The debate over Dr. Seuss, explained.
On Tuesday, the publishing imprint Dr. Seuss Enterprises announced that it would cease publishing six books by Dr. Seuss that include offensive images. In the statement, which was published on the author’s birthday, the publisher said it reached its decision after working with a panel of experts, including educators, in the service of its mission “of supporting all children and families with messages of hope, inspiration, inclusion, and friendship.”
The six shelved books are all comparatively obscure works in the Seuss canon: And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, If I Ran the Zoo, McElligot’s Pool, On Beyond Zebra!, Scrambled Eggs Super!, and The Cat’s Quizzer. Beloved classics like The Cat in the Hat and Oh, the Places You’ll Go! remain untouched. But the decision, which caused enormous uproar across the right-wing infosphere, is part of a larger debate raging across the children’s literature community.
For decades, the works of Dr. Seuss (real name Theodor Seuss Geisel) have been considered both iconic childhood classics and bastions of liberalism. They are lauded for their celebration of all that makes us different, and Seuss books like Horton Hears a Who and The Sneetches appear frequently in anti-racism curricula for children.
But in recent years, the Dr. Seuss brand name has lost some of its shine. Read Across America Day, an annual day of programming designed by the National Education Association to get kids excited to read, is traditionally held on or around March 2, Geisel’s birthday. It usually features a lot of Cat in the Hat paraphernalia and other beloved Seuss branding. But when the NEA’s contract with Dr. Seuss Enterprises ran out in 2018, it chose not to renew the terms, leading to a lot less Dr. Seuss merch getting distributed to different schools. And this year, the NEA has pivoted away from Dr. Seuss entirely. Instead, it’s using Read Across America Day to spotlight children’s books by authors of color.
And now Dr. Seuss Enterprises has decided to cease publishing six of Dr. Seuss’s books, all of which include racist caricatures.
Notably, in If I Ran the Zoo, the narrator declares his intention to put a “chieftain” (illustrated as a man in a turban) on display in the zoo; a pair of African characters are portrayed as monkeys; and a group of Asian characters, described as “helpers who all wear their eyes at a slant” from “countries no one can spell” carry a caged animal on their heads. The other books contain similar Orientalist caricatures.
Other questionable imagery runs throughout Dr. Seuss’s work, including some of his most beloved classics. And outside of his children’s books, in his career as a political cartoonist and advertiser, Dr. Seuss frequently drew racist caricatures and used racial slurs in his captions.
So as the children’s literature community grapples with how to make its canon more diverse and inclusive, Dr. Seuss has come in for particular reexamination. These books have become a case study of sorts for what to do with brand-name authors as the social context surrounding their work shifts. Or, more specifically: What do you do with a set of adored classics that explicitly promote values like tolerance and love for everyone — but that are also seeded through with racist ideas?
Some of Dr. Seuss’s political cartoons were unabashedly liberal and ahead of their time. Others were wildly racist.
Dr. Seuss’s work for adults includes some pretty unambiguously racist images. Husband-and-wife team Katie Ishizuka and Ramón Stephens, who run the Conscious Kid Social Justice Library, developed a study of Dr. Seuss’s history of racism that features a small sampling.
One ad Dr. Seuss drew for Flit insecticide featured a disgusted white woman saying to a Black man, “You hold a job, Worthless? Say, ni**er, when you hold a job a week, mosquitos will brush their teeth with Flit and like it!’” Dr. Seuss tended to draw Black people as cannibals or monkeys, and they weren’t the only racial group he caricatured.
Beginning well before the lead-up to World War II, Dr. Seuss frequently drew Japanese people with animalistic features who were violent threats to America, referred to them as “Japs,” and captioned them with jokey lines that replaced their Rs with Ls. “Velly Scary Jap-in-the-Box,” reads the caption for one cartoon of a Japanese man crawling out of a box labeled “JAP WAR THREAT.” He also drew caricatures of Jewish people with oversize noses causing chaos everywhere they went by demanding lower prices.
Notably, Dr. Seuss also drew cartoons decrying Jim Crow laws, the policies of Nazi Germany, and American isolationism. Dr. Seuss’s political cartoons, Maus author Art Spiegelman writes in the foreword to the 1999 book Dr. Seuss Goes to War, “rail against isolationism, racism, and anti-semitism with a conviction and fervor lacking in most other American editorial pages of the period.” In fact, Dr. Seuss, Spiegelman argues, drew “virtually the only editorial cartoons outside the communist and Black press that decried the military’s Jim Crow policies and Charles Lindbergh’s anti-semitism.”
Dr. Seuss was on the right side of history in many ways — and he also drew a lot of really virulently racist stuff. That’s his legacy as a cartoonist.
