Dr. Seuss is one of the most popular and beloved children’s book authors, known around the world for his catchy rhymes, brilliant characters and generally fun messages for kids. However, on March 2, Dr. Suess’s estate announced that they would be taking six of the late author’s books out of print: “If I Ran the Zoo,” “McElligot’s Pool,” “The Cat’s Quizzer,” “And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street,” “On Beyond Zebra!” and “Scrambled Eggs Super!”
The books contained racist and offensive imagery that “portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong,” according to the announcement. Although the author’s most famous books were not involved, the decision has launched a debate over the correct course of action when it comes to outdated and insensitive depictions in children’s literature.
Within hours of the statement, some people desperately claimed that Dr. Seuss is the new victim of “cancel culture.” Yet, the truth is nothing near that. Dr. Seuss Enterprises has only decided to stop new printings of these books, not to physically remove existing copies out of circulation. It was a decision to no longer profit from work with racist caricatures in it and take responsibility for the insensitive art.
And it was the right decision. While most adults can differentiate between acceptable and deplorable depictions, and understand the eras in which these books came from, children cannot. The fact of the matter is that Seuss books were written for preschoolers and elementary school students. If racist images are imposed on them before they can express understanding, many will form prejudiced first impressions of these groups. It is a harm that they cannot process.
While most adults can differentiate between acceptable and deplorable depictions, and understand the eras in which these books came from, children cannot.
When it comes to Dr. Seuss’s legacy, it is possible to grapple with his problematic past while appreciating the good side of his collection. His books have sold 700 million copies globally, and many are hearing about these insensitive books for the first time with this cease of printing.
Updating children’s books for modern audiences is not a new phenomenon. Many have never and probably will never read their favorite childhood books in their original forms. Dr. Seuss is only joining authors like Roald Dahl, who, in the first edition of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” wrote Oompa-Loompas as pygmies from “the deepest heart of Africa,” brought to work as slaves by Willy Wonka. It may also come as a surprise that the first editions of the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew series were packed with prejudiced portraits of ethnic villains, crudely described as “swarthy,” “hook-nosed” or “dark, and rather stupid looking.”
Books like these have been updated or discarded throughout time because it is unacceptable for children—and virtually anyone—to be exposed to discriminatory and harmful stereotypes, even if disguised in a fantastical story.
In the adult world, there has been a long-running discourse over what should be done about literature and films with racist depictions. Those outraged by the decision of Dr. Seuss Enterprises make the mistake of including children’s books in that discourse. It is a different territory, and our definition of what is acceptable for children has been updated to fit the modern age countless times before.
We don’t tell children the original twisted versions of classic fairytales, from the dark aspects of suicide and murder in the Little Mermaid to the maiming of Cinderella’s feet to fit in the glass slipper. Changing stories to reflect current views has always been a part of our history and, for good reasons, it will continue to be.
Photo courtesy of The New York Times