A leading expert on racism in children’s literature has said the decision by the Dr Seuss Foundation to withdraw six books should be viewed as a “product recall” and not, as many claim, an example of cancel culture.
Philip Nel, a professor of English at Kansas State University, is the author of Was The Cat in the Hat Black? The Hidden Racism of Children’s Literature and the Need for Diverse Books. He told the Guardian the six titles by Theodor Geisel published between 1937 and 1976 that Dr Seuss Enterprises said it would cease printing contained stereotypes of a clearly racist nature.
“Dr Seuss Enterprises has made a moral decision of choosing not to profit from work with racist caricature in it and they have taken responsibility for the art they are putting into the world and I would support that,” Nel said.
The titles in question 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 books have sold some 700m copies globally.
After this week’s announcement, amid uproar eagerly stoked by conservatives in the media and Congress, Dr Seuss books swiftly dominated sales charts. On Friday, the House minority leader, Kevin McCarthy, went so far as to share a video of himself reading from Green Eggs and Ham, a perennial strong seller.
“I still like Dr Seuss, so I decided to read Green Eggs and Ham,” McCarthy said, inviting viewers to respond “if you still like him too!”
Geisel’s stepdaughter, Lark Grey Dimond-Cates, told the New York Post there “wasn’t a racist bone in that man’s body”, but also said suspending publication of the six titles was “a wise decision”. But the controversy left many perplexed, since the decision was made by Dr Seuss Enterprises and not as a result of public pressure that has preceded other such decisions.
Nel said the decision to no longer publish titles including caricatures of people of African, Asian and Arab descent showed just one way to address problematic material.
“[The books are] not going to disappear,” he said. “They’re not being banned. They’re not being cancelled. It’s just a decision to no longer sell them.”
Geisel died in 1991. Later in life, he made efforts to tone down racial stereotypes in some of his books. Such revisions “were imperfect but will-intentioned efforts that softened but did not erase the stereotyping”, Nel said, noting that Geisel also made a joke of the changes, “which served only to trivialise the importance of the alterations”.
Moves to correct dated or offensive cultural material take different forms. Turner Classic Movies, for example, has introduced Reframed: Classic Films in the Rearview Mirror, a series devoted to “problematic” films. TCM identified 17 films that five hosts will discuss, among them Gone With the Wind, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Tarzan, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, The Searchers and Psycho.
“We are hearing more and more from audiences about moments they are really puzzling over, if not downright offended by, in light of all of the broader cultural and political conversations we are having,” the University of Chicago cinema studies professor Jacqueline Stewart, a Reframed host, told Variety.
TCM’s decision to seek to contextualise the films but not alter or drop them may reflect the importance of the works and a more mature target audience. Nel said placing contentious work in a larger context and inviting discussion can be risky when the work is directed at a younger consumers.
“Children understand more than they can articulate,” he said. “If you inflict racist images on them before they can express what they’re articulating they may endure a harm they cannot process.”
In the case of Dr Seuss, Nel said, that “is itself a reason to withdraw the books or to bring in books or art that counter stereotypes with truth.”
He pointed to statistics that show the publishing industry still has a way to go. According to a recent Diversity in Children’s Books study, only 22% of children’s books published in 2018 featured non-white characters.
Nel pointed to The Indian in the Cupboard series by Lynne Reid Banks, Penguin Random House titles about a toy figure of a Native American that comes alive, first published in 1980, as an example of a book that remains in print without comment or apology.
“There’s a lot of examples of contemporary as well as older work that the publishing industry should address,” he said, “and there are different ways to do that. There’s a debate on what the response should be but there should be a response.”
Merely putting the question of what a child can or cannot see to parents would not be an adequate solution, Nel said.
“Parents may not have training in anti-racist education,” he said, “or may not know how to have these conversations. So in the case of Dr Seuss it’s a way of addressing the gap in what one might hope a responsible adult would know and what we can expect a responsible adult to know.
“Either way, children’s book publishing is facing a reckoning, as indeed it has been for some time. This decision, and all the attention it has received, I hope will create a broader reckoning in the publishing industry – the need for more diverse books and to address the problems in current books being published.”