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Dr. Seuss, Racism in Children’s Books, and Cancel Culture: A Writer’s Perspective

I guess I’ve seen one too many short-sighted takes on the recent controversy about Dr. Seuss. It looks a lot like some of the worst aspects of human behavior in our technology-driven society: not reading the actual articles about a particular topic, reacting quickly without considering different perspectives, (especially from cultures and backgrounds other than your own), and not appreciating or trying to understand the nuance of a situation. I’m sure you’ve seen it all over social media, too: that Dr. Seuss is the latest victim of cancel culture run amok.

Please. Stop.

First of all, no one is cancelling Dr. Seuss. Given that my son was encouraged to dress up like Dr. Seuss just last week, and that so many of us can recite Green Eggs and Ham from memory, and that the Grinch remains one of the most beloved Christmas movies of all time, I think Dr. Seuss is doing just fine. His grandkids aren’t wondering where their next meal is going to come from, of that I’m sure. But I bet the line at your local food pantry was long this morning. Let’s save our outrage for what really matters, ok?

One of the best ways to think about this popped up on my Twitter feed this week. It was originally posted by Bernice King, Dr. Martin Luther King’s daughter. She tweeted back in January: “Some things being labeled as #CancelCulture are actually examples of #Accountability.” 

Second, I want us to base our understanding of this situation by learning the actual facts, because the truth starts to get really fuzzy when all you’re doing is scrolling memes on Facebook. 

Last year, Dr. Seuss Enterprises made a business decision to stop publishing and licensing six of Dr. Seuss’ books. Please read the full statement here if you have not already done so. His own family made this choice. No one forced them to do it. Key sentence from their statement: “These books portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong.” You know what it reminds me of? When a particular car seat is recalled, whether it’s because the company realizes it no longer meets new safety standards or due to pressure externally about its quality. Stuff like this happens every day. Private companies are allowed to make business decisions that help them achieve their mission. 

So, FYI, in case it’s not clear, no one is going door-to-door in your neighborhood today confiscating your copy of Cat in the Hat. Librarians aren’t pulling Oh the Places You’ll Go off the shelves. You can still watch your Lorax DVD and no one is going to arrest you. Relax, America. Take a deep breath.

These are the six books that will no longer be published or licensed by Dr. Seuss Enterprises.

  • And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street
  • If I Ran the Zoo
  • McElligot’s Pool
  • On Beyond Zebra!
  • Scrambled Eggs Super!
  • The Cat’s Quizzer

If you’ve actually looked at the illustrations in these books and read the words, I bet you cringed. I’ll admit, I wasn’t familiar with a few of these titles (trust me, there’s a reason these are not among his best selling books), and I audibly gasped at what I saw. I think the vast majority of people would really reconsider reading this material to children when they flip through them now. 

Ask yourself what you love about Dr. Seuss. Is it his rhyming? Check out Sandra Boynton, Connie Schofield-Morrison, Bill Martin Jr., or Julia Donaldson. Is it his eccentric characters or wild creativity? Check out Are We There Yet by Dan Santat, Tuesday by David Wiesner, or anything by Mo Willems. Spoiler alert: Dr. Seuss never had the monopoly on what makes a children’s book fun to read aloud and entertaining to kids. There are many wonderful alternatives out there that don’t come with a side of racism. 

And third (this is when I feel compelled to put my writer hat on), I’d like to encourage us all to be more thoughtful about what it means to honor someone’s legacy. So allow me to step on my soapbox for a moment.

Most of my professional writing is in the travel sector. There may come a day when my children, or my grandchildren, or their children, come across an old post or article I’ve written and think: YIKES. Perhaps I’ve reviewed a destination in an insensitive way. Maybe I’ve described a group of people I met on my travels using offensive language. Or it could be that the photos I’ve taken are now considered inappropriate when viewed through a modern lens. This very blog post that you’re reading right now might someday cause pain. I try very hard to be sensitive in the way that I write and the images I choose to include. But there are times when I will fall short or could do better.

