Why I am Keeping Seuss Books

Intellectual Freedom Issues, Self-Censorship, Social Justice

By: guest contributor Carole Soden

The recent questions about racist etc. problems with Dr. Seuss books could not have come at a better time for me. I just finished an article in the Christian Science Monitor by Harry Bruinius entitled “In #MeToo age, can we love the art but deplore the artist?” The author discusses something that many of us have been wondering, namely, whether socially condemned behavior can discredit a person’s artistic vision.

Lately, I have been very interested that we seem to be all for banned books, but we actually practice selective banning by removing books that are not politically correct in today’s world without an attempt to use them in any way. I feel this is sort of a “throw the baby out with the bathwater” approach. (Disclaimer – not all books can be saved)

Seuss illustrationsSome of the criticisms leveled at Seuss include the fact that 98% of his books were dominated by white males, or that many of his “foreign” characters display typical stereotypes. This is absolutely true but looking back in time when I first started teaching in 1967 this was true of most books. I know because I took home books and altered hair, skin etc. color and had a artist friend help me with various eye types so my class books would reflect the diversity of my students. (At that time, red haired characters and strong, adventurous girls were still rare, and The Snowy Day published in 1962 with the first black main character was still pretty much a stand alone sensation)

I think that students (even the very young) can have discussions regarding  these problems in historical context. For example, it is well known that Seuss created anti-Japanese war posters. At the time in which he did this, Americans did not know who would win the war, Pearl Harbor had occurred and the general sentiment was very much against the Japanese.  What a wonderful opportunity to point out to students how unfair this was, and how it was based on our unsettled and fearful sense, and to ask for possible solutions they might have so this won’t ever happen again.

I tell students my own story about how I once formed a prejudice against Russia and the Russians after working in Afghan schools and seeing the horrible things which happened to these children during the Russian invasion. (Watching children pick shrapnel pieces out of their limbs, and having children without arms or legs in my class contributed greatly to this.)  This is what prejudice is – a preconceived opinion which is not based on reason, and this is why we fight against prejudice.

I still read Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn with my middle school students and these books provoke a lot of valuable discussion. I have taught these books in classes that are ethnically mixed and I give students the historical background for them and allow them to decide how they will address some of the themes and the use of the “N” word.  I want my students to be aware of the evil things that happened in history and to figure out ways to stop them from happening ever again. They also need to know Mark Twain’s place as an author and what he added to American novels in general. Students are always impressed by the fact that Huck chooses Hell over reporting Jim, and by the understanding of how strong the belief in hellfire and damnation was during that period.

I love the way Dr. Seuss imaginatively pulls students to think out of the box and to use their imaginations to go “on beyond zebra.” My students love Dr. Seuss and I am happy to keep his books, and still point out some of the stereotypes and problems with them. I’ve had students perform undated plays of these books for our younger students, and I’d love to see an Art student or two reimagine the art in the books to reflect our new values. I also enjoy adding newer books to our Read Across America Program. I fully understand why some libraries feel more comfortable not using Dr. Seuss books but I feel there is also another approach. I’m not trying to start a controversy but simply show other ways to deal with a real problem.

 


Carole SodenCarole Soden accidentally fell into teaching when she accompanied a friend to an inner city tutoring job at the Pruitt–Igoe Housing Development in St. Louis, Missouri and saw how much the students craved being read to and how much they responded to books. She went right back to my college and added “Education” to her major. She started teaching in 1967 and has never wanted to do anything else. After she married, she spent many years teaching in International or local schools in countries such as Afghanistan, Lesotho, Ethiopia, the Philippines, Pakistan and the island of St. Kitts in the Caribbean. She’s taught almost every grade from preschool to University, and soon discovered that her forte was teaching reading and literature. While she’s dedicated to having students learn from books, foremost in her mind is helping them to love reading and books, and she’ll do that in any creative way that she can. Along the way, she started collecting foreign books, received a Masters in Library Science from Portland University and filled her own library with thousands of children’s books. Now, semi-retired, she’s still passionately helping with projects and finding books to interest her students, authors to inspire them and simply sharing the ideas and joy that come from reading.

