Children understand Dr Seuss better than intolerant adults ever will

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If I Ran A Zoo by Dr Seuss, one of six of his books ceasing publication in the US - Reuters
If I Ran A Zoo by Dr Seuss, one of six of his books ceasing publication in the US - Reuters

“No no!” squeal the pet fish in Dr Seuss's Cat in the Hat. “These Things should not be in our house. Make them go!” Alas, it sounds as though Seuss himself might soon be unwelcome in houses across America. On Tuesday Seuss's publishers announced that six of the 40 or so books he wrote for children will no longer be published because they “portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong”. On the same day, President Biden conspicuously failed to include Dr Seuss in his proclamation for Read Across America day, held, ironically, each year on the author's birthday. (The books nonetheless shot up the Amazon bestseller lists soon after the announcement.)

The deliciously madcap stories of the writer-illustrator Dr Seuss, the non de plume of Theodor Seuss Geisel, are embedded as deep in the American psyche as the stories of Enid Blyton and Roald Dahl are in this country. He has been the face of Read Across America for 20 years and his rhyming classic The Cat in the Hat, about a feline lord of misrule who creates havoc in the house of two bored children, revolutionised children's storytelling when it was published in 1957.

Millions of children who might otherwise have ploughed joylessly through Peter and Jane have enthusiastically learned to read through the phonic-friendly comic surrealism of Seuss instead, my daughter included.

Yet concern has been growing for years over the racial imagery in some of his books. The Cat himself has been accused of drawing on black face and minstrel culture, thanks to the way he resembles a crudely depicted black character entertaining white people. Dr Seuss Enterprises, which publishes the Dr Seuss back catalogue, have declined to give specific reasons for the six books that will soon disappear from bookshops, but they include If I Ran The Zoo (1950) which contains illustrations of shoeless Africans in grass skirts, and And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street (1937) which includes equally stereotypical depictions of Japanese characters.

A 2019 study concluded that only two percent of non human characters in Dr Seuss's children's books were people of colour, and that all were “depicted through racist caricatures”. Moreover the anti Japanese sentiments in Geisel's earlier work as a political cartoonist in the 1930s (for which he later partially apologised, saying the images reflected “snap judgements”) reinforce the growing perception of Dr Seuss, despite the antic, life affirming eccentricity of his books, as an author containing opinions incompatible with 21st century values.

Theodor Seuss Geisel, aka Dr Seuss, in 1957 - Getty
Theodor Seuss Geisel, aka Dr Seuss, in 1957 - Getty

There has always been a particular cultural squeamishness about the appropriateness or otherwise of children's literature. In America such squeamishness is usually directed at perceived sexual content: my favourite example of this at its most hysterical is the Wisconsin town that banned James and the Giant Peach for containing the dangerously suggestive line about the spider licking its lips. The Christian far right have seen off the magic stories of JK Rowling and Philip Pullman (conversely in this country, CS Lewis's Narnia chronicles attract controversy for being too Christian).

But the big lightening rod is race, not least because a severe imbalance still persists in children's literature regarding the representation of characters of colour. Debate rages back and forth about the attitudes and depictions of race in Huckleberry Finn, and the references to Native Americans in Little House of the Prairie.

In this country The Story of Little Black Sambo, written in 1899 by the Scottish author Helen Bannerman, and about an encounter between a South Indian boy and four tigers, has been extensively revised following concerns over its simplistic visual and textual depiction of Sambo himself.

Famous Five author Enid Blyton, with her daughters Gillian and Imogen - Getty
Famous Five author Enid Blyton, with her daughters Gillian and Imogen - Getty

Revising a book to reflect contemporary values is one thing – although it's not always successful: an attempt by the publishers Hatchette to modernise some of the old fashioned language and attitudes to gender in Enid Blyton was reversed six years later after the changes proved unpopular. But while the illustrations in question in Dr Seuss are unquestionably offensive, to ban the books outright is yet another example of our deplorable puritanical zeal for condemning a work of art produced decades ago because it contains values that contradict the ones we hold now.

The oft trotted out argument that “attitudes were different then” may have become a hackneyed means of excusing the crime, but where children are concerned, the fact that attitudes were indeed different back then can be an invaluable tool for teaching them about the historical roots of injustice. Confronting difficult or uncomfortable subjects in stories is a crucial part of a child's development.

Understanding the flaws and deficiencies in a story, while also being given permission to enjoy the story as a whole, gives children a valuable critical ability to put the information they receive in context, and to deepen their awareness accordingly.

Dr Seuss's The Cat In the Hat
Dr Seuss's The Cat In the Hat

Moreover, school age children are much more alert to inequality and stereotype than we tend to give them credit. Point out to a white child that a picture of an African in a grass skirt is wrong and they may well tell you why. My seven year old daughter adores Enid Blyton but that doesn't stop her from angrily exclaiming each time poor Anne is the one clearing away the picnic or being told by her brothers that adventures are not for girls.

The bigger problem, though, is that to ban books because they contain an image or a sentence that is offensive is to risk entering an ideological endgame. Do we start parsing stories for negative references to people on the basis of gender, sexuality, class, economic status, physical and intellectual abilities as well as race, and ban them too? Such a morally fundamentalist approach seems to misunderstand what many readers already know, including children: that we read books to understand the human condition, not to see a perfected world view reflected back at us.

Our fervour for sanctioning only books that conform exactly to the standards of our particular moment, rather than recognising them as documents of a historical period to which we are all connected, and often even complicit in, badly devalues both our cultural heritage and our understanding of our place within it.

The irony with Dr Seuss is that his children's books are parables for acceptance and understanding. They champion the underdog, the outsider, those without a voice and those who are different. Most of all, their sheer unbridled anarchy and absurdity encourage children to question perceived wisdom.

So, rather than banning books, far better to explain to your child why a certain illustration or character description in a much loved tale is hurtful or wrong. Then get on and enjoy the story.