Theodor Geisel, known by millions worldwide as Dr. Seuss, was born on March 2, 1904. Over a hundred years later, educators still celebrate Dr. Suess’ legacy in the month of March. Recently, some of his work has come under scrutiny for insensitive racial caricatures. Should we still be sharing his work with children? Or should he be retired once and for all?
I like to think I know more about Dr. Seuss than the average person. I wrote a term paper on his life and work, and pored over several nonfiction books detailing his career. Judith and Neil Morgan’s Dr. Seuss & Mr. Geisel is one of the most thoroughly researched and thoughtfully crafted biographies I’ve ever read, illustrating his humanity with all its highs and lows. And, for what it’s worth, I also had every word of Seussical the Musical memorized. (Senior year. I was Yertle the Turtle.)
In 2021, Dr. Seuss Enterprises decided to stop printing six books: 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. The news was met with a wide variety of reactions. Some called to cancel Dr. Seuss entirely, and others raged against a perceived attack on their beloved childhood favorites. Neither extreme is particularly helpful.
Interestingly, all of these books besides The Cat’s Quizzer follow the same loose structure. They pick a framing device, and then go on a rollicking journey of the imagination with no real plot to speak of. Having read these books, I get the sense that Geisel wasn’t intentionally trying to cause harm—his outlandish stories stretch across the globe and beyond into whimsical fabrications. Caricatures are a sort of shorthand, and he used the ones common in his era to depict various types of people. They have aged very badly.
While the estate has erred on the side of caution and chosen not to perpetuate harmful stereotypes, there are still plenty of other fun and fanciful Dr. Seuss books to enjoy. From an archival perspective, it is a bit of shame—And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street was Dr. Seuss’ debut picture book, and McElligot’s Pool is the only Dr. Seuss book illustrated in watercolor. But these six books are not the most popular Dr. Seuss books, and will probably fade away peaceably as existing copies succumb to wear and tear.
Before he broke into the kid’s lit scene, Geisel had a career in commercial illustration and advertising (notably for “Flit” insecticide). During World War II, he drew cartoons for a liberal newspaper called PM. These cartoons, many of them anti-Japanese, are often cited in arguments against his books’ continued use in the contemporary classroom. Dr. Seuss & Co. go to War is a collection of Geisel’s political work. It’s true that he uses racial stereotypes, and his work is rightly called propaganda. As a German-American, he probably had to endure some measure of racial profiling himself. I say this not to absolve him, but to provide context for his work.
As we move towards a truly equitable society, things that were once deemed “acceptable” are reevaluated as harmful or offensive. We can’t expect creators from decades ago to meet our modern standards. As we’ve been noticing recently, almost all classic literature would have to be completely snuffed for one reason or another. There is still value in flawed and dated work, and learning how to evaluate the good along with the bad is a valuable critical thinking skill. It is important to recognize that even our most celebrated heroes–like Dr. Seuss–are humans, living and creating from a specific culture and mindset. I think that his other books still deserve their place in the classroom.
Furthermore, Dr. Seuss wasn’t just any old author. He created a new category of books from scratch. “Easy Reader” books as we know them began with The Cat in the Hat. Geisel proved that books limited to single-syllable words and simple rhymes could be fun and engaging. He revolutionized early literacy. That his groundbreaking easy readers are still in print today is a testimony to their undeniable effectiveness as a learning tool.
Geisel’s contributions to literacy and education are unparalleled, even after all these years. His stories abound with an untamable creative spirit that resonates with young readers, and his illustrative style is so distinct that no one has ever come close to replicating it. His books are successful for a reason.
Theodor Geisel died in 1991—over 30 years ago. His wife, Audrey, managed his estate until her death in 2018. It’s one thing if a creator is actively producing new material that conveys a harmful message or reinforces racial stereotypes, and profiting from it. But Geisel’s work carries on without him as an undeniably impressive legacy. Every piece of media is created in a specific social environment, and the older it gets the more removed we are from that context. I hope that readers today will view Dr. Seuss’ work with grace.
Cohen, Charles D. The Seuss, the Whole Seuss, and Nothing but the Seuss (available through SearchOhio)
Geisel, Theodor. The Secret Art of Dr. Seuss (availbable through SearchOhio)
Marschall, Richard. The Tough Coughs as he Ploughs the Dough: Early Writings and Cartoons by Dr. Seuss (available through SearchOhio). Republished as Just What the Doctor Disordered.
Morgan, Judith & Neil. Dr. Seuss & Mr. Geisel (available through SearchOhio)
Schiffrin, André. Dr. Seuss & Co. go to War