Today, members of the children’s literature community ask for action and change from the curators of an exhibit currently housed at the University of Minnesota.
Please read the letter below and leave a comment that includes your name if you would like to lend your support. (If you have trouble commenting, please email us at email@example.com with the text of your comment, and we will gladly post it on your behalf.)
[Ed. 9am 5/9/19: Please note that we will wrap up signature gathering at 4:30 pm EST today (Thursday, May 9), and will also close comments at that time. We will send this letter with signatures to the Kerlan Board this afternoon at their board meeting. Ed. 4:30pm 5/9/19: Comments for this post are now closed.]
May 8, 2019
Leonard S. Marcus and Lisa Von Drasek, Curators
Members of the Kerlan Board
The ABC of It: Why Children’s Books Matter
Children’s Literature Research Collections (CLRC Kerlan)
Anderson Library, University of Minnesota
Dear Mr. Marcus and Ms. Von Drasek,
We write to you today to ask for a public response to concerns regarding the erasure of racism in books and by authors featured in the exhibit, The ABC of It: Why Children’s Books Matter, that was first mounted at The New York Public Library in 2013 and brought to the University of Minnesota CLRC with an accompanying book in February of 2019.
Racism in societal institutions is more visible than ever and is being addressed in museums, schools, and in the children’s book industry. In this moment, the exhibit that proclaims that “children’s books matter” uses children’s books and words about those books to tell Indigenous People and People of Color that their children’s experiences with anti-Native and racist books do not matter.
Before the exhibit’s opening events on February 26 and 27, Trisha Speed Shaskan and other children’s book authors questioned Von Drasek on her directive to docents:
“Don’t be political. Do be culturally sensitive. For example Dr. Seuss was a racist. Yes he was, there is certainly a time and a place to discuss this. Comments can be put on post-its on the second floor. Caddie Woodlawn is racist. Yes it is. Again we welcome discussion. This exhibit is through one lens, there are others.” (Lisa Von Drasek, docent training document)
We are astonished that while Von Drasek acknowledged the well-documented histories of these books’ racist content, she refused to add new signage. Instead, she added a display of academic articles in the corner of the second floor. The exhibit opened and was not well-received by many members of the children’s literature community, particularly because neither the February 26 nor February 27 event included Q&A opportunities to publicly address these concerns with both Leonard Marcus and Lisa Von Drasek. On March 6, Von Drasek added signage to a few of the exhibits, but their placement and size are insufficient. She also began publishing a series of blog posts addressing the racism in Seuss and Caddie Woodlawn on the UMN Continuum’s Blue Ox Review page, but when they were criticized, they were revised, deleted, and republished again, without explanation.
Another response was to announce the “The ABC of It: Whose Story is Being Told? Race, Inclusion, and Representation in Children’s Literature” panel, to be held on May 10. Katie Ishizuka and Ramón Stephens, authors of an article on Seuss, and Dawn Quigley, author of an article on Caddie Woodlawn, were invited to speak on the panel. When Ishizuka and Stephens learned about the whiteness and whitewashing of the exhibit and hostile responses to those who had spoken out about it, they communicated their concerns to Von Drasek in writing and verbally. Von Drasek failed to address, or even acknowledge, any of their concerns, which reflected the collective concerns of their colleagues of color, who have been silenced, ignored, gaslighted, and further marginalized through this process. In protest of the individual and institutional racism occurring around the exhibit, they canceled their participation in the panel.
On Friday, May 3, the panel was canceled because the fourth panelist, Andrea Davis Pinkney, was not able to attend. The web page with that announcement indicated that it may be rescheduled. There was no invitation to ask other panelists, or for the event to continue with Dawn Quigley.
While blog posts and panels can be useful, they are ultimately of no use to the initial visitors who went through the exhibit without the new signage providing some context to artists like Theodor Geisel or with books like Caddie Woodlawn and Little Black Sambo. As well, they are of little use to those reading the accompanying book.
Given the totality of these events, and because the exhibit is expected to travel to new communities, we the undersigned members of the children’s book community in Minnesota and beyond, recognize that the CLRC is an essential and respected institution in the study of children’s literature and therefore respectfully request that the CLRC:
1. Acknowledge that The ABC of It exhibit and book were flawed in their inception and execution
2. Explain why blog posts were posted, revised, deleted, and re-posted without comment
3. Update the accompanying The ABC of It book to include more context for Seuss, Caddie Woodlawn, and other problematic works as identified
4. Agree that the exhibit, as it travels to new communities, and the digital educational materials to be launched in September 2019, will contain the additional signage and/or more information
5. Include the BIPOC literary community in future exhibit- and event-planning committees.
We await your reply.
John Coy, children’s book author, former Kerlan Board member and Kerlan Award winner
Sarah Park Dahlen, Associate Professor and former Kerlan Board member
Katie Ishizuka, The Conscious Kid
Dawn Quigley (Turtle Mountain Ojibwe), Asst professor, children's book author
Debbie Reese (Nambé Pueblo), American Indians in Children’s Literature; 2019 Arbuthnot Lecturer
Stephen Shaskan, current Kerlan Board member, children’s book author & illustrator
Trisha Speed Shaskan, Kerlan volunteer, children’s book author
Ramón Stephens, The Conscious Kid
Martha Brockenbrough, children’s book author
Anne Ursu, children’s book author
Kelly Barnhill, children’s book author
Edith Campbell, librarian; blogger
Nina Victor Crittenden, children’s book illustrator and author
Sarah Warren, children’s book author/early childhood educator
Kirstin Cronn-Mills, children’s book author and educator
H.M. Bouwman, Professor and children’s author
Dr. Laura M. Jimenez, Boston University
Sally Morgan, children’s book author
Kristin Johnson, children’s book author, writing instructor
Stephanie Watson, children’s book author
Cristina Rhodes, PhD
Bao Phi, Children’s Book author
Megan Maynor, children’s book author
Swati Avasthi, children’s book author and professor
Savita Yopp, student
Molly Beth Griffin, children’s book author and educator
Ebony Elizabeth Thomas
Susan Marie Swanson, children’s book author and educator
Tasslyn Magnusson, PhD, poet and children’s book author
Olivia Ghafoerkhan, children’s book author and professor
Cori Doerrfeld, children’s book author and illustrator
Chayse Sundt, youth librarian
Mike Jung, children’s book author
Kristin McIlhagga, PhD
Megan Atwood, children’s book author and professor
Kate Messner, children’s book author and educator
Marcie Rendon, author
Charlotte Sullivan Wild, children's book author, former educator
Jean Mendoza, PhD
Laura Ruby, children’s book author and educator
Peter Pearson, children’s book author
Links to more information regarding the exhibit:
● Kirch, Claire. 2019 January 10. Kerlan Collection Adapts 2013 ‘The ABC of It’ Exhibition. Publishers Weekly.
● Reese. Debbie. 2019 March 6. Debbie. A Critical Review of THE ABC OF IT: WHY CHILDREN’S BOOKS MATTER by Leonard Marcus. American Indians in Children’s Literature blog.
● Kirch, Claire. 2019 March 7. ‘The ABC of It’ Opens at the Kerlan Collection: A Photo Essay. Publishers Weekly.
● Kirch, Claire. 2019 March 12. An ABC of Controversy: The Kerlan Collection Tweaks Exhibit in Response to Concerns about Racism. Publishers Weekly.