Dr. Seuss Books Are Pulled, and a ‘Cancel Culture’ Controversy Erupts

The beloved author’s most famous books, like “Green Eggs and Ham,” were untouched, but his estate’s decision nevertheless prompted a backlash and raised questions about what should be preserved as part of the cultural record.

By Alexandra Alter and Elizabeth A. Harris, The New York Times, March 4, 2021

“If I Ran the Zoo,” “And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street,” “On Beyond Zebra!” and “McElligot’s Pool” were among the six Dr. Seuss books that his estate said “portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong.”
“If I Ran the Zoo,” “And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street,” “On Beyond Zebra!” and “McElligot’s Pool” were among the six Dr. Seuss books that his estate said “portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong.”Credit…Christopher Dolan/The Times-Tribune, via Associated Press

In the summer of 1936, Theodor Geisel was on a ship from Europe to New York when he started scribbling silly rhymes on the ship’s stationery to entertain himself during a storm: “And this is a story that no one can beat. I saw it all happen on Mulberry Street.”

The rhymes morphed into his first children’s book, “And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street,” about a boy who witnesses increasingly outlandish things. First published in 1937, the book started Geisel’s career as Dr. Seuss. He went on to publish more than 60 books that have sold some 700 million copies globally, making him one of the world’s most enduringly popular children’s book authors.

But some aspects of Seuss’s work have not aged well, including his debut, which features a crude racial stereotype of an Asian man with slanted lines for eyes. “Mulberry Street” was one of six of his books that the Seuss estate said it would stop selling this week, after concluding that the egregious racial and ethnic stereotypes in the works “are hurtful and wrong.”

The announcement seemed to drive a surge of support for Seuss classics. Dozens of his books shot to the top of Amazon’s print best-seller list; on Thursday morning, nine of the site’s top 10 best sellers were Seuss books.

The estate’s decision — which prompted breathless headlines on cable news and complaints about “cancel culture” from prominent conservatives — represents a dramatic step to update and curate Seuss’s body of work, acknowledging and rejecting some of his views while seeking to protect his brand and appeal. It also raises questions about whether and how an author’s works should be posthumously curated to reflect evolving social attitudes, and what should be preserved as part of the cultural record.

“It will cause people to re-evaluate the legacy of Dr. Seuss, and I think that’s a good thing,” said Philip Nel, a children’s literature scholar at Kansas State University and the author of “Dr. Seuss: American Icon.” “There are parts of his legacy one should honor, and parts of his legacy that one should not.”

He added: “They may be motivated by the fact that racism is bad for the brand, or they may be motivated by a deeper sense of racial justice.”

“And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street” was the first book Theodor Geisel, right, wrote under the pen name Dr. Seuss. He died in 1991.
“And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street” was the first book Theodor Geisel, right, wrote under the pen name Dr. Seuss. He died in 1991.Credit…Burt Steel/Associated Press

Classic children’s books are perennial best sellers and an important revenue stream for publishers. Last year, more than 338,000 copies of “Green Eggs and Ham” were sold across the United States, according to NPD BookScan, which tracks the sale of physical books at most retailers. “One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish” sold more than 311,000 copies, and “Oh, the Places You’ll Go!” — always popular as a high school graduation gift — sold more than 513,000 copies.

“And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street,” one of the six books pulled by the estate, sold about 5,000 copies last year, according to BookScan. “McElligot’s Pool” and “The Cat’s Quizzer” haven’t sold in years through the retailers BookScan tracks. Putting the merits of the books aside, removing “Green Eggs and Ham” would be a completely different business proposition from doing away with new printings of “McElligot’s Pool.”

Dr. Seuss is perhaps the most beloved children’s book author to come under criticism for outdated and insensitive depictions of racial, ethnic, cultural and gender differences.

……

I agree with Valerie Lewis’s comment included in this article:

Regardless of the content, books go out of print every day if they don’t sell, and indeed, some of the Seuss books would likely be in that category if they had been written by another author. Valerie Lewis, a co-owner of Hicklebee’s bookstore in San Jose, Calif., said that sort of attrition is perfectly sensible, but pulling a book altogether for political reasons makes her uncomfortable.

“I think when there is something in a book that you find offensive, what a great teaching opportunity,” Ms. Lewis said.

“We all have a choice as to whether we buy it or not,” she added, “but removing it kind of makes me want to shake my head.”