So to my kids, if you’re reading: Delete the post. Take the article down. Pull the book off the Amazon listings. You have my full blessing. 

The legacy I want to leave you is one of critical thinking. Of respect for others, especially those who are marginalized. Of sensitivity. Of caring and compassion. Of a mindset based on the wise words of Maya Angelou, “when you know better, do better.” That’s the life lesson that I hope I have handed down to you, far more important than any words I could ever write. 

I would never want my writing to cause harm to others. I would never want my children or grandchildren to financially profit off of work that is racist, disrespectful, or unkind. So if there ever comes a day when this occurs, I hope you’ve learned something more from me than just where to place an Oxford comma. I hope that through my actions, I’ve demonstrated that when I’ve done something offensive, that I was quick to apologize. Unconditionally. And to try to right wrongs when it was in my control to do so, or to encourage those in power to do it. You have my full permission to do these things on my behalf. 

No one is perfect. I’m certainly not. I bet you recognize that you’re not. I’m sure you don’t expect perfection from your children. Well, guess what? Dr. Seuss wasn’t perfect, either. If his own family can accept that, can we please stop treating him like he was?

Book Review: Maybe: A Story About the Endless Potential Inside All of Us

Title: Maybe: A Story About the Endless Possibilities Inside Us

Author: Kobi Yamada, Illustrated by Gabriella Barouch

Publisher: Compendium, 2019

ISBN#- 978-1-946873-75-0

I’m going to say it. This is the most beautiful picture book I have ever read. And let’s just say, I’ve read many. The words by Kobi Yamada are uplifting and empowering. He encourages the reader to think about potential as both a wonder and something attainable. I immediately ordered a few of these to give away for graduation gifts.

After finishing, review the book together and look for examples of thread, leaves, the pig, and other repeated elements. Why do you think illustrator made these choices?

But it’s the art by Gabriella Barouch that really knocked my socks (and my shoes, for that matter) right off. I wanted to stare at every little detail. I immediately reread it and noticed more. Copied images and my words just can’t do them justice. It’s as though she’s captured every thread of every being. Speaking of thread, look for the way thread is represented throughout the book as well. I missed a few of these details the first time I read it. In an interview with The Children’s Book Review, I learned that Barouch had turned down 50 other illustration proposals before accepting Yamada’s request. Believe it or not, this is her debut picture book! 

The adorable pig seen in the illustrations is also available for purchase. I found myself wondering about the significance of the pig (and several items found throughout, housed in glass jars), but it all comes together beautifully in the end! Younger readers may need help understanding the significance of the last two pages. 

While the recommended reading age is 4-8, or preschool through 2nd grade, I can’t imagine anyone not appreciating this book. In fact, many teachers and librarians read Oh the Places You’ll Go by Dr. Seuss at the end of the year and this would make a wonderful replacement for those looking to make a change. 

I was surprised to see that this book has not appeared to have won any awards or have starred reviews. It has a 4.69/5 rating on Goodreads (extremely high!) and 92% of Amazon readers gave it a 5/5. 

Reading author and illustrator dedications is something I never skip, and often come back to after I finish reading. Even Yamada’s dedication on the title page (found in the back) is worth noting:

Dear Shale and Ever, 

The quality of your life will mirror the quality of the questions you ask yourself.



Use this is a great conversation starter with your own children. Maybe their thoughts just might surprise you.

Works Cited: 

Schulze, Bianca. “Kobi Yamada and Gabriella Barouch Discuss Maybe.” The Children’s Book Review, Sept. 25, 2019.

Seuss, Dr. Oh, The Places You’ll Go. Random House Books for Young Readers, 1990. 

Yamada, Kobi. Maybe: A Story About the Endless Potential In All of Us. Compendium, 2019. 

Book Review: Four Dead Queens, a YA Triple Threat!

