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Was the Cat in the Hat Black?: The Hidden Racism of Children's Literature, and the Need for Diverse Books

4.12  ·  Rating details ·  182 ratings  ·  57 reviews
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 th
Hardcover, 288 pages
Published August 7th 2017 by Oxford University Press, USA
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4.12  · 
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 ·  182 ratings  ·  57 reviews

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May 01, 2017 rated it really liked it
The book has a definitive academic feel, but is still quite accessible. Professor Nel may ruffle a lot of feathers with this one, good thing he seems to be clear about this. He remarks in chapter 3, “As an educator, I frequently wonder: how do I speak directly, name racism when I see it, and yet minimize the chance of a White artist, writer, editor, agent, or reader rejecting my argument? While I have never met Mr. Joyce and cannot predict his response, it is certainly easy to imagine a White ar ...more
Kaethe Douglas
May 25, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: nonfiction
Seeing the one star reviews of this book have made me feel strongly that I should review it, which for some reason I didn't do when I read it last summer.

It's a fine book. Nel points out institutionalized racism in publishing, specifically the subset of children's books. He encourages the disproportionately white writers, publishers, teachers, librarians, reviewers, booksellers, etc to do better.

This is an academic work, which many readers find dry. Some also find it sanctimonious or morally sup
Ceillie Simkiss
Jul 30, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Full review to come, but this book is really really important.
Read my full review HERE
Rose Ray
Jun 06, 2018 rated it did not like it
I’m giving this book 1 star because even though I agree with the message - we do need diverse books - Philip Nel’s insufferable moral superiority is powerful enough to ship a rocket to Venus and back. Even though I find this book itself to be abhorrent I don’t discourage other people from reading it, especially if you are a writer, artist, teacher, English student, librarian, or someone who works in publishing.
So to start with, there is no quicker way for me to question your mental sensibilitie
Aug 01, 2017 rated it it was amazing
An eloquent and powerful book. Nel begins with a historical and literary perspective on the privileging of whiteness in children's literature and moves into an examination of the contemporary children's book industry and the way that decisions about publicity, staffing, and genre forward the implicit and explicit message that whiteness is universal and racial difference is exceptional, abject, or invisible--often that it is exiled from a land of imagination peopled exclusively by white children. ...more
Mar 24, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2019
Now this would have been something actually useful for my children’s materials class to have included in library school.
Katelyn Patterson
Dec 30, 2017 rated it it was amazing
White librarians should read this.
Janel England
I have a lot of mixed feelings about this book. To start, let me say that the author was white. I went in assuming that he was a PoC considering the topic and the book's call for publishing to make room for authors of color. It's slipped in pretty early on that he is white, so it's not like I went the whole book thinking he was, but he doesn't address it directly until the end of the book. I personally would have preferred that this acknowledgement of this innate contradiction came at the beginn ...more
Jul 17, 2018 rated it really liked it
An odd book for a bedtime read-aloud, but I wanted to see how a non-children's lit person would think about the issues Phil raises in this provocative book. My husband kindly agreed to take a month and read this one aloud to us both. He was and is a big Dr. Seuss fan, but found Phil's arguments persuasive and compelling. For me, the arguments were familiar from previous scholars' work in the field, as well as Phil's own original conference presentations on the topic, but still a powerful reminde ...more
Jul 31, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: amazon-reviewed
Was the Cat in the Hat Black? by Philip Nel is a free NetGalley ebook that I read in late July.

