Thursday Thoughts: On Seuss, Yet Again

On March 2nd (Read Across America Day), Dr. Seuss Enterprises released the following statement:

Today, on Dr. Seuss’s Birthday, Dr. Seuss Enterprises celebrates reading and also our mission of supporting all children and families with messages of hope, inspiration, inclusion, and friendship.

We are committed to action. To that end, Dr. Seuss Enterprises, working with a panel of experts, including educators, reviewed our catalog of titles and made the decision last year to cease publication and licensing of the following titles: 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. These books portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong.

Ceasing sales of these books is only part of our commitment and our broader plan to ensure Dr. Seuss Enterprises’s catalog represents and supports all communities and families.

Although the company did not explain in detail how the images in these six books “portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong,” Seuss’s use of racial stereotypes has been well-documented (and not just in his political cartoons). See the resources in Katie Salo’s infographic and at the bottom of this post for more information if this conversation is new to you.

Predictably, people freaked out about so-called “cancel culture.” Patrons “lost” the Seuss books they had borrowed from the library. Sales skyrocketed and Seuss titles topped the Amazon Bestseller List; used copies of the particular six titles being pulled from publication sold for thousands of dollars before eBay pulled the listings. A Republican Representative went viral for reading a Dr. Seuss book that wasn’t even being withdrawn from publication… during much more important negotiations about the stimulus package. But, you know, priorities.

Experts who have been doing this work for decades (like Dr. Philip Nel) and library staff tried once again to educate their friends and families and communities. Librarian Katie Salo (of the Storytime Katie blog) made this helpful infographic:

storytime katie suess

Racism and Dr. Seuss Infographic Plain Text Version

Well. Some library staff tried to educate.

Seuss supporters still abound in Library Land. Every year libraries host Dr. Seuss storytimes in honor of Read Across America Day. Every day teachers and librarians turn to Seuss titles as their default rhyming read aloud of choice. As Black librarian, local historian and author Alexandria Brown says:

alex seuss

@QueenOfRats Twitter Quote: If you can’t do storytime without Dr Seuss, there is a bigger problem at hand.

I mean… have these Seuss supporters actually read these books with young children?! Long before I became aware of Seuss’s racially stereotyped illustrations, I stopped reading Seuss books in my former classroom because I noticed my preschoolers and kindergartners were BORED. Many of these books are super long and not really developmentally appropriate for the storytime audience. There were so many newer, more engaging, rhyming read-alouds I could choose from.

Here is a sampling of replies to a Storytime Underground thread when a member asked about pulling the six books off the shelves:

  • “Absolutely not!”
  • “Always thought Libraries were against censorship.”
  • “Not a fan of him. But keeping the books accessible to everyone because that’s what good librarians do.”
  • “I will not remove them. It is better to teach from the past than to obliterate it.”
  • “I believe books like that should provoke a conversation, not be removed.”
  • “As someone who wants to work in youth services, I would suggest that libraries leave these six books available for the public because their insensitive depictions of minorities can teach kids how to be better towards said minorities.”

Librarians even waxed poetic in their defense:

I will not take out out my Seuss books
I will not take them out today
I will not take them out any day
A book was written in a time
Where people did not have open minds
Instead of removing them from a shelf
Lets use this chance
to teach ourselves
our children and their children too.
What used to be the norm
is thru
if we do not know the past
then how can we see
how much we grew.

It’s been two years since a staunch Seuss defender wrote an OIF blog post and I wrote this post in response: Thursday Thoughts On Seuss, Selection, Criticism and Censorship. Arguments this time sound strikingly similar to those that Carole Soden made in 2019. Namely:

  1. Not promoting classic racist books through library programs and displays is censorship/not purchasing books because of racist content is censorship/weeding racist materials from the library collection is censorship.
  2. Racist books are a product of their time, and we shouldn’t judge them by today’s standards and values.
  3. Racist books have instructional value for children.

