The children in my life — and there are dozens of them — generally think I’m strict. But they know I’m a softy when it comes to one thing: books.
They can have whatever books they want. I’ll buy them. I’ll deliver them. Anytime. Anywhere. Reading, to me, is always a good thing, from comic books to Russian novels.
So I found it surprising last week to see a Massachusetts librarian, who claims to share my love of the written word, refuse a gift of 10 Dr. Seuss books donated by Melania Trump, the first lady of this country.
The books were part of National Read A Book Day, and they were sent to one school in each state that demonstrated high achievement, accompanied by a nice letter from Mrs. Trump citing Seuss’ “Oh, the Places You’ll Go” as a book she shared with her son “over and over.”
To which the librarian, in an artfully nasty blog response, basically said, “Yeah, uh, no thanks.”
Ever heard of … manners?
Liz Phipps Soeiro, the librarian at Cambridgeport Elementary in Cambridge, Mass., politely chastised the first lady for wasting the books on a rich school in a rich district that had an extremely educated librarian (herself), when she could have sent books to “underfunded and underprivileged communities” that were “marginalized and maligned” by policies from Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.
The librarian added “my school doesn’t have a NEED for these books” then called Dr. Seuss “a bit of a cliché,” and “a tired and worn ambassador for children’s literature,” whose illustrations were “steeped in racist propaganda.”
She managed to work in some struggles her privileged school did face, like the battle “(to) dismantle the systemic white supremacy in our institution.”
She also suggested her own reading list of 10 different titles, including a tale of a Pakistani boy battling bullying, a Haitian mother put in jail for being undocumented, and poems by refugee children from Central America.
Near the end, she told the first lady the gift “was a wonderful gesture, if one that could have been better thought out,” which is a bit like saying, “What a beautiful dress, if only it didn’t make you look so fat.”
So if I were raising my hand in this librarian’s class, my first question might be, “As you are obviously a well-educated person, did you ever hear of …manners?”
Nice gesture turns divisive
Whatever happened to saying “thank you” and being graceful? You don’t like Dr. Seuss, fine. Spread the books out in your vast library. If you are as inclusive as you lecture the first lady to be, surely you can find room for The Cat in the Hat.
Speaking of that, a photo surfaced of this same librarian, Soeiro, dressed like The Cat in the Hat two years ago at a school event celebrating Dr. Seuss’ birthday. Seems odd she would dress like a creature she now suggested had “minstrel characteristics” and “racist” overtones. Maybe she had a change of heart. I blame the striped stockings.
Look, if you’re so inclined, you can drill into Seuss’ early World War II illustrations. Some of them, like many of that time, don’t hold up well in today’s light. But they hardly negate his later messages or huge body of work. It didn’t take folks long to find photos of Michelle Obama reading Dr. Seuss books to children while she was first lady. Cynics wondered on social media if this librarian would have accused Mrs. Obama of being racist.
And just last year, President Barack Obama said Seuss had “incredible talent” for writing about “universal values we all hold dear.” Soeiro made no mention of that. But she did teach her school kids a lesson in how to be snooty and ungrateful.
Why does the librarian make the call here? When the White House contacts your school, isn’t there a principal or superintendent to step up – or at least step in before a rude refusal is issued? Remember, this is a public school; the librarian works for the city and therefore the taxpayers of Cambridge. (In case you’re wondering, she was not fired or punished. She was “counseled” on the “relevant policies,” according to the district.)
And so a nice gesture gets blown up, and everyone scurries to his or her political bunker. This is how things devolve when we insist our viewpoint MUST BE HEARD, no matter where, when or what circumstance.
Yes, we are all entitled to our opinions. Lord knows we’ve been reminded of that this year.
But when the most wonderful gift you can give a child — the gift of reading — is refused in order to make a self-righteous point, you wonder if we aren’t throwing away the best parts of us in favor of the worst.
Contact Mitch Albom: firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at MitchAlbom.com. Download “The Sports Reporters” podcast each Monday and Friday on-demand through Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify and more. Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.