DIEGO ó He was a doctor who made house calls, millions
and millions of them, and his unique and wildly popular
prescriptions influenced the way generations of children
see and understand the world.
Dr. Seuss is undergoing his own posthumous examination.
years after the La Jolla, Calif., childrenís book
author died, some of his most beloved creations,
including "The Cat in the Hat," are being
re-evaluated because of imagery that some consider
controversy comes amid a longstanding effort to correct
a lack of diversity in childrenís literature, which is
itself part of the ongoing and often explosive debate
about race in America.
Thursday, Dr. Seuss Enterprises, the San Diego-based
company that oversees the authorís estate, decided to
remove a mural from the recently opened "Amazing
World of Dr. Seuss" museum in Springfield, Mass.,
the writerís hometown. Taken from the pages of a 1937
Seuss book, "And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry
Street," the mural depicts a slant-eyed,
chopsticks-carrying Chinese man in a way that critics
called "deeply hurtful."
this image may have been considered amusing to some when
it was published 80 years ago, it is obviously offensive
in 2017," said writers Mo Willems, Lisa Yee and
Mike Curato in a letter explaining why they had decided
to bow out of a literary festival, since canceled, that
had been planned at the museum for next Saturday.
a statement, Seuss Enterprises said the mural would be
replaced with images from later works like "The
Sneetches" and "Horton Hears a Who!" that
contain lessons about tolerance and inclusion.
"This is what Dr. Seuss would have wanted us to
do," the company said.
mural controversy came two weeks after an elementary
school librarian in Cambridge, Mass., turned down a
donation of 10 Seuss books from First Lady Melania
people are unaware," librarian Liz Phipps Soeiro
wrote, "that Dr. Seussí illustrations are steeped
in racist propaganda, caricatures, and racial
stereotypes. Open one of his books (ĎIf I Ran a Zooí
or ĎAnd to Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street,í
for example) and youíll see the racist mockery in the
comments drew the attention of media around the world
and sparked an uproar in all the usual places where
Americaís cultural and political disputes get aired.
supporters praised Soeiro for raising the issue ó
"You rock," read one posting, "My
hero," read another ó critics accused her of
being rude and ungrateful, of "political
correctness." They called her a hypocrite after a
photo surfaced of her at a school event wearing a Cat in
the Hat stovepipe and clutching a Cat in the Hat doll.
school released a statement saying she had been out of
furor quickly overran the underlying question, one that
could alter the legacy of a writer whose four-dozen
books collectively have sold more than 650 million
copies worldwide, whose earnings last year were
calculated by Forbes magazine at $20 million (placing
him seventh on its list of "Top Earning Dead
Celebrities"), whose books are still often the very
first given to newborns.
Theodor Seuss Geisel racist?
Nel, a professor at Kansas State University, is one of
the nationís leading Seuss scholars. Heís written
three books featuring the childrenís author, including
"Was the Cat in the Hat Black?" Published in
August, it explores the impact of blackface caricature
and other racial stereotypes on the 1957 story that made
who is white, calls Seuss "racially
complicated," and he said to understand why you
have to go back to the authorís childhood in the early
1900s, and to "The Hole Book," which includes
a black mammy talking in dialect about a watermelon. It
was one of Seussí favorites; he remembered it so well
that, into his 60s, he could still quote its opening
verse by heart, Nel writes.
high school, Seuss acted in blackface in one production,
and at Dartmouth, he drew a cartoon in which two
thick-lipped black boxers fight. In the magazine Judge,
in the late 1920s, he drew cartoons of blacks that used
readers of Seussí childrenís books today may be
appalled by those images, Nel writes, they were
considered acceptable and were "all too
common" from cartoonists of that era. The result,
according to Nel: "The popular culture of the early
20th Century embedded racist caricature in Geiselís
unconscious, as an ordinary part of his visual
1937, when Seuss published his first book, "And to
Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street," it
included the image of the Chinese man that triggered the
mural controversy at the Seuss museum in Springfield. It
has a line about a "Chinaman who eats with
sticks." Years later, recognizing how some readers
might be offended by the wording, he changed
"Chinaman" to "Chinese man."
World War II dawned, Seuss started working for a New
York newspaper called PM. From 1941 to 1943, he drew
more than 400 editorial cartoons. "He did great
anti-racist work there, and he did work that was
racist," Nel said. "It was the same person,
the same body of work, done at the same time."
one hand were cartoons like "Waiting for the signal
from home," published on Feb. 13, 1942, two months
after Pearl Harbor, when fears of another Japanese
military attack were high, especially on the West Coast.
It shows Japanese people, caricatured with slanted eyes
and buck teeth, standing in a line that stretches from
California to Washington. They are picking up packages
the other hand were cartoons like the one titled
"What This Country Needs Is a Good Mental
Insecticide." Published on June 11, 1942, it shows
another line of people, this time white. They are
waiting to be sprayed by an Uncle Sam figure. The man at
the front of the line has just been doused, and emerging
from one ear is a flying insect labeled "racial
prejudice bug." The man says, "Gracious! Was
that in my head?"
Nel, the "Mental Insecticide" cartoon is an
important clue to the racially insensitive imagery that
wound up in some of the childrenís books.
appreciate the impulse there, but he conceived of racism
as a bug, and thatís not how it works," Nel said.
