Kay: What’s Up, Doc?

2004 postage stamp featuring Dr. Seuss and some of his iconic characters

Tuesday, March 2, was Read Across America Day, a promotional gambit dreamed up by the National Education Association to promote literacy. March 2 is also the birthday of Theodor Geisel, also known as Dr. Seuss, the children’s book author. In past years, these two events were conflated in a partnership agreement between the NEA and Dr. Seuss Enterprises, publisher of the late author’s estate. 

No more. This year on March 2, Dr. Seuss Enterprises said it would stop printing six of Dr. Seuss’s books because of racist and insensitive imagery, and in celebrations for Read Across America Day, the NEA has left out Dr. Seuss’s name to promote books of diversity.

This analysis of Dr. Seuss’s work was first articulated that I know of a few years ago, and at the time, it floored me. As a kid, I loved Dr. Seuss’s work. I reread my favorites many, many times, and I can probably recite a lot of Green Eggs and Ham and The Cat in the Hat by heart. I had no memory of any racist language or images.

Until I read the list of six books that Dr. Seuss Enterprises will cease publishing. Five of them I had not read. The sixth, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, I did remember. It wasn’t a favorite. But I do remember those characters who were supposed to be Chinese. They weren’t funny. They were a little scary.

With an adult perspective, definitely racist.

In 2019 the Conscious Kid’s Library teamed with University of California-San Diego researchers to analyze the characters in 50 titles that Dr. Seuss created. In “The Cat is Out of the Bag: Orientalism, Anti-Blackness, and White Supremacy in Dr. Seuss’s Children’s Books,” authors Katie Ishizuka and Ramón Stephens found:

“Of the 2,240 (identified) human characters, there are 45 characters of color representing 2% of the total number of human characters…. Notably, every character of color is male. Males of color are only presented in subservient, exotified, or dehumanized roles…. Most startling is the complete invisibility and absence of women and girls of color….”

Of the 45 characters of color, the study’s authors found that “43 have Orientalist depictions, and two align with the theme of anti-Blackness.”

Geisel began his professional career by drawing propaganda cartoons during World War II, so it’s not surprising that he would use stereotyped and racist imagery in that time. What is less understandable is why he continued using that style long after the war ended and he’d become a children’s book author.

Why did he? Was he ignorant and blind, so ensconced in a White world that he didn’t realize the pain or discomfort his images would create for children of color? Or was he, at heart, racist? Because he chose those images. He thought about them. He developed them, committed them to paper.

As an author myself, I know that every word, every stroke of the pen is a conscious decision, labored over for months or even years, and it gives me pain to think that an author that gave me so much joy as a child could make such poor artistic choices. And it makes me wonder whether—or to what extent—any of Dr. Seuss’s more racist imagery shaped my thinking about race or People Who Don’t Look Like Me.

In my own work, I fret about how I depict race all the time. I have significant secondary male characters who are persons of color. I worry: are they well-rounded? Grounded in their culture and background, but not stereotyped? Do I know enough about those cultures to depict them reasonably accurately? I hesitate to write scenes from the point of view of these characters, because they are not the protagonists and because I think it might be hubris to suggest I could fairly write from the point of view of a male person of color.

So far, no reviewer has complained that these characters are racist stereotypes. Will that be true in five years, or ten? You never know how history will judge you, although I do my best with the tools and understanding I have today.

I’m not sure Dr. Seuss did his.

What about you? Did you read and enjoy Dr. Seuss as a child? What do you read to your own children or grandchildren?

8 thoughts on “Kay: What’s Up, Doc?

  1. I did like Dr. Seuss as a kid but the images in these books are awful and insulting and I don’t think the world will miss them.

    I was more of a Maurice Sendak fan when I chose books for kids and grandkids.

  2. But when will it stop? When will we have removed enough? How long before the Bible is unsavory. Look at how many people already don’t believe in the Holocaust because they don’t want to look or see.

    Unfortunately, we are literally white-washing our history. We are distorting it in unrealistic ways- forever losing the meanings, lessons, and hard-fought wisdom we have gained from those past events, especially as a culture and a country. As a trained anthropologist and archaeologist – our number one axiom is that understanding comes from viewing things within their proper context.

    History is always an imperfect lens. It’s written by the victors, the romantics, and those thoughtful types that think they know things and hope to keep others from making their same mistakes. Erasing our past and cherry picking what we will see makes us horses with blinders on. We are only seeing the carrot waved before us and driven by whoever holds the reins and the whip (for good or bad). We are giving away our personal responsibility and freedoms. Driven forth as a “dumb” animal. While we miss the whole wide world around us.

    Narrowing down our vision and understanding to just what we can see through a pinhole, narrows it down so far that we only see one dot of the million that create a complete picture. What happens in the next round if they freak out and try to make the hole and that dot even smaller? Rather than give them a picture worth a million words, we just gave our kids a tiny pre-biased sentence with no context.

    We can take ANYTHING out of context, ANYTHING. Books, music, and paintings are snapshots of the time and place that created them. To fully understand and appreciate them – you need to know something of the time and place and circumstances they come from. To get into the minds, and hearts, and shoes of those who were brave enough to share their experience – varnished or unvarnished. They shared their imperfect knowledge and selves so that others might have a better understanding.

    Eliminating thoughts, ideas, and history are a tremendous loss to us and our future generations. It doesn’t give the future a chance to see or learn. It takes away from them their sense of identity, including great successes in thought, development, and wisdom. It also steals their choice to not repeat past wrongs, to repeat past successes, and to step out into new wonders and new frontiers?