1. The “All Sides” Argument

Proponents of this argument claim they are protecting intellectual freedom. They believe that neutrality is inherently good, and that libraries must make room in their collections and spaces for every belief system and value in a pluralistic society — even false and harmful ones. They believe that not only must we keep racist materials in our collections, but also that we should use these materials and actively promote them in programs and displays. Otherwise we “participate in selective banning by removing books that are not politically correct in today’s world without an attempt to use them in any way” (Soden, 2019).

A thoughtful collection development policy, carefully selecting storytime materials and not reading books with racist content, removing racist library materials from public library shelves — these aren’t examples of censorship. These are examples of good professional judgement. According to the CREW Weeding Manual for Libraries (last revised in 2012), libraries should weed materials based on poor content. Poor content includes outdated information, inaccurate or false information, and material that contains biased, racist, or sexist terminology or views. Just like a public library (hopefully) wouldn’t purchase a book claiming COVID-19 is a hoax, a public library shouldn’t purchase or keep racist materials.

Proponents of this argument warn about the “slippery slope.” What comes next, they ask? Which beloved classic in the white cannon will be “cancelled?” The slippery slope folk love to play devil’s advocate. They don’t seem to believe that racist materials (or letting hate groups use their library meeting rooms) causes actual harm. Or maybe they do know, and they just don’t believe libraries have a duty of care to their communities.

reading danger suess

@ReadingDanger Twitter Quote: …did you ever notice slippery slopes only go ONE WAY in library discourse because we assume not providing access is the most harmful thing.

Libraries cannot buy all of the books. Librarians cannot read all of the books in storytime. Every day, libraries make decisions about what to include and exclude – and who. As nina de jesus wrote in 2014, “Claiming that libraries ought to be liberal institutions that take ‘no substantive political position’ is a political position in and of itself. And it is not a neutral one (if such a thing is even possible.)”

Our profession must stop pretending that libraries are welcoming to everyone by being neutral. Neutral is not an achievable position, nor is it even desirable. There is no safety in all sides and no inherent good in neutrality, because neutrality benefits the status quo — and the status quo is white supremacy.

Although EDI (equity, diversity and inclusion) has been codified into the ALA Code of Ethics along with IF (intellectual freedom), it’s interesting (racist) how only intellectual freedom seems to matter. For more on this intersection and how our profession might move towards a sociohistorically informed understanding of IF, check out this journal article by Alessandra Seiter. Also, check out Questioning Library Neutrality: Essays from Progressive Librarian.

2. The “Back in the Day” Argument

Proponents of the “product of their time” argument say that racist attitudes and actions were acceptable “back in the day.” Acceptable… to whom? This argument centers whiteness and completely denies the lived experiences of oppressed people, who obviously did not find racism and oppression acceptable.

As We Need Diverse Books founding member and author Mike Jung says:

mike jung 1

@Mike_Jung Twitter Quote: A racist author being “a person of their time” means their racism was accepted by the white majority of their time, but it doesn’t mean it was objectively acceptable. Racism never has been and never will be acceptable.

Those who request us to consider the historical context to excuse racism also ignore the actual historical record. Racism is, has always been, and will always be wrong, and there have always been people pushing back on it — even other white people. Check out the The Anti-Slavery Alphabet, which was published in 1846 and is attributed to two white Quaker women:

anti slavery alphabet

Anti Slavery Alphabet Extract: A is an Abolitionist / A man who wants to free / The wretched slave – and give to all / An equal liberty. / B is a Brother with a skin / Of somewhat darker hue / But in our heavenly Father’s sight / He is as dear as you…

Concern over accurate representation is not new, either. This movement did not begin with We Need Diverse Books or the oft-quoted Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop. Dr. Ebony Elizabeth Thomas and Andrea J. Loney at We Need Diverse Books have pointed how The Brownie’s Book (a monthly magazine containing African American stories and tales for children) was first published in 1920 — 17 years before the publication of Mulberry Street (which features anti-Asian imagery such as slanted skin and yellow eyes), and 37 years before the publication of The Cat in the Hat (which features anti-Black imagery based on minstrel stereotypes).

