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PR Rule 1: The proper response to receiving a gift is ‘Thank you’

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The world is in a dither over a school librarian’s decision to return a gift Melina Trump gave to a public school’s library.

One of Melania Trump‘s favorite books is Dr. Seuss’s “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, Mass., in celebration of “National Read a Book Day.”

The First Lady’s gifting of books to a school is part of a public relations (PR) campaign intended to create a positive image for Ms. Trump. Literacy has been an issue embraced by many of Ms Trump’s predecessors because it is not considered controversial.

Usually.

But a librarian at Cambridgeport School refused to accept the gift, criticizing Trump administration education policies and images in the books.

Librarian Liz Phipps Soeiro’s letter explaining why the books are being returned to Ms Trump reads in part:

So, my school doesn’t have a NEED for these books. And then there’s the matter of the books themselves. 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. As First Lady of the United States, you have an incredible platform with world-class resources at your fingertips. Just down the street you have access to a phenomenal children’s librarian: Dr. Carla Hayden, the current Librarian of Congress. I have no doubt Dr. Hayden would have given you some stellar recommendations.

Another fact that many people are unaware of is that Dr. Seuss’s illustrations are steeped in racist propaganda, caricatures, and harmful stereotypes. 

In addition to pointing out her well-resourced school has no need for the books, Soeiro correctly mentions that, in cities across the nation, school libraries are being closed and librarians are being laid off, a situation that is bad for children and presents yet another impediment to learning.

Her letter included whacks at the US Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, and the over-emphasis on testing, which has existed for decades.

Those are great points. Devos is a disgrace and over-testing is stressing out students while stealing time from other subjects that benefit the whole child such as physical education and the arts.

Nevertheless, responding to a gift with with a sarcastic rejection letter is simply bad manners, no matter that the gift itself was an effort to generate positive publicity.

No doubt Soeiro believed she was advocating for public education. But her letter came across as smug, elitist and insulting to everyone who grew up reading Dr. Seuss and/or reading the Seuss books to their children.

And that’s almost everyone.

Dr. Seuss is not beyond criticism. As a commercial artist in the 1920s and 30s, he used disgraceful racist caricatures in his work.

It was after WW2 that Ted Geisel (aka Dr. Seuss) became the best selling children’s author, coming to be held in such high esteem that his birthday has, for more than a decade, been celebrated at Read Across America events nationwide. These public relations events are sponsored by the National Education Association and often involve high profile political figures.

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Given Seuss’s past association with racist imagery, the books are being re-assessed. With the long contract with the Seuss estate due to expire next year, NEA is transitioning from a Seuss-specific reading program to a new emphasis on “diverse books.”

Raising questions about Seuss’ work is reasonable. But we are a long way from a mainstream consensus that the books are inappropriate for children. They remain extremely popular.

Meanwhile, instead of having a conversation about serious education issues raised by Soeiro, today’s national discussion is about a librarian’s bad manners.

That wasn’t the result Soeiro was aiming for. Her failed attempt to appropriate the First Lady’s PR tactic in order to advance a positive public education message reminds us of the truth of what mother always said,

“When someone gives you a gift, accept it graciously and say “Thank you.”

Mother could have added, “If you respond to a gift with a sarcastic rejection letter:

Many people will think you are a jerk.

Most people will think the person to whom you wrote the letter is a victim.

No one will be talking about issues you consider far more important than gift giving.”

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McBarronBlog Bonus:

NEA’s Read Across America

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