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April 15, 2021

Library Notes: Coming to terms with the full legacy of Dr. Seuss

By Stephanie Reister
Rowan Public Library

The Rowan Public Library celebrates the National Education Association’s (NEA) Read Across America Day every year on March 2, Dr. Seuss’s birthday. This year’s brought with it a reminder to examine Dr. Seuss’s legacy.

Dr. Seuss Enterprises announced its decision to discontinue sales and publication of six books due to racially offensive content. The books 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.” RPL has copies of all these books.

There are people who think the caricatures are not upsetting, but they surely have not experienced institutionalized racism. The time has come to more openly acknowledge and discuss the existence of racial stereotypes in children’s books by Dr. Seuss/Theodor Geisel.

Four years ago, the NEA pulled back from using the “Cat in the Hat” character, which has been suspected of mirroring a blackface minstrel. The NEA also transformed Read Across America into a year-round initiative that promotes diversity and inclusion in children’s literature. This counters the mostly-white human character representation in Dr. Seuss books.

I think there is room to keep some controversial works to remind us of our country’s history of racism. However, such content in children’s picture books and beginning reader books is problematic. Young children have open minds that should have guarded access to stories and images of racial stereotypes.

Adults have a responsibility to discuss racism and work to end it with young people. The offending Dr. Seuss books could be used as teaching tools, except there are so many newer books with inclusive images and stories for kids to enjoy.

To bring up issues of racism about a beloved children’s author is like ripping off a Band-Aid that’s been on too long, yet Dr. Seuss cannot be removed from children’s literature. Theodor Geisel was an innovator in what has become the standard for beginning reader books. He introduced lively and humorous energy to what was a bland genre, albeit aimed at white readers.

Dr. Seuss wrote redeeming titles along with his troublesome tomes. “The Sneetches” deals with racial prejudice. “The Butter Battle Book” questions war. “The Lorax” supports caring for the environment.

Dr. Seuss also won’t disappear from storytimes. Plenty of his books can be used along with other titles to entertain diverse groups of kids and adults. I’ve enjoyed using “My Many Colored Days” about feelings and the colors associated with them. A great new book to use with it is “Black is a Rainbow Color” by Angela Joy in which a child reflects on the meaning of being Black.

In my role, it’s energizing to discover more representative voices, characters, and images. There are many wonderful authors and illustrators of color, including some of my favorites: Dan Santat, Kadir Nelson, LeUyen Pham, Bryan Collier, Jerry Pinkney, Andrea Davis Pinkney, and Brian Pinkney.

I’m happy to see that publishers are offering more diversity in children’s literature. You can visit any of RPL’s locations to find growing diversity in our children’s collections.

Theodor Geisel’s legacy in children’s literature may be tarnished, but it should not be forgotten. Words from “The Lorax” can help move us forward with our thoughts and actions, “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”

Stephanie Reister is children’s librarian at the South Branch of the Rowan Public Library.

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