About Reading / Children and YA

Are the books of Dr. Seuss racist?

drseuss300Dr. Seuss has always been a hero of mine.  I’ve been a huge Seuss fan since the day I could read, and probably earlier.  I have a portrait of the man, several biographies, and a lithograph of the Lorax graces my walls. When I was in the hospital at fourteen my family brought me a stuffed Lorax, and that poor, beat up thing followed me through college and law school.

So I was troubled when I heard about the Massachusetts librarian who returned a box of ten Dr. Seuss books, intended for her school’s library, to First Lady Melania Trump.  But my love for Dr. Seuss doesn’t mean I shouldn’t try to understand what lies behind his stories.  I’m white, and sometimes I don’t see these things, or don’t want to.

Trump gifted the ten books to one school in each state.  School librarian Liz Phipps Soeiro in Cambridge sent a letter describing her reasons for the return.  The first was to protest the Trump administration’s education policies.  But the second reason was because Dr. Seuss’ books are not only dated but “steeped in racist propaganda.” “Open up one of his books” she writes “and you’ll see the racist mockery in his art.”

Soeiro cites several works to back up her assertion that Seuss’ works are racist, including literature scholar Philip Nel.  For more on his views, see this excellent interview in the Atlantic:

The books we read as children are some of the most important books that we read, because we read them when we are in the process of figuring out who we are, what we believe, whose stories are important.

There is a fairly common understanding that some earlier works by Seuss (author Theodor Geisel), including To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street (1937) and If I Ran The Zoo (1950), do indeed have some racist imagery and text.  Geisel acknowledged and apologized for this later in his life.

Recently, at the Dr. Seuss museum in Springfield, three authors declined to participate in an event, citing an offensive picture of a Chinese man in a mural based on that book.  They argue that, while Seuss’ books can be taken in the context of their time, the museum should have thought about the problematic imagery before they chose to paint the mural in 2017.  The museum has agreed to replace the mural.

geiselIn addition, The Cat in the Hat, published in 1957, is seen by some critics as based on blackface minstrelsy (as are Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny).  Clearly this is worth talking about, when an author is as revered as Seuss, although I take issue with Soeiro making such a blanket statement about Dr. Seuss’ work.  To do so is to ignore the huge impact he has had on children’s literature and their enjoyment of reading.  To do so is also to deny the many positive themes that resound in Seuss’ books, themes that have taught children for years about tolerance, kindness, and environmentalism.

But I have issues on the White House side as well.  I’m very curious how Trump managed to select an affluent school with a well-stocked library for the book donation.

And I have issues with the specific selection of books sent to each school.  Many are ones I’ve never heard of and none of the books on Trump’s list are ones I would have chosen: “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!”  A number of these weren’t published under Seuss’ name and several weren’t even illustrated by him.  They are mostly early readers, which is fine, but I would have picked some of his storybooks as well.

Was Melania trying to pick Seuss’ less-known books because libraries aren’t likely to have them?  Or was she deliberately trying to avoid the books that run so counter to the Trump philosophy?  Oh, how I would have loved to see a copy of The Lorax sent to these schools instead!  And The Butter Battle Book, and Thidwick The Big Hearted Moose, Yertle the Turtle, and of course, The Sneetches.

I quite agree with Soeiro that sending books that represent diverse authors and viewpoints would have been a better choice.  Children need to see those kinds of books and they are most likely not in school libraries.  I don’t have an opinion about the books on Librarian’s list, except that I think it was snarky to include one at all.  Who sends back a gift because it wasn’t what they would have chosen and then lectures the sender?

Since Soeiro describes Dr. Seuss as outdated, it’s worth thinking a bit about what made Dr. Seuss part of the canon of children’s literature.  His Cat in the Hat was ground-breaking in its time, for its playfulness and also for the shocking immorality of encouraging children to be disobedient.  Seuss wanted children to have fun reading.  By making a picture book exciting and even a little dangerous, Seuss promoted enjoyment of reading among generations of young children.  Picture books and early readers reach children at the age where it’s so important to view reading as fun, not as a chore.

