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

Was the Cat in the Hat Black?

Here’s some news I’ve been itching to share: Oxford University Press will publish my next book, Was the Cat in the Hat Black?: The Hidden Racism of Children’s Literature, and Why We Need Diverse Books. Also, this coming Monday, I will be turning in (to Oxford) the complete manuscript of the book. Though it’s too early to confirm a publication date, I’m hoping it will be out by late 2016.

Dr. Seuss, Cat in the Hat's hatNo, the entire book is not about the Cat in the Hat, though Seuss’s famous feline features prominently in one chapter. The book is about different manifestations of structural racism in the world of children’s books: the subtle persistence of racial caricature, how anti-racist revisionism sustains racist ideas, invisibility as a form of racism, whitewashing young adult book covers, and institutional discrimination within the publishing industry. The book takes its title from the Seuss chapter (which looks at, among other things, the influence of blackface minstrelsy on the Cat) because several of his works illustrate how racism hides openly – indeed, thrives – in popular culture for young people. Since the hidden racism of children’s literature is my central theme, a Cat-in-the-Hat riff on Shelley Fisher Fishkin’s Was Huck Black? became the title.

Here’s my opening paragraph:

        Fifty years after the Civil Rights Movement, we have a new civil rights crusade – the Black Lives Matter movement, inspired by the 2013 acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s murderer, and galvanized by the 2014 Ferguson protests. Fifty years after Nancy Larrick’s famous “All-White World of Children’s Books” article (1965) asked where were the people of color in literature for young readers, the We Need Diverse Books campaign is asking the same questions. These two phenomena are related. America is again entering a period of civil rights activism because racism is resilient, sneaky, and endlessly adaptable. In other words, racism endures because racism is structural: it’s embedded in culture, and in institutions. One of the places that racism hides – and the best place to oppose it – is books for young people.

As the Publishers Weekly blurb says, Was the Cat in the Hat Black? is indeed an “attempt… to do for children’s books what The New Jim Crow does for the justice system.”

"Nel Walks ‘Cat’ to OUP" (Publishers Weekly)

I realize that this is a tall order: Michelle Alexander’s book is both powerful and beautifully written. But this is indeed my aim. I want not just to get more people thinking about racism’s resilience in children’s literature. I want people to act. I want not merely to recognize the dire need for more children’s and young adult books that better represent the experiences of non-White people. I want people to join the movement for diverse books. So, rather than just conclude, Was the Cat in the Hat Black? ends with a call to action – “A Manifesto for Anti-Racist Children’s Literature.”

Roald Dahl, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964)Finishing this book (on top of teaching, writing other things, grading, editing, and everything else) is one reason this blog has recently been a little quieter than usual. As regular or even irregular readers of Nine Kinds of Pie have likely already guessed, fragments of this work-in-progress have appeared here. My earliest (and admittedly flawed) thinking on what developed into Chapter Two started as “Can Censoring a Children’s Book Remove Its Prejudices?” Parts of an autobiographical post appear in the introduction. Indeed, I gave an earlier, article version of the title chapter its own blog post. Scattered here and there across the blog are glimpses of me thinking about racism in children’s literature. Many of these pieces will vanish when the blog does, but others – almost always in a significantly revised form – find their way into the book.

So, a hearty thanks to those who have read and commented here, answered my questions, offered feedback when I’ve presented portions of this work, or educated me via your books and articles. I’ve learned so much from all of you. (Hint: Look for your names in the book’s Acknowledgments!) I couldn’t have done it without you. Thank you.


  1. Joe Kelly


    Phil, I’m looking forward to the end of 2016. I saw part of this argument in your brilliant–I mean brilliant–lecture you gave a Charleston a couple of years ago. (Also the best PowerPoint presentation I ever saw.) I look forward to seeing you on all the talk shows.

  2. Joe S. Sanders


    Phil, this is great news! Congratulations! Really can’t wait to see the book.

  3. Daria


    I was interested in reading this post (which I found by chance, following a Facebook link) and I will definitely keep an eye out for the book. But I was wondering: why use the word ‘crusade’ to talk about the Black Lives Matter movement? Besides the literal meaning, the OED defines the word as follows: “An aggressive movement or enterprise against some public evil, or some institution or class of persons considered as evil.” My point: the word more often than not has a negative connotation (as being OTT, etc), and placed in the opening sentence of a book, it would almost be enough to make me stop reading at once – in any case, it would seriously make me doubt the ideological position of the writer. I’m just mentioning this as it is probably not your intention to depict the Black Lives Matter movement in this way?

