Curriculum

The Dr. Seuss Controversy: What Educators Need to Know

By Sarah Schwartz — March 02, 2021 5 min read
A copy of the book "And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street," by Dr. Seuss, rests in a chair on March 1, 2021, in Walpole, Mass. Dr. Seuss Enterprises, the business that preserves and protects the author and illustrator's legacy, announced on his birthday, Tuesday, March 2, 2021, that it would cease publication of several children's titles including "And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street" and "If I Ran the Zoo," because of insensitive and racist imagery.

The business that manages Dr. Seuss’ work and legacy said today that it plans to stop publishing six of the author’s children’s books, due to racist stereotypes and offensive content in the stories.

The decision, announced on the author’s birthday, which schools have long celebrated, could have big consequences for many classrooms and libraries. Dr. Seuss, who was born Theodor Seuss Geisel, remains a beloved staple in the early reading canon—despite growing concerns about racist and xenophobic tropes embedded throughout his books written for young kids.

The six titles that will be pulled from publication 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!, and The Cat’s Quizzer. Dr. Seuss Enterprises, which manages the author’s legacy, released a statement saying that the books “portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong.”

Education Week wrote about the controversy surrounding reading Dr. Seuss in the classroom, including claims that images in The Cat in the Hat draw from minstrel shows, in 2017.

One of the books being pulled from publishing, If I Ran the Zoo, includes stereotyped caricatures of African people and references “helpers who all wear their eyes at a slant” in describing Asian people. Another, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, also portrays stereotypes of Asians, including an illustration of a man with a bowl of rice, a conical hat, and slanted eyes captioned, “a Chinese man who eats with sticks.”

These books, and Dr. Seuss in general, have been a centerpiece in American elementary classrooms for decades. Tuesday marks the annual Read Across America Day, an event started by the National Education Association in 1998 to promote reading—and purposefully aligned with Geisel’s birthday, March 2.

In recent years, though, the NEA attempted to shift the focus away from Dr. Seuss. This March, the organization is celebrating diverse books that explore “family, community, courage, and fashion.”

In his proclamation for Read Across America Day earlier this week, President Joe Biden didn’t mention Dr. Seuss—a break with previous presidential speeches by Donald Trump and Barack Obama, who both referenced the author for the event. In response to a question at Tuesday’s White House press briefing about why Dr. Seuss wasn’t mentioned, Press Secretary Jen Psaki said, “It is important that children of all backgrounds see themselves in the children’s books that they read.”

Still, Dr. Seuss remains the focus of the festivities in many elementary schools, with students dressing as their favorite characters from his books, eating classroom breakfasts of green eggs and ham, and listening to teachers lead read-alouds of The Cat in the Hat or Oh!, The Places You’ll Go!

Several conservative commentators and politicians have railed against the decision to stop publication of the titles, claiming that the announcement is another example of “cancel culture.”

But Deborah Caldwell-Stone, the director of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, which advocates against banning books, said this isn’t exactly censorship.

"[Dr. Seuss Enterprises] have not made a call for libraries or schools to remove the books from collections. ... Any author, or anyone publishing books, can make choices about what is out in the world,” she said.

The decision offers teachers, librarians a moment for reflection about Seuss’ books

While this announcement from Dr. Seuss Enterprises only implicates the six books listed, critics have questioned his larger body of work for several years now.

As Education Week’s Stephen Sawchuk wrote in 2017, Dr. Seuss is “complex and not easily summarized.” Some of his stories explicitly condemn discrimination based on difference, like The Sneetches, or espouse environmentalism, like The Lorax.

But his books are also full of stereotypes of marginalized groups, and descriptions that portray people of color as “the other.” In a 2019 analysis of 50 children’s books by Dr. Seuss, researchers Katie Ishizuka and Ramón Stephens found that all of the characters of color were crafted in ways that reinforced Orientalism and anti-Blackness, and were “only presented in subservient, exotified, or dehumanized roles.”

The books are also overwhelmingly white: Of 2,240 human characters, only 2 percent are characters of color, the study found. (This is not a feature unique to Dr. Seuss books—surveys of children’s literature continue to find Black, Latino, Asian, and Native American characters underrepresented.)

The study’s authors write:

Children’s books provide impressions and messages that can last a lifetime, and shape how children see and understand themselves, their homes, communities, and world (Santora). A long history of research shows that text accompanied with imagery, such as books with pictures, shapes children’s racial attitudes. When children’s books center Whiteness, erase people of color and other oppressed groups, or present people of color in stereotypical, dehumanizing, or subordinate ways, they both ingrain and reinforce internalized racism and White supremacy.

“Students do see themselves in books, and they notice when they’re not in books,” said Alfredo Celedón Luján, the president of the National Council of Teachers of English.

“Our position at NCTE, and mine personally, is the language of affirmation—to affirm marginalized students and authors and literature, and to affirm cultures and differences in students. I applaud [Dr. Seuss Enterprises] for presenting the statement and for stopping the publishing of those books, because they’re hurtful,” he said.

Many teachers and education researchers have long described how books that lean on stereotypes of people color, or reduce their lives and experiences to a “single story,” can lead students of color to internalize negative messages and discourage interest in reading—while at the same time, implicitly telling white students that these stereotypes are correct and normal.

Whether teachers stop reading these books to students, or whether libraries remove them from circulation, is an open question.

Librarians have several options in situations like this, Caldwell-Stone said: They can keep the book in circulation, they could move it to a research collection, or they could weed it out altogether. “Often, the decision is to keep the book in the collection, but it may not be surfaced in storytimes or displays,” she said. How libraries approach the Dr. Seuss books is going to differ, she said, based on individual guidelines for collection curation and community demand for certain books.

Still, said Caldwell-Stone: “This is a moment that offers an opportunity for adults to think critically about Seuss’ books, and to decide whether to share these books with the children in their lives.”

For Luján of NCTE, today brought up such a moment of reflection.

“I read Dr. Seuss books to my own children—not necessarily the ones in question—but now I’m viewing these books through a different lens as well,” he said.

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