For many schools and parents across the country, March 2 is known as Dr. Seuss Day. The day is normally a celebration of popular children’s writer Dr. Seuss (a.k.a. Theodor Seuss Geisel). It’s also Read Across America Day, an initiative set by the National Education Association. The two used to go hand-in-hand, but not so much anymore. This year, the name Seuss has largely been removed from the celebration, in part because of the author’s use of racist and anti-Semitic tropes in some of his books.
While the rhyming books are a perennial favorite among children and their parents (we’ll be heartbroken when our kid grows out of their love for The Cat in the Hat), the legacy of Dr. Seuss has long been problematic, prompting a rebranding of the literary holiday in classrooms across the country.
In fact, some school districts have gone as far as to remove the author from this week’s celebrations all together. Loudoun County Public Schools (LCPS) in Virginia has announced that they won’t be using any of the Seuss books to promote reading this week.
“Research in recent years has revealed strong racial undertones in many books written/illustrated by Dr. Seuss,” according to a statement released by LCPS. “Given this research, and LCPS’ focus on equity and culturally responsive instruction, LCPS provided this guidance to schools during the past couple of years to not connect Read Across America Day exclusively with Dr. Seuss’ birthday.”
The statement linked to a School Library Journal article from 2018 that discusses the NEA and the re-focusing of Read Across America “on Diversity Not Dr. Seuss.”
Even the president has stepped back from associating the writer with this week’s mission for literacy, removing any mention of Dr. Seuss from his Read Across America Day presidential proclamation, according to USA Today.
Read Across America Day has been tied to the Green Eggs and Ham author’s birthday since 1997, when the NEA partnered with Dr. Seuss Enterprises, the company that manages the late author’s literary estate, to get more kids interested in reading. Over the years the day has turned into a week, and many schools have turned it into an opportunity to showcase Seuss’ most popular work.
Which is, perhaps, how his collection has fallen under so much scrutiny. In 2019, a study from the Conscious Kid’s Library and the University of California (San Diego) reviewed 50 books and 2,200 characters created by Dr. Seuss. Of those studied, they found that only 2 percent of the characters represented “characters of color,” and of those, 43 percent had Orientalist depictions, and two aligned “with the theme of anti-Blackness.” CNN reported on Tuesday, which would have been the author’s 117th birthday, that Dr. Seuss Enterprise will no longer be publishing titles like 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 due to the racist and anti-Semitic portrayal of some of the book’s characters.
So, how do we celebrate Dr. Seuss and Read Across America Day while rejecting racism?
We start by doing this, having a conversation about why some of the author’s work is problematic and talk about how those perceptions still exist in some places. We do it by doing away with the rush to be “color blind” and have actual conversations about race in America — where we were when these books were written, where we are now, and where we want to be. Maybe we read Langston Hughes’ Lullaby for a Black Mother on the same night as Fox in Socks. And we do it by making sure books published by white men in the 1950s aren’t the only ones we revere.
Some may choose to avoid his books altogether, others will pick and choose with context. This is the beauty of having so much rich children’s literature available to us today.
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To start, we can focus on books like these that star girls of color: