On March 2, 2021, the 117th birthday of Theodor Geisel, the children’s book author and illustrator behind the Dr. Seuss pseudonym, Dr. Seuss Enterprises announced that it would “cease publication and licensing” of six titles in its collection because the listed books “portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong.”1 A new battle in the political culture wars ensued, with cries of “cancel culture” exploding in the conservative media.2
But who is Dr. Seuss? And why did this action provoke such controversy?
In the United States, Dr. Seuss needs no introduction as he is an American icon.3 He authored over sixty children’s books, many of which may be more familiar to readers outside the U.S. through film versions that enjoyed worldwide popularity in the last two decades, including the live-action and star-studded films How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000) and The Cat in the Hat (2003), as well as the computer-animated films Horton Hears a Who (2008) and The Lorax (2012).4 There is even a Broadway musical called Seussical, which premiered in 2000.
The flurry of Seuss adaptations in the early 2000s likely had something to do with Dr. Seuss becoming something of a symbol of children’s reading in 1998. That is when the National Education Association (NEA), the largest teachers union in the country, launched Read Across America Day as an annual nationwide celebration of reading with a coordinated curriculum for public schools. They set the day to coincide with Geisel’s birthday (or the closest school day).5 As a result, Read Across America Day has often been referred to as Dr. Seuss Day.6 Indeed, many young children in the last two decades experienced the day as more a celebration of Seuss than of reading per se, donning the iconic tall red-and-white striped hat (which they often made from construction paper themselves) from The Cat in the Hat, among other activities. My younger son’s kindergarten class did just that on March 3, 2008 (a Monday).
Seuss’s best-selling children’s books could be described as whimsical. They typically rhyme in anapestic tetrameter, which makes them especially fun to read out loud with young children. His unique illustration style is characterized as falling “somewhere between the surrealist movement of the early 20th century and the inspired nonsense of a child’s classroom doodles.”7 And, since Seuss published children’s books for over fifty years, from 1937 to 1990 (beginning with And to Think I Saw It On Mulberry Street in 1937 and ending with Oh! The Places You’ll Go in 1990), generations of Americans have grown up reading his books together with their parents and caregivers, including many of the conservative politicians outraged by Dr. Seuss Enterprises’ decision.8
But what are the “hurtful and wrong” portrayals of people in Dr. Seuss’s books that prompted that organization’s decision? This issue had seemingly little to do with the debate: the politicians did not refer to the specific books being discontinued but to other, more popular ones, instead. Moreover, Dr. Seuss Enterprises said no more about it than what I have already quoted. Still, it is worth taking a look because the books in question reveal the kinds of knowledge of people and the world that Theodor Geisel himself presumably had and that his books continue to convey to readers today.
There have been several book-length studies on Dr. Seuss and his books.9 Yet as the Japanese-American scholar Katie Ishizuka and Black educator Ramón Stephens point out in their excellent 2019 study, “The Cat Is Out of the Bag: Orientalism, Anti-Blackness, and White Supremacy in Dr. Seuss’s Children’s Books,” there is a gap in the literature from the perspective of nonwhite researchers—a gap their work contributes to filling.10 In addition, most white researchers, when they do acknowledge racialized depictions in Seuss’s works, explain it away as a product of Seuss’s time. But these assessments, according to Ishikuzo and Stephens, are part of the pattern of silencing “oppressed communities’ experiential knowledge” in academia.11 Their study, grounded in critical literacy and critical race theory, aimed to determine how white and nonwhite characters were portrayed in Seuss’s books in terms of Orientalism, white supremacy, and anti-Blackness, among other characteristics. The frequency counts alone are devastating. In the 50 Seuss books they analyzed, there are 2,240 human characters, with 45 characters of color (2%), 43 of whom they identified as having Orientalist characteristics and 2 as “African,” portrayed in ways that align with the theme of anti-Blackness. All the characters of color are male, presented exclusively in “subservient, exotified, or dehumanized roles.”12
One of the six discontinued books, Seuss’s first children’s publication, And To Think I Saw It on Mulberry Street (1937), provides prime examples of Seuss’s Orientalist and white-supremacist depictions. His Orientalism appears in his representation of an exotified Chinese man “with chopsticks and a bowl of rice in his hands, bright yellow skin, slanted eyes, a long black braid, and a conical hat.”13 Seventeen of the 29 turban-wearing characters in the 50 books are dominated or dehumanized in relation to the white male characters, reflecting Seuss’s white supremacy. Again, Mulberry Street provides an example. A man in a turban is riding an elephant pulling two white males on a cart, one of whom smiles and wields a whip above the elephant and rider.14
