Advertisement
Share

6 Dr. Seuss books will no longer be published because of ‘hurtful’ images

A mural featuring Theodor Geisel, known as Dr. Seuss, is pictured near an entrance at The Amazing World of Dr. Seuss Museum.
A mural featuring Theodor Geisel, known by his pen name Dr. Seuss, is pictured near an entrance at The Amazing World of Dr. Seuss Museum in Springfield, Mass. Three years ago, Dr. Seuss Enterprises took down a mural from the museum that included the Chinese character from “And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street.”
(Associated Press)

The business that preserves the late La Jolla author’s legacy cites racist and insensitive imagery. A local historian says the context in which they were written needs to be considered.

Six books by one of La Jolla’s most famous former residents — the late Theodor Geisel, or Dr. Seuss — will stop being published because of imagery deemed racist and insensitive, the business that preserves and protects the author’s legacy said March 2.

The books affected are “And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street,” “If I Ran the Zoo,” “McElligot’s Pool,” “The Cat’s Quizzer,” “Scrambled Eggs Super!” and “On Beyond Zebra!”

“These books portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong,” San Diego-based Dr. Seuss Enterprises said in a statement that coincided with Geisel’s 117th birthday. “Ceasing sales of these books is only part of our commitment and our broader plan to ensure Dr. Seuss Enterprises’ catalog represents and supports all communities and families.”

"And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street" is one of the Dr. Seuss books that will no longer be published.
(Steven Senne / Associated Press)

“And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street,” Dr. Seuss’ first book, which came out in 1937, depicts a “Chinaman” wearing a pointed hat and carrying chopsticks and a bowl of rice.

“If I Ran the Zoo,” from 1950, contains drawings of nose-ring-wearing Africans and a verse about Asian workers “who all wear their eyes at a slant.”

“Scrambled Eggs Super!” which includes stereotypes about Arabs, came out in 1953.

“McElligot’s Pool” is from 1947, “On Beyond Zebra!” from 1955 and “The Cat’s Quizzer” from 1976.

The decision to cease publication and sales of the books was made last year after months of discussion, the company said.

“Dr. Seuss Enterprises listened and took feedback from our audiences including teachers, academics and specialists in the field as part of our review process. We then worked with a panel of experts, including educators, to review our catalog of titles,” the company said.

The National Education Association, which founded Read Across America Day in 1998 and deliberately aligned it with Geisel’s birthday, has for several years de-emphasized Dr. Seuss and encouraged a more diverse reading list for children.

Geisel, a longtime resident of La Jolla whose name adorns UC San Diego’s library, died in 1991 at age 87. Still, the books he wrote and illustrated remain popular and influential, used in schools, libraries and homes to help children learn to read.

Books by Dr. Seuss have been translated into dozens of languages as well as Braille and are sold in more than 100 countries. His four dozen works collectively have sold more than 650 million copies worldwide, the bulk of them since his death.

When Publisher’s Weekly compiled a list in 2001 of the 100 best-selling hardcover children’s books of all time, it included 16 Dr. Seuss titles. Among them were perennial favorites “Green Eggs and Ham,” “The Cat in the Hat,” “One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish,” “Oh, the Places You’ll Go!” and “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.”

None of the six books pulled March 2 was on the list.

The decision thrust America’s most successful and beloved children’s author into the volatile mix of politics and culture that dominates much of the discourse these days on social media and cable television.

Some people applauded the change as part of a long-overdue racial reckoning that has seen statues toppled, flags lowered and buildings renamed across the country.

Others bemoaned what they see as a “cancel culture” that erodes the nation’s history and heritage.

“It is important to consider these Dr. Seuss books — as any literature, children’s or otherwise — in the context of the 1930s and the post-World War II years in which they were cartooned and written,” Carol Olten of the La Jolla Historical Society told the La Jolla Light. “They stand as part of that cultural collect and history of an era. Moreover, if Seuss wanted to make eggs green and have elephants hatching eggs in trees, that was his business. And moreover that moreover, if today’s publishers start removing books from the shelves with ‘distasteful innuendoes,’ we’d likely lose a major chunk of American literature.”

