Read Across America: If not Seuss, then who?

Read Across America is coming up this Monday, March 2nd. Originally, the National Education Association (NEA) started this nation-wide event on the birthday of political cartoonist turned children’s book author Theodore Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss, to celebrate and promote reading. In 2018, the NEA dropped the celebration of Dr. Seuss in favor of a more inclusive and appropriate message to all children and families. The following message on the NEA website now greets readers.

Join us as we celebrate a nation of diverse readers with these recommended books, authors, and teaching resources that represent an array of experiences and cultures.

The original message and details can be found here: https://www.readacrossamerica.org/

Much has been studied, written, and determined about the racism of Dr. Seuss. I’m not writing this piece to make the case against reading Dr. Seuss books with children. Many well respected scholars and educators have already clearly made that case. If this is new to you, you can start to learn more about that with the following pieces.

I certainly have nothing new to add to this conversation. However, I did read, listen, and think quite a bit on it. So now, it’s time to take action. I hope you’ll join me.

Saying goodbye to Dr. Seuss does not mean you’re saying goodbye to joyful literacy experiences with children. In fact, I and many others, would argue that saying goodbye to books written well over four, five, six decades ago and even longer, will open up space for books that are of much higher interest and more relevant to kids today. Plus, if we are not choosing books for our classroom libraries and read alouds that reflect our kids’ current experiences and the lives of all families, we are doing them a huge disservice. Not only are we doing them a huge disservice, but also we are assigning value to some experiences while devaluing others.

A couple years ago at the NCTE annual convention, Jess Lifshitz, a fellow fifth grade teacher, shared a message that has stuck with me and guided much of my classroom book curation ever since. I’ll try to paraphrase that message- We value the lives reflected in the stories we share. We also send a big message about whose lives we do not value by choosing not to share some stories. Many different people live in our world. Our kids deserve to know and and celebrate all of them.

Also, all of our children deserve to celebrate themselves. They deserve and have the right to recognize themselves in the pages of the books we choose to share. Our job as teachers is to facilitate this. When we limit our classroom read alouds and library collection to old favorites, white faces, and books about experiences that just aren’t relevant in the year 2020, what are we accomplishing? What message are we sending? Who are we actually reaching? Why are we making that choice? Let’s be clear, it is an intentional choice.

Our kids deserve better. They deserve to read books that reflect the world they live in everyday. They deserve to read books that accurately reflect the world of the past. They deserve so much more than Dr. Seuss. So, what do we read instead of Dr. Seuss on March 2nd? There are countless options! Listed below are just a few current favorite picture books that my fifth graders love and are appealing to all ages. In fact, each of these books are favorites across all grade levels at our school.

Fry Bread: A Native American Family Story written by Kevin Noble Maillard and illustrated by Juana Martinez-Neal At first, our class thought this might be a cute story about a particular type of bread, but as soon as we dove into the pages, we learned that this relevant and engaging book is about so much more. All of our children, all teachers, need to know this book. So far, I have to say that Fry Bread is my favorite picture book read aloud this school year.

Hair Love written by Matthew A. Cherry and illustrated by Vashti Harrison. This book should look familiar. The short animated film adapted from this wonderful book just won an Academy Award! Hair Love is about hair, love, family, commitment, and just so much more. After our whole group read aloud of Hair Love, it was passed around and loved throughout the entire class for the following couple weeks. This book is everything.

Just Ask: Be Different Be Brave, Be You written by Sonia Sotomayor and illustrated by Rafael López Supreme Court justice Sonia Sotomayor does a beautiful job discussing differences that so many of us live and work with everyday. She invites readers to just ask each other and learn about our differences rather than ignoring or dismissing them.

All Are Welcome written by Alexandra Penfold and Illustrated by Suzanne Kaufman The images in All are Welcome share a message of inclusivity just as much as the words do. This particular book is a K-5 favorite at my elementary school. My principal even bought a copy for every classroom, and we have extra in our school library! It’s important to note that we also assign value to how we spend our school funds.

In my work with elementary teachers, I often get asked for lists of books that I recommend. While I cannot offer lists of books, as those lists often become outdated when printed and pinned to a wall, and I don’t know the readers for whom I’d be recommending, I always recommend regularly consulting the websites of other educators who dedicate a great deal of their time and energy to the work of curating book collections and recommendations. Here is a short list of those I seek out for recommendations.

Our read alouds and books we choose to create our classroom library collections should always be based on the children in front of us right now, not on what we did last year or what we read as kids. After all, it’s not about us, it’s about our students.

Happy reading, friends!