The world is a fraught place, dear readers. And in such a world, it can be really, truly difficult to avoid seeing the world as an exclusively polarized place…as black/white, good/bad, right/wrong…and forget that very few things in human society are that simple.*
A few weeks back, there was a bit of a brouhaha in Library Land over a letter written by a children’s librarian in Cambridge, addressed to the First Lady of the United States regarding the donation of several children’s books to the school at which she worked. The letter is still posted on The Horn Book website. You can read it, if you so choose, and form whatever opinion you chose. The letter and its author have become the target for so much public debate, acrimony, and verbal bile that it doesn’t seem particularly useful for us to wade into the whys, wherefore, and whataboutisms.
However, I would like to bring up one point in the letter that many people have tended to overlook: that line that calls Dr. Seuss “a bit of a cliché, a tired and worn ambassador for children’s literature.”
The image depicts the reference in the story to “A Chinese man who eats with sticks“. The image itself is of a very stereotypical Chinese caricature, with a pointy hat, and slanted eyes.
So what are we to do with this information? What good librarian patrons do…get more information before making a judgement call.
Ted Geisel was absolutely a man of his time. He frequently reproduced cultural and racial stereotypes in his work without questioning their validity, their effect on others, or the harmful mentality that produced them–the Chinese man (or Chinaman in the original text) is just one example.
And, because it’s not a stereotype that is as widely discussed today, the image of the slant-eyed Chinaman with the pointed hat originated during the late 19th century. Chinese immigrants were associated with opium dens and often accused of ‘polluting’ British and American men (and women) who visited these dens. Around the turn of the century, it was quite normal to see highly stereotyped Chinese villains in books and films. They were portrayed as something other than human, and a threat to all “good” people.
To provide a few examples: Philip Nel, who wrote the endlessly fascinating and extraordinarily thought-provoking bookWas The Cat In The Hat Black?, points out that Geisel wrote and performed in a blackface minstrel show in high school, called “Chicopee Surprised”. When he was drawing the initial sketches for the Cat, in The Cat and the Hat, Nel observes, Geisel was “inspired by blackface performance, racist images in popular culture, and actual African Americans. Now, in 1920-1 when this show was performed, blackface was a very popular, highly visible form of caricature and entertainment. It was criticized as racist, demeaning, and offensive by some, but you don’t have to look any further than Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singerto see how well-known and generally unquestioned it was. (The photo to left is Geisel in 1925, when he was a student at Dartmouth College in Massachusetts, via Today In History).
Following the bombing of Pearl Habor, Geisel, who drew a large number of political cartoons in the course of his career, drew a cartoon of a line of Japanese people, captioned the “Honorable 5th Column” waiting in a line to receive blocks of TNT, while one (highly racialized and stereotypes) figure looks eastward with a telescope “Waiting for a Signal from Home“. The cartoon supports Japanese interment camps, which were being established on the west coast, and in which American citizens of Japanese origin and heritage were treated with brutal inhumanity. This was not, by any means, the only racialized cartoon he drew to represent the Japanese during the Second World War.
None of these facts are pleasant or easy to discuss. It’s hard to accept that a person whose books you grew up cherishing was a human person with ugly, unquestioned prejudices.
But the story doesn’t stop here. Because Geisel was also a human being in the very best sense–he was able to grow, and to change. As Willems, Yee, and Curato wrote in their letter, “The career of Ted Geisel, writing as Dr. Seuss, is a story of growth, from accepting the baser racial stereotypes of the times in his early career, to challening those divisive impulses with work that delighted his readers and changed the time.”
Geisel began Horton Hears a Who in 1953, after a postwar visit to Japan, when he was researching a piece for Life magazine on the effects of the war and post-war efforts on Japanese children. With the help of Mitsugi Nakamura, dean of Doshisha University in Kyoto, Seuss went to schools all over Japan and asked kids to draw what they wanted to be when they grew up.
