Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, a novel that won the 1960 Pulitzer prize, and that I put on the reading list a judge asked me to assign a racist white juvenile who came through her court, was ranked seventh on American Library Association’s list of the most banned books as recently as 2020. Why? Because it contains the word “nigger.” Public schools in Burbank, California, banned not only To Kill a Mockingbird, but the district also banned Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, Theodore Taylor’s The Cay, and Mildred D. Taylor’s Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. All books that contain the word “nigger.”
When First Lady Melania Trump sent a collection of Dr. Seuss books to schools around the nation for “National Read a Book Day,” Liz Phipps Soeiro, a school librarian at Cambridgeport Elementary School in Massachusetts, sent them back, writing in The Horn Book blog that “Dr. Seuss’s illustrations are steeped in racist propaganda, caricatures, and harmful stereotypes.” I feel confident that Soeiro wasn’t alone among progressive librarians in interpreting Trump’s actions as a provocation. NBC News ran a story on my birthday in 2021 explaining “Why Dr. Seuss got away with anti-Asian racism for so long”: the “reckoning has been delayed because of historically ingrained anti-Asian racism, experts say.” Experts say. Must be true then.
I recently wrote in Some Notes on Free Speech: “Did you know that censoring content for adults is not the same thing as censoring content for children? That’s because the body of science in child development finds that, because of variation in imagination, sense of self, and degree of maturity in the capacity for abstraction and reason, not everything from the adult world is age-appropriate and that the regulation of childhood experience is important for normal development of children into adulthood.” I wrote further in that blog, “In figuring out the world and their place in it, their role in the system of roles and statuses, children often pretend to be things they encounter in their environment. Children may obsess over certain thoughts. Children are easily influenced and manipulated.”
I did not have in mind To Kill a Mockingbird when I wrote those words. There is nothing in that book or in Huckleberry Finn that a child shouldn’t read or see. To be sure, “nigger” is widely regarded as an offensive word, but To Kill a Mockingbird, a powerful critique of racism in America’s past, affords adults an opportunity to teach children about the history of racial bigotry. Huckleberry Finn humanizes a black man when racism was a problem in America. And Dr. Seuss? There is nothing racist in And to Think I Saw It on Mulberry Street. However, there are books aimed at children that do not intend to teach them about tolerance and equality or the joy of rhyming and cultivating a playful imagination, but rather to expose them to the adult world of sexuality. “As a general rule, no books should be censored,” I write in Some Notes on Free Speech. “However, in the case of children and material designed to sexualize them, censorship is appropriate.”
I clarify my words today to push back against the argument that the desire to censors books is mostly a right-wing desire—that whereas progressives want to band a book here and there for its racist imagery, rightly from their woke sensibilities (which are wrong from any rational standpoint), conservatives want to purge the library of materials that sexualize children or urge them to doubt their sexuality. An examination of many of the books to which parents are objecting will find explicit depictions of sex acts that are inappropriate for school age children. Where are such things in Dr. Seuss? Moreover, whereas the books progressive seek to ban are books written in opposition to a pernicious ideas, the materials over which conservatives are objection are written to promote an ideology. One would understand if progressives petitioned to have materials supplied by the neo-Nazi organization Storm Font excluded from public school libraries. But Harper Lee?