31 comments

  • Hi – I’m puzzled about the “Japanese anti-war posters”. I’m not finding posters about Japan {or in Japanese?} done by Seuss [Geisel]. The ones I saw could fairly be called “pro-war” in my opinion. Can you direct me to the “anti-war” posters? thanks

  • Carole Soden is one of my best friends, and I’m not at all predudiced in saying that she is one of the best teachers that a parent could ask for their children!
    She gives them the opportunity to use their imaginations and there is no right or wrong in her classes. The children love her and after they grow up and have their own children, they are happy that she also was teaching their own little ones.
    I could go one and on, but I’ll just say that all teachers should learn skills from Ms Soden!

  • What a good point. Actually, you are probably correct though they were described in the article I read as “anti-war” posters, and I suppose it was because they were directed against the Japanese.

  • Thank you for your question. The post has been corrected to “anti-Japanese war posters”.

  • Thank you Carole for such a balanced and rational article. So often we forget that historical perspective is an important part of juvenile literature! Bravo!

  • Hi – I hope that as you discuss elements which may be considered problematic you explain the nature of caricature and political cartoons, as some of the material you discuss falls into these categories. A writer or cartoonist might depict persons very differently in the midst of war than in peacetime. I think that the cartoon of Hitler and Hirohito is not at all unusual for the time in American history that it appeared, especially as our country was at war with both powers led by these men. I’m concerned when we apply 21st century values to events of 70 years ago. I agree that the drawings are unflattering, and exaggerate physical features [part of the nature of caricature] — but for that time I’m guessing they were very normal. What I’m advocating is that we try to look at the past as it might have been seen at that time, as well as through our 21st century filters.

  • I agree with Carole Soden. Don’t ban books because they’re not currently PC. Use them as a teaching tool. Take the opportunity to open up a discussion – Why do you suppose people acted the way they did? Why is this way of thinking wrong? What can we learn from our past mistakes?

  • I have written several times about the Dr. Seuss issue. You raise good points about evaluating an author in the context of his time, but there is even more to the story. Even within that context, Geisel was an outspoken opponent of xenophobia, isolationism, and anti-Semitism, when taking a position against these threats was very unpopular. I am disturbed that this part of his past has been largely ignored by those citing the admitted racism in some of his work.
    You can see his political cartoons at this UCSD website:
    https://library.ucsd.edu/speccoll/dswenttowar/
    His position on the internment of Japanese Americans was terrible. Over the course of his long career, his opinions evolved and he championed social issues in many of his books.
    Some of his caricatures are appalling. Others, for example of Japanese fascist dictator Tojo, are included in cartoons where Hitler is also mocked and caricatured.
    https://imaginaryelevators.blog/2018/03/29/460/

  • “Most attempts at suppression rest on a denial of the fundamental premise of democracy: that the ordinary individual, by exercising critical judgment, will select the good and reject the bad. We trust Americans to recognize propaganda and misinformation, and to make their own decisions about what they read and believe.”
    — ALA Freedom to Read Statement

  • Thanks for the additional context. Regarding anti-Japanese sentiment prior to and during the internment — I did a paper on that in Lib school — from what I saw the vast majority of people were supportive of it. Doesn’t make it right by any means. Perhaps a bit of explanation, but not an excuse. Is there a place for historical/cultural context while looking at people’s past actions?

  • Well said! Why did people act in ways that today we might consider impolite, bad, evil or abhorrent? I hope that question is always part of the discussion. I shudder to think what things that I do everyday might be viewed as negative in 70 years.

  • Hi, I absolutely believe that one CAN separate the art from the artist. I don’t use Dr Seuss books – I don’t face them out, I don’t include them in programs, I don’t do displays on the man. Patrons can easily find his books without me… I choose instead to shine a light on other books that patrons may not know about, by authors and illustrators from marginalized groups if at all possible. Does that mean I’m “selectively banning” Seuss’s books? What does that phrase even mean? Can you point to actual instances where this is occurring?