Having met Japanese people, and seen the effects of the war on everyday human beings there, he realized just what kind of harm caricatures like his earlier political cartoons had provoked. The book is dedicated to Nakamura, and the message, about embracing everyone’s humanity, regardless of whether they look or sound like, marks not only a huge moment in children’s literature, but also an enormously revelation for Geisel himself. The Whos are saved by one small Who, named Jo-Jo, makes his “Yopp!” heard–as Kelly Smith points out in this sensational blog post, “Dr. Seuss is stressing the power of a single voice making all the difference for a people and, with it, showing how he should have used his voice to protect the Japanese, rather than denigrate them.”
He more explicitly apologizes when he puts himself in his rightful place in history with the previously skeptical kangaroo, who says “from now on, you know what I’m planning to do?… From now on, I’m going to protect them with you” (page 58 of Horton Hears a Who)
Following Horton, he wrote The Sneetches, another book about how individuals are punished for the way they look, and the harm it does, not only to them, but to their whole society, as well. In 1973, he changed the text and the images in And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street. He removed the “Chinaman” reference, changing the wording to “Chinese man”, and made the character’s face the same white color as the rest of the figures in the story. It’s not the everything. But it’s a huge sign of change.
We need diverse books. We need to have children from all backgrounds and experiences to be able to see themselves in the stories we tell. Therefore, Dr. Seuss should by no means be the only books we read. However, neuroscientists have proven, through the marvels of science, that Dr. Seuss’ use of repetition, rhythm and rhyme help children in crucial ways to process the speech they hear, and fine-tune the connections between auditory and language networks in the brain.
But, maybe more importantly, Dr. Seuss’ own story teaches us a powerful lesson: people can change, and they can change for the better. Children, just like grown-ups, are faced everyday with people who are scared, who are angry, and who are resistant to change. We cannot protect them from that. But we can show them what positive growth and change looks like by talking to them about Dr. Seuss, and how he grew as a person, an author, and a spokesperson for humanity. This lesson is as important today–perhaps even more important–as it has ever been.
Portraying Seuss’ illustration of “the Chinaman” without talking about how it changed, and how he changed, really isn’t fair, either to Dr. Seuss or his readers. Portraying him as “tired” does enormous dis-service to the energy with which he combatted stereotypes and xenophobia in his later career. For that reason, it’s important not to forget Dr. Seuss’ inspiring contributions, even as we work to fill our shelves with a world of diverse books that tell even more powerful stories.
Because a person’s a person, no matter how small.
*Some things are that simple. Things like “be kind to others”, don’t drive if your motor skills are impaired”, “mosquitoes buzzing in your ears at night is awful”, or “raccoons are terrifying”.
None of us need a reminder that this year’s hurricane season has been historic and, for many of our friends in Texas, Florida, and the US Virgin Islands, life-changing. And with even more hurricanes moving closer to Puerto Rico and the other Leeward Islands, it doesn’t look like life is going to be getting easier for many of those good people anytime soon.
So, having said that, here are some updates from the wonderful people at the Texas Library Association and the Florida Library Associations, with some additions ways you can help!
Our first update comes from the American Library Association’s #LibrariesRespond page, that not only advocates for disaster preparedness, but also offers a number of resources for helping Florida’s and Texas’ Libraries:
Florida Libraries Disaster Relief Fund
In the wake of Hurricane Irma, the Florida Library Association is working with the State Library of Florida to coordinate a response to damage caused to libraries across the state. We have already begun receiving requests to help. Anyone wishing to assist Florida libraries with their recovery efforts is urged to donate to the Florida Libraries Disaster Relief Fund. Donations can be open to assisting any library affected by the storm, or can be directed to assist a specific library in need. We will update our website frequently as we learn details about specific libraries and their needs.
There is also the inspiring “Rebuilding Florida Library” page on the Florida Library Association page, that is being consistently updated with needs and offers of help from libraries across the country. Donations are being accepted through any of the links posted here.
