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Dr. Seuss is not canceled — but six of his books are being shelved over racist images

Dr. Seuss hasn’t aged well.

The late Theodor Seuss Geisel, aka Dr. Seuss, was born 117 years ago this Tuesday. And his March 2 birthday has become synonymous with Read Across America Day, which encourages kids to embrace books and foster a love of reading. 

But the 2021 celebration is shaping up to look a little differently, and not just because COVID-19 has millions of kids learning remotely. It’s because Dr. Seuss Enterprises, the entertainment company that manages the late writer’s estate, has decided to stop publishing six of Geisel’s books that feature racist and insensitive imagery. They include: “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.”

Dr. Seuss Enterprises explained in a statement released on Tuesday that its mission is to support all children and families with “messages of hope, inspiration, inclusion, and friendship.” And after working with a panel of experts, which included educators, it decided to cease licensing and publishing those particular titles. 

“These books portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong,” the company said.

The problematic pictures, which were flagged in a 2019 study published in the journal “Research on Diversity in Youth Literature,” include a Japanese character referred to as “a Japanese” in “The Cat’s Quizzer” drawn with a bright yellow face and standing on what appears to be Mount Fuji. In “If I Ran a Zoo,” a white man says he is going to put a person of color wearing a turban on display in his zoo.

In fact, the researchers paged through 50 Dr. Seuss books, and found that 43 out of 45 characters of color had “characteristics aligning with the definition of Orientalism.” What’s more, the two “African” characters drawn in these books displayed anti-Black characteristics, often with men of color presented in “subservient, exotified, or dehumanized roles,” according to the report.  

Between that news and some places distancing Read Across America Day from the author that helped inspire it, concern that Dr. Seuss was being “canceled” began trending on Twitter
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on Tuesday as some people would not, could not, accept the beloved author getting shelved in any way — including this conservative commentator:

But the situation is a lot more nuanced than many 280-character tweets can convey.

First, some outlets have reported that, unlike former Presidents Donald Trump and Barack Obama, President Biden did not mention Dr. Seuss in his presidential proclamation for “Read Across America Day.” 

It should be noted, however, that Biden didn’t mention any individual author in his proclamation. “For countless Americans, the path to literacy begins with story time in their school classroom,” he wrote in a statement that broadly encouraged reading.

Last week, reports also surfaced that Loudoun County Public Schools in Virginia had banned Dr. Seuss books. But the school district clarified in a statement on Feb. 27 that Dr.Seuss books are still available in its libraries and classes, and students can freely check them out. The school had simply decided to distance Read Across America Day from Dr. Seuss’s birthday due to the “strong racial undertones” in some of the books that he wrote and illustrated.

And in fact, the National Education Association began advising educators to put more focus on diversity during Read Across America, and to move away from making the reading day synonymous with Dr. Seuss, years ago. “It’s critical that all students see themselves represented in the popular culture,” the NEA president said in 2018, when the organization had author Jesse Holland read an excerpt from his novel “Black Panther” to kick off the book-happy holiday.

It remains to be seen what pulling those six Dr. Seuss titles will do for the rhyming writer’s brand. But the late author’s estate isn’t hurting at the moment: It managed to rake in $33 million in 2020 thanks to on-screen adaptations like “Green Eggs and Ham” for Netflix
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and a three-movie Warner Bros. deal featuring characters from “The Cat in the Hat” as well as the world of “Oh, the Places You’ll go!” In fact, Dr. Seuss is Forbes’ second-highest paid dead celebrity behind Michael Jackson — another case of a late, popular artist whose catalog is overshadowed by serious allegations against the individual who created it. 

Indeed, Dr. Seuss Enterprises pulling some of Geisel’s most offensive works while continuing to promote iconic titles like “Green Eggs and Ham” is just the latest example of a popular property facing renewed scrutiny amid our ongoing reckoning with race and representation. For example, Disney
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films like “Dumbo” and “Peter Pan,” which kids have grown up watching for decades, have also been called out for depicting racist stereotypes. So Disney+ has added disclaimers to these and some of its other classic films on its streaming service, warning that they “may contain outdated cultural depictions.” 

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