WARNING: Content might be sensitive to some.
On Tuesday, March 2, 2021, Dr. Seuss Enterprises released a statement on their website explaining their decision to stop publishing these books, citing that they “portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong.”
The books are: And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, If I Ran the Zoo, McElligot’s Pool, On Beyond Zebra!, Scrambled Eggs Super!, The Cat’s Quizzer. Reason? And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street, in it was a character described as ‘A Chinese man (was previously ‘Chinaman’) who eats with sticks (illustration showed a Chinese man with two lines for his eyes, holding a pair of chopsticks and a bowl of rice, and wears clogs. In If I Ran the Zoo, there were two shirtless, shoeless African men, wearing grass skirts.
I’m an Asian mom of two, a lover of books and a big fan of Dr. Seuss’s books. However, growing up in Malaysia, I neither knew nor heard of him when I was a kid. Dr. Seuss was never part of our reading material growing up, in school or at home. I grew up with Peter & Jane and Sweet Valley High. It was only later in life that I started noticing his books because of its catchy covers. Despite that, I never read any of them, because at one glance, I felt they were just too ‘wordy’ to be read to children, that was, until I started teaching preschool here in the US, where I noticed how popular he was, especially during Read Across America Day.
Read Across America Day was established in 1998 as a way of encouraging childhood reading, and coincides with Theodor Seuss Geisel’s birthday (more on this below). His book was also read by Michelle Obama on Read Across America Day and President Barack Obama, who read Green Eggs and Ham. At the preschools where I had taught, they celebrated a whole week of Dr. Seuss with fun activities such as wearing crazy mismatched socks, eating green eggs and ham, and dressing up as The Cat in the Hat. For someone who loves anything silly, that was right up my alley. So dress up I did, and such fun I had!
It was then that I started reading his books, and surprising myself, I rather enjoyed them. My favorites were The Cat in The Hat (of course), Green Eggs and Ham, The Lorax, Horton Hears A Who, and The Grinch Who Stole Christmas. Dr. Seuss’s whimsical illustrations like animals with feet that don’t look like feet, zebras that don’t look like zebras, birds with beaks that look more like noses; his fun rhythm and rhymes using words he created; stories that take you to imaginary worlds like Whoville, Thneedville and Jungle of Nool filled with child-like wonder were such joy to read, even for adults like me. His books inspired the kids to create, draw and write. He showed how much fun you can have with words, and hey, if not for him, we wouldn’t have the word, ‘nerd’!
Dr. Seuss always have that silly, fun, playful tone and just highly imaginative, that I find very original and hard to replicate (although it had inspired others to imitate his style). Just look at how popular his books and merchandise have been! His books became party themes, gave us reasons to dress up, be silly and celebrate fun and literature, and made Halloween easier on us adults (just don THE hat!).
So, I was of course a little shocked when I heard the news. As we all know, his six books are neither banned nor cancelled, just being recalled and their publication ceased by the Dr. Seuss Enterprises themselves. But some have taken it to a whole different level of ‘thou shan’t read Dr. Seuss’, almost ‘cancelling’ him out entirely.
The Cat in The Hat is bLack?!
As mentioned, The Cat in The Hat is one of my Dr. Seuss favorites, especially more so after I read how it all started. William Spaulding, Houghton Mifflin’s head of educational books then, who knew that Dick and Jane were becoming obsolete, ‘believed children’s books could be both educational and entertaining’ (Brian Jay Jones, Becoming Dr. Seuss). So inn 1955, he asked Dr. Seuss to write a book that “first graders can’t put down!” (Morgan and Morgan, Dr. Seuss & Mr. Geisel, 154)
From what I read, Dr. Seuss was given a list of 350 publisher-supplied words to write that book (he used 236), and was not allowed to use any of those whimsical words he was so well-known for. He almost threw in the towel, until he noticed two words in the list, cat and hat, and the idea just took off. That was how the famous anthropomorphic cat with the red and white-striped hat in a big red bow came into being.
