Every Who down in Whoville liked Dr. Seuss a lot. But the Grinch, who lived just north of Whoville — in Cambridge, natch — did not. The Grinch hated Dr. Seuss, and his whole children’s canon. Why wrestle with books when it’s so easy to ban ’em?. . .
OK, you get the point. The beloved children’s book author, and pride of his hometown of Springfield, has come under increasing attack by overzealous scolds poring over his work for the slightest whiff of unwokefulness. Theodor Geisel (his real name) was a man of his times, and some of his drawings don’t hold up well, especially those of Asian-American people from early in his career.
But the adage about throwing the Lorax out with the bathwater applies here. Geisel was a committed anti-Nazi crusader before it was fashionable, and his children’s books were not-so-subtle messages against bigotry, environmental devastation, and nuclear war. To lump Geisel in with the racists he fought against is to pervert a history that is often far less politically correct than some would like it to be. And turning him away from school libraries, as a local librarian did recently, would deprive children of a joyful and creative mind while sending a chilling message of censorship.
Late last month, a librarian at a Cambridge public school rejected 10 Dr. Seuss books sent to her school by first lady Melania Trump to celebrate National Read a Book Day. The librarian, Liz Phipps Soeiro, wrote that the school wouldn’t be keeping the titles because Dr. Seuss is a “tired and worn ambassador for children’s literature” and his work is “steeped in racist propaganda, caricatures, and harmful stereotypes.” Instead, Phipps Soeiro offered the first lady an alternate list of 10 more worthwhile picture books and writers, including lesser-known authors who write about the immigrant experience and depict children standing up to racism and kids challenging “society’s social constraints.”
Cambridge distanced itself from the rejection — rightly. It’s peculiar indeed when librarians clamor to act as censors, a role they’re usually fighting instead.
Then, a few weeks later, three children’s book authors objected to a mural in Springfield d epicting one of Dr. Seuss’s most controversial characters from his first book, “And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street.” According to the authors, the mural features a “jarring racial stereotype of a Chinese man, who is depicted with chopsticks, a pointed hat, and slanted slit eyes.” After their protests, The Amazing World of Dr. Seuss, the Springfield museum that honors his prolific career, said it would remove the mural.
That was a reasonable response: Without context, the mural’s imagery was offensive. When it comes to the books themselves, though, the best strategy is for teachers, museums, and parents to do their jobs by helping children understand their context, and, if necessary, steering kids away from literature they aren’t old enough to comprehend. But to caricature Dr. Seuss as a bigot, and to condemn his books on the basis of a tendentious overreaction, is as grinchy as it gets.