    Also I’m troubled by your use of the term “politically correct” – if by politically correct you mean that we are not about using books that are oppressive to people from marginalized groups, then I agree, but can you just say that instead of using that phrase?

  • Hi, Emily! I think you (and others here) might be interested in this recent article in Research on Diversity in Youth Literature. https://sophia.stkate.edu/rdyl/vol1/iss2/4/ From the background section in the article, “In the 1920s, Dr. Seuss published anti-Black and anti-Semitic cartoons in Dartmouth’s humor magazine, the Jack-O-Lantern . He depicted a Jewish couple (captioned ‘the Cohen’s’) with oversized noses and Jewish merchants on a football field with ‘Quarterback Mosenblum’ refusing to relinquish the ball until a bargain price as been established for the goods being sold (Cohen 208).” I’d also point people to the authors’ evidence countering the argument that the underlying attitudes in Seuss’ work changed later in his career.

    I know you’ve previously expressed concern about antisemitism in works by past writers who have won the Legacy Award — an honor Seuss received as well. (And of course there is also an award named after him!) I’m sure that Seuss’ antisemitic cartoons will also be of concern to you, as they are to me. Beyond this, his anti-Nazi cartoons do not in any way negate the existence and impact of his racist work, including racist propaganda which stoked hatred against Japanese Americans and contributed to an atmosphere in which the US government interned Japanese Americans in concentration camps.

    As a more general note, I am disturbed by passages in this post, and other comments here, which seem to excuse that racist propaganda as a normal product of wartime sentiments. As a granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, I am appalled at this dismissal of the powerful realities of racist propaganda, especially in the context of internment. And again, I hope that people here will spend more time with the article in RDYL, especially if they are planning to lead discussions of Seuss’ work with children.

  • An article like this should not have to be written. Purging Dr. Seuss is something we shouldn’t even be entertaining. If we purged the work of every artist, writer, actor, or musician who said or did something wrong (especially according to today’s impossible standards), we’d have nothing to look at, read, watch, or listen to.

  • Having a discussion with kids whose identity/heritage is the butt of a joke, a slur, or a racist illustration strikes me as uncaring for that child’s well-being. The adult in the room may feel like they’re doing a good thing but what burden does that child carry from that particular conversation, and into the rest of the day?

  • During the 90s I spent some time defending materials against the (mostly) religious right. My profession fought against labeling and segregating items or banning them, and unflinchingly defended the right of our patrons to make their own decisions about materials. We stood up for unpopular materials to remain on our shelves and in our childrens’ areas.

    It is discouraging to me to see we’re now labeling and banning books again and its my own profession and now it is okay. We’re not allowing youngsters to reach their own conclusions. We’re telling them the conclusions that they ought to reach. This is understandable to some extent in a school setting but not in higher education or public library. How did my beloved profession get so crosswise with this?

  • All of us are shaped by our culture, and when children receive constant messages about racial stereotypes, particularly in books as centered as those of Dr. Seuss, we’re not giving young readers the appropriate tools to “reach their own conclusions.” If what they see via a steady diet of Seuss is that characters of color are ALWAYS exoticized, stereotyped, and made into the Other, and we don’t offer some context and counterbalance — how do we expect kids (or adults) to get to that critical & analytical space? Continuing to privilege Seuss is a choice to privilege Whiteness and the status quo. There are myriad ways to keep Seuss books in a library or classroom if one chooses to do that without centering his books or the racism behind them, and there are hundreds of alternative kids’ texts out there that are equally creative and far more inclusive.

  • Here is an analogy to the Seuss situation.

    I am vegan. I believe eating meat, chicken, and fish is barbaric. A healthy alternative to meat eating has been around for centuries. In time, as lab-cultured and algae-based “meat” becomes inexpensive, the whole world will stop eating animals, and see meat-eating as the cruel barbarism it is. There are so many authors, critics, and librarians who are meat-eaters, and books in which meat is consumed, even though vegetarianism is available. Maybe we should de-center all books, authors, critics, scholars, and librarians that have characters who are anything but vegetarian, or who are not vegetarian themselves. That includes award-winning YA books, even though meat, chicken, and fish eating is normal in our society.