Title: Four Dead Queens

Author: Astrid Scholte

Publisher: G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers, 2019

ISBN#- 978-0-525-51392-6

While I don’t pretend to read a lot of YA (books designated as appropriate for “young adults,” typically for ages 12 and up) this book is a legit triple threat and had me hooked until the last page. I was, in fact, so hooked, that I had checked out both the physical book from the library and downloaded the audiobook on my Libby app so I could read before bed and while doing household tasks! 

Fantasy! Murder! Mystery! Oh my! 

FANTASY: Set in Quadara, a land divided into four separate areas, ruled by four separate queens, Quadara had been ruled predictably for the last 400 years. Each land had its own specialties (agriculture/trade/technology/arts) and centered around the palace, locked in the middle. I love when fantasy books include maps and other “insider” information before the book begins, so I was thrilled with the detailed map and rules and well-known expressions from each of the quadrants. I’ve always felt inclusion of details like these help set the reader up for success, especially those on the younger end. 

MURDER- Yep, the title gives this one away. The reader even knows about the murders and how they are completed early on. What makes it so good? 

MYSTERY- You guess it, it’s the mystery! The reader is given full access to the perspectives of all four queens and additional main characters, Keralie (a 17-year old Torian who makes her way by thievery), Mackiel (a slightly older Torian who runs the black market trade in Toria), and Varin (a 17-year old Eonist messenger). Woven throughout the mystery of the murders: the unveiling of secrets behind the four queens, Keralie, Mackiel, and Varin. The reader is left to decide if these secrets contribute to the murders and whether or not they can be stopped in time. 

“Sometimes failure is the beginning of success.” ~Varin

 Four Dead Queens is fast-paced, action-packed, and has just the right amount of twists and turns to keep the pages turning. Just when I thought the adventures were becoming predictable, the plot, built upon a combination of the reader’s knowledge of the inner-workings and rules of Quadara and the characters from both outside and inside the golden-domed palace. 

For parents wondering about age-appropriateness, there are definitely elements of romance (kissing and mention of nudity). There are a handful of swear words as well. Lesbian relationships are also present. I recommend this read for 8th grade and up.

I rarely ever read a book and hope for a movie. However, this might be an exception. Although this is a debut novel for Astrid Scholte, it’s clear she has spent her life devoted to the art of fantasy. She’s worked for Steven Spielberg and Walt Disney! The book reads like the kind of movie you leave the theater feeling happy you spent the money to watch. 

I gave this book 5 out of 5 stars on Goodreads. Other reviews include: 

“A fierce, darkly compelling protagonist…and readers will want to double back to get a better look at the various turns of the enticingly twisting timeline.” Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books

“The story takes unexpected turns, has complicated characters who develop over time, and ends unpredictably …. A recommended addition to young adult fantasy/dystopian collections.” School Library Journal

Penguin released this trailer to build excitement. Feel free to dangle it in front a potential reluctant reader. 🙂

Works Cited:

Adeyemi, Tomi. (2018) Legacy of Orishi. Henry Holt and Company. 

Collins, Suzanne. (2008) The Hunger Games Trilogy. Scholastic. 

Scholte, Astrid. (2019) Four Dead Queens. G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers.

Voels, Sarah.  (2019) “Four Dead Queens.” School Library Journal. 

Book Review: We Dream of Space, 2021 Newbery Honor Book

Title: We Dream of Space

Author: Erin Entrada Kelly

Publisher: Greenwillow Books, 2020

ISBN#: 978-0-06-274730-3

Chances are, if you’re around my age (early 40’s), you’ll have a memory etched in your mind like I have: the image of the Challenger exploding shortly after take-off. You might even remember where you were when you saw it. I was in my  living room, home on a snow day. I remember my mother being speechless. I remember having lots of questions. I remember being sad. 

