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Dr. Seuss, Racism in Children’s Books, and Cancel Culture: A Writer’s Perspective

I guess I’ve seen one too many short-sighted takes on the recent controversy about Dr. Seuss. It looks a lot like some of the worst aspects of human behavior in our technology-driven society: not reading the actual articles about a particular topic, reacting quickly without considering different perspectives, (especially from cultures and backgrounds other than your own), and not appreciating or trying to understand the nuance of a situation. I’m sure you’ve seen it all over social media, too: that Dr. Seuss is the latest victim of cancel culture run amok.

Please. Stop.

First of all, no one is cancelling Dr. Seuss. Given that my son was encouraged to dress up like Dr. Seuss just last week, and that so many of us can recite Green Eggs and Ham from memory, and that the Grinch remains one of the most beloved Christmas movies of all time, I think Dr. Seuss is doing just fine. His grandkids aren’t wondering where their next meal is going to come from, of that I’m sure. But I bet the line at your local food pantry was long this morning. Let’s save our outrage for what really matters, ok?

One of the best ways to think about this popped up on my Twitter feed this week. It was originally posted by Bernice King, Dr. Martin Luther King’s daughter. She tweeted back in January: “Some things being labeled as #CancelCulture are actually examples of #Accountability.” 

Second, I want us to base our understanding of this situation by learning the actual facts, because the truth starts to get really fuzzy when all you’re doing is scrolling memes on Facebook. 

Last year, Dr. Seuss Enterprises made a business decision to stop publishing and licensing six of Dr. Seuss’ books. Please read the full statement here if you have not already done so. His own family made this choice. No one forced them to do it. Key sentence from their statement: “These books portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong.” You know what it reminds me of? When a particular car seat is recalled, whether it’s because the company realizes it no longer meets new safety standards or due to pressure externally about its quality. Stuff like this happens every day. Private companies are allowed to make business decisions that help them achieve their mission. 

So, FYI, in case it’s not clear, no one is going door-to-door in your neighborhood today confiscating your copy of Cat in the Hat. Librarians aren’t pulling Oh the Places You’ll Go off the shelves. You can still watch your Lorax DVD and no one is going to arrest you. Relax, America. Take a deep breath.

These are the six books that will no longer be published or licensed by Dr. Seuss Enterprises.

  • And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street
  • If I Ran the Zoo
  • McElligot’s Pool
  • On Beyond Zebra!
  • Scrambled Eggs Super!
  • The Cat’s Quizzer

If you’ve actually looked at the illustrations in these books and read the words, I bet you cringed. I’ll admit, I wasn’t familiar with a few of these titles (trust me, there’s a reason these are not among his best selling books), and I audibly gasped at what I saw. I think the vast majority of people would really reconsider reading this material to children when they flip through them now. 

Ask yourself what you love about Dr. Seuss. Is it his rhyming? Check out Sandra Boynton, Connie Schofield-Morrison, Bill Martin Jr., or Julia Donaldson. Is it his eccentric characters or wild creativity? Check out Are We There Yet by Dan Santat, Tuesday by David Wiesner, or anything by Mo Willems. Spoiler alert: Dr. Seuss never had the monopoly on what makes a children’s book fun to read aloud and entertaining to kids. There are many wonderful alternatives out there that don’t come with a side of racism. 

And third (this is when I feel compelled to put my writer hat on), I’d like to encourage us all to be more thoughtful about what it means to honor someone’s legacy. So allow me to step on my soapbox for a moment.

Most of my professional writing is in the travel sector. There may come a day when my children, or my grandchildren, or their children, come across an old post or article I’ve written and think: YIKES. Perhaps I’ve reviewed a destination in an insensitive way. Maybe I’ve described a group of people I met on my travels using offensive language. Or it could be that the photos I’ve taken are now considered inappropriate when viewed through a modern lens. This very blog post that you’re reading right now might someday cause pain. I try very hard to be sensitive in the way that I write and the images I choose to include. But there are times when I will fall short or could do better.

So to my kids, if you’re reading: Delete the post. Take the article down. Pull the book off the Amazon listings. You have my full blessing. 

The legacy I want to leave you is one of critical thinking. Of respect for others, especially those who are marginalized. Of sensitivity. Of caring and compassion. Of a mindset based on the wise words of Maya Angelou, “when you know better, do better.” That’s the life lesson that I hope I have handed down to you, far more important than any words I could ever write. 

I would never want my writing to cause harm to others. I would never want my children or grandchildren to financially profit off of work that is racist, disrespectful, or unkind. So if there ever comes a day when this occurs, I hope you’ve learned something more from me than just where to place an Oxford comma. I hope that through my actions, I’ve demonstrated that when I’ve done something offensive, that I was quick to apologize. Unconditionally. And to try to right wrongs when it was in my control to do so, or to encourage those in power to do it. You have my full permission to do these things on my behalf. 

No one is perfect. I’m certainly not. I bet you recognize that you’re not. I’m sure you don’t expect perfection from your children. Well, guess what? Dr. Seuss wasn’t perfect, either. If his own family can accept that, can we please stop treating him like he was?