Secretary DeVos would do well to scaffold and lift schools instead of punishing them with closures and slashed budgets.”
The librarian, who won School Library Journal’s hero of family outreach award last month, went on to criticise Trump’s choice of books. “You may not be aware of this, but Dr Seuss is a bit of a cliche, a tired and worn ambassador for children’s literature,” she wrote, adding that “another fact that many people are unaware of is that Dr Seuss’s illustrations are steeped in racist propaganda, caricatures, and harmful stereotypes”. According to Phipps Soeiro, Seuss’s artwork in books such as If I Ran a Zoo contains “racist mockery”.
“I am honoured that you recognized my students and our school. I can think of no better gift for children than books; it was a wonderful gesture, if one that could have been better thought out,” she wrote, sending Trump a list of 10 alternative books “that I hope will offer you a window into the lives of the many children affected by the policies of your husband’s administration”. Among them are Auntie Yang’s Great Soybean Picnic by Ginnie and Beth Lo, which looks at the homesickness of immigrants, and Edwidge Danticat’s Mama’s Nightingale, in which a Haitian American child’s mother is imprisoned for having no papers. Phipps Soeiro said she hoped the titles would help Trump see “the beautiful resilience of children who stand up to racism and oppression and for social justice and reform”.