But apparently the author had also given another account of the inspiration behind the book. Here’s what I found on Wikipedia:
“Near the end of his life, Geisel told his biographers, Judith and Neil Morgan, that he conceived the beginnings of the story while he was with Spaulding, in an elevator in the Houghton Mifflin offices in Boston. It was an old, shuddering elevator and was operated by a “small, stooped woman wearing ‘a leather half-glove and a secret smile'”. Anita Silvey, recounting a similar story, described the woman as “a very elegant, very petite African-American woman named Annie Williams”. Geisel told Silvey that, when he sketched the Cat in the Hat, he thought of Williams and gave the character Williams’ white gloves and “sly, even foxy smile”.
Then I read this:
“One source for that red bow tie is Krazy Kat, the black, ambiguously gendered creation of biracial cartoonist George Herriman (Cohen 325). Seuss, who admired what he called “the beautifully insane sanities” of Krazy Kat (qtd. in Nel, Dr. Seuss 70), also draws upon the traditions of minstrelsy—an influence that emerges first in a minstrel show he wrote for his high school. The Cat in the Hat is racially complicated, inspired by blackface performance, racist images in popular culture, and actual African Americans.”
WHAAAT???? I had no idea! All this while, I thought it was just a cat in a hat! So is ‘The Cat in The Hat Knows A Lot About That’ TV series going to be stopped after this?
Sure, I was aware that some of his books (except The Cat in The Hat which I had only just found out) have racial undertones after reading his autobiography 2 years ago, but it didn’t stop me from reading them as I love studying the works of various children’s books authors. I had not read Mulberry Street until it was pointed out in his biography that there’s a rather offensive depiction of a Chinese man. With the power of Google, I found a picture of a before and after.
And the mural at the Dr. Seuss Museum that depicted a yellow Chinese man with pigtails have been replaced by what you see now in the revised version of Mulberry street (the illustration of the Chinese man is on bottom left)
A 2019 survey of Seuss’ works found that just 2 percent of human characters were people of color — 98 percent were white. Portrayal of and references to Black characters relied heavily on anti-Blackness and images of white superiority, the study found.
And yes, later in life, he expressed regret for those offensive contents that were in his books. Read more here.
The Change in Tone and Times
Research shows that even at the age of 3, children begin to form racial biases, and by the age of 7, those biases become fixed. With the changes that the society is going through and experiencing today, I totally understand the decision of librarians and teachers, especially those working with younger children, to move away from reading Dr. Seuss’s books, choosing books that are more relevant and important, those that create awareness, teach children about diversity and other cultures. A public library is even removing the 6 books from their shelves altogether.
Even the NEA, which, after receiving criticism for celebrating Reading Across America for choosing Dr. Seuss as its focus every year for the past 2 decades, in 2018, it “removed all Dr. Seuss books from their annual Read Across America Resource Calendar, and featured all diverse books and authors at their RAA events,” according to the study.
I hopped on to NEA’s Read Across America’s website and sure enough, its website has changed since I last visited. On its first page, you’ll immediately see the words ‘Create and Celebrate a nation of diverse readers,’ and a family reading a blue book with no title; not a single trace of Dr. Seuss at all on its page, not even the iconic red-white striped hat or any of its reading activities. The books chosen are being written by and about people of color with topics such as foster inclusiveness, celebrate indigenous people, practice empathy and cultivate compassion; setting a completely different tone and direction as compared to the time when Dr. Seuss was its driving force, with activities planned around his books.
I foresee that we won’t be seeing any of Dr. Seuss merchandise anywhere anymore (looking at you, Target); those who want to dress up as The Cat in The Hat or The Lorax will have to think twice; his books (including those which aren’t recalled) will be placed at the back of shelves or out of sight; we probably won’t be seeing anyone reading a Dr. Seuss book in public, or be seen wearing anything Dr. Seuss, and that he will no longer be associated with ‘fun’, but racist.
Even Universal Orlando is ‘evaluating’ its Seuss Landing which have been popular ever since it started, because some of its attractions bear the names of books mentioned above. There was (is?) also an interactive touring exhibition called Dr. Seuss Experience, where fans and visitors get to immerse themselves in Dr. Seuss’s beloved stories in 3D. Curious, I went to check out the website to see if it was still on tour. Although the website is still there, I can’t seem to book any tour dates and there weren’t any latest updates on it, even on their other social media. Not looking good, my friends.
