Was the Cat in the Hat Black? by Philip Nel is a very interesting book about various aspects of racism within children’s and young adult literature.
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.
Was the Cat in the Hat Black? presents five serious critiques of the history and current state of children’s literature 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 can perpetuate structural racism via whitewashed covers even while making 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. Though much of what is proposed here could be endlessly argued, the knowledge that what we learn in childhood imparts both subtle and explicit lessons about whose lives matter is not debatable. The text concludes with a short and stark proposal of actions everyone-reader, author, publisher, scholar, citizen- can take to fight the biases and prejudices that infect children’s literature. 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.
I was initially interested in this book because of the title – it’s not something you read every day! When I read the full summary of the book, I know that I had to request it on Netgalley. As many of you are aware, I am going to be going into the publishing industry at some point in the next couple of years, and I want to do everything in my power to ensure that the books I help publish are quality diverse fiction, particularly in YA. I thought that this book may be able to give me a new insight into the insidious nature of racism within children’s literature, so I may be on the look out for it in my future career.
This book brought up and discussed a lot of fascinating points about racism in children’s and YA literature, and often focused on specific examples, many of which were from books I myself read as a child. (For example, did you know that the Oompa Loompas were originally small African men forced to live in Willy Wonka’s factory? Go here to see the ways that the illustrations have been altered throughout the years.) This really made me take a hard look at the children’s literature that I grew up with and often look back at with nostalgia. I won’t go into the details of everything he talks about in this book, but there’s a really great discussion about the ways that overt minstrelsy is just one aspect of the racism within children’s literature, and that racism through silence is just a big a problem.
I do wonder whether Philip Nel is the right person to write this book, though, as he is white. He does bring up quite a few interesting points about how and why many white people react the way they do when race is discussed. (He talks about White Fragility, which I think is a truly excellent term.) I do also get the sense that this is a book that he had to specifically write because he couldn’t mention it anywhere else – he talks about how in all the books he wrote about Dr Seuss (including The Annotated Cat: Under the Hats of Seuss and His Cats) the publishers would not allow him to mention any of the racial undertones to Seuss and his works. Disappointing, but not altogether surprising. Anyway, I didn’t personally pick up any issues with the way that Nel talked about racism and children’s literature, but I am not a person of colour myself. If anyone else has read this book and did find problematic material, please let me know.
Overall, I thought this was a brilliant look at children’s and YA literature and the racism that often goes undetected or unchallenged within it. I would encourage everyone who is interested in diverse books to pick this up.