More than 30 years have passed, but I remember our encounter vividly. I was living in St. Louis and had just dropped off my 6-year-old at his art class. While he painted and drew and made homemade paper, I took his 2-year-old brother to the library across the street. As was our habit, I grabbed a pile of books, plopped down on some soft furniture, and began to read to him for an hour.
On such days, books by Dr. Seuss were often among our selections. I was a budding poet then, and would tell anyone who asked that my favorite poets were Henry Dumas, Smokey Robinson, and Seuss. I grew up on his titles, which had popped regularly through the mail slot as offerings from a book club for beginning readers. As a young adult, I was fond of reciting passages from his work with as much enthusiasm as other literary folks in my community quoted Langston Hughes or Gwendolyn Brooks. I, too, liked to spout a line or two from the former’s “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” or the latter’s “We Real Cool.” But I also loved invoking Yertle the Turtle’s grandiose bellows (“I’m Yertle the Turtle!” “Oh, marvelous me!”) or a favorite rhyme from Dr. Seuss’s ABC: “Big J, little J, what begins with J? Jerry Jordan’s jelly jar and jam begin that way.”
At the library, my son and I chose “If I Ran the Zoo.” Like all Seuss books, the tale of an ambitious young boy named Gerald McGrew was a delight to read out loud. “If you want to catch beasts you don’t see every day,” Gerald advises, “You have to go to places quite out-of-the-way.”
Our father-son bonding time continued pleasantly until Gerald went hunting “in the mountains of Zomba-ma-Tant/ With helpers who all wear their eyes at a slant.” The unflattering images of supposedly Asian characters matched the offensiveness of Seuss’s language. In some respects, they differed little in sentiment from the anti-Japanese images Seuss had created during World War II, but I didn’t yet know about those. Flummoxed and not wanting to alarm my son, I made some excuse and quickly diverted his attention to another book.
Later I got the opportunity to examine “If I Ran the Zoo” privately. The protagonist’s quest to build the perfect zoo eventually takes him to “the African island of Yerka” to “bring back a tizzle-topped Tufted Mazurka.” Unlike the Zomba-ma-Tant passage, the rhyme is innocuous enough. The images, though. The googly-eyed, ring-nosed “Africans” resembled characters in a Reconstruction-era cartoon. Looking back, I’m not surprised that it was included among six books Seuss Enterprises has decided to discontinue.
To my regret, I didn’t report my experience to the library staff. I’m averse to the banning of offensive material; it’s often useful to scholars, policymakers, and regular citizens who prefer to decide for themselves. (And it’s important to note that the Seuss books in question have not been banned.) But I do believe it has no place on the picture-book shelf in a community library. I hope that the New York Public Library and other institutions planning to keep them on shelves will store them behind a desk, available upon request. A child allowed to roam freely and stumble upon racist material may seem like a minor scenario, unless it’s your child.
Like any author, Seuss should be faulted for his missteps, which in these examples are indefensible. He should nonetheless continue to be saluted for the instances in which he spread the joy of reading without resorting to caricature or insult. If admiration of his better books eventually proves outdated, they will properly diminish in significance. Unlike my generation, young readers have a wider variety of choices, and if publishers are smart (that’s a big if, I know), they will provide them with even more. I’m heartened by efforts like Versify, an imprint curated by rhyming author Kwame Alexander, and the flourishing of young-adult novels written in verse, such as the forthcoming “Me (Moth)” by Amber McBride.
In the meantime, our neighbors claiming an irresistible nostalgia for Seuss’s racist works needn’t venture as far as a library. They can just turn to YouTube, where multiple read-alongs of each can be accessed via a click of the mouse.
Jabari Asim, a professor of creative writing at Emerson College, is the author of many children’s books. Some of them rhyme.