Edited by W.E.B. DuBois and Jessie Redmon Fauset, the publication’s explicit goal was to dispel grotesque racist stereotypes and “be a thing of Joy and Beauty, dealing in Happiness, Laughter and Emulation.” Although the magazine sought to “teach Universal Love and Brotherhood for all little folk,” it was primarily written “For the Children of the Sun.”

Was not DuBois also a product of his time? So to say that “everyone was like that” [i.e. racist] or “they didn’t know better back then” is simply untrue and dehumanizing. By using this argument, you exclude people of color who were every much as part of the historical context as white people. You exclude Indigenous Nations, African Americans and others from “everyone” — implying, perhaps, that you don’t think people of color are actually people.

3. The “Teachable Moment” Argument

Teachers and librarians love to say stereotypical Seuss illustrations are a perfect “teachable moment.” A teachable moment for whom?

mark seuss

@marky_b_tweets Twitter Quote: If you’re treating racism as a pedagogical tool, maybe you should think about who’s in on the lesson, and who’s being left out.

In 2019, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) identified racism as a core social determinant of health, explicitly stating that racism harms children from the moment they are born. Nowhere does this report suggest that exposure to racism is beneficial for anyone  — rather, racism harms everyone, having “significant adverse effects on the individual who receives, commits, and observes racism.” This includes exposure to racist images. In 2020, the AAP reiterated that “even vicarious racism – witnessed through social media, conversations with friends or family, or media images – harms children’s health.”

mike jung 5

@Mike_Jung Twitter Quote: FFS, it’s not rocket science. Racist books put children on the receiving end of racism. We don’t help children learn about oppression by inflicting it on them.

Racist texts should not be the touchstones for having conversations about race. The AAP states that forming a positive racial identity is critical to combatting stereotypes, which “can unconsciously erode self-perception and capacity and may later play out in the form of stereotype threat or the fear of confirming a negative stereotype of one’s race… [and] can undermine academic and vocational attainment.” Therefore, the AAP advises its practitioners to:

“Infuse cultural diversity into AAP-recommended early literacy–promotion programs to ensure that there is a representation of authors, images, and stories that reflect the cultural diversity of children served in pediatric practice.”

But what about the white kids? As already stated above, racism harms everyone. You are not doing the white kids in your classrooms or storytimes a favor by exposing them to racist imagery, either.

mike jung 4

@Mike_Jung Twitter Quote: I imagine some are thinking “but what about kids who don’t experience racism, huh? What about the white kids?” What those kids learn from racist books is the categorically false idea that it’s acceptable to BE racist.

I also question what kind of conversations are actually happening in conjunction with these texts. I know I certainly don’t have time in my 30 minute storytimes to expose families to racist images, and then have a lengthy conversation about why stereotypes are wrong. And anyways, why would I EVER start a conversation with young children about race from a place of inaccuracy and harm?

If you’re honestly looking to have helpful conversations with kids about racial inequity, don’t start with Seuss. I suggest working through this list and the other fabulous resources from Embrace Race, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping families raise race-conscious young children. I also recommend exploring the numerous resources available from Learning for Justice and #DisruptTexts.

mike jung 2

@Mike_Jung Twitter Quote: Books that recognize and confront racism teach kids how to recognize and confront racism. Books that are racist teach kids how to be racist.

Do these Seuss titles have a place in a college classroom for adults critically studying children’s literature? Absolutely. Do they have a place in other classrooms with older students? Perhaps, depending on the quality of the discussions. Do they have a place in preschool classrooms? In storytime? On the shelf in school libraries and within circulating children’s collections at public libraries?


