Controversy in Kid Lit: Dr. Seuss

Dr. Seuss has been in the news recently. Several children's authors called attention to a "jarring racial stereotype" in one of the illustrations in his book And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street. 

And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street

Just a week earlier, a Massachusetts school librarian got a lot of attention when she criticized Dr. Seuss books in a letter asserting they contain racist caricatures

The Cat in the Hat

This reminded me of a blog post on School Library Journal from 2014 about racist illustrations in Dr. Seuss's If I Ran the Zoo

If I Ran the Zoo

There's also the matter of Dr. Seuss's anti-Japanese World War II political cartoons, which were overtly racist. Earlier this year I read a story about school children in California who wanted to distribute flyers of those cartoons to their classmates. One is quoted as saying, "I hope that people learn that Dr. Seuss was not perfect and that he drew racist cartoons. I also hope that people will learn that everyone has a dark side and that nobody, not even very famous people, are perfect.”

If you're a parent or teacher, you may read all this and start to reconsider how you share certain Dr. Seuss books (as well as other problematic books) with children. Here is some advice from experts:

  • Award-winning children's author Grace Lin shared her thoughts on her blog. She encourages putting racist images in context and reminds us that Dr. Seuss regretted the racism in his early work and tried to promote tolerance in many of his later books. Grace Lin was also featured on PBS News Hour in a segment called "What to Do When You Realize Classic Books From Your Childhood Are Racist."
  • Children's literature scholar Philip Nel said in an interview with The Atlantic, "I think with children you have to have a conversation—you have to ask them critical questions, and you have to invite them to ask critical questions about the book that they are reading. It's a conversation that's going to be uncomfortable, a conversation in which you may have to admit you don't know all the answers."
  • Professor Erin Winkler, author of the article "Children Are Not Colorblind: How Young Children Learn Race" has this advice for parents and teachers: "Although race and racism are difficult topics, it is important to educate ourselves and discuss them with children in an age-appropriate way." 

If you'd like to explore this issue further, check out the booklist Talking to Kids about Race and Racism