Comparatively obscure works

Should we be furious about Dr. Seuss, or elated, or neither?

On Tuesday, the publishing imprint Dr. Seuss Enterprises announced that it would cease publishing six books by Dr. Seuss that include offensive images. In the statement, which was published on the author’s birthday, the publisher said it reached its decision after working with a panel of experts, including educators, in the service of its mission “of supporting all children and families with messages of hope, inspiration, inclusion, and friendship.”

The six shelved books are all comparatively obscure works in the Seuss canon: And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry StreetIf I Ran the Zoo, McElligot’s Pool, On Beyond Zebra!, Scrambled Eggs Super!, and The Cat’s Quizzer. Beloved classics like The Cat in the Hat and Oh, the Places You’ll Go! remain untouched. But the decision, which caused enormous uproar across the right-wing infosphere, is part of a larger debate raging across the children’s literature community.

The thing is, though, books go out of print all the time. Were people thinking all books, once published, stay in print forever? If so, get out your hankies: they don’t. Most books don’t stay in print long.

That includes relatively unpopular books by authors whose more popular books are still in print. It happens.

For decades, the works of Dr. Seuss (real name Theodor Seuss Geisel) have been considered both iconic childhood classics and bastions of liberalism. They are lauded for their celebration of all that makes us different, and Seuss books like Horton Hears a Who and The Sneetches appear frequently in anti-racism curricula for children.

But in recent years, the Dr. Seuss brand name has lost some of its shine. Read Across America Day, an annual day of programming designed by the National Education Association to get kids excited to read, is traditionally held on or around March 2, Geisel’s birthday. It usually features a lot of Cat in the Hat paraphernalia and other beloved Seuss branding. But when the NEA’s contract with Dr. Seuss Enterprises ran out in 2018, it chose not to renew the terms, leading to a lot less Dr. Seuss merch getting distributed to different schools. And this year, the NEA has pivoted away from Dr. Seuss entirely. Instead, it’s using Read Across America Day to spotlight children’s books by authors of color.

That’s not the end of the world. Variety is good. Give other books a turn. That’s fine.

And now Dr. Seuss Enterprises has decided to cease publishing six of Dr. Seuss’s books, all of which include racist caricatures.

Notably, in If I Ran the Zoo, the narrator declares his intention to put a “chieftain” (illustrated as a man in a turban) on display in the zoo; a pair of African characters are portrayed as monkeys; and a group of Asian characters, described as “helpers who all wear their eyes at a slant” from “countries no one can spell” carry a caged animal on their heads. The other books contain similar Orientalist caricatures.

Well, you know, there’s not really any pressing reason a publisher has to keep publishing those books. Publishers stop publishing particular books all the time, that’s just how publishing works. If the reason is not just “not all that popular any more” but also “also racist” then so be it.

Times change. Racist caricatures used to be normal, and that wasn’t a good thing. Lots of things used to be normal that shouldn’t have been.

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