Naturally, picking up any Newbery Honor title is of interest to us, but We Dream of Space was of particular interest, as it follows three siblings in the month or so leading up to the Challenger launch in 1986. Once I got over the fact it had a “historical fiction” label on the side of the book (My childhood is now considered “historical!”), I immediately started LOVING all of the 80’s pop culture references, from the banana clip Ms. Salonga, the science teacher wears, to Tab soda to Dr. J. to Rocky. 

The Nelson-Thomas family dynamic is simple for readers to understand on the surface, but the beauty of the book resides in the slow reveal of how an emotionally distant family creates adolescents who have to dig really deep in order to navigate life. The parents argue all the time and barely interact with their children. The siblings, 7th grade twins Bird (female) and Fitch (male), plus older brother Cash (retained for poor grades, also a 7th grader) also barely interact with each other. Each revolves in their own orbit, until the Challenger explosion creates an opportunity for them to realize none of them will be able to reach their potential without the support of each other. 

Bird- a sensible, smart, self-doubting, but hopeful future astronaut
Fitch- arcade-loving, temper flaring, Choose Your Own Adventure-reading, competitive brother
Cash- down-on-his-luck basketball player, who is striking out with the ladies and his studies brother

Structurally, the book takes turns telling the story from the perspective of the three kids. I think this format works REALLY well for kids that are reluctant to read books with primary characters of the opposite sex since male and females tell the story. The book is long,  nearly 400 pages, although the font seems slightly larger than usual and the short chapters told from alternating viewpoints make for a faster-than-expected experience. 

The author, Erin Entrada Kelly is no stranger to the awards spotlight. Her novel Hello, Universe won the Newbery Medal in 2018. We Dream of Space is a 2020 Newbery Honor book as well as a Goodreads Choice 2020 Nominee. It has many, many starred reviews. Kelly includes several pages of additional research at the end on the Challenger and the astronauts that perished that will be of interest to many kids. 

We Dream of Space offers an exceptional portrayal of the endless ways in which parental dysfunction affects every member of a family. It’s also a celebration of the need for optimism, compassion and teamwork in the face of disasters both individual and communal.” — (starred review)

The suggested ages for this book are 8-12, or grades 3-7, but may be a good pick for older readers who are reading below grade level. Despite the Nelson Thomas kids being in 7th grade, they are very independent and mature. 

For kids that are interested in more information about the Challenger, I recommend these titles: 

Kelly, Erin Entrada. We Dream of Space. Greenwillow Books, 2020., Best Books of 2020:

Book Review: Eventown by Corey Ann Haydu

Title: Eventown

Author: Corey Ann Haydu

Publisher: Katherine Teegan Books, 2019

ISBN#: 978-0062689818

Middle grade fantasy comes in a variety of make believe; from talking cats hiding in bathtubs to space invaders from galaxies far, far away. However, in Eventown, the magic is lurking under the surface in just about everything, even if new resident twins Elodee and Naomi don’t quite know it yet. 

When the book begins, it’s clear that Elodee and Naomi, along with their parents, have been under stress for the last half-year, although readers don’t find out why until much, much later. Choosing a “fresh start” over more of the same, they leave most of their possessions, including many favorites, behind as they return to Eventown, a place they once visited before. In Eventown, everything seems better and well, perfect. Elodee’s recipes are near flawless and Naomi rarely needs to practice gymnastics in order to produce a perfect routine (which just so happens to be the same routine as all her teammates). The weather is always sunny, teachers are always kind, and the ice cream…well, it never melts. 

After Elodee’s sharing session at the Welcoming Center is interrupted, odd things begin happening. The rose bush they brought from Juniper doesn’t look like all the other rose bushes in town. Weeds begin appearing. And then…it begins to rain. 

Elodee, along with new sidekick Veena, make a risky decision to get to the bottom of not just this mystery, but a few other nagging issues that result in quite the discovery. Things aren’t what they appear to be in Eventown. 