  4. Reply

    Thanks, Joe, mcliious, and Joe for the kind words!

    Daria: I am indeed using the word in the sense of “An aggressive movement or enterprise against some public evil” (OED). Racism is a public evil. I intend the word in a Civil Rights sense, echoing its use in (for example) the 1963 Birmingham Children’s Crusade.

    pragmaticmom: Yes, I know about Seuss’s racist artwork, and address it in the Seuss chapter of this book. I’ve also addressed it in my earlier book, Dr. Seuss: American Icon (2004).

  5. Clem B


    Sounds brilliant, Philip – very much looking forward to it, especially after hearing you talk about it at IRSCL. Congratulations!

  6. Pingback: Extra Reading, for next Monday | Children's & YA Literature: Theory and Method

  7. Shaun Baker


    I am incredibly excited about this book and can very easily see this becoming a staple of the research I use to help my students of Ethnic Children’s Literature at VT. I already use the article version of the titular argument for my students now!

    Looking forward to catching up at ChLA, boss.

  8. William joyce


    My book “The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr Morris Lessmore ” is not about Hurricane Katrina as you claim in your book. The intitial writing of Morris came years before that storm. The book is about the death of my dear friends Bill Morris and Coleen Salley both legends amoung children’s Librarians. As I worked on the book and film my daughter died and my wife was stricken by ALS. They are the main characters featured in the book. And Morris is a version of myself. Within this evolution of the book Hurricane Katrina struck my state. The idea of a storm blowing away peoples lives became the catalyst for what happened to Morris and my own storm of grief. But the actual storm called Katrina became a strand in an allegory. It was never the focus or the point. This book was not an effort to document the awful calamity of Katrina. The book is about my own loss. The helplessness I felt losing my friends and family from events that have no link to Katrina. Though the outrage and helplessness I felt after that storm galvanized me to take action. I did a New Yorker cover about the storm and addressed the issue of race in that illustration. The cover was infamously bumped and a small scandal inssued. I also did a photography exhibit called “Faces of Katrina” which documented the story and aftermath of the storm and encompasses the full range of people and races affected. It is brutal and truthful and meant to illustrate the very issues you accuse Morris Lessmore of ignoring. But Morris was about my own storm of grief. Your premise is incorrect. It does my book and the people it honors a terrible disservice. All this information is easy to discover on the internet. You need only to have looked.

    • Reply

      How many cats do you know who walk upright, wear a top hat, carry an umbrella, and speak in verse?

      There’s a long history in children’s literature of anthropomorphic animals – animals who function more as humans than as animals, or at least blur the boundary between those two categories. There’s also a long history of using animals to think about race, both in anti-racist children’s literature and in racist children’s literature.

      For more on this subject, my “Talk at Google” offers a succinct version of the book.

  9. Reply

    Also, a belated response to William Joyce, above.

    Dear Mr. Joyce,

    Thank you for taking the time to reply. I appreciate it.

    Thanks, especially, for the information about the Hurricane Katrina cover and the fundraiser that resulted. You’re absolutely right: that would have been ideal to discuss in the chapter. I regret its omission because that would have provided more nuance to the argument.

    I’d guess you may have seen the Google talk, and not read the chapter because it (the chapter) goes into considerably more depth – other influences on the story, the fact that it is (as you note in your comment) motivated by personal loss. Some of the contours of the argument get lost in its condensed form. If it’s of interest, I would be glad to send you a copy of the book.

    I think, though, that we differ on the subject of race. There’s a pattern in your work – a pattern that I suspect is unintentional and unconscious (which I also discuss in the chapter) – of either using people of color as exotic others or as villains. So, I’d stick to my point that the whiteness of Lessmore makes it very much about race. But I would also add that this in no way makes the book unusual (something else I say in the chapter). Whiteness is often used as the default color of humankind, and is done without malicious intent.

    Thank you again for writing, and apologies for taking so long to respond.

