OPINION: Dr. Seuss controversy brings to light importance of diversity in children’s literature

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On March 2, Dr. Seuss Enterprises released a statement announcing it will no longer publish six books because of the books’ hurtful portrayals of others. The ceased publication of these books has led to many heated discussions on the balance between social correctness and the ability to share classic children’s literature with kids. (Abigail Compton | Collegian Media Group)

On March 2, Dr. Seuss Enterprises released a statement announcing it will no longer publish six books because of the books’ hurtful portrayals of others.

The ceased publication of these books — “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” — has led to many heated discussions on the balance between social correctness and the ability to share classic children’s literature with kids.

It would be easy to accept the stories I grew up reading as the gospel truth of goodness, but we were not made for comfort; we were made for greatness. And many times that means making decisions that aren’t so easy, including becoming aware of our own ignorance.

I’m a book nerd, always have been, and I was blessed growing up to have adults who fed that passion, particularly one sweet aunt who gave me Dr. Seuss books every year for my birthday; I ate those up like candy.

When I saw the headlines that some books by Dr. Seuss — real name Theodor Geisel — were being discontinued, I was ready to be mildly outraged at this “attack” on my childhood; but, on learning which books they were, why and more about Geisel, I felt foolish. I’m not bothered in the slightest by their discontinuation.

I don’t think Dr. Seuss Enterprises is hurting through it either, as the pulled books were relatively low-selling, and the publicity surrounding this decision has led Dr. Seuss’s books to fill nine of the top 10 spots on Amazon’s bestseller’s list this past week.

But hopefully, Dr. Seuss Enterprises is doing it for more than the money. The reason for pulling the discontinued books was because they, “portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong,” the company said.

In “And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street,” for example, an Asian person is drawn wearing a conical hat and holding chopsticks. On one page in “If I Ran the Zoo,” a couple of African men wear grass skirts with their hair tied up in a way that mimics the animals on the page around them.

I don’t think Geisel meant to be a bad guy, but it’s important to recognize that he wasn’t perfect either. According to a fascinating NYT article from 2017, Geisel drew hundreds of political cartoons in the 40s, many of which would now be seen as blatantly racist.

The same article says in later life, however, Geisel was embarrassed by many of these.

“‘Characterizations were done, and he was a cartoonist and he tended to adopt those,'” the same article quotes Geisel’s great-nephew, Ted Owens. “‘And I know later in his life he was not proud of those at all.’”

Certainly, Geisel’s works aren’t all harmful, however.

His “Horton Hears a Who,” for example, says, “A person’s a person, no matter how small,” teaching me and so many others the importance of valuing all life, especially minorities and those without strong voices.

Even “Green Eggs and Ham” has an underlying theme of trying new things and getting new perspectives as the main character realizes by the end that he does, in fact, like green eggs and ham; he’d just never tried them before. Maybe we could take notes.

This Dr. Seuss Enterprises decision leads me to question, “What now?” and I’m sure you wonder my point of all this as well.

It brings to light the necessity of more diversity in children’s literature. I know I’m just a white girl from the middle of Kansas, but I struggle to think of many children’s books that focus on characters who aren’t white or steeped in just white culture. We need to fix that.

But don’t just take my word for it. Philip Nel, Kansas State English professor and an expert on the issue, even wrote a book on the subject, “Was the Cat in the Hat Black? The Hidden Racism of Children’s Literature, and the Need for Diverse Books.” Y’all should check it out.

We can all take steps to combat ignorance and hateful actions, including educating ourselves and starting safe, important conversations with others.

Coming full circle, now I’m the old aunt with the little niece to spoil. I’m not going to stop reading the good Dr. Seuss books to my own little niece — they have morals too important for her to miss out on — but I know they won’t be the only books in her growing little library.

Lori Leiszler is the assistant culture editor of the Collegian and a junior in secondary education with an emphasis in English/journalism.The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Collegian. Please send comments to opinion@kstatecollegian.com.

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