Oh, once I knew that I was okayed to review this, I was super excited to delve into this one. Even if I'd learned in an American Race Relations class this winter that race is a social structure, this book has full, precise, and well-rounded research examples to back it up when racist statements are made in children's and YA literature (i.e. early Dr. Seuss comic strips containing imagery of lynching an
Lisa Houlihan
The author makes a case for the Cat in the Hat having minstrel origins, and I can see that. Then he spoke of how viewers blind themselves to the minstrel nature of Bugs Bunny, Mickey Mouse, and Scarecrow. I’ve been aware of Bugs for some time, and I don’t know the Mouse except for Steamboat Willy so yes; but Scarecrow made me ponder. Because he can dance and has no brain? Because he hangs out in a field without actually doing any labor? I don’t dispute it but I don’t immediately grasp it, not as ...more
Ginny Kaczmarek
Nov 29, 2017 rated it it was amazing
This amazing nonfiction book explores ways in which "classic" and modern books for kids reinforce racist tropes, harming kids of all races. Heavily researched and annotated, the book offers a deep exploration as well as suggestions for reading intelligently with kids (as opposed to whitewashing or censoring books). Includes A Manifesto for Anti-Racist Children's Literature for all creators, publishers, and readers. Highly recommended.
Jul 03, 2018 rated it liked it
A lot of great and detailed information on the history of racialized cartoons in children's books, arguments again editing out (especially without acknowledgment), and current stats around the whiteness of children and YA publishing today (editors, writers, and marketing). Stars off for at times dry writing, but mostly for a white author giving POC "advice" on how to affect change in a racist industry.
Aug 28, 2017 added it
Shelves: reviewed
Lots of fascinating info here (did you know "nostalgia" was originally considered a physical condition? I didn't). However, Nel's hectoring tone--oddly similar to one of his targets herein, Mary Poppins, or for that matter, "the fish in the pot"--grates on this reader. (I'm sure Nel would respond with a 50-page rebuttal about how my objections prove I'm racist and need re-education at the hands of him and other academic types--don't bother, Doc, I've read it before.) Nonetheless, recommended for ...more
Sep 29, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: misc, 2018
A very important topic, with a very dry, academic writing style. I'd really been looking forward to this, but it seemed a rehash of things I've been reading for years. I hope this reaches a broader audience, those who may not have been paying enough attention, because he makes excellent points and arguments.

One point he made is to interrogate who "they" is in "they all thought that way in the past." Did all African Americans think they were subhuman? Did immigrants think of themselves as lazy?
Aug 13, 2019 rated it liked it
I've heard as much through the years. But William Joyce's book??? Nope. Filler.
As for the cat in the Hat being Black based on minstrel shows, maybe, but you can hardly blame Theodore Geisel for writing or drawing what he knew or was influenced by directly or indirectly, and it seems wrong to point the finger at the book when the man is no longer living to defend himself.
I do agree there has been, and likely still remains much wrong in the book industry when it comes to minorities. Just making a
“Proposing that we teach racist classics challenges the assumption that multicultural education requires young readers to see only the mirrors and windows that celebrate. Of course all young readers (but especially those from underrepresented groups) do need books that offer such mirrors and windows, but we should also help children face those distorted mirrors and windows that may cause anger, confusion, or sadness.

“The need to read and to teach un-bowdlerized books is an argument I make with r
Lisa Cobb Sabatini
Nov 11, 2017 rated it it was amazing
I won a copy of Was the Cat in the Hat Black?: The Hidden Racism of Children's Literature, and the Need for Diverse Books by Philip Nel from Goodreads.

An important must-read for anyone who cares about children, Philip Nel's book, Was the Cat in the Hat Black?: The Hidden Racism of Children's Literature, and the Need for Diverse Books, is well researched, thoroughly documented, and extremely thoughtful.
This short book should have been a quick read for me, yet it is so densely packed with issues t
Michael Ritchie
Mar 22, 2018 rated it liked it
Five academic essays on race and children's literature. It's a real mixed bag. The essays on "whitewashing" (the habit of putting white or obscured faces on the covers of books featuring lead characters of other races) and on genre as Jim Crow (publishers ghettoizing African-American authors into genres like realism or history while claiming that SF, fantasy or early readers with Black characters won't sell) are right on target. The Cat in the Hat chapter, which exposes the influences of blackfa ...more
Cscha101 cha
Feb 16, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 2019
A wonderful and essential book that really explores racism within children's literature and publishing. Using the focus of publishing and literature, Nel masterfully goes through a spectrum of how racism affects children, ourselves, our perceptions, institutions, and more, showing how utterly pervasive it is and how necessary it is to work to dismantle racism. It also has helpful guides to how to unlearn and learn systems of oppression like racism. The day before I finished the book, I was going ...more
Jenni Frencham
Jul 14, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: adult, nonfiction
Nel, Philip. Was the Cat in the Hat Black? The Hidden Racism of Children's Literature, and the Need for Diverse Books. Oxford University Press, 2017.