    Sincerely yours,

    Philip Nel

  10. William Joyce


    Hey Philip

    Sure I’d love to read your book. I didn’t see you on google. I read the chapter that included Morris. And I’ve thought about it a lot. As I said I’d addressed the racial injustices of Hurricane Katrina with my New Yorker cover and the photography exhibit I curated called Faces of Katrina. Morris Lessmore was finished some years after that but was written nearly a decade before the storm. And as I said Morris Lessmore isn’t about hurricane Katrina. Katrina became just one element of the loss I was experiencing and accounted for the addition of a single sentence and precisely three illustrations in the finished book. The section of the book that depicts the storm and it’s aftermath has no people of any color in it. Only Morris walks the empty landscape of a world not just devoid of people but devoid of all color. Which is how I felt. There are only 7 people in Morris Lessmore, one egg (Humpty Dumpty) and a lot of anthropomorphic books. I hadn’t really thought of the egg or the books as having any race. Morris is my friend Bill Morris. The other 6 represent friends or family that I lost over time. My wife is the flying lady. My daughter is the little girl at the Books conclusion. None of them were lost in Hurricane Katriina though I have sometimes wondered if an awful toxin hadn’t been unleashed. So many people close to me were stricken by strange, rare maladies soon after the storm. I even worried that by going to New Orleans so often that I had exposed or triggered the diseases that felled my wife and daughter. But that kind of pretzel logic can make you crazy. If you want Morris Lessmore to have a racial aspect that fits the larger point you’re trying to make I can’t stop you. You can pretzel logic your argument all you want but that’s just not what I was addressing in the book. It was about my personal grief. Would I change anything about Morris in light of what you’ve written? I might. I want the book to speak to everyone. I hope it does in its present form. Though still vivid my grief has evolved into something less specific so Morris could too if I ever revisit it.

    I respectfully disagree with your statement that people of color are either depicted as villains or ‘exotic others’ in my stories. There’s a villainous black widow spider in The Leafmen. But she’s an insect. I chose her not for her color but because of the attributes of her species. The villain in my Guardians of Childhood series is called Pitch. As in pitch black but he has white pearlescent skin. His henchmen are shadows. Not people. A lot of people thought my book Nicholas Cricket was a homage to the entertainers of the Harlem renaissance and that’s fine with me. I thought I was doing a remake of Casablanca with bugs. But i love Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington so maybe I was channeling them too. I often don’t understand the story im telling while I’m telling it. Understanding comes later if at all. As for the others who you call exotic I just thought of them as people I admired. Almost all are based on actual people and some are old friends I wanted to celebrate and acknowledge. The librarian in my memoir Billy’s Booger is a combination of two librarians I knew. One who was white and another who was African American. I combined them. In the book she is African American but she has the hairdo and glasses of the other. I suppose that could make her exotic.

    Society is changing as is awareness. Depictions of a racially balanced worlds (either fictional or real) is something I think about more and more and try to address. I think that many of my early books present a world that is woefully lacking in diversity. I think that you’re correct that “white is often used as the default color of humankind”. And that has to change. What is surprising(and I imagine you’ve observed) is how frought and complicated addressing that change can be even for those with the best intentions.

    So we must keep listening. And trying.

    Thanks for listening. I look forward to reading your book.
    William joyce.

  11. Reply

    Dear Mr. Joyce,

    Thank you for writing. I appreciate your generosity in engaging with my critique. I very much agree with your last paragraph: making these changes are both fraught and necessary. And our best intentions don’t necessarily translate into the change we hope for. I don’t know if this came through clearly in my chapter or in the comment above; so, let me try again here. I am not alleging that you (or Dr. Seuss, who I talk about in the first chapter) consciously set out to create work that inadvertently draws on racial stereotypes. Quite the opposite. As your New Yorker artwork (which I am still kicking myself for having missed) and Seuss’s anti-racist work indicate, it is possible to do both – have anti-racist intent, do anti-racist work and yet still produce work that has the opposite effect. That’s because (as I suspect you know) an imagination steeped in American visual culture absorbs not just what is beautiful in that culture but also what is troubling. None of us – of any race – escape the pernicious ideologies (racism, sexism, etc.) of our culture.

    So, we try to do better. (Thank you for trying!)

    I am trying to do better, too, as an educator. Right now, I am reading the hundreds of negative responses to Was the Cat in the Hat Black?, thinking about the patterns in people’s critiques of what I have written. (Spoiler alert: most of the critiques are not as thoughtful as yours.) I want to figure out how to do a better job at reaching people, and so your response helps me a great deal, as I re-think my approach.

    I’m grateful for your willingness to engage in this dialogue.

    I will send you a private email to get your address & send a copy of the book to that address.

    Thanks again for writing,


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