Secondly, American Libraries Magazine has posted an update on the rebuilding efforts in Texas. This article features some of the horrible circumstances that Houston’s Libraries faced, but also their incredible resiliency and determination to reopen as quickly as possible:
Nineteen of the 26 branches of the Harris County Public Library reopened on September 1 for emergency relief purposes only—for residents to fill out FEMA forms, use computers or internet, charge cellphones, or make use of a quiet, air-conditioned spot. Four branches are closed until further notice: Baldwin Boettcher, Barbara Bush, Katherine Tyra @ Bear Creek, and Kingwood. The library opened a pop-up library at the NRG Stadium to give evacuees some diversion with books for all ages, storytimes for kids, a 3D printer for informal edutainment, and a bank of laptops with internet access.
For those looking to help, the Texas Library Association (TLA) and Texas State Library and Archives Commission are working together to assist damaged libraries across the Gulf Coast region. TLA has a disaster relief fund that is actively seeking contributions. Hundreds of individuals and companies have donated to the fund, and offers of books, furniture, volunteer assistance, computers, and preservation services are coming in regularly to TLA. The two organizations have also set up the Texas Library Recovery Connection, an online sharing system to bring together assisting organizations with libraries needing help.
The thing that consistently surprises me about these sites is the Google Spreadsheets. On these documents, libraries post their needs, from computers to bookcases, from books to supplies. And other people/groups/institutions can (and do) respond. For all the complications and trouble that the Internet has brought into our lives, there is something genuinely awe-inspiring about the way that it can also bring people together and accomplish lasting good. So feel free to check out these sites, contribute in whatever way you can, and appreciate the good that our species is capable of doing.
In the wee hours of the morning, we learned the titles that made the shortlist for the 2017 Man Booker Prize, one of our favorite fiction awards here at the Library.
As a lot of news outlets have noted, there are a number of surprises in this list. The first is that many of the really big names who were a part of the longlist, including Sebastian Barry, Arundhati Roy, and Zadie Smith, did not make the shortlist. The second is that two debut authors, Emily Fridlund and Fiona Mozley, who are also the youngest nominees. For many, the final surprise is that half the list are American authors.
The bidding has begun, with bookmakers giving George Saunders’ Lincoln at the Bardothe best odds to win, and there is no doubt that speculation, debates, and a lot of reading, will be going on between now and when the final announcement is made on October 17th. But, as noted on the Man Booker website:
If there is anyone who will find the next month more relaxing than previous ones, it is the judges themselves. Not that their work is done but rather that they can take a bit more time over things. They have read each of the shortlisted books a minimum of twice already and now they will have to read them for a third time and ask themselves not which book is a contender to win but which book deserves to win. For all concerned the next four weeks will seem simultaneously a very long and a very short time. Hopefully, for a few days at least, they can all take a couple of moments to reflect – and maybe even congratulate themselves – on what they have achieved so far.
So here, without further ado, is the shortlist for the 2017 Man Booker Prize. Come in and check out these titles, and make your own educated guesses about who will win, today!
Two weeks ago, we offered a number of ways that you could help the victims of Hurricane Harvey in Texas–and you, the people of Massachusetts, and our own beloved patrons, responded.
As the Boston Globe reported, Boston City Hall was buzzing with people walking in off the streets with donations that ranged from 200 t-shirts, to boxes of diapers and formula, to change from piggy banks. Here in Peabody, the donation portal for Hurricane Harvey relief is still active via the City Hall Website (the first option on this page will take you to the donation portal).
Now, there is more need from our friends in Florida and the US Virgin Islands. These are early days as yet, and the total damage from Hurricane Irma, which is still winding its way up the eastern seaboard, has yet to be fully assessed. Nevertheless, there are people and organizations already doing good in the communities hardest hit by this storm, and they need your assistance.
Here are a list of charities, programs, and organizations that are active in the Florida and US Virgin Islands communities that are currently accepting donations. If you are in a position to help financially, you can click on any of the links to see the charities. Please avoid sending clothes, toys, or perishable items at this time, as there are few places to receive or store it. The New York Times has produced a helpful article on how to help, and how to avoid scams.