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50 comments

  • We live in very strange times. I cringe anytime I hear of another book being banned, but this is just way too much. It seems that they are trying to create a sterile world void of any emotions. Dr. Seuss was a genius! Thanks for sharing, Miriam.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That was my first reaction, Jan. Children should be able to access the world freely with guidance from the parents and teachers and adults rather than being denied the opportunity of such knowledge. I hope they’re not going to pull the Cat in the Hat even though they’re talking about it. Thank you for your comment, Jan!

      Like

  • How wonderful of you to address this issue! None of us want to be called racist or sexist or any other “ist” but are we bad to say almost everything will have to be canceled eventually if we go this route? I think it makes a lot more sense to educate contemporary readers and movie/show watchers about what makes an old book or film sexist and racist. Gone with the wind shows the way people of color were treated in those days – it’s wrong but that’s how it was back then. Make that clear when the film is shown, but don’t cancel it. We can’t cancel the past, but we can learn from it!!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Pam, I agree with you wholeheartedly. Why waste the energy to examine all the literature, movies, shows, and songs, even the history book of old? We all learn from the past, and have different influences, then set our own value.
      I know certain countries rewrite their history books though. But people still have access to universal versions! 🙂
      Thank you for your comment, Pam!!

      Like

  • Hi Miriam. Wow… I saw a headline similar to this. I thought it was either “click bait” or a joke. People continue to amaze me. Stay safe and well. Hugs on the wing.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, I know, Teagan. I don’t think it will make a difference in the long run, with or without those six books. Dr. Seuss has 54 more fun books for the kids.
      All the adults will be vaccinated by the end of May if there’s no obstacles!!
      Have a nice day, Teagan.

      Like

  • I’m probably in the minority here (no pun intended) but feel we tend to jump from one extreme to the other. A few years ago Wiley Coyote was removed from television because of its perceived violence. Kids aren’t dumb, they know what is right and wrong. We need to give them more credit- just my two cents.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I agree with you, Jacquie! I don’t know how I would feel if the racial comments were made against me. I would feel angry.
      Seuss did a lot of political cartoon back in those days. I don’t know if it also affected his children’s books as part of the culture. Was it acceptable back then?
      I’m okay with both – keeping or pulling out the books. If keeping them, I would use them as teaching tools, but they’re not the popular ones that I read to the students or bought them for my granddaughter.

      Now they are pulled out and I don’t think it hurts any of Seuss’s other books.

      Liked by 1 person

  • I actually don’t have an issue with those responsible for Seuss’s legacy pulling the books, just I like have the right to unpublish one of my own books. (I would feel differently perhaps if some outside group was trying to unpublish those books.) Times change, we grow as a world, and some things no longer fit or represent who we want to be. If I was Seuss, I’d want them pulled too so that my legacy as a wonderful writer of whimsical and beautiful books for children was preserved. Cancel culture is a whole other topic that I won’t get into! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think many writers wish to unpublish some early books. Sadly, Amazon doesn’t do that. I saw one book stopped printing but was still listed.

      Among the 60 Seuss’s children’s books, probably I used half of them. I haven’t read these six in concern. I know some people rushed over to buy them but I don’t think I would.
      Cancel culture (erase history) is entirely a different issue. My sister told me that Japan wanted Hong Kong to rewrite the WWII part of the history books for the secondary school. I don’t think they did. But Japan did. The history books came out in year 2020 downplayed the aggression of the Japanese Empire during WWII, and their newer generation never learn what happened. 😦

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yeah, Amazon won’t unpublish some paperbacks because they’re being offered on the used-book market. That will apply to Seuss as well. But I think we can still stop new ones from being produced. And ebooks are easy to unpublish if we want.

        I think “cancel culture” is something that exists through time. The US rarely mentions the genocide of 80 million Native Americans, for example. And of course about 40% of the US citizens wants to cancel the last election. The truth is so important!

        Liked by 1 person

        • I have great respect and passion for the Native Americans. I remember for the Rose Bowl parade here in Pasadena, people protested against the Columbus float one year.
          And the Columbus holiday is now a local holiday instead of a national holiday.

          I also can’t imagine the surviving Jews don’t know their parents and grandparents.

          I hope the former official will be bankrupt with all the debts and won’t last until the next election. But he wants to be active to continue to raise funds!!

          Liked by 1 person

  • I was shocked to see this on the news! Seems our culture goes to extreme on things like this. I am glad he is not around to see all this play out! Signs of our times!

