A K-State professor and scholar on the works of Dr. Seuss says the choice to remove six of the beloved author’s books from circulation was a responsible one.
Dr. Seuss Enterprises, the company that manages the late children’s book author’s estate, announced Tuesday it would cease sales of six books: “And to Think I Saw It on Mulberry Street,” “If I Ran the Zoo,” “The Cat’s Quizzer,” “McElligot’s Pool,” “On Beyond Zebra!” and “Scrambled Eggs Super!”
Philip Nel, who has penned his own books delving into the life and mindset of Theodor Seuss Geisel, said the decision to no longer publish these books comes from a choice to take responsibility for the culture the Seuss company wants to put into the world.
“They decided they are not going to profit from books that circulate racist images and ideas,” Nel said. “I don’t know if they decided because it was bad for the brand or it was a moral awakening, but it’s a responsible choice.”
The company made the decision to stop selling and publishing these books was made last year, but waited to make the announcement to coincide with Seuss’ birthday. In a statement to the Associated Press, Dr. Seuss Enterprises said it “listened and took feedback from our audiences including teachers, academics and specialists in the field as part of our review process.”
Nel said the books in question contain imagery of racist caricatures of people of African, Asian and Arabic descent, as well as some indigenous peoples. Examples include an Asian man using chopsticks and wearing a cone-shaped hat in “And to Think I Saw It on Mulberry Street,” and the depiction of two bare-footed African men in “If I Ran the Zoo.”
Nel said there is a long history of people advocating for more diverse and multiculturally rich books that represent people of color with respect and fairness. He said Seuss’ work is interesting because people can point to other books in his catalogue and come away with a different understanding.
“He’s also known for Horton Hears a Who, which was published in 1954, the same year as the Brown v. Board Supreme Court decision,” Nel said. “It’s basically a rhymed lesson in protection for minorities and their rights. … There are elements of particular books where he is trying to send quite a different message.”
Nel said he does not believe Seuss was aware of the degree his own imagination was steeped in the racist imagery of his culture.
“I don’t think he was doing these stereotypes out of malice,” Nel said. “It’s simply how he saw particular groups of people, but racism does not depend upon intent; we can act in ways that promote racist ideas without meaning to, and that’s what I think we have here.”
Nel said sometimes he describes Seuss as the “woke white guy who isn’t as woke as he thinks he is” — a sentiment he said he equates with himself as well.
“I’m sure I miss things, but I never have had or never will have racism directed at me,” Nel said. “It does not cause pain in the same way to me, it does not deny my basic humanity that way.”
Seuss’ books have been translated into dozens of languages as well as braille and are sold in more than 100 countries. Although Seuss died in 1991, he continues to be one of the highest-paid deceased celebrities, having earned an estimated $33 million before taxes in 2020. Random House Children’s Books, Seuss’s publisher, said in a statement they respect the decision to pull the books from sale.
Nel said there are plenty of other Dr. Seuss books being published and available for sale, and he understands why people may be confused by the choice.
“I would also invite them to sit back and think about what they might know now that they didn’t when they were kids,” Nel said. “Or what they might understand that Seuss didn’t back in the 1940s.”
Nel said the issue is not about banning books or canceling anybody, but rather what might be causing harm to children today.
“It’s about ‘Do you want to perpetuate harm or not?’” Nel said, “and if not, what can we do to lessen that harm, to make all children feel their stories are important and they matter, which they are and they do.”