The Cost of Caricatures

Early in March, I started writing and working through how my thinking has evolved since my Seuss blog post of two years ago. Then, on March 16th, two weeks after the Dr. Seuss Enterprises announcement, a domestic terrorist in Atlanta shot and killed eight people in Asian spas. At the same time people lamented the “loss” of these six Seuss titles in kidlit, a white man murdered six Asian women.

Contrary to what the sheriff’s captain would have us believe, this was 100% a racially motivated crime. It didn’t happen because the shooter had a “sex addiction” that he was trying to eliminate or because the shooter was just having “a really bad day.” As celebrated author Kelly Yang said in a recent interview, “they were targeted not only because they were Asian American, but because they were Asian American women.”

It’s important to consider this crime both within the context of rising violence against AAPI people since the pandemic started, and the long history of Anti-Asian racism in the United States. As award-winning historian and author Erika Lee says, it’s a tradition dating back more than 150 years. This history of racism includes the hypersexualizing and fetishizing of Asian women in American society.

The stereotypical images Seuss supporters so staunchly defend teach children to “other” – to view those who are different as less human, less worthy of dignity and respect.

These caricatures have real consequences.

Dehumanization costs lives.

Reference/Resource Links:

American Academy of Pediatrics Condemns Racism, Offers Advice for Families for How to talk to their Children (News Release)

Anti-Asian Violence Isn’t Un-American by Erika Lee (Congressional Testimony)

The Anti-Slavery Alphabet (Book)

‘Banned’ Dr. Seuss Books Delisted on eBay After Selling for Thousands by Brian Cronin (Web Article)

Books that Support Kids to Think Critically About Racial Inequity by Katie Potter (List)

The Brownies’ Book: African American Stories and Tales for Children (Periodical)

Can We Please Stop Talking About Cancel Culture? by Claire Fallon (Web Article)

The Cat is Out of the Bag: Orientalism, Anti-Blackness, and White Supremacy in Dr. Seuss’s Children’s Books by Katie Ishizuka and Ramón Stephens (Journal Article)

CREW: A Weeding Manual for Modern Libraries

Democrats are Denouncing GOP Rep. McCarthy for Posting a Video of Himself Reading a Dr. Seuss Book by Yelena Dzhanova (Web Article)

Disrupt Texts (Website)

A Dr. Seuss Expert Cuts Through the Noise on the Cancel Culture Controversy by Adrienne Westenfeld (Interview with Phillip Nel)

Embrace Race (Website)

Georgia Officer Condemned for Saying Atlanta Shooter was ‘Having a Bad Day’ (Web Article)

The Impact of Racism on Child and Adolescent Health by the American Academy of Pediatrics (Report)

Learning for Justice (Website)

Libraries, Power, and Justice: Toward a Sociohistorically Informed Intellectual Freedom by Alessandra Seiter (Scholarly Article)

Locating the Library in Institutional Oppression by nina de jesus (Journal Article)

Looking Back: The Brownies’ Book: Groundbreaking Literature for “The Children of the Sun” by Andrea J. Loney (Blog Post)

The Problem with Picture Book Monkeys: Racist Imagery Associating Simians with Black People has a Long History by Edith Campbell (Web Article)

Questioning Library Neutrality: Essays from Progressive Librarian (Book)

Racism and Dr. Seuss by Katie Salo (Infographic)

A Sociologist’s View On The Hyper-Sexualization Of Asian Women In American Society (NPR Interview)

Statement from Dr. Seuss Enterprises

Stop AAPI Hate (Website)

Was the Cat in the Hat Black? The Hidden Racism of Children’s Literature and the Need for Diverse Books by Phillip Nel (Book)

What The Georgia Shootings Reveal About Anti-Asian Racism In The U.S. by Jonathan Chang (Interview with Kelly Yang, Doris Chang, Sung Yeon Choimorrow and Christine Liwag Dixon)

Why I Am Keeping Seuss Books by Carole Soden (Blog Post)

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