    I cannot speak for the Jewish people, and I cannot speak to the American Indian or black experience. But because of my history as a “Mormon” (a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) and the context it gives me, I have much greater empathy and understanding of and for them. Mormons were burned out, tarred and feathered, men, women, and children murdered – not for rebelling, not for killing or bombing anyone, not for hurting or taking from others, but simply because they had some different beliefs (that didn’t impinge on anyone else). They weren’t even radical ideas. Every time they tried to mind their own business and keep to themselves – they were abused and driven out while others took their hard work and stuff. They finally left at great peril and loss and headed out to the middle of the desert. They thought and hoped they’d finally be left alone. Wrong! The President of the United States sent an entire army out to the desert to destroy them. Seriously?!!!!! That’s nuts!!!!!

    Erasing bits of history – books, statues, art and eliminating any discussion of them doesn’t remove or relieve problems, it only covers them with a veneer of watered-down paint. Because some people don’t want to feel uncomfortable or think or look or learn or discuss, it’s hidden. It makes it less real. When it is less than real, it becomes a myth (Was it ever true? Did it really happen?). Then the truths and lessons learned get shoved into a dark closet that nobody wants to open because of all the stuff that might fall out. What about all the stories and history of love, compassion, and growth? Of true heroism, of hard won honest truths? I don’t want my family’s (or country’s or world’s) stories and history to disappear and lose their meaning – it means that I mean less. It will often mean I’m seen as less too, because my context and meaning were lost.

  3. I was too old for Where the Wild Things Are by the time it came out, so I don’t have the emotional pull for Maurice Sendak that I have for the Dr. Seuss books and A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh, another book I loved to distraction. But I’ve read the Sendak books as an adult, and I agree: they’re wonderful books. The illustrations! Incredible.

  4. I think we’re all a product of the environment we were raised / live in, and that is reflected in what we write and do. Books that I read/loved decades ago often fall short now when I re-read them. I’m guessing the percentage of books that can really stand the test of time is low. I’ve been reading Golden Age mysteries most recently and there are occasionally things I just have to mentally erase because they are racist or stereotypical, but at the time were (apparently) considered to be just fine.

    As for Dr. Seuss specifically, I read (and loved) a number of his books and later read them with my son. I love the Lorax and those Sneetches. The statistics you quoted were interesting. For the most part, I never really thought of the majority of the characters as either male or female.

    For the specific books that his estate are removing from his curated collection, that seems like a reasonable step. I actually hadn’t read any of those titles; I’m wondering how much of a readership they had. I did see a story about the early political/propaganda cartoons he drew and his regret over them as he looked back on them afterwards.

    Regarding the Read Across America connection – I hope the connection with Dr. Seuss isn’t completely severed, but I also applaud the decision to include more diverse books in the event / marketing. Dr. Seuss books have the visibility factor, but I’m sure there have been many wonderful children’s books published since he stopped writing, especially books featuring diverse people. I know when we used to do Read Across America volunteering in the schools (for my day job), we always tried to bring diverse books from emerging authors to read to the kids.

    • We definitely are products of our time and culture, and I, too, still enjoy older works that would not survive in their present form were they written or produced today. As an adult, I think we can approach biased work with a more nuanced and mature mind; that’s probably not possible for young children. And I agree with you about the Seuss books that have been taken out of a publishing cycle: I’ve not heard of any of them except Mulberry Street, so maybe they never found much of an audience for whatever reason. Otherwise, I loved the protagonists in the Seuss books I read: because I could never tell if they were male or female, I always associated them with me. It was great to have agency. 🙂

      • Yes, it was great to have agency 🙂

        I think, even for young kids, works can be used as a learning tool. For a racist depiction, for example, there could be a “how would make this better” exercise. Or for a non-inclusive example, “how would you change this so you could see yourself in this story”.

        Of course some works just need to fade off into the sunset. Fortunately, there are new books published every day to fill the void.

  5. I think we’re going to have to look at racism in art the same way we look at, say, crime. On a case by case basis.

    The controversy has brought up a lot of Geisel’s older work. His depictions of non-whites have been appalling and not only that, they lack the creativity of his trees. A really terrible cartoon depicting Black people have them sharing the same face as a horde. He only nods at their individuality in their clothing and their poses. But on the other hand, he opposed racists like the “America First” movement.

    I don’t remember any of the six pulled Seuss books. I’ve seen some of the illustrations, and they are along the same lines. Someone on Twitter mentioned, though, that Seuss later wrote Horton Hears a Who (a person’s a person, no matter how small)(1954) as an apology for his anti-Japanese propaganda work. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but what I remember taking away from Seuss is that he cared about equality in treatment. He had terrible blind spots.

    But he did champion diversity and differences in his books. I think this HGarvid Politics article, which mentions HHaW as an indirect apology, makes a good case for Seuss redeeming himself and his work. https://harvardpolitics.com/oh-dr-seuss-didnt-know/

    There has got to be room in the narrative for redemption and forgiveness. If Japanese Americans or Black Americans don’t want to forgive and carry on, that’s definitely a valid viewpoint. But I suspect it will depend on the particular Asian or Black American as to where they fall on the Seuss scale.

    My favorite Dr. Seuss is *Fox in Socks* (1965) and I can still quote many bits from it. “Blue glue, new glue.” The beetle battle in a bottle. This book, I think, will still entertain and delight and frustrate American children. It wouldn’t pass the Bechdel test, probably, but its charms are still there.

    The Seuss books are out there, and historians will keep a copy of the problematic ones as a sign of the times.

  6. Pingback: Michaeline: Copyrights of the Future? – Eight Ladies Writing

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