    Liked by 1 person

  • couldn’t agree more! We cannot change history and it’s ridiculous to think that we can! Please feel free to heck out my article about the discontinuation of Dr. Seuss books!
    https://storytimewithbell.wordpress.com/2021/03/07/dr-seuss-books-discontinued/

    Liked by 1 person

  • D.L. Finn, Author

    Good post, Miriam. I’ve been thinking about this, and we can’t undue what has happened, but we can learn from it going forward and talk about it now. If the books weren’t selling this makes sense to do this. I really hope we evolve into a kinder society , everything is a battle and divides us. This is just one more thing.

    Liked by 2 people

  • petespringerauthor

    Talking and reasoning with children are always better than just prohibiting something. What do we think many kids will do when we take something away without discussion? They’re immediately going to go and try to find that thing.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I know exactly what you’re talking about and can’t agree with you more, Pete. My daughter and SIL don’t stop Autumn from going near the oven. They let her stand on a step stool to watch them cooking or let her look into the oven to watch the pizza cooking. But they tell her not to touch or let her wear kitchen mittens. Taking something away or prohibiting to come close to something is not the best way to teach kids.

      Like

  • It is dangerous when a relatively small group of largely unknown people wield enough power in any society that they are able, and do in fact, begin censuring anything and everything that does not fall within their rather tightly drawn ideological boundaries. It not only signals the loss of freedom and liberty but, perhaps even worse, the degeneration of intellectual aptitude. Sad, indeed.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I’m with you, Jonathan. One phrase within this article says they wondered if The Cat in a Hat is a black cat. It’s getting too much to me. When the gender issue came up, certain people objected to using he or she in the textbooks for school children. I can’t think of any language that doesn’t have male or female pronouns. It will be so confusing when we read and don’t know who is doing what or who is speaking.

      Liked by 1 person

  • Hi Miriam, I have been reading about this everywhere. I also worry about censorship with books which seems to be the first step towards restricting human rights, but my son believes that young children of picture book age, are not able to appreciate and understand changing times and attitudes and it is better to amend or remove anything that is controversial.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Robbie, I’m glad you had the conversation with your son and asked what he thought. It’s good for him to voice his opinion. This happened for political reasons. I could look at it from young children, a teacher, and a parent or grandparent’s point of view, but whatever happened, happened. As I observe the people and friends’ families, many of their children have inter-racial marriages. One family with four children, one son, and one daughter have Chinese spouses, that’s 50%. Another two families, their children have black spouses. One family’s daughter even went to Japan to teach and married a Japanese last year. I think children and young people don’t see colors, they only see people.

      Like

  • Reading the figures in your article above, seems like the decision may have been just as much, or more, an economic one. I’m not aware of the books that were pulled other than by title. I don’t think I’ve read them.

    Liked by 1 person

  • I happen to have all six of those books in my home library. My son and his family came over today and we pulled them off the shelf and looked at them. The only one he remembered from his childhood was McElligot’s Pool. We looked through them and did see some questionable racist illustrations. I asked if they wanted me to get rid of them so their kids wouldn’t see them or read them and they said no. If they read them to their children, they will use it as a teachable moment about racial awareness and how history changes things. I believe that is how they should be use. I have no problem that they are no longer being published, but they are not being rounded up and burned either. A lot of discussions are being had around the world, I am sure.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Exactly, Carla. The book about Chinese having slented eyes, using “sticks,” if I were to read this book again to my students, I would ask them to look at me. I have double eyelid and my eyes are not slented. I don’t use chopsticks except eating in a Chinese restaurants.

      We read as part of the literature and history doesn’t mean we promote racism.

      I don’t know if these six books are among the sets I bought for my granddaughter. I don’t have them in my library. Seuss is still a best children’s book author. His high interest, low vocabulary, and funny books got so many kids interested in books and being able to read them.

      Your son’s decision is right. I’m glad he decided to keep those books.

      Liked by 1 person

  • Sad situation all around… However, it is a topic worth discussing. I think that not publishing the Seuss books in question is a good thing, BUT the books should remain part of the Seuss legacy to show us where we were and how far we’ve come in respecting ourselves and all of humanity. MY OPINION ONLY. Thanks for highlighting the debate, Miriam.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I agree with you, Bette. Seuss only wrote those books with no ill intention. Just like any literature which reflects on the cultures of the eras. We have a lot of literature falls in those categories.

      Liked by 1 person

  • I have mixed feelings about it.

    Liked by 1 person

  • This makes me so sad. We should learn from history and move forward to make it a better world rather than try to erase it.

    Like

  • We cannot rewrite history, nor should we try to.

    Liked by 2 people

  • Cancel culture… I don’t know what to say…

    Liked by 2 people

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