Why this school librarian rejected Melania Trump’s book donation

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Moya Crockett
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A school librarian in the US has rejected books donated by Melania Trump, saying she should send them elsewhere.

The first lady had donated 10 Dr Seuss books to Cambridgeport elementary school in Cambridge, Massachusetts for National Read a Book Day. The school was one of 50 in the US identified by the department of education as having achieved high standards of excellence, with the package of books intended as a token of recognition for teachers and pupils.

A note signed by Trump was sent along with the books, telling children that “the key to achieving your dreams begins with learning to read”.

However, Liz Phipps Soeiro – Cambridgeport elementary’s award-winning librarian – turned down the donation, issuing a searing criticism of both Trump’s choice of author and her husband’s administration’s education policies.

In an open letter posted on The Horn Book, a website about literature for children and young adults, Phipps Soeiro said that her students had been “impressed” by Trump’s letter. However, she said that her school did not need the books, as Cambridge is “a district that has plenty of resources, which contributes directly to ‘excellence’.”

Cambridge, Massachusetts librarian melania trump
Cambridge, Massachusetts is in the third richest county in the third richest state in the US.

Other schools in the country may not be achieving Cambridgeport elementary’s “high standards of excellence”, said Phipps Soeiro, but that did not mean they didn’t deserve book donations: in fact, it probably meant they needed them more. As a result, she said she could not accept Trump’s gift in good conscience.

“Cities like Philadelphia, Chicago, and Detroit are suffering through expansion, privatisation, and school ‘choice’ with no interest in outcomes of children, their families, their teachers, and their schools,” wrote Phipps Soeiro.

“Are those kids any less deserving of books simply because of circumstances beyond their control?”

“Why not go out of your way to gift books to underfunded and underprivileged communities that continue to be marginalised and maligned by policies put in place by Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos?”

Earlier this year, Donald Trump’s education secretary Betsy DeVos announced plans to cut $10.6 billion (£8 billion) from the national education budget, with public schools losing out on hundreds of millions of dollars.

In addition, President Trump’s 2018 budget – which has yet to be passed by Congress – would result in the closure of the Institute of Museum and Library Sciences, reducing federal funds for public libraries across the US.

librarian melania trump
Librarian Liz Phipps Soeiro criticised US education secretary Betsy Devos' policies in an open letter to Melania Trump.

Phipps Soeiro also questioned whether Dr Seuss was an appropriate choice of author.

“You may not be aware of this, but Dr Seuss is a bit of a cliché, a tired and worn ambassador for children’s literature,” said the librarian. She added that Dr Seuss’s illustrations, such as those featured in If I Ran a Zoo or And to Think that I Saw It On Mulberry Street, “are steeped in racist propaganda, caricatures, and harmful stereotypes”.

Despite this, Phipps Soeiro said she was “honoured” that the first lady had recognised her school.

“I can think of no better gift for children than books; it was a wonderful gesture, if one that could have been better thought out,” she said. “Books can be a powerful way to learn about and experience the world around us; they help build empathy and understanding.”

was dr seuss racist
Dr Seuss used racist imagery in his picture books, according to school librarian Liz Phipps Soeiro.

Phipps Soeiro also shared a list of books she thought would offer Trump “a window into the lives of the many children affected by the policies of your husband’s administration”.

These included Mama’s Nightingale: A Story of Immigration and Separation by Edwige Danticat, a picture book about a Haitian-American girl whose undocumented mother is imprisoned in an immigration detention facility, and Duncan Tonatiuh’s Separate Is Never Equal, the true story of a Mexican-American family who fought for desegregation in California.

The Guardian reports that the Cambridge school district has distanced itself from Phipps Soeiro’s open letter, saying in a statement: “In this instance, the employee was not authorised to accept or reject donated books on behalf of the school or school district.”

Melania Trump’s communications director, meanwhile, criticised Phipps Soeiro for “turning the gesture of sending young schoolchildren books into something divisive”, and said that “the first lady remains committed to her efforts on behalf of children everywhere”.

Images: Rex Features