Considering the recent kerfuffle over the American Library Association's choice to rename the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award the Legacy Award, this book should be required reading for everyone who thinks they are entitled an opinion on diverse books, racism in the library world, etc.

This book is exceptionally academic and is not easy or fast reading. I
Many good points. Mostly accessible. Occasionally dry and bogs down in details.

Parts that stood out:
Learning that one of the most memorable songs of my childhood can be traced back to a minstrel song from the 1890s (The Cat Came Back). This revelation comes in the midst of a discussion about cultural influences surrounding The Cat in the Hat. (Page 46)

Tackling the conflicting emotions when we discover that some of our favorite childhood stories are rooted in racism. Can you love the humor in Ch
Mar 19, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
I started this book months ago, but as I do with many nonfiction books, I shelved it for others.

I picked up The Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula Leguin. The main character of that book is described as copper-colored and his best friend is black.

However, I could not stop picturing these characters as white! I worked so hard to change their colors in my mind. I was constantly reframing their world to look like other fantasy books and I would have to check myself.

And that is a big part of what this boo
Jan 16, 2018 rated it really liked it
This is a good and necessary book, and it raises some very important points about the publishing industry and children's literature. One very minor quibble: I just felt like at times it was very quote heavy? Like instead of Nel having his own thoughts and points he was just compiling the thoughts of others? While it has been a while since I've read academic nonfiction, it just felt like he used the phrase "to borrow so-and-so's words/in the words of so-and-so/etc." a little too often.

But don't
Julie Jesernik
Mar 18, 2018 rated it it was amazing
“The problem of trying to enforce innocence is that, as they grow up, children gain experiences and knowledge. Some of those experiences will make them sad. If we exclude troubling literary works from the discussion, then children will face pain, bigotry, and sorrow on their own. As herb kohl reminds us, ‘it is not developmentally inevitable that children will learn how to evaluate with sensitivity and intelligence what the adult world presents them. It is our responsibility, as critical and sen ...more
Aug 30, 2017 rated it it was amazing
I remember reading Nancy Larricks article in the Saturday review over 50 yrs ago I think and her message is still falling on deaf ears. This book states it all again and more so. In the concluding chapter the author presents a useful manifesto for Anti-racist children's Literature. Number 6 is to listen for rececraft, a term coined by Karen Fields and Barbara Fields to conceal racial assumptions " In identifying only texts by non-Whites as 'diverse books' the term inadvertently equates "books" w ...more
Oct 31, 2018 rated it it was amazing
PSA for my kidlit, teachers, and librarian peeps: You MUST read this book. I read it in one day, cover to cover, and yes it is an academic book. That’s how good it was. Very eye-opening for me as a white librarian whose patron base is now largely children of color. Not only does it uncover some things I hadn’t considered before, but it also gives tools on how to work toward creating a safe environment for the uncomfortable questions and how to create a curriculum and collection that isn’t only d ...more
Tim O'neill
Jun 24, 2018 rated it liked it
Good. I ended up caring more about what I learned about racism, which was a lot, than what I learnt about literature. If you're an expert on racism, especially that against Black people in America, you might not get a lot out of this book, except mebbe ten pages of material about books. I agree with others that the eponymous chapter was the weakest one, as well. I had to sort of push thru that one to get to the good stuff.
Jul 25, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: adult
A peak inside the hidden racism of children's literature and why its important to have diverse books. The book starts off with Cat in the Hat and moves towards other topics as well. It discusses white washing, particularly on book covers which I found very interesting because it's something that I hadn't quiet noticed before. Some of the topics discussed were things I've read about before but overall it was a very introspective read on the topic.
Jan 23, 2018 rated it really liked it
"It is more risky to ban racist books outright, or to use only the bowdlerized versions. It is a less risky choice to teach these books critically, helping students see the ways in which they reinforce racism, engaging them in difficult and painful, but sadly necessary conversations." pp.73-74

"Teaching racist classics is one way to prepare children, so that they do not suffer alone, or internalize the injuries of racism." p.99
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“Children's books can break [the] silence. Reading the un-bowdlerized classics of children's literature can help young people understand that racism is not anomalous. It is embedded in the culture, and defended by cultural gatekeepers.” 0 likes
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