Such examples abound across Seuss’s oeuvre of children’s books, suggesting that his racialist, white-supremacist views of others largely persisted throughout his lifetime. In fact, Ishizuka and Stephens explicitly reject the “reformed racist narrative” about Dr. Seuss, arguing that he had plenty of opportunities to repudiate his earlier work but chose to defend it instead, making only the most superficial changes to his texts and illustrations in response to criticism.15 This persistence of views may seem surprising, but it is actually fairly common for people to establish their views of the world at an early age, influenced by their parents, educators, and the depictions of others in the media they consume. The insight that children’s culture “shape[s] the attitudes and belief systems that inform adult life” lies behind the tremendous interest on the part of scholars as well as educators and parents in literature and other media for children.16 Stated in terms of knowledge, this insight suggests that “adults with access to literary production have the power to produce and withhold knowledge” for and from children.17 In other words, they specifically curate knowledge for children to integrate them into a particular way of viewing the world. This view is usually the dominant perspective of the society within which the literature is produced, not least because the adults with the social capital to produce this knowledge typically belong to the dominant culture.18
This insight about children’s books and other media as curated knowledge makes historical children’s books and media an excellent source for research into the history of knowledge. A recent essay collection edited by historians Simone Lässig and Andreas Weiß, The World of Children, builds on exactly this idea.19 It takes children and media designed for children in the nineteenth century—children’s books, school textbooks, missionary literature, trading cards, toys and games, and even circuses and human zoos—as its two analytical axes for exploring the knowledge of the world that nineteenth-century German children acquired or were at least exposed to. The editors note that the nineteenth century was an era of increasing and entangled globalization and nationalization, when compulsory schooling and literacy were rising exponentially. In this context, children’s literature and textbooks became professionalized as educators and state officials sought to transform pupils into good, loyal citizens of their nation-state.20 At the same time, producers of entertainment media sought to capitalize on popular images and themes, so children were exposed to both official and popular, entertaining forms of knowledge about the world.
Not surprisingly, due to the increasing nationalism and colonialism of the age, the knowledge the contributors find in both official and popular sources of knowledge for children largely “reflect the imperialist imagination,” as contributor Emer O’Sullivan puts it.21 O’Sullivan’s examines children’s books and games and finds that the images of others consisted primarily of “a fixed repertoire of notions about foreign countries, showing how people dressed and lived . . .” Indeed, “[t]he same images and stereotypes . . . recurred,” giving children a “mainly stereotyped vocabulary of other nations.”22 Judith Blume, too, in her essay on the Liebig trading cards issued between 1875 and 1914, finds that “[t]he view of the wider world these series portrayed was a colonial one” that “cast a victor’s proprietary eye on the world outside Europe.”23 In other words, the foreigners from Africa, Asia, and the Middle East tend to be exotified and presented in subservient positions, whereas European civilization is cast as superior.
Indeed, the “colonially shaped ‘World of Children’ that emerged during the Wilhelmine period” looks a lot like the caricatures of others we find in Dr. Seuss’s children’s books.24 Considering that Theodor Geisel was born in 1904, we should perhaps not be surprised that he acquired and perpetuated these colonialist tropes under the Seuss pseudonym. After all, U.S. children’s media picked up on many of the same themes. But it is possible that he was also exposed to the very German sources presented in The World of Children: His paternal grandparents were from Mühlhausen and Württemberg, and his maternal grandparents were from Bavaria. Geisel was a second-generation American who grew up in a German-American community “numbering around 1,000 people” in Springfield, Massachusetts, the son of a prominent brewer.25 Did he, perhaps, collect Liebig trading cards as a child?
Even though we cannot prove a direct link between Seuss and the media analyzed in The World of Children, the current Seuss controversy and the history-of-knowledge essay collection clearly have one thing in common. They both show that the worldview and the images of others conveyed in children’s literature is anything but child’s play. Children’s media matters because it constitutes reservoirs of knowledge that legitimate the values of adult society and socialize the children into that society.
Perhaps ironically, because the National Education Association tied Dr. Seuss to its Read Across America initiative, Dr. Seuss’s works went from being “merely” one source of knowledge among many in entertainment to a form of “official knowledge,” so to speak, thus raising the stakes. Ishizuka and Stephens submitted their study, along with stakeholder feedback from “youth, families, and teachers from racially marginalized communities,” to the NEA’s Read Across America Advisory Committee, asking it to move away from the twenty-year focus on Dr. Seuss and “use the platform to promote anti-racist diverse books by authors of color.” In 2018, the committee did just that, removing all Seuss books from the organized curriculum and changing the theme to “Celebrating a Nation of Diverse Readers.”26
Dr. Seuss Enterprises’ decision to discontinue publication of some of the most offensive titles no doubt constitutes a response to this rising awareness of Seuss’s racism and, perhaps, an effort to save the Seuss brand. But the conservative backlash also acknowledges how much children’s books matter. The conservative politicians are stakeholders with power intent on maintaining a worldview where it is acceptable to portray whites as superior and powerful and ethnic minorities as exotic and subservient because, as they pretend, it is all just for fun.