"Itís not aberrant, itís ordinary. Itís not
strange, itís everyday. Thatís what he doesnít
understand. Most people who arenít targeted by racism
donít think about it. He was not unusual in that
Martin grew up in South Carolina, attended all black
schools, and the first story she remembers reading as a
child that featured someone who looked like her was
"The Snowy Day." Published in 1962, itís
widely credited with breaking the color barrier in
childrenís literature, showing a non-caricatured
African-American boy named Peter enjoying the seasonís
said it wasnít until middle school that she learned
that the author of "Snowy Day," Ezra Jack
Keats, was white. She had assumed he was black. That
experience, and others, got Martin wondering about what
else she didnít know about childrenís literature, in
particular African-American childrenís literature. She
grew up to be an expert in the subject and is now a
professor at the University of Washington.
like any other author, was a product of his time,"
Martin said. "Fortunately, some authors grow and
figure out that maybe some of the things they wrote
early on were harmful and they try to make amends. Seuss
the 1950s, Seuss wrote "If I Ran the Zoo,"
which includes drawings of nose-ring wearing Africans
and a verse that talks about Asian workers "who all
wear their eyes at a slant." He wrote
"Scrambled Eggs Super," which has Arab
stereotypes. He wrote "The Cat in the Hat,"
with a main character whose looks (white gloves, jaunty
hat, floppy tie) and actions (outsider, con man,
ignorant bumbler) can be traced to blackface minstrelsy.
in that same decade, Seuss also created "Yertle the
Turtle," an anti-fascist send-up of Hitler, and
"Horton Hears a Who!" which was dedicated to a
Japanese friend and can be seen as an apology of sorts
for his racist war-time cartoons. He wrote an essay
critical of racist humor, and he published a magazine
story that would later become the anti-discrimination
book "The Sneetches."
is an evolution in Seuss and an increasing awareness,
fueled by his experiences in World War II, of the damage
of prejudice and the importance of his role in speaking
out," Nel said. "Yet at the same time, his
visual imagination is steeped in racist imagery that
the scholars, those seemingly opposite impulses on Seussí
part suggest someone who wasnít fully aware of the
racial implications of what he was doing. And he wasnít
the only one. Martin pointed to Mildred Taylor, an
African-American childrenís author best known for
"Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry," which won the
Newbery Medal in 1977.
you look at all of her books, white women arenít
portrayed in a positive light," Martin said.
"She would say that she was focused on the
Depression, on the 1930s, and she was not really looking
at her portrayal of white women. But thereís an
implicit ideology, the fabric of life she grew up in,
that comes out, whether she intended it or not."
a statement, Seuss Enterprises said the authorís own
story is "one of growth with some early works
containing hurtful stereotypes to later works like ĎThe
Sneetchesí and ĎHorton Hears a Who!í which contain
lessons of tolerance and inclusion.í The statement
concludes with a quote from Seuss: "Itís not how
you start that counts. Itís what you are at the
NEED FOR DIVERSITY
why does this matter, more than a quarter-century after
Seuss died at age 87?
of it is because his books remain in such wide use, in
schools, in homes, in libraries. Kids by the millions
still learn to read under his bemused, subversive, zany
tutelage. Is there a more instantly recognizable hat
than the red-and-white striped one worn by that
the past 20 years, the Cat in the Hat has been the
mascot of Read Across America, an annual celebration
designed to motivate kids to pick up books. Held on
March 2, Seussí birthday, it features events in cities
large and small, attracting an estimated 45 million
participants. U.S. presidents and first ladies,
senators, mayors, professional athletes ó they have
routinely donned the striped hat and read Seuss books
out loud to groups of children.
that may be changing. According to an account in School
Library Journal, the National Education Association,
which sponsors Read Across America, is shifting its
emphasis to a year-round calendar that features a
diverse collection of books. The move comes amid
discussions about Seussí early work, particularly the
editorial cartoons drawn during World War II, and after
the NEA received a report concluding that 98 percent of
the people in Seussí books are white.
in childrenís literature, or the lack of it, has been
a concern for decades, but until recently thereís been
little improvement. From 1994 to 2014, the number of
books featuring people of color was stagnant, at about
10 percent, even as the population moved toward 40
percent non-white, according to statistics kept by the
Cooperative Childrenís Book Center at the University
2014, two African-American childrenís writers, Walter
Dean Myers and his son, Christopher Myers, wrote opinion
pieces in the New York Times decrying what they called
"the apartheid of literature." That led to the
formation of We Need Diverse Books and similar
organizations pushing the publishing industry to expand
2015, the percentage of books about people of color
increased to 20 percent and last year it went up to 28
percent, the highest on record and maybe the highest
ever. (The number of books written by people of color
remains low, about 6 percent in 2016.)
important, according to scholars, because the messages
children absorb about themselves and the world around
them from books can have lasting impacts.
see yourself stereotyped, to be caricatured, suggests
you are less than human," Nel said.
to not see yourself at all? "Imagine growing up in
a world where everyone tells you reading is important,
books are important, and you are not represented
there," Martin said. "You grow up thinking you
must not count."
said thatís why he wrote "Was the Cat in the Hat
Black?" ó not to bash Seuss, but to give people a
more complex understanding of the author and to show
them how racism circulates in childrenís literature.
To spark a conversation.
world moves on," he said. "It shouldnít
surprise us that the books we loved as children and have
not thought that deeply about contain ideas and images
that we might not want to perpetuate, especially if we
are slightly more enlightened than we were 60 or 70
in some ways, the recent uproars and the ongoing
re-evaluation of the books may be just what the doctor
ordered. According to Seuss Enterprises, he "would
have loved to be a part of this dialogue for