Are Dr Seuss books racist?

 

Dr Seuss has taught generations of children to read with such beloved classics as The Cat in the Hat and Green Eggs and Ham.

His perennial graduation gift, Oh, the Places You'll Go!, was No. 2 on USA Today's Best-Selling Books list as recently as June.

Some of Dr Seuss's drawings can "certainly be viewed as being racist" in modern society, says children's literature ...
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Some of Dr Seuss's drawings can "certainly be viewed as being racist" in modern society, says children's literature professor Ann Neely.

But now the late Theodor Seuss Geisel and his picture books are in the crosshairs of the culture wars, after a Massachusetts school librarian rejected US first lady Melania Trump's donation, claiming the Seuss titles were racist and unneeded.

A Seuss museum in Springfield, Massachusetts, the author's hometown, says it will replace a mural featuring a Chinese character from And To Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street.

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The Dr Seuss controversy escalated after a US librarian rejected first lady Melania Trump's gift of Seuss books.
KEVIN LAMARQUE/REUTERS

The Dr Seuss controversy escalated after a US librarian rejected first lady Melania Trump's gift of Seuss books.

 

The 1937 book, in which a young boy concocts an elaborate story about what he sees while on a walk, included an illustration of an Asian male running while carrying a bowl of rice and chopsticks while dressed in a silk robe, coolie hat and platform sandals.

The museum's decision came after three authors said they would boycott an event due to the "jarring racial stereotype".

What do the Seuss experts say? Are his admittedly eccentric works racist?

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"Just as every author/illustrator is, I think that Theodor Geisel was a product of his time," says Ann Neely, professor of children's literature at Vanderbilt University in Nashville.

"Yes, there are some Dr Seuss drawings that, given today's ideologies and values, can certainly be viewed as being racist. The illustrations of the Chinese characters in And To Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street are stereotypical, offensive, and inappropriate.

"I believe the museum is doing the right thing by removing these images from the mural.

"We should not judge Theodor Geisel by today's standards," Neely cautions, "but we must evaluate his books that we decide to share with children using today's standards.

"We cannot wallow in our own nostalgia when we make choices for the books we share with young children. There are simply too many outstanding books available."

Philip Nel, a professor of children's literature at Kansas State University and author of Dr Seuss: American Icon and Was the Cat in the Hat Black? says Seuss employed both racist and anti-racist themes in his books, with The Sneetches and Horton Hears a Who! among the latter.

Both books "clearly argue against picking on others for arbitrary marks of difference", Nel says.

"Racism lurks in children's culture in ways we're not aware of, and [authors] can recycle images and ideas in their work without being aware of it. People don't take children's lit seriously; they think kids are not going to notice this, only grown-ups notice.

"That underestimates their intelligence and doesn't take into account that we learn things without being aware we're learning things."

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 - MCT

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