If this is not a time you are able to help, please don’t worry. Rebuilding in a process that takes years and years, and there will be any number of ways to help in the future. We will be sure to keep you updated about them as news and opportunities become available.
Oh, these are amazing times in which we live, beloved patrons!
First off, last year, we had the discovery of the HMS Terror,one of the ships in the doomed Franklin Expedition. Sire John Franklin and his crew had been determined to discover the Northwest Passage (the sea route from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific), but the ship foundered in heavy weather and was abandoned, along with the HMS Erebus. All 129 men on the Franklin expedition died, but, though 11 search parties were sent to find any trace of the party or their ships, nothing was heard of the Franklin Expedition…except for a number of stories from local Inuit and Inuk tribes, which went largely overlooked for years and years. But last year, after finally paying appropriate attention to the Inuit tales, both ships were discovered, giving us a wealth of new insight into the last days of the expedition (and proving, once again, that we should listen to others).
And just this past week, we learn that the Voynich Manuscript–a book that has literally defied all attempts at decoding or translation for the past 400 years may very well have been decoded.
The Voynich Manuscript has been carbon-dated to the early 15th century, but was named after Wilfrid Voynich, a Polish book dealer who purchased it in 1912. There are a number of pages visibly missing from the book, but the 240 pages that remain are covered in a previously unidentified script that runs left to right across the page. There are some words and phrases scattered throughout the book in Latin, but, because hand-written manuscripts are notoriously challenging to read, even figuring out some of these words have proven difficult. There are also a bunch of hand-drawn illustrations that seem as random and confusing as the text, though that is largely, I think, because they appear out of context). Code-breakers who worked during the First and Second World Wars tried parsing the manuscript without success. Expert cryptanalysts since have tried to read the manuscript–without success. In 1962, cryptanalyst Elizebeth Friedman described any attempts to read the book as “doomed to utter frustration”. There have been a number of guesses made about what the book was supposed to convey, with most people pretty convinced that it was meant to be pharmacopoeia (a book with recipes for medicines) or a medical guide of some sort. But no one was sure. Until, perhaps, now.
According to history researcher and television writer Nicholas Gibbs, who declared in The Times Literary Supplement last week that he had solved the riddles of the Voynich Manuscript, the book is a treatise on women’s health. Using both textual analysis and a study of the illustrations (specifically, the well-known image of a group of women bathing), Gibbs eventually realized what he was looking at. To quote from the TLS piece:
All the detail and objects depicted in such manuscripts are salient points picked out from a story. Abstract and perhaps unrecognized at first, they can suddenly surprise as a narrative comes into focus. Artists who illustrate instruction manuals – for that is what the Voynich manuscript is – are naturally economical and only provide detail where necessary. In the Voynich manuscript, the same object – an oversized doughnut with a hole and a carbuncle attached to its side – is proffered by several of the unclothed women. Its significance only became apparent when, as I was casually leafing through a medical-related book…I came across the doughnut object depicted as a lodestone (natural magnet). […]
By now, it was more or less clear what the Voynich manuscript is: a reference book of selected remedies lifted from the standard treatises of the medieval period, an instruction manual for the health and wellbeing of the more well to do women in society, which was quite possibly tailored to a single individual. The script had hitherto proved resistant to interpretation and presented several hurdles….I recognized at least two of the characters in the Voynich manuscript text as Latin ligatures, Eius and Etiam. Ligatures were developed as scriptorial short-cuts. They are composed of selected letters of a word, which together represent the whole word, not unlike like a monogram. An ampersand is just such an example….It became obvious that each character in the Voynich manuscript represented an abbreviated word and not a letter.
Seriously, all, this is a really remarkable article, and, if it is true (and I have no reason to doubt at this point in time that it is not true), an incredible, momentous moment in the history of books, of codes, and of human enterprise.