Erik Mitchell, head librarian at UCSD’s Geisel Library, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

In a 2017 book, “Was the Cat in the Hat Black?” Philip Nel, a Kansas State University professor, traces Geisel’s thinking to a favorite childhood story in the early 1900s, “The Hole Book,” which includes a Black mammy talking in dialect about a watermelon.

In high school, Geisel 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 the n-word.

Such images were considered acceptable back then and commonly used by cartoonists, Nel wrote, and as a result, “the popular culture of the early 20th century embedded racist caricature in Geisel’s unconscious as an ordinary part of his visual imagination.”

In the early years of World War II, Geisel drew more than 400 editorial cartoons for a New York newspaper called PM. Some of the cartoons decried prejudice and some of them perpetuated it, especially against the Japanese.

In a San Diego Union-Tribune interview after “Is the Cat in the Hat Black?” came out, Nel pointed to one cartoon as a clue to how racist imagery wound up in Dr. Seuss books.

Titled “What This Country Needs Is a Good Mental Insecticide,” the cartoon, published June 11, 1942, shows a line of people 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?”

“You appreciate the impulse there, but he conceived of racism as a bug, and that’s not how it works,” Nel said. “It’s not aberrant, it’s ordinary. It’s not strange, it’s everyday. That’s what he doesn’t understand. Most people who aren’t targeted by racism don’t think about it. He was not unusual in that respect.”

But Geisel also evolved and came to regret some of the earlier work. When he realized people were offended by “Mulberry Street,” for example, he asked that “Chinaman” be changed to “Chinese man.”

He expressed embarrassment at the “snap judgments” that fueled some of the PM cartoons. His 1954 book “Horton Hears a Who!” was dedicated to a Japanese friend and is seen by scholars as an apology for the wartime drawings.

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.

He also wrote “Yertle the Turtle,” published in 1958, which is an anti-fascist send-up of Adolf Hitler. Three years later came “The Sneetches,” full of lessons about tolerance and the evils of discrimination. He wrote an essay critical of racist humor.

“Seuss, like any other author, was a product of his time,” Michelle Martin, a specialist in children’s literature at the University of Washington, told the Union-Tribune in 2017. “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 did that.”

The removal of the six books echoes a decision by Dr. Seuss Enterprises three years ago to take down a mural from the newly opened The Amazing World of Dr. Seuss Museum in Springfield, Mass., where the author was born.

The mural, which included the Chinese character from “Mulberry Street,” had prompted three prominent children’s writers to bow out of a literary festival planned at the museum.

“While this image may have been considered amusing to some when it was published 80 years ago, it is obviously offensive” now, authors Mo Willems, Lisa Yee and Mike Curato said.

The mural was replaced with images from other books celebrating inclusion and tolerance.

“This is what Dr. Seuss would have wanted us to do,” the company said at the time.

Numerous other popular children’s series have been criticized in recent years on allegations of racism.

In the 2007 book “Should We Burn Babar?” author and educator Herbert Kohl contended that the “Babar the Elephant” books were celebrations of colonialism because of how the title character leaves the jungle and later returns to “civilize” his fellow animals.

One of the books, “Babar’s Travels,” was removed from the shelves of a British library in 2012 because of alleged stereotypes of Africans.

Critics also have faulted the “Curious George” books for their premise of a White man bringing home a monkey from Africa.

And Laura Ingalls Wilder’s portrayals of Native Americans in her “Little House on the Prairie” novels have been faulted so often that the American Library Association removed her name in 2018 from a lifetime achievement award it gives out each year.

— John Wilkens writes for The San Diego Union-Tribune. La Jolla Light staff writer Ashley Mackin-Solomon and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

Updates

11:28 AM, Mar. 03, 2021: This article has been updated throughout.