Do I agree with the discontinuation of the books?
After volleying back and forth, I finally decided on yes. Because Dr. Seuss books are written for young children, and they a very impressionable lot. And seeing how the world as it is now, ceasing publication of the 6 books is the right call and the right time. Why? Let me give you an example. One of my neighbor’s kids made a comment on my daughter (who was just learning to talk then) that ‘she’s speaking ching chong!’, all the while laughing as she told her friend, like it was funny. Then, get this, this kid is also a fan of JK Rowling’s books, and in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, there’s a Chinese character named Cho Chang. (For more, read this) Needless to say, I was appalled. How is it, that my neighbor, who hails from India, raises a kid who’s so racist? Shouldn’t they know what it feels like to be discriminated and called names? Are they not aware of what they’re daughter is doing or learning?
Yes. Because I don’t want my kids to grow up being called ‘yellow-skinned’ people with ‘slant eyes’ who eat with ‘chopsticks’ by others, thinking it’s funny, like this:
Limin Li, 17, a student in Brooklyn, NY, had classmates ask, “You want to go to a wet market together and get corona?” “They think that they’re funny,” she says. But in her view, “these were microaggressions.”
Let’s not even get started on the “Chinese virus” racist bullying that’s been happening lately.
Personal experience: This happened when I was working at a preschool. The boss walked in when I was heating up my lunch. She commented, “Your fish stinks up the whole place!” I was stumped. Flabbergasted. Then she said, offhandedly, “Just kidding!” Laughed and left. Then her staff walked in, looking as though she was about to have her lunch too. Seeing me, she said, “The boss is still going on about your fish! Hahaha!” I didn’t know how to respond, but I didn’t think it was funny.
Yes. Because I don’t want other kids to think that making fun of others is funny.
Yes. Because I want my kids to know, disrespecting others isn’t acceptable or tolerable, and shouldn’t be encouraged or supported.
Yes. Because the world is already cruel as it is right now. We need more love, acceptance, respect and kindness. We need to learn to embrace our differences and diversity, and cultivate compassion. We need more books that encompass all of that.
Some of you might already know, I’m a big fan of Dr. Seuss’s works. I think they’re creative, imaginative and highly entertaining, and his books have indeed contributed to children literature. Differentiating the art from the artist is harder than I thought. BUT…for the sake of my children and their future, I’m afraid it’s sayonara Seuss for me. To me, supporting his work means supporting him, supporting him means supporting his beliefs and ideals. (Check out his racist ads here)
Why don’t just change/edit the hurtful contents, something which has been done in other older children’s books? Well, firstly, the 6 books mentioned above, aren’t that popular. Will it be worth the while to make the changes and continue their publication? And what should be done with the ones already selling in bookstores? Nothing can be done to those already, except pull them off the shelves. The question now is, is anything going to be done about ‘The Cat in The Hat‘? It’s widely popular.
But what about his other books which spread positive messages like The Lorax, Horton Hears A Who and The Sneetches? Also, hasn’t he expressed regrets? Oh yes, but what about The Cat in The Hat, which he wrote after Horton? Doesn’t seem to me that his regrets were sincere.
There have been other classics too, despite its sensitive contents, have been read and loved. But because of where society stands today, I agree that “What was once meant to comfort and entertain kids may now do major harm by spotlighting some of the racist ideology that many parents today try to shield from their children.”
Some of you might be thinking, isn’t this whole Dr. Seuss hullaballoo a bit of an overreaction and people being overly sensitive? If opposing art (or artists) that pokes fun or disrespects others is overreacting and being overly sensitive, then yes, and it is necessary, especially today. It’s time to make some noise and be heard.
For further reading: An interview with a Dr. Seuss expert.
What about you? What’s your take on this? If you’re a fan of Seuss, what do you think? Even if you’re not, do you find it difficult to differentiate the artist from their art? Please share with me your thoughts!