If you’re interesting in learning more about the Voynich Manuscript, or the Franklin Expedition, or some other unsolved (for now!) mysteries, have a look at these titles:
The Friar and the Cipher: Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone are well-known book collectors, and have written several books together about the history of the book–and the history of the Voynich Manuscript, in particular. This book claims that that Roger Bacon, a thirteenth-century astronomer, wrote the Manuscript, and while that part may now be up for debate, their history of the text, and of its life after being purchased by Voynich is a fascinating, well-researched, and surprisingly exciting account that will really drive home how remarkable the Voynich Manuscript truly is, to literary types, as well as code-breakers and historians.
Ice Ghosts : The Epic Hunt for the Lost Franklin Expedition: journalist Paul Watson, was on the icebreaker that led the expedition that discovered the HMS Erebus in 2014, and he broke the news of the discovery of the HMS Terror in 2016. This book is not only a gripping travel narrative of the hunt to find the HMS Terror, but it’s also a great history of the Franklin Expedition, as well as the Inuit stories that helped locate the ships. This blend of technological innovation and oral history make this a book for history buffs, techno-wizards, and treasure-seekers alike, and is an excellent choice for any armchair explorers looking for a new polar expedition.
Lost City of Z: Even if you saw the motion picture based on this story, you should read the book by David Grann, which not only tells the story of Sir Percy Fawcett’s fascination with the Amazon and its secrets, but also of Grann’s own adventures into “the green Hell”. In 1925, the legendary British explorer Percy Fawcett ventured into the Amazon jungle, in search of a fabled civilization, never to return. Though Grann claims to have ‘solved’ the story of Fawcett’s final expedition, the real power of this book lies in the enduring mystery of the Fawcett’s legacy.
Codebreaker : the history of codes and ciphers, from the ancient pharaohs to quantum cryptography: Stephen Pincock’s book is not only a history of how humans have made and broken codes, but also focuses on those that haven’t yet been broken…including the Voynich Manuscript. From the Beale Code to the mysteries of Easter Island, this book is ponderous at times in the amount of information it contains, but is all the more fun, ultimately, because of it, as it helps not only in cracking codes, but in helping readers appreciate the effort and intellect that goes into creating and cracking them!
“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping. To this day, especially in times of disaster, I remember my mother’s words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers — so many caring people in this world.” — Fred Rogers
Those of us who live in and work in and around Downtown Peabody know what floods look like. Being partially below sea level (and with an average elevation of 17 feet) will do that.
But that flooding is nothing compared to what our friends in Texas are enduring right now as a result of Hurricane Harvey, and it’s not getting better. So for those of you who listen to Mr. Rogers (quoted above), and would like to know how to be an effective Helper, we have some resources for you.
First of all, because we are a Library that cares about Libraries, the Texas Library Association and Texas State Library and Archives Commission are working together to coordinate a response to damage caused to libraries and archives across the Houston and gulf coast region. They have issued a joint statement saying, essentially, that it’s too early yet to know what libraries and archives affected by Hurricane Harvey, but that TLA has its Disaster Relief Fund available and TSLAC is considering how it can make resources available as well. As damage is assessed, they will provide more information on the availability of these resources.
At this point, people are asked not to send material donations, such as books. Right now, there is no way to know what is needed, and no where at all to store donations. Anyone wishing to help financially are encouraged to donate online to the TLA Disaster Relief Fund.
For those looking for other ways to help, please check out this enormously useful article from Texas Monthly that lists all the charities, organizations, and institutions working on the ground in affected areas to help people and animals. You can access this article here.
If you work or live in the Boston Area, Mayor Marty Walsh has announced a drive called “Help for Houston”. The collection effort starts today, Tuesday, August 29, and lasts through Thursday, August 31. The Mayor is asking residents to contribute items to those impacted by Hurricane Harvey in Texas. They are collection food, infant formula, blankets, and a number of other items at collection centers in and around the City. Check out the City’s website for full details and collection sites.
If you are not in a position to donate at this moment, please know that help will be needed in Texas for a long time to come, and we’ll be sure to keep you updated on ways you can help in the coming days and weeks.
"Once you learn to read, you will be forever free." ~Frederick Douglass