While I greatly enjoyed the mystery lurking underneath this story, the book also serves as a vehicle in tackling some big topics, like mental illness, suicide, and grief. Concepts about identity and embracing your imperfections also heavily define this book. However, my favorite theme in this book is simple: love.

“Love, in the way we take care of each other when we’re hurting. Love, in a town covered in vines and thorns and roses and color. Love, strongest in the worst, scariest, most painful moments. Love, even better when the sky is gray and your heart is breaking.” (p. 324)

While the Lively family is portrayed as white, they become friends with an Indian family. Another secondary character has two moms. 

Although Amazon lists this book as being well-suited for kids 8-12 or grades 3-7, I think parents of kids on the younger end of this spectrum should be advised of the heavy-hitting topics. It would make a great book to read together. On the flip side, I think this book could be of high interest to lower readers in the upper grades. 

This title earned 3 starred reviews (Publishers’ Weekly, School Library Journal, and Kirkus Reviews), but perhaps the best review of this book comes from another esteemed middle grade author, Rebecca Stead: 

“A wonderful and inventive story about being a kid in an imperfect world—beautiful, mysterious, and deeply satisfying.”

Rebecca Stead

I gave this book a 5 star review on Goodreads.

Read-alikes for this book could include Running Out of Time by Margaret Peterson-Haddix. While this book would be considered historical fiction and not fantasy, the element of “things aren’t as they appear to be” is the same, a very good way to hook kids into finishing the book.

Another fantasy title that deals with grief, love, and identity, albeit in a different way, would be Newbery winner When You Trap a Tiger by Tae Keller. You can see our review on it here. 

Do your kids like a preview or book trailer before they commit? Try this one!

Haydu, Corey Ann. Eventown. Katherine Teegan, 2019.

Book Review: When You Trap A Tiger, 2021 Newbery Winner

Title: When You Trap A Tiger

Author: Tae Keller

Publisher: Random House Books for Young Readers, 2020

ISBN #978-1-5247-1570-0

When You Trap a Tiger is the newest Newbery Award Winner and along with that comes pretty high expectations! For some readers, this might be their first dip into magical realism, a type of fiction that depicts the world as it appears, but with hints or forces of magic as well. 

In this case, Lily, older sister, Sam, and her mother move in with Halmoni, (the Korean word for Grandmother), in a small town in Oregon from California. As they near Halmoni’s house, Lily sees a tiger in the middle of the road no one else sees. Lily continues to not only see the tiger, but is forced to barter with her in order to help save Halmoni from grave illness. More than just a quest to save her grandmother, Lily navigates her relationships with family members and potential new friendships, all while deciding what type of person she wants to be and dealing with a tiger! 

Outside of themes from the Korean folktales, this book captures additional themes of identity, the circle of life, adolescence (slight spoiler alert: older sister Sam will reveal a budding romance at the end), cancer, single-parent families, overcoming fear, and learning deficits. If your child tends to be an introvert in a made-for-extroverts world, Lily will be an inspiring character. 

“I accept it, and warmth spreads up my fingertips and through my body. A small part of me perks up, smiles. And I’m not sure the smiles reaches my face, but maybe this is how healing starts – small bits of happiness waking up inside you, until maybe one day it spreads through your whole self.” -Lily

Tae Keller, When You Trap a Tiger

With the introduction of Korean folktales, this book may be a gateway to discussion about similarities and differences between traditional tales from around the world. However, many children may find the folktales and tiger narrative in this book confusing, especially since the reader continues to question whether or not the tiger is real or only in Lily’s mind. The book is recommended for grades 3-7 or ages 8-12. 

This book brought to mind several other favorites. First, the unique characters and quaint town setting reminded me of Kate DiCamillo’s Because of Winn-Dixie, with Halmoni’s likeness to Gloria Dump and Joe, the librarian, another perennial town fixture like Otis or Miss Franny.