Seuss’ work broke a number of conventions in children’s books.  Parents leave; children disobey; and sometimes the person who parents you isn’t the one you expected.  His books could be scary, like the story with the empty pants.  And often there’s not a happy ending.

the-lorax-example-page-4Seuss’ books convey his love of language, and the power of great illustration combined with words.  His use of rhyme, repetition, and “nonsense words” are all important tools in literacy instruction, to help children with phonemes (sounds) and to understand how words fit together as part of a system that conveys meaning.  For early readers, understanding how words work is as important as knowing what a word means.

We can and should appreciate Dr. Seuss for his contribution to children’s literature.  As with many classic writers, we can view him in the context of his time, without throwing out his great works.

But we should also scrutinize his work for any biased messages his books convey.  We should be aware of those messages and talk about them with children.

Seuss may be my hero, but he was also a human being.  I’ll conclude with this statement from Seuss Enterprises and the Springfield Museum, because it says it better than I could:

Theodor Seuss Geisel wrote under the pen name Dr. Seuss during his lifetime from 1904-1991. Dr. Seuss created an enormous body of work including children’s books and political cartoons. Dr. Seuss was a man of his times. He was also a man who evolved with his times. Dr. Seuss’s own story is a story of growth with some early works containing hurtful stereotypes to later works like The Sneetches and Horton Hears a Who! which contain lessons of tolerance and inclusion.

It is in that spirit that Dr. Seuss Enterprises and the Springfield Museums listened to the concerns voiced by the authors and fans and have made the decision to take down the Mulberry street mural at the Amazing World of Dr. Seuss Museum and replace it with a new image that reflects the wonderful characters and messages from Dr. Seuss’s later works. This is what Dr. Seuss would have wanted us to do. Dr. Seuss would have loved to be a part of this dialogue for change. In fact, Ted Geisel himself said, “It’s not how you start that counts. It’s what you are at the finish.”

12 thoughts on “Are the books of Dr. Seuss racist?

  1. I agree with you that it is less an issue concerning some racial stereotypes in the Dr Seuss books than the fact that people are still using those stereotypes in a public mural today. I’m not surprised though. It is amazing how some Americans still talk about China/Chinese in such dated terms that one would think internet or air travel had not been invented and China might as well be on another planet. I don’t think it is constructive to label authors like Dr Seuss racist. I don’t think his contribution to children’s literature can be pigeonholed as such. My own kids love Dr Seuss. But it is necessary, however, to be aware of certain dated and derogatory images of nonwhite races in traditional literature, especially in children’s literature, because they can potentially reinforce biased racial views in young, undiscerning minds. Thanks for being concerned and open-minded about this issue! C H Zhu

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    • Thanks CH, for the thoughtful comment. I was prepared to be quite defensive about Dr. Seuss, but instead I found I was pretty interested to learn more about him. I think it’s unfortunate that this librarian’s letter was a blanket condemnation of his entire works rather than a thoughtful commentary (as I saw in the Atlantic article with Nel) on why it’s important and how to talk about it.

  2. My kids love Dr.Seuss. I never thought of these books as racist, although like you, I have never heard of those books Mrs. Trump gifted. My son loves The Cat in the Hat, Green Eggs and Ham, and Ten Apples up on top. Now that you mention it, I get the blackface can be racist, but I am not sure my son even noticed anything.

  3. As a new father, I can say that I won’t hesitate to let my daughter read Dr. Suess’s books. Nor will I hesitate to let her read Huckleberry Finn. But I think for both, the time has to be right and when is ready for them.

    As a white male, my first thought was to dismiss the argument and chalk it to political division in our country. But, like you, I dug a bit and found there are things in the text that may not be considered correct today. And as a father, I want to be able to talk to my daughter about them and explain how the use of certain stereotypes might have been considered “OK” when the work was published but are not used today — and to talk about the whys of it all too. Sort of how I hope we could talk about the use of a certain term in Huckleberry Finn.

