As birthday celebrations go, this is some tough love.
“These books portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong,” the company said in a statement. “Ceasing sales of these books is only part of our commitment and our broader plan to ensure Dr. Seuss Enterprises’ catalog represents and supports all communities and families.”
March 2 is not only Geisel’s birthday; it’s Read Across America Day, founded in 1998 by the National Education Association, to celebrate reading. That makes the timing of the announcement somewhat awkward, though perhaps not as awkward as Dr. Seuss’s racist illustrations.
Geisel, who died in 1991, is credited with revolutionizing the teaching of reading and remains one of the most popular authors in the world. His books have sold hundreds of millions of copies. But it’s long been known that early in his career Geisel drew propaganda cartoons that reflected anti-Black and anti-Japanese tropes. Some of those ugly motifs leached into his children’s books like toxic mold in the basement — easy but dangerous to ignore.
The decision to stop publishing these books — along with “McElligot’s Pool,” “On Beyond Zebra!,” “Scrambled Eggs Super!” and “The Cat’s Quizzer” — should not shock anyone who’s been following discussions about Dr. Seuss in particular or children’s literature in general.
More recent scholarship has raised questions about even his most beloved classics. In 2017, Philip Nel, an English professor at Kansas State University, published a book called “Was the Cat in the Hat Black?” According to Nel, the mischievous, white-gloved cat was “inspired by blackface minstrelsy.”
Similar problems make other Seuss titles problematic for parents, teachers and librarians concerned about exposing children to racist images and attitudes without any critical context. For instance, Seuss’s first children’s book, “And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street” (1937), contains an illustration of a young Chinese man that looks like a pre-World War II stereotype. Because it is.
Disappointingly, “If I Ran the Zoo” and “If I Ran the Circus,” both published in the 1950s, contain the same stereotypical depictions of Asians as “helpers who all wear their eyes at a slant” and a picture of African men that plays on the most degrading iconography.
After years of earnest efforts to create a more just society, the persistence of racist groups in America — given new energy by the rise of Donald Trump — has made many people realize that more aggressive steps must be taken to counter these attitudes. There’s been a heightened awareness of the way racism is subtly inscribed in our culture, including in our children’s books. Publishers have been trying to undo the damage with titles such as Ibram X. Kendi’s “Antiracist Baby,” Bobbi Kates’s “We’re Different, We’re the Same” and Chana Ginelle Ewing’s “An ABC of Equality.”
But these concerns are not new or — despite mockery from the right — part of some trendy cancel-culture hysteria. Langston Hughes criticized Helen Bannerman’s “Little Black Sambo” back in the early 1930s, calling out the best-selling picture book for its demeaning depiction of a Black child.
For many people — including publishers who own these titles — the first instinct is often denial and then some contorted effort to sanitize their valuable literary property. Surely, new illustrations of Sambo will solve the problem, right?
But the racism that infects some children’s books is not a typo or a stray mark that can be so easily fixed. It’s more like the pink stain the Cat leaves around the bathtub: Cleverly shifting it around won’t solve the problem.
That seems to be what the publisher of “If I Ran the Zoo” finally concluded. “Dr. Seuss Enterprises listened and took feedback from our audiences including teachers, academics and specialists in the field as part of our review process,” the company told the Associated Press. “We then worked with a panel of experts, including educators, to review our catalog of titles.”
Dr. Seuss Enterprises will surely be in a slump this week, and we know that “un-slumping yourself is not easily done.” Enlightened readers will complain that the company waited too long to do the right thing. Right-wing critics are already whining that the company caved to the woke mob. It would have been easy for Dr. Seuss Enterprises to continue overlooking the controversy around some of these books or to claim, like that nervous fish in “The Cat and the Hat”:
“This mess is so big
and so deep and so tall,
we cannot pick it up,
there is no way at all!”
But that would have been an increasingly intolerable cop-out. For years, sharp-eyed teachers and librarians had been replacing the weaker Dr. Seuss titles with better children’s books that don’t incidentally mock or diminish any groups of people. Having waited so long for the publisher to acknowledge the problem, the moment is right:
“So, as fast as you can,
think of something to do!
you will have to get rid of
Thing One and Thing Two!”
We will have to get rid of other things, too.
Ron Charles writes about books for The Washington Post and hosts TotallyHipVideoBookReview.com.
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