“I like order. I like organization. The idea of all the information in the world, all organized, everything in its place- I like that idea. But I’ve been doing this job for a long time. And the thing I’ve learned is that stories aren’t about order and organization. They’re about feelings. And feelings don’t always make sense. See, stories are like…water. Like rain. We can hold them tight, but they always slip through our fingers. That can be scary. But remember that water gives us life. It connects continents. It connects people. And in the quiet moments, when the water’s still, sometimes we can see our own reflection.” -Joe”

Tae Keller, When You Trap a Tiger

I also thought of Circus Mirandus, another example of magical realism, by Cassie Beasley. As Grandpa Ephraim nears his last days, he shares his stories of Circus Mirandus with grandson, Micah, who comes to believe clues to unanswered questions must certainly be found in the circus. Finally, I thought of Crenshaw, by Katherine Applegate, the story of Jackson and the reappearance of his imaginary cat friend, when life for his family becomes increasingly difficult. 

I gave this book 4 out of 5 stars on Goodreads. I felt that as an adult, I was equipped to handle many of the themes and could navigate the gray area between fantasy and reality. However, I felt that many middle grade readers might be too confused or overwhelmed to appreciate all the book has to offer. The read-alike books above may be better suited to that age group. 

Keller, Tae. When You Trap A Tiger. New York, Random House Books for Young Readers, 2020.

Illustrator Review: Jason Chin

Award-winning author and illustrator, Jason Chin.

Chances are likely that if you’re reading with a child, he/she will urge you to stop and take a closer look at the illustrations. 

Chances are likely they will notice a detail you would have missed, had you not slowed down. 

Chances are likely when you slow down, you’ll begin to savor those illustrations. 

Chances are likely you’ll realize that many illustrations are of incredible artistic quality, from the smallest of brush strokes, to layers of many forms of media, to the white space that leaves room for the imaginations and draws readers in to the heart of the story. 

And this is how I fell in love with author and illustrator Jason Chin and his realistic paintings, found in both fiction and nonfiction.

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Book Review: Becoming Muhammed Ali by James Patterson and Kwame Alexander

Becoming Muhammed Ali, by James Patterson Kwame Alexander, published by Jimmy Patterson, 2020. ISBN 978-0316498166

Yes, this book lived up to the hype (starred reviews by School Library Journal, Horn Book, Publishers Weekly, and Kirkus Review).

Yes, even if you’re not a boxing fan, this book is incredible.

Yes, middle grade sports fans will go nuts for it.

Yes, it reads just like historical fiction instead of a biography.

Yes, the full page, graphic novel-ish illustrations by Dawud Anyabwile are a perfect addition to Ali’s biography.

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Book Review: Alma and How She Got Her Name by Juana Martinez-Neal

Alma and How She Got Her Name, by Juana Martinez-Neal. Published in 2018 by Candlewick Press. ISBN 978-0-7636-9355-8

Every name has a story and your kids have mostly asked to be told the story of their name. Many have asked to hear it again. And again. 

Some name stories are long, while others are simple. 

In Alma and How She Got Her Name, Alma Sofia Esperanza Jose Pura Candela complains that her name is too long.

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Book Review: Another by Christian Robinson

I read Another when it first came out in 2019. I read it quickly and while I thought the illustrations were, as Christian Robinson’s always are, gorgeous. However, it didn’t move me and I gave it a 3 star review on Goodreads, and never thought about it again. It wasn’t on my list of books to buy for the library. 

Another, written and illustrated by Christian Robinson. Published in 2019 by Antheneum. ISBN: 978-1-5344-2167-7

Fast forward to last Saturday. The day was wide open and my daughter suggested we head to the library and get, in her words, “a big ol’ stack of picture books and read away.” So, that’s what we did. This has long been a favorite activity of ours and we hadn’t done it in awhile. We separated and then gave ourselves 10 minutes to find 5-10 picture books that grab our attention or are by authors we love. Another was in her stack and it was the first book she picked to read when we got home. 

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