Patricia C. Sutcliffe is an editor at the German Historical Institute in Washington, DC. Her remit includes the series Studies in German History at Berghahn Books, in which The World of Children (2020) appears.
- Statement from Dr. Seuss Enterprises, Seussville, March 2, 2021, https://www.seussville.com/statement-from-dr-seuss-enterprises/. ↩︎
- Alexandra Alter and Elizabeth A. Harris, “Dr. Seuss Books Are Pulled, and a ‘Cancel Culture’ Controversy Erupts,” New York Times, March 4, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/03/04/books/dr-seuss-books.html. ↩︎
- Philip Nel, Dr. Seuss: American Icon (New York: Continuum, 2003). ↩︎
- Jessica Napoli, “5 Dr. Seuss books made into Hollywood movies,” Fox Business, March 2, 2021, https://www.foxbusiness.com/lifestyle/dr-seuss-books-hollywood-movies. ↩︎
- “Read Across America: Frequently Asked Questions,” National Education Association, January 28, 2021, https://www.nea.org/resource-library/read-across-america-frequently-asked-questions; Gary Hopkins, “Read Across America Day: March 2,” Education World, February 20, 2008, https://www.educationworld.com/a_curr/curr059.shtml. ↩︎
- See Seren Morris, “Who Was Dr. Seuss? Why Read Across America Day Falls on His Birthday,” Newsweek, March 2, 2021, https://www.newsweek.com/why-read-across-america-day-falls-dr-seuss-birthday-1573109. Two examples of references to “Dr. Seuss Day”: Awareness Days, https://www.awarenessdays.com/awareness-days-calendar/read-across-america-day-dr-seuss-day-2021/, and “National Read across America Day (Dr. Seuss Day),” National Day Calendar, https://nationaldaycalendar.com/national-read-across-america-day-dr-seuss-day-march-2-unless-weekend/. ↩︎
- Dr. Seuss Enterprises, “The Artistic Legacy of Theodor Seuss Geisel,” https://www.drseussart.com. ↩︎
- Senator Ted Cruz, for example, claimed he had always been a fan. See Lee Moran, “Ted Cruz Raises Money by Signing, Selling Copies of Dr. Seuss Book He Did Not Write,” Huffington Post, March 12, 2021, https://www.huffpost.com/entry/ted-cruz-dr-seuss-fundraising_n_604b5123c5b672fce4ebf541. ↩︎
- See the overview in Katie Ishizuka and Ramón Stephens, “The Cat Is Out of the Bag: Orientalism, Anti-Blackness, and White Supremacy in Dr. Seuss’s Children’s Books,” Research on Diversity in Youth Literature 1, no. 2, art. 4 (February 2019): 9–11, https://sophia.stkate.edu/rdyl/vol1/iss2/4. ↩︎
- Ishizuka and Stephens, “The Cat Is Out of the Bag,” 9–10. ↩︎
- Ibid. ↩︎
- Ibid., 14. ↩︎
- Ibid., 15. ↩︎
- Ibid., 17. ↩︎
- Ibid., 32–33. ↩︎
- Patricia Enciso, Shelby A. Wolf, Karen Coats, and Christine Jenkens, “Review: Children’s Literature: Standing in the Shadow of Adults,” Reading Research Quarterly 45, no. 2 (2010): 259. ↩︎
- Ibid., 253. ↩︎
- Ibid., 258 and 260; and, for example, Bogum Yoon, Anne Simpson, and Claudia Haag, “Assimilationist Ideology: Critically Examining Underlying Messages in Multicultural Literature,” Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy 54, no. 2 (2010): 109–18. ↩︎
- Simone Lässig and Andreas Weiß, eds., The World of Children: Foreign Cultures in Nineteenth-Century German Education and Entertainment (New York: Berghahn Books, 2020). ↩︎
- Simone Lässig and Andreas Weiß, “Introduction: Children, Nation, and the World,” in Lässig and Weiß, World of Children, 1–35. ↩︎
- Emer O’Sullivan, “Around the World in a Jiffy: Humorous Treatments of Around-the-World Travel in German Children’s Books and Games,” in Lässig and Weiß, World of Children, 204. ↩︎
- Ibid., 206. ↩︎
- Judith Blume, “The Rise of the Trading Card: Collecting the World before World War I,” in Lässig and Weiß, World of Children, 228–51. ↩︎
- Quotation: Simone Lässig, “Kaleidoscope and Lens: Re-envisioning the Past through the History of Knowledge,” in Lässig and Weiß, World of Children, 277. ↩︎
- “Grandparents,” Seuss in Springfield, https://www.seussinspringfield.org/who-dr-seuss/who-ted-geisel/grandparents. ↩︎
- Ishizuka and Stephens, “The Cat Is Out of the Bag,” 36. ↩︎