But what does that background mean for his legacy as a children’s author?
There are very few characters of color in Dr. Seuss’s children’s books. The ones that do appear are racist caricatures.
There aren’t that many racial caricatures in Dr. Seuss’s children’s books, mostly because there aren’t that many nonwhite characters in Dr. Seuss’s children’s books. In their study, Ishizuka and Stephens counted 45 characters of color among the 2,240 human characters who appear in Dr. Seuss’s 50 books, which works out to just 2 percent. Notably, all of those characters are male. There are no girls or women of color in the Dr. Seuss canon.
And when characters of color do appear in these books, they appear as racial caricatures. In their study, Ishizuka and Stephens found that all 45 characters of color were either subservient, exotified, dehumanized, or some combination of the three. Dr. Seuss’s characters of color drive carriages for whip-wielding white characters, dress in turbans and “rice paddy hats,” and never speak out loud. Most of them are Orientalist caricatures, and the two that aren’t are those African characters drawn as monkeys in If I Ran the Zoo.
And Dr. Seuss’s interest in racial caricatures influences some of the rest of his work in ways that are no longer visible to casual readers — especially when it comes to the Cat in the Hat, that icon of Seussian madcap humor and surrealism.
There’s a classic origin story for The Cat in the Hat. According to Seuss biographers Judith and Neil Morgan, Dr. Seuss was inspired by a trip to his publishers. He had been assigned to write a reading primer that would get reluctant readers eager to learn, and he found himself struck by the appearance of the elevator operator: a woman wearing white gloves with a sly smile. It’s this woman, the legend goes, who inspired the Cat.
In his book-length study Was the Cat in the Hat Black?, English professor Philip Nel notes that the woman in question, Annie Williams, was Black. And Nel argues that Dr. Seuss, who performed in minstrel shows in college, used Williams as the basis for a character whose iconic look would be rooted in the imagery of the American minstrel show and blackface.
“The Cat’s umbrella (which he uses as a cane) and outrageous fashion sense link him to Zip Coon, that foppish ‘northern dandy negro,’” writes Nel. “His bright red floppy tie recalls the polka-dotted ties of blackfaced Fred Astaire in Swing Time (1936) and of blackfaced Mickey Rooney in Babes in Arms (1939). His red-and-white-striped hat brings to mind Rooney’s hat in the same film or the hats on the minstrel clowns in the silent picture Off to Bloomingdale Asylum.”
To be clear, I am not arguing that The Cat in the Hat is definitely racist, or that someone has to be racist to read The Cat in the Hat to their kids. (I would, though, suggest that this context makes that plot line in the sequel where the Cat smears ink all over the house and then the kids yell at him to kill the stains kind of uncomfortable, in light of the racial history of the way Black people, dirt, and ink are associated in American pop culture.)
But the example of the Cat in the Hat is illustrative. It shows how a man steeped in racist ideas and imagery could end up reproducing the same imagery in a medium as innocent as a book designed to teach kids to read, all while espousing liberal ideals about tolerance and love for all. And it shows how that imagery can swim subliminally through our popular culture, divorced from its context, without our ever quite being fully aware that it’s there.
Contrary to Fox News’s claims, neither the National Education Association nor Dr. Seuss Enterprises is attempting to cancel Dr. Seuss. The six remaindered books are obscure also-rans in his canon, and the rest of his much-beloved classics remain in print, in bookstores, and in school libraries. His books will still be taught in schools. He continues to be the rare author so iconic that his pen name is a literal brand name.
But the children’s literature world is in the middle of figuring out exactly how central Dr. Seuss should be to its ecosystem as our culture reevaluates the racist ideas that run very clearly through his adult work and arguably through his work for children. And, by extension, it is in the middle of sorting out how it wants to handle the many other pieces of beloved children’s literature that include harmful racial attitudes: books like Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series, with its fraught treatment of Indigenous peoples; the Narnia books, with their deeply uncomfortable Middle Eastern villains; the redface fantasies of Peter Pan.
These books are institutions in children’s literature, books that people dream about introducing their kids to. And now the progressive wing of the children’s literature world is working to find ways to situate those books in the landscape of children’s literature that will let kids appreciate them without getting blindsided by their racism.
That’s complex work, not easily reducible to a handful of outrageous sound bites for either side of the political aisle. But it’s unlikely that as children’s literature struggles with this dilemma, anyone is going to be appreciably hurt because they cannot find an in-print copy of McElligot’s Pool.
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Correction: An earlier version of this article said that the Cat in the Hat smears a house with black ink in The Cat in the Hat Comes Back. It was actually pink ink.