America is again in a period of civil rights activism, and one of the key places that racism continues to hide is books for young people. Was the Cat in the Hat Black? deftly diagnoses this systemic problem and offers concrete suggestions on how we may combat it in children's and young adult literature.
Philip Nel is University Distinguished Professor of English at Kansas State University. His many books include Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children's Literature (UP Mississippi, 2012), Tales for Little Rebels: A Collection of Radical Children's Literature (NYU Press, 2008, co-edited with Julia Mickenberg), The Annotated Cat: Under the Hats of Seuss and His
Cats (Random House, 2007), and Dr. Seuss: American Icon (Continuum, 2004).
In each chapter, the author demonstrates why he is considered a master in his field, as he faultlessly blends history and anecdote with insightful criticism. The second chapter, which discusses attempts to sanitize books such as Huckleberry Finn, is particularly enlightening. Directly addressing Alan Gribben's edition of the book, which removes the "N-Word," Nel adeptly points out that removing it not only misses the point of Twain's work, but also makes the book's
racism more covert and therefore more insidious...A fascinating and necessary critical work. * Kirkus Reviews * In this carefully constructed analysis, Nel brilliantly strips away the mask of innocence from
Seuss's Cat in the Hat, layer by layer, to reveal the Cat's complex and sordid racial history.
Placing this famous feline alongside other time-honored classic characters from American
children's literature, Nel removes 'Whiteness's invisibility cloak.' He explodes the excuses that well-meaning scholars have made for these texts for decades, then makes a convincing
argument for why young readers need to be exposed to unbowdlerized racist texts from
historical and contemporary American literature. A straight, White male scholar, Nel advises:
'Don't just be an ally. Be an accomplice.' As an African American female scholar, I am glad
to have Nel alongside us on these front lines. * Michelle Martin, University of Washington * A state-of-the-art study of race and racism in U.S. children's literature and an impassioned
plea to debate its complexity, Was the Cat in the Hat Black? compellingly discerns the racial figurations hiding in plain sight. With theoretical acuity and prodigious learning, Nel shows that the answer to his title demands the cunning and high spirits of the children's books themselves. Thing One and Thing Two, take note. * Eric Lott, Graduate Center, City University of New York * Philip Nel's provocative book investigates the role of whiteness in creating conventions of
children's literature and speaks directly to the field's profound omissions, defamations, and
erasures. Not only does Nel excavate the hidden lineages and vexed investments of major
authors like Theodor Geisel, but his argument demonstrates why this kind of interrogative
work is fundamentally ethical and necessary to the field. A thoughtful, courageous book,
Was the Cat in the Hat Black? links scholarship to activism, inspiring us to engage more fully race theory in our pedagogy, writing, and social practice. * Katharine Capshaw, University of Connecticut * In this powerful, deeply-researched, accessible study, Nel exposes the racial power of children's literature. A rousing call to consciousness and action, Was the Cat in the Hat
Black? shows how children's literature [can] help build an anti-racist future. This book should be required reading for everyone-scholars, librarians, teachers, authors, readers, and more-who cares about children's literature. * Robin Bernstein, Harvard University * Like a detective working a literary crime scene, Nel patiently builds his case by piecing together clues and evidence in well-known stories from Dr. Seuss, and in the current young adult fiction renaissance. Nel uses such terms as invisible, covert, hidden, absence and erasure more than 70 times, by my count, to describe systemic racism's clandestine modus operandi. * John Murawski, News and Observer * The strength of Nel's book is accessibility. Nel's analysis is thought provoking and deep, and his tone and style open the discussion to a wide audience. Nel concludes with a "manifesto" that lists actions all readers can easily accomplish, and this call to action adds to the book's impact. Though the need for diversity in children's books has been the subject of numerous articles and blogs, Nel's book is the first detailed scholarly examination of this subject.
Joining Suriyan Panlay's Racism in Contemporary African American Children's and Young Adult Literature (2016), which examines internalized racism in fiction by African American authors, Nel's book is required reading. ... Summing Up: Essential. Lower division undergraduates through faculty and
professionals; general readers. * P.J. Kurtz, CHOICE * CHOICE Outstanding Academic Title (2018)
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