OPINION: Why schools should rethink Dr. Seuss

Parent says racist imagery in Dr. Seuss books shouldn’t be centerpiece of celebration of reading
A display of Dr. Seuss books.

Credit: WFTV.com

Credit: WFTV.com

A display of Dr. Seuss books.

Charis Granger-Mbugua graduated Cobb County Schools, where her young son is now a student. In this guest column, Granger-Mbugua, a National Board Certified teacher and Spelman graduate, discusses whether Dr. Seuss books are appropriate for her son and other children, given the stereotyping and treatment of people of color in some of them. A 2019 study found only 2% of the Dr. Seuss human characters were people of color, and they were reduced to racist caricatures.

Granger-Mbugua’s column addresses Tuesday’s Read Across America Day, which many schools celebrate. Dr. Seuss books have been a mainstay of the popular event, launched by the National Education Association in 1997 to foster reading.

Marked by readathons and dressing up as a favorite character, the event is held on March 2 to mark the birthday of Theodor Seuss Geisel, who, under the pen name Dr. Seuss, wrote such popular children’s books as “The Cat in the Hat,” “Horton Hears a Who,” “Oh, the Places You’ll Go!,and “Green Eggs and Ham.” However, the NEA now focuses Read Across America Day on diversity in children’s literature, a shift that many schools have followed.

By Charis Granger-Mbugua

Nearly seven years ago, when I was pregnant with my first child, and filled with all the wonder and anticipation of an inexperienced mom-to-be, I was gifted a lovely hard cover collection of Dr. Seuss “classics” by a dear co-worker and friend. From “How the Grinch Stole Christmas to “The Cat in the Hat,this anthology of Seuss favorites struck me as a thoughtful and generous gift, as we were both high school English teachers, with a shared love of language, literature, and reading. I was eager, as is to be expected of any new mom, to read to my soon-to-be-born baby, a boy, and Dr. Seuss’ famous and well-known stories seemed a wonderful start. I proudly displayed the book on a shelf in his nursery and, though I rarely pulled it down to read, I always thought it a beautiful addition to my son’s personal library.

Little did I know, at the time, and honestly, even up until recently, the racist and damaging history of Dr. Seuss and his work, which included many famous children’s stories, illustrations, and minstrel shows. I am inclined to believe that the friend who gave me the book was also ignorant of the harmful and destructive stereotypes Seuss used.

Over the last few weeks, however, I have found myself learning about just how problematic Dr. Seuss and his books are, especially for children who are Black, Indigenous and people of color. Perhaps, I am more attentive now that my son is in elementary school and I want and expect his exposure to diverse and uplifting authors and stories to continue in the classroom. Perhaps, it is because our country is paying acute attention, in the wake of last summer’s social justice protests, to issues of injustice and systemic racism.

Regardless of why, it has been both shocking and truly disheartening to learn that Dr. Seuss held racist and xenophobic beliefs. Black and African characters in his books are often depicted as monkeys and apes, while Asian characters are said to be “helpers that all wear their eyes at a slant” from “countries no one can spell.” (Refer to Seuss’ children’s book “If I Ran the Zoo” to see these examples). Seuss also wrote racist propaganda against Japanese during World War II.

The character of the Cat, in “The Cat in the Hat, according to well-known research done by college professor Philip Nel, an expert in children’s literature, was based on varying influences, including a black woman who worked as an elevator operator in the building of Seuss’ publisher, as well as stereotypes of black culture, blackface performers, and minstrel shows used as entertainment for white viewers.

Charis Granger-Mbugua

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I understand that Theodor Seuss Geisel was a product of his times. Born in 1904, Dr. Seuss started his career with the publication of his first book in 1934 during a time when our country still viewed people of color as inferior, before the civil rights movement created sweeping political and legislative changes, and before Dr. King gave his famous, “I Have a Dream Speech.”

I also recognize there are many people who are against this notion of “cancel culture” --who argue the recent surge in voices speaking up against injustice and systemic oppression are just those who wish to do away with beautiful relics of our country’s history and past.

But racism, bigotry, and hatred should never be celebrated, even in the writing of some of our most celebrated authors. There are too many other stories to be told, voices to be heard, and books to be read that are just as capable as any by Dr. Seuss to inspire young minds and reflect all readers.

According to research done by the nonprofit education, research, and policy organization the Conscious Kid in 2018 , “100% of the characters of color in the 50 Dr. Seuss children’s books we studied are portrayed through subservience, dehumanization, exotification, stereotype and/or caricature…98% of the characters are white. The books are narrated by white characters and white characters have all the speaking roles. Characters of color remain silent…” These statistics are not reflective of the modern classroom.

As the country gears up for National Read Across America Day on Tuesday, Dr. Seuss’ birthday, I want to encourage school districts across the state, including the Cobb County School District (where my son is a student), administrators, and teachers to truly reconsider and maybe even do away with its emphasis on Dr. Seuss.

Instead, let us use this day to broaden our literary repertoire and dig into stories and children’s books that highlight diverse characters, that illuminate diverse authors, and that truly allow our students—all of our students—to see themselves reflected in healthy, positive, and uplifting ways. Because conversely, when children do not see themselves reflected in the books they read, they lose the invaluable opportunity to grow their own confidence and self-worth.

Though I may be late, I am willing to admit that I was ignorant to the truth of Dr. Seuss’ writings until recently. I have unknowingly read many of his books to my own children. But now that I am better informed, I am committed to advocating for change.

Because when we know better, we should do better.

NOTE: For books that celebrate diversity and are comparable to many of Seuss’ most famous books, the blog Teach for the Change has put together a fantastic list of texts to choose from. Find it here.