Relax! No One is Coming For Your “Green Eggs and Ham.”

Photo by Catherine Hammond on Unsplash

Yesterday was the birthday of beloved children’s author ‘Dr. Suess’. It was also the day that the company which owns the rights to his books, Dr. Suess Enterprises, announced that it would no longer publish six of his books because of their outdated racist imagery.

Fox News and other conservative outlets spent the day ranting against “cancel culture” and bemoaning the loss of access to Suess’s work. Many, many Americans agreed, and social media was deluged with complaints about censorship, book banning and overreactions by “woke” leftists.

Good heavens.

I am here to try to calm a few folks down. The prolific Dr. Suess did write 60 children’s books, after all, so even if six of them fall out of use, it’s not as if the man himself is being erased from history.

Here’s the thing, friends. Society evolves and grows. It changes over time, and that’s a very very good thing.

When my Dad was a child, back in the 1930s, he used to figure out whose turn it was to play by reciting, “Eeny-meeny-miney-moe, catch a n*^#ger by the toe.” By the time I was growing up in the ’50s and ’60s, we said “catch a tiger by the toe.” Because times had changed, and society was showing a bit of progress.

It wasn’t all that long ago that the first Black American actor to achieve success was known as “Stepin Fetchit“. He became a superstar in the 1930s by portraying a lazy, ignorant servant who got the best of his white bosses by refusing to work. Imagine that image on thousands of movie screens.

Now think of Chadwick Bozeman of “Black Panther” Fame. The King of Wakanda. Powerful, brilliant, sexy and strong.

Is it “cancel culture” that we would never again feel comfortable with a character like the former, but we are all in awe of the latter?

And if we want to talk about books, I can think back to the day when one of my favorite books was called “Little Black Sambo”. A little caricature of an African child is being chased by a tiger. He climbs a tree and gets the tiger to run in circles around it until the animal turns into butter (I know, right?) As a small child, I loved the pictures in the book. I loved the idea of tiger butter. I loved the color of the trees in the book. But I never even noticed the grossly enlarged lips or flattened nose of the boy.

I would never even consider showing that book to my grandkids now.

Is that “cancel culture”, or am I just more aware of racial stereotypes 60 years after reading that book? If that makes me “woke”, then I consider it a good thing.

Times change. Societies evolve. What might have looked funny decades ago is less acceptable now. What’s the problem with that?

If anyone feels a particularly deep love for “If I Ran the Zoo”, there are lots of copies in area libraries. Go get one. If somebody grew up just loving “To Think That I Saw it on Mulberry Street,” keep reading it to your grandkids. Nobody is coming to steal your books. Nobody is planning to throw them on the bonfire.

We’re just evolving and trying be better as humans and as Americans.

It isn’t “cancel culture”. It’s progress.

Read Aloud

Every day, no matter what else has gone on, I read aloud to my class.

They are fifth graders, growing tall, beginning to mature, just entering the terrible miracle of puberty.

You would think that they’d be too old to have an adult reading them stories, wouldn’t you?

They aren’t.

They love “Read Aloud”.  I love it even more.  In a time when so much of education is focused on gathering data, on scoring rubrics, on force feeding those Common Core State Standards, it is both a relief and a joy to settle into my chair after lunch, a good book in my hands, the children draped on the rug at my feet.

I love to watch them as I read to them; I love to see them as they react to the action.

Sometimes, when the book is familiar, I can glance at the text and then look out at the kids, knowing the words that are coming next.  I can really look at them in those moments, because they do not see me looking.  They are seeing the characters in the book, watching the action unfold.  They are unaware of the classroom around them, or the teacher who is looking at them tenderly as she reads.

I love to read the words, “She narrowed her eyes”, because I see those beautiful children trying it out, narrowing their own bright eyes.  I love to read, “He shook his head”, because so many of them shake theirs.

After lunch on a bright spring day, I love to read aloud to my class.  I see the unconscious smiles on the lips of the girls, watching as they twirl a bit of their hair around a finger.  I love to read aloud as those quickly growing boys sit, so uncharacteristically quiet, their gleaming eyes unseeing, the sweat in their hair drying, a smudge of dirt on their cheeks. I love to come to a moment of action, hearing their indrawn breath, catching the glances they throw at each other.

Most of all, I love to come to the end of a chapter, hearing them groan and complain as I place my bookmark in the pages that I am closing.

I love “Read Aloud”.

I hope that it is never subjected to a rubric, or lost to a misguided desire to teach them to read “at their own level.”


Walking away from me.

Katie's first sneakers looked just like these.

Katie’s first sneakers looked just like these.

My absolute favorite part of every school day is our “read aloud” time, right after lunch recess.  The kids come in all excited and energized from the free time outdoors.  Their cheeks are flushed, their hair is tousled and mussed.  The smell like childhood; warm and fresh and sweet.  They chatter and laugh as they hang up coats and pull off boots, then they toss themselves onto the rug in our meeting area, gathering around my chair.

I hold the book in my hand, waiting for them to settle in. I take a deep breath and begin to read.

This is the moment when my students are at their youngest and most innocent.  They gaze at me with wide eyes, their faces reflecting every event as it unfolds in the story. Sometimes they mimic the actions of the characters (“She grinned with delight”.  “He narrowed his eyes as he thought.”)  I can watch them think; its a priceless gift!

But this is also the moment when they are at their most intuitive and mature.  It is a miracle to watch a ten year old as she recognizes a metaphor and turns to her friend to describe it.  I watch them as they begin to understand grand themes of love, fear, courage, persistence, pride and patriotism.  They blossom like flowers under the influence of powerful literature.  Its a gift to be the one who reads to them and guides them as they grow.

Today I started the book “Heartbeat” by Sharon Creech.  I decided to read them this story because we’ll soon be writing and studying poetry, and I wanted them to hear the lilting rhythms of the book.  I chose this story because kids are supposed to understand character development and in this story, the narrator really comes of age.

I didn’t choose “Heartbeat” because of its universal themes of maternal love, but sometimes a book just reaches out and grabs you by the throat.  Even books that you’ve already read six or seven times.

In Sharon Creech’s story, the twelve year old narrator is a girl who loves to run. She runs for the sheer joy of the experience, and she tells her story as her running footsteps create the percussion line. “Thump-thump” goes the refrain; her footfalls creating the repetitive rhythm that is echoed by her heart.

In the story, the girl talks about how her Mother felt her “running” even before she was born, and how as she soon as she was born, her Mother feared that she would run away. That she would run right out of her Mother’s life.

And as I read those lines, I suddenly, sharply remembered the day when I bought my first child her first pair of shoes.  They were tiny pink sneakers, perfect and funny with their little bitty laces.  I remembered with perfect clarity how I sat my little girl on the changing table and slipped those tiny shoes onto her feet.  I remember cupping each foot in a palm, and running my thumbs over the toes.   I remember the aching in my throat, and how my eyes brimmed with tears.  As if it had happened today, I remembered myself looking into my baby’s deep brown eyes, and whispering, “Now you can walk away from me.”

My baby is a grown woman now, about to marry and ready to buy her first house.  She is independent and mature and strong.  She can run.

Sometimes, though, a book or an image or a line from a great piece of literature can remind me all too clearly of how briefly I held her in my arms and kept her close to my heart.