Tackling the Racism in Children's Classics

Lindsey Patrick, Nashville Public Library /

This is an introduction to a blog series originally published during the summer of 2019 on the Nashville Public Library blog, republished here with permission. The introduction and first post were written by Lindsey Patrick, Manager of the Southeast Branch, and subsequent posts were written by Katia Montal, Jai Sanders, and Klem-Marí Cajigas, also staff at the Nashville Public Library.

Many months ago, I read the book Was the Cat in the Hat Black? by Philip Nel. The revelation that the mischievous Cat—an icon for early reading initiatives everywhere—is, in fact, a racist stereotype, was eye-opening (for me, a white woman).

While this was shocking to me, perhaps more enlightening was learning that this information is not news to many people of color.

Nashville Public Library believes in the importance of inclusion and diversity and works to be an organization that reflects those principles. We are also an institution that values intellectual freedom, access to information and an individual’s right to read. Removing those books from our collection is not the answer to this issue and would be tantamount to sweeping our society’s problematic history under the rug, so to speak.

We have a program at Nashville Public Library called Civil Rights and a Civil Society that’s dedicated to engaging communities in conversations about current issues of equality and intercultural development. Taking a cue from this award-winning program, we began to have conversations about these books with diverse groups of library employees. We discussed the potential hurt these books could cause and examined our role in counteracting the racism found within the pages of these classic books that are still loved by and shared with children and adults.

2019 Mashpee Wampanaog Powwow
"Round Dance," or friendship dance, at 2019 Mashpee Wampanaog
Powwow. Image courtesy Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe

The first proactive step we took was to create lists of children’s books featuring and celebrating diversity. Our library has a diverse collection and we created these lists to highlight books that are portraying racial, cultural, gender, sexual, and ability diversity in appropriate and positive ways. Those lists can be found on our NPL’s Books, Movies, & Music page for children (scroll down to Diverse Books.)

The second step was to examine how one might share the problematic books with the children in their lives should they choose to do so. We did this by reading the books again with a more critical eye, doing our best to identify passages that are racist, inaccurate, exclusive, or dehumanizing. Then we created questions that a parent might ask their own child while reading each book.

The result of this work is a series of blog posts discussing the classics below. In some cases, we used our own children and had real conversations with them about each book (or books). In other cases, we worked as a group to identify questions. We will identify the race and/or culture of the blogger and the race and/or culture of the child who is being read to/within the cases where we were able to share the book with a child.

Whether or not you choose to share classic books such as these with the children in your life, we encourage you to have open conversations with them on the topic of race. It’s important; there is a wealth of research in support of that fact. In the absence of conversations on the topic, children can come to problematic and factually inaccurate conclusions. Here is a guide to talking with young children about race, from the Association for Library Service to Children, a division of American Library Association.

We are approaching this from a place of learning. This means that, along the way, we may make missteps that need pointing out to us. We are open to hearing how this work can be improved. If you have any questions, contact lindsey.patrick@nashville.gov.

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