One of Melania Trump’s favorite books is Dr. Seuss’ “Oh, the Places You’ll Go!,” which she read with her son, Barron, “over and over” when he was younger.
The first lady, who is increasingly carving out a public profile for herself, chose the classic children’s book and nine other Dr. Seuss titles to send to an elementary school in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in celebration of “National Read a Book Day.”
But a librarian at Cambridgeport School refused to accept the gift, criticising Trump administration education policies and images in the books.
Seuss’ illustrations are “steeped in racist propaganda, caricatures, and harmful stereotypes,” librarian Liz Phipps Soeiro wrote in a letter to Trump on Tuesday.
The librarian wrote that rather than sending books to a well-funded elementary school in Cambridge, Trump should instead be devoting resources to schools in “underfunded and underprivileged communities” that are “marginalized and maligned by policies put in place by Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.”
Critics view DeVos, a billionaire who has worked for decades to promote school choice, or alternatives to traditional public schools, as one of the most anti-public-education secretaries in the department’s history.
Giving the books was part of Trump’s effort to use her platform “to help as many children as she can,” White House spokeswoman Stephanie Grisham said.
Those efforts include hosting a roundtable discussion Thursday about the opioid epidemic, including how it affects youths, and speaking at a luncheon on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly about work she hopes to do as an anti-bullying advocate.
The Department of Education chose one high-achieving school in every state to receive a package of books from Trump, according to a statement from the White House.
“Turning the gesture of sending young school children books into something divisive is unfortunate, but the First Lady remains committed to her efforts on behalf of children everywhere,” Grisham said.
In her letter to children receiving the books, Trump called getting an education “perhaps the most important and wondrous opportunity of your young lives.”
“Your education will be a lifelong pursuit that will sustain and carry you far beyond your wildest imagination, if you will let it,” she wrote. “Remember, the key to achieving your dreams begins with learning to read.”
On Sept. 6, she encouraged everyone to read a book, and to let every page “take you on an exciting journey.”
The Cambridge school system released a statement saying the librarian “was not authorized to accept or reject donated books on behalf of the school or school district,” according to CBS Boston.
“We have counseled the employee on all relevant policies, including the policy against public resources being used for political purposes,” the district said in the statement. Representatives from the school system did not respond to requests from The Washington Post for comment.
Phipps Soeiro points to recent literature that addresses potential racism in Seuss’ work, including a book by professor of children’s literature Philip Nel that argues Seuss’ depiction of the Cat in the Hat was based on racial stereotypes and inspired by traditions of blackface entertainment.
She also calls Seuss “a bit of a cliché” and a “tired and worn ambassador for children’s literature” in her letter posted on the Horn Book, a publication covering literature for children and adults.
Many of the comments on Phipps Soeiro’s post commended her for taking a stand, but others suggested she was “rude” and “ungrateful” not to have accepted Trump’s gift.
“I am appalled by this. How about teaching our children to be grateful for a gift, accept the gift and say thank you?” a commenter wrote, responding to Phipps Soeiro’s post.
Parents outside the school told CBS Boston they supported the librarian’s statement.
“I think the letter is really articulate, constructive in its suggestions,” said parent Alex Vanpraagh.
Seuss has long been associated with children’s literacy. The National Education Association’s annual “Read Across America” day – when cities and towns across the country host events to celebrate reading – is March 2, Seuss’ birthday.
“One of the reasons we partnered with Seuss 20 years ago in 1997 was to kick-start this program,” NEA spokesman Steven Grant told the School Library Journal.
“That was the strategy up front, so kids would see Dr. Seuss’ Cat in the Hat and spark some attention.”
He said an estimated 45 million students and teachers take part in the reading events annually, and that in the past two years, the program’s mission has been shifting toward promoting diverse literature.
But the author still has many admirers, including President Barack Obama, who said he is “still a big Dr. Seuss fan” when he visited a library in Southeast Washington in 2015.
He hailed Seuss as “one of America’s revered wordsmiths” in a presidential proclamation on 2016’s Read Across America Day.
“Theodor Seuss Geisel – or Dr. Seuss – used his incredible talent to instill in his most impressionable readers universal values we all hold dear,” Obama wrote.
“Through a prolific collection of stories, he made children see that reading is fun, and in the process, he emphasized respect for all; pushed us to accept ourselves for who we are; challenged preconceived notions and encouraged trying new things.”
But Phipps Soeiro wrote that as first lady, Trump has “world-class resources” that she could have used to make a choice other than the Seuss books.
“Just down the street you have access to a phenomenal children’s librarian: Dr. Carla Hayden, the current Librarian of Congress,” she wrote. “I have no doubt Dr. Hayden would have given you some stellar recommendations.”
She noted that in Cambridge, where yearly per-pupil spending is more than $20,000, her students have access to “a school library with over nine thousand volumes and a librarian with a graduate degree in library science.”
“So, my school doesn’t have a NEED for these books,” wrote Phipps Soeiro, who could not immediately be reached for comment.
Other school libraries in cities including Philadelphia, Chicago and Detroit are being closed because of expansion, privatization and school choice, she wrote.
“Are those kids any less deserving of books simply because of circumstances beyond their control?” she asked.
The Department of Education could not be reached for comment about its criteria for selecting Cambridgeport School or the other 49 schools.
The 10 books on the list are: “Seuss-isms!”; “Because a Little Bug Went KaChoo”; “What Pet Should I Get?”; “The Cat in the Hat”; “I Can Read With My Eyes Shut!”; “One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish”; “The Foot Book”; “Wacky Wednesday”; “Green Eggs and Ham” and “Oh, the Places You’ll Go!”
Phipps Soeiro suggested a reading list of her own 10 books for the first lady and President Donald Trump – “it’s the librarian in me,” she wrote – that focused on themes including children standing up to racism, trying to connect with parents who are incarcerated because of their immigration status and who integrate aspects of their countries of origin into their new countries.