    This makes as much sense as de-centering Seuss for wartime propaganda and hateful drawings that reflect the general ethos of his time, despite his personal growth on these issues as he grew up.

  • The links to my blog on my previous comment explain my opinions about this issue. I am well aware of the anti-Semitic caricatures in the Dartmouth humor magazine; they are exactly what I would expect from an elite college student publication in the 1920s. I am able to put them in the context of Geisel’s later, courageous, stand during a period when most Americans were intensely xenophobic and against entering World War II. I do not excuse in any way his support for the internment of Japanese Americans, which was indefensible. I am able to contextualize and evaluate these contradictory positions. If I were not able to do so, I could not read most of the great novelists and poets who wrote prior to this century. This includes those guilty of anti-Semitism, as well as racism, sexism, and other prejudices. I understand that some people might choose not to read them; that is their right. The idea that minimizing Dr. Seuss’s legacy is in the service of children strikes me as misleading, particularly since he wrote so many books, with most of the earlier ones with racist caricatures rarely read now, except by scholars. His revolutionary approach to beginning readers is still highly influential. If you believe that children should only read books by contemporary authors, and only then if they pass certain standards, I cannot agree with you. I prefer to encourage children and young adults to confront inconsistencies, problems, even overtly offensive attitudes, discuss them, and balance them by reading a diverse range of authors and works.

  • “context and counterbalance” – indeed. I imagine that any author [or other artist – composers, visual artists, poets…] may be [or likely will be at some point in the future] seen as violating our early 21st norms…we can [as I assume teachers do with Huckleberry Finn] provide readers with cultural and historical context. If we take the opposite view we may as well end up in a variant of “Fahrenheit 451”, destroying everything because it does or might offend someone. Perhaps we best serve our readers when we say “You want to read this? Great — and if you have questions please come back and we can explore your questions.”

  • The fact that there are librarians who actually compare the creation of racist propaganda to cultural attitudes about eating meat, or explain racist hate as “everyone was doing it then,” or ignore scholarship showing the roots of the Cat in the Hat character in blackface minstrelsy (which Geisel also participated in)… all of these counter the argument that most adults are equipped to lead children in honest, compassionate, and ethical conversations about Seuss’ work. No one is calling for his works to be censored, banned, or removed from libraries. People are instead questioning the place he holds in our classrooms, storytimes, and larger culture. Just as I would ask questions if Germans continued to celebrate the work of a picturebook artist who had created antisemitic propaganda during this period. Or a children’s author whose most beloved character was one based in destructive antisemitic caricature.

    The comments here demonstrate exactly why that questioning is necessary, and why it is not enough to say that teachers will contextualize his work as they continue to share and celebrate his achievements with children. People who explain away his bigotry are not advocating for nuanced discussion of Seuss’ racism with children; they’re asking for his racism to be excused so white people can continue to enjoy his work unbothered. And as Dr. Reese says above, those interactions will continue to place a heavy weight on children — like the young student whose grandparents were held in US concentration camps, who created an educational pamphlet on Seuss’ cartoons to share with classmates, only to be told by teachers that such information was inappropriate in a school setting. It is those children, and their experiences, who are being censored here.

  • “No one is calling for his works to be censored, banned, or removed from libraries.”

    Are you so sure about this? It is EXACTLY what you and your cabal want library workers to do. You sure send a mixed message if you truly believe that your end goal is anything but “cleansing” the collections to save the children. Non-whites have also enjoyed Dr Seuss for generations, and to claim otherwise is a bald-faced lie.

  • Carole, I appreciate your desire to create time and space for critical conversations with students, building both their historical background knowledge and ability to think/reason critically. These are important 21st century skills for a school librarian to cultivate.

    However, I question your methods, particularly centering these conversations around this particular author (given the problematic content of his many works – including picture books). I also wonder about the relevance of your call to action in other library contexts – particularly how much time and space children’s librarians in a public setting should set aside for discussing racist/inaccurate/problematic content, given their very different goals and time constraints.