    I think to throw the entire Suess canon out is a bit of the throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

    I feel like a lot of times, our community wants to protect our kids from things too much. And while I want the best for my daughter, I bristle at someone else telling me what she should or shouldn’t read, watch or see. Again, I think there is appropriate time and place for everything. I wouldn’t start talking to her about the charges of racism in the books right now because she isn’t two yet. But there could be a time in the future when we talk about this.

    I also find it interesting that the librarian who rejected the books has photos of herself and her library dressed up and celebrating Dr. Suess day. I think the rejection of the books has less to do with the books themselves than who is donating them. And if that’s the case, I call shenanigans.

  4. Ah, Deb, this is a really great piece. I agree that quite a bit of Seuss’s early canon has got racist imagery in it, and also that, as a writer and illustrator, he obviously grew and changed a lot over the course of his life and career – The Sneetches is one of the best books I know for introducing kids to the idea of prejudice and unfairness, and how that hurts people’s feelings and can be fought. The Seuss museum’s response to the mural controversy is thoughtful and totally appropriate; it’s thoroughly within the Seussian spirit to try to right wrongs where they’re pointed out.

  5. This is a touchy topic, so I would like to get a few things out of the way first.
    First off, I acknowledge that racism is alive and well in this country. I despise racism or bigotry of any kind and believe that we should be fighting against it. Second of all, I can understand the reluctance of taking a gift from the first lady as I’m not a Trump fan.

    All that said, though, I think the librarian is on the wrong trail. While I am more than aware that there are problems today with racism – heck, one only needs to see Neo Nazis walking out on the streets and police brutality against blacks, just to name a few – I also think an opposite problem to ignoring racism is seeing racism everywhere. Allow me to elucidate. Dr. Seuss drew people in funny caricatures. It’s what he did. He had plenty of books, as you have written in your well thought out article, about tolerance to those who are difference. The Sneeches is the perfect example of Dr. Seuss writing a book against bigotry and racism. When people find racism in Dr. Seuss’s caricatures, are they looking for offense when none was intended?

    Furthermore, we like to think we are the most righteous and enlightened generation, and that all previous generations were backwards thinking. Imagine what future generations will think of us. Will the children’s and young adult novels of authors who we love and adore today, who wrote without any intent of offense be ostracized and banned from public libraries in the future? Maybe we’ll see a future in which Harry Potter books are banned, as well as contemporary children’s books by other authors. What a slippery slope! This leads to another point. Why does the librarian of a public library, Liz Phipps Soeiro take upon herself the mantle of book policewoman , banning books. She is the librarian of a public, not a private, library. I love the novel Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, which talks of a society that bans and burns books. In Bradbury’s novel it wasn’t initially a government take over, but average citizens asking to make books illegal. In a way, Liz Phipps Soeiro is telling people what they can and can’t read.

    Yes, we need to fight against racism. We need to acknowledge it’s awful existence. But banning Dr. Seuss books isn’t the way to go. If anything, this librarian needs to be introduced to Banned Books Week.

  6. Ok, first of all that quote at the very end nearly made me cry—how wonderful the world would be if we all gave each other room to change and grow and focused on current actions rather than past hurts (not meaning that all actions should be excused, but just that people CAN learn from mistakes). When I first read the title of this post, I was shocked because I think of Seuss’s later works when I think about his messages—I will confess that I don’t remember his earlier works well enough to have noted the racism. But discussion is always better than burying our heads in the sand!

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  8. I love Oh the Places You’ll Go! It has been a favorite of mine to read with my children. I love the idea of that book. I admit I have never dug deep enough to see Dr.Suess as racist. I do think the librian should have accepted the books but used it as an educational talking point instead of acting like her library was too good for those books.
    This article has made me wonder though. Thanks for sharing!

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