March 2nd was Dr. Seuss’ 114th birthday celebration. My social media feeds were a confusing mix of people lovingly and excitedly celebrating Seuss-day, aka Read Across America day, and others voicing an anti-Seuss movement, which stems from the opinion that Dr. Seuss’ works are steeped with racism and stereotypes.
While some schools dedicated the whole week leading up to or even this following week to celebrating Seuss’ works, some teachers and classrooms are taking a stance against him, encouraging reading through more diverse and racially sensitive children’s books, which in the past few years, we have thankfully seen really boom!
The anti-Seuss movement first came across my radar a few months ago, and I have since shied away from his works. I’ve experienced cognitive dissonance and some nausea over it. Seriously, most Pre-K teachers love Seuss, because our students do! The thought of never reading another Seuss book again made me sick, but so does the thought of spreading racism and stereotyped beliefs.
Out of the blue one day, I remembered that my high school IB World History teacher showed us some of Dr. Seuss’ political cartoons, even a movie, that were satire of and commentary on nazism and World War II American sentiments. I thought to myself, there has to be more to this. So, as we neared March 2nd, I started doing some research of my own. Here goes.
Worthwhile Readings about the Dr. Seuss Controversy
In The Complicated Relevance of Dr. Seuss’s Political Cartoons (January 2017), The Atlantic examines why some of Dr. Seuss’s works as political cartoonist during World War II are newly relevant during the Trump presidency and “Trump’s America”. I get it, I totally get it.
I particularly love this “always suckers for ridiculous hats…” cartoon. It’s terribly ironic that these WWII cartoons have quietly gained support while the man himself and his works have been quite publicly criticized lately for their racist stereotypes. Honestly, this perfectly captures my inner conflict regarding Dr. Seuss: I see SO MUCH GOOD, but then also, NOT.
In Dr. Seuss’ Racial History Draws Controversy (October 2017), the San Diego Union-Tribune explores the controversy surrounding racial imagery in Dr. Seuss’s works, following a school librarian’s rejection of a gift of 10 Seuss books from First Lady Melania Trump.
The controversy comes amid a longstanding effort to correct a lack of diversity in children’s literature, which is itself part of the ongoing and often explosive debate about race in America.
. . .
But 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 Seuss’ 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 Seuss’ books are white.
Diversity in children’s literature, or the lack of it, has been a concern for decades, but until recently there’s been little improvement.
In Before Dr. Seuss was famous he drew these sad, racist ads … and then totally changed his mind (October 2017), we see really just HOW RACIST Dr. Seuss WAS through his earlier works as an advertiser and political cartoonist during the 1920s through the 1940s. The author of the article takes us through a visual journey of how Dr. Seuss’ views evolved, warning readers that the images may “be offensive or upsetting.”
In the ads (from the collection of the library of the University of California at San Diego), black people are presented as savages, living in the tropics, dressed in grass skirts. Arabs are portrayed as camel-riding nomads or sultans.
The images reveal that one of America’s most original artist-authors had the same views of nonwhites as many of his contemporaries.
More optimistically, Seuss later changed his mind and began drawing cartoons that criticised people with prejudiced ideas.
In The Stories Behind 10 Dr. Seuss Books (March 2017), you can read background stories about some of his most beloved books. Some or all may be familiar to you: The environmental propaganda of The Lorax. The fact Dr. Seuss wrote Green Eggs and Ham in response to a friend’s bet that he couldn’t write a book with 50 words or less. The Anti-Hitler inspiration for Yertle the Turtle. That The Cat in the Hat was written to contrast the boringness of the Dick and Jane primers, to be fun and make reading fun. And he succeeded, of course.
So, after some research, I don’t think I’ll cringe anymore at the thought of reading my child a little Dr. Seuss.
I think we need to keep in mind that this would have been his 114th birthday. He lived in a different age, a different world. Can we admit that his early views and so many of others at the time were jaded, and yes, racist? But that like the majority of the world (at least I think/hope), his views evolved (though we aren’t where we need to be quite yet)? Can we forgive a child of the early 1900s, and a young man and struggling artist/writer of the World War era, for misguided views that he transcended with his later works and life?
I’m not saying those early views are right. I’m saying people change.
And the reason Dr. Seuss has been so celebrated is because he made reading fun and whimsical. He understood the value of phonological awareness, nonsense words, and predictive text in early literacy, and honestly, he changed the way we teach reading.
If you read Green Eggs and Ham, or the equally riveting Spanish edition Huevos verdes con jamón, to a child, you’ll see their face light up. They’ll ask for more, and they’ll even start making silly rhymes themselves. They’ll learn a valuable lesson about trying something new or start painting with more color and whimsy!
In my book (haha pun intended), that is definitely something worth celebrating. And yes, we should also be reading other great and even more diverse children’s books too, because, after all, what was it Dr. Seuss said?
Feature image from https://www.puzzlewarehouse.com/Dr-Seuss-Characters-08606.html