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Dr. Seuss museum will take down mural after authors threaten to boycott festival

Steven Senne/associated press/file

The Dr. Seuss Museum in Springfield.

By Danny McDonald Globe Staff 

The Amazing World of Dr. Seuss Museum in Springfield plans to remove a mural of a Chinese character after three authors said they would boycott a children’s book festival because the image reinforced racial stereotypes.

Mike Curato, Mo Willems, and Lisa Yee said the mural from Seuss’ first book, “And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street,” features a “jarring racial stereotype of a Chinese man, who is depicted with chopsticks, a pointed hat, and slanted slit eyes.”

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“We find this caricature of ‘the Chinaman’ deeply hurtful, and have concerns about children’s exposure to it,” the authors said in the letter posted Thursday on Twitter.

The book, published in 1937, was set on Mulberry Street in Springfield, the hometown of writer Theodor Geisel, better known as the children’s author and illustrator Dr. Seuss.

The museum, which opened in June, is located blocks from the actual street.

In a statement Thursday night, museum spokeswoman Karen Fisk said the museum “listened to the concerns voiced by the authors and fans” and plans to replace the mural “with a new image that reflects the wonderful characters and messages from Dr. Seuss’ later works.”

“This is what Dr. Seuss would have wanted us to do,” Fisk said in the statement.

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The statement acknowledged that some of Dr. Seuss’ earlier works contained “hurtful stereotypes.”

“His later books, like ‘The Sneetches’ and ‘Horton Hears a Who,’ showed a great respect for fairness and diversity,” Fisk said in the statement.

Mark Murray

Three authors said this mural features a “jarring racial stereotype of a Chinese man, who is depicted with chopsticks, a pointed hat, and slanted slit eyes.”

The children’s authors who had criticized the mural stated they were boycotting an upcoming book festival at the museum because of their concerns.

The inaugural Children’s Literature Festival was scheduled for Oct. 14 but was canceled earlier this week, the museum said.

According to the museum’s website, Curato, Willems, and Yee were the only children’s authors slated to appear at the event.

Fisk declined to say whether the trio’s boycott prompted organizers to nix the festivities.

“I can only say we’ve canceled the festival,” Fisk said during a brief phone interview Thursday night.

However, after the museum announced it would remove the mural, the authors issued a second statement, saying they were heartened by that decision, and offered to appear at the museum as previously planned.

“Your organization’s choice will help create an institution that welcomes all children,” the statement said. .

It was unclear if the museum would accept that offer. Messages left with the museum were not returned Thursday night.

Earlier on Thursday, Fisk said in an e-mail that museum officials offered to meet with the three authors in person to “engage in dialogue and they declined.”

“We are presently exploring ways to help guide parents and teachers in addressing this issue with children and pupils,” Fisk wrote in the e-mail.

The children’s authors, two of whom are Asian-American, were concerned the image could damage “not only Asian-American children, but also non-Asian kids who absorb this caricature and could associate it with all Asians or their Asian neighbors and classmates.”

“While this image may have been considered amusing to some when it was published 80 years ago, it is obviously offensive in 2017 (the year the mural was painted),” the authors wrote in their statement.

Messages left with Curato, Willems, and Yee were not returned Thursday night.

The museum opened earlier this year and is dedicated to the life and work of Geisel, who was born in Springfield in 1904.

In a letter to the three authors, Kay Simpson, the president of the Springfield Museum and the Dr. Seuss National Memorial Sculpture Garden, said she hoped parents and educators would use “the evolution of Dr. Seuss, including the mural of Mulberry Street . . . as a teachable moment for children in their charge.” She referred to Dr. Seuss as a “product of his era” whose attitudes “evolved over time.”

“We take the concerns you shared with us very seriously as it is our mutual goal to educate and delight children,” she said in the letter.

She also said the museum does not alter or edit an artist’s work.

But one children’s literature expert found that comment odd.

Philip Nel, a Kansas State University literature professor who has studied Seuss, noted the author responded to criticism of the image by altering the man’s pigtails and yellow skin color, and changed the text from “Chinaman” to “Chinese man.”

He encouraged the museum to face Dr. Seuss’ politics “openly and honestly.”

“Seuss did progressive, antiracist work; he also recycled stereotypes in his work,” said Nel in his e-mail. “There’s much to admire in Dr. Seuss, as well as much that we should view more critically. The Dr. Seuss Museum is the perfect place to have these conversations.”

The authors who threatened to boycott the festival acknowledged that Dr. Seuss’ career arc is a “story of growth.”

They said he went from accepting the “baser racial stereotypes of the times in his early career, to challenging those divisive impulses.”

The authors also pushed for the museum to provide more context to the mural, stating it is “hard to fathom this institution’s contention that it has no obligation to the myriad of children . . . who might be led to think that this form of racism is acceptable by featuring it in the main hall of their museum without comment.”

It’s the second time in recent days the museum has found itself attached to a Dr. Seuss-related controversy.

Late last month, Springfield Mayor Domenic J. Sarno invited President Trump and Melania Trump to check out The Amazing World of Dr. Seuss Museum, after a Cambridge librarian refused to accept Dr. Seuss books sent to her school by Melania Trump for National Read a Book Day.

In a blog post, Liz Phipps Soeiro, a library media specialist at the Cambridgeport School, called Dr. Seuss, “a “tired and worn ambassador for children’s literature” and said the illustrations featured in his pages are “steeped in racist propaganda, caricatures, and harmful stereotypes.”


Globe correspondent James Sullivan and Steve Annear of the Globe staff contributed to this report Danny McDonald can be reached at daniel.mcdonald@globe.com
Follow him on Twitter @Danny__McDonald.