    This post and the comments prove that there is still deep confusion and dissension within our field about the difference between selection, criticism, and censorship. I wrote a response on my own blog about these issues and some of the other questions/concerns I had after reading your post, and talked more about why I personally do not select Dr. Seuss in storytime:

    https://storytimeinthestacks.wordpress.com/2019/03/14/thursday-thoughts-on-seuss-selection-criticism-and-censorship/

  • No one is saying take Seuss of the shelves. No one is saying his early readers didn’t revolutionze the field. We’re asking for a more nuanced discussion that acknowledges and addresses and doesn’t rationalize or apologize for the whole range of his problematic works and behavior.

  • In fact, people are suggesting, in effect, taking his work off the shelves. Even in the limited comments here it is clear that many people advocate doing that, or at least of minimizing readers’ access to his books.
    There has a been a nuanced discussion of Dr. Seuss for years. The racism in his work, as well as his powerful advocacy for unpopular issues, have been the focus of many articles and books:
    https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2017/01/dr-seuss-protest-icon/515031/
    https://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2013/01/when-dr-seuss-took-on-adolf-hitler/267151/
    https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2017/08/reading-racism-in-dr-seuss/536625/
    https://www.jstor.org/stable/44029446?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents
    https://www.amazon.com/Dr-Seuss-Goes-War-Editorial/dp/1565847040
    If you make the decision, after careful study and thought, that his work and legacy are beyond redemption, you are entitled to do so. If someone disagrees with your assessment, it does not mean that he or she is rationalizing Dr. Seuss’s problems.
    As for those “problematic works and behavior,” I wonder if all the writers whom you champion and hold up as examples don’t also have issues which might be vulnerable to criticism or questions, especially as you are applying the standard not only to their works, but to their lives.
    We all ultimately make judgments about the balance of a person’s or an artist’s achievements and failures, moral and otherwise. It’s important to make them in an informed way. There is a complex history, quite relevant today, of American attitudes during the interwar period, when Geisel/Dr. Seuss was drawing for such leftist periodicals as “PM.” Like today, many Americans were listening to hateful demagogues, and were unconcerned about the suffering of Jews and other people in Europe, as well as people all over Asia victimized by Japanese militarism. That doesn’t mean we should absolve Dr. Seuss of his racism. But it’s unfair to accuse those who credit him for his courage with failing to engage with his bias and racism.

  • I am not a librarian, but a former teacher and current teacher educator. Contrary to popular belief, neither I, nor those who advocate for greater diversity are a “mob” or a “cabal.” I am writing to support my librarian friends who have bravely spoken out here.

    From my perspective, there’s only so many minutes during a school day. Therefore, like librarians, teachers, parents, and caregivers must make choices about which books to read with children.

    Some authors and some books gets lots of time in a child’s reading repertoire. Over the course of their childhood, they’re going to read many books by some authors, and only a few (if any) by others.

    Is there any objective reason why this is the case, save for tradition and nostalgia?

    Why is even having a conversation about what kids are reading, and have been reading for generations — and asking questions about it — seen as violent?

  • Reading a whole book and writing a scathing critique is right. Not reading the book and joining a Twitter dogpile against the author or book is wrong, and so is not speaking out against the dogpile if you’ve read the whole book and written a critique. Deciding not to recommend a single book or books on the basis of read content, and being up front about it, is right. Deciding never to recommend or feature a slew of award-winning and acclaimed liberal authors’ entire bodies of work because their politics or personalities seem insufficiently “woke,” (see commenter Sam Bloom’s tweets from March 12th) is wrong, and so is not speaking up against the practice. Calling for a more nuanced discussion of books is right. Calling for a more nuanced discussion of books while advising people that its no longer necessary to read the whole book to talk about it is wrong. Bringing attention to art or text in a book or the media and explaining why it is racially biased is right, such as what is happening now with the Seuss books. Ignoring the rest of the artist’s work or career and personal progression, such as is now happening in some quarters with the Seuss books, is wrong.

    This is what my students learn in my classroom.

  • Given that the whole post is about providing context when reading Seuss books, I find it in poor taste that a racist image from the Seuss books is included in this post without a caption to provide context.

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