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“They’re cancelling Dr. Seuss.”
If you heard something similar and reacted with disbelief or anger or consternation, let me reassure you the story is more complicated, more interesting, and nothing to be exercised over.
Given the white-hot nature of our culture wars, these stories tend to flare into conflagrations where the outrage is outsized and the nuances are lost. Let’s break down what it means when someone declares, “They’re cancelling Dr. Seuss.”
The first step is to dig into what is meant by “canceling” as well as the reason for this alleged cancellation. In this case, it means that six lesser known Dr. Seuss titles 1/4 u2212 the most notable of which is “And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street” – will no longer be published or licensed because they “portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong.”
Those ways include illustrations of Asian and Black characters that are, by any reasonable definition, racist. The illustrations are maybe not as racist as those in “The Story of Little Black Sambo,” another once widely beloved children’s book, but the Dr. Seuss illustrations are clearly intended and received as reductive caricatures.
Existing copies of these books are not going to be rounded up and disposed, but new editions will not be printed.
The second important step is to understand who the “they” is in a given case. Often, these panics are started when a random online person is elevated into an authority with the power to alter policy, rather than being seen as the random online person they are. Criticism from random people online is not de facto cancellation.
In the case of Dr. Seuss, the people making this decision are at Dr. Seuss Enterprises. Because Theodor Geisel passed away in 1991, we cannot declare that this is the author himself making this decision, but it is the next closest thing, the entity in charge of protecting and preserving the legacy of Dr. Seuss. Because they have a desire to perpetuate the work of Dr. Seuss, they are no longer producing books that they believe harm that goal.
This only makes sense. It is tough to remain a beloved children’s author if some of your books are alienating to whole populations of children and parents. The recognition by Dr. Seuss Enterprises that these books do not promote the spirit of Geisel’s work they would like to perpetuate is not “cancellation.”
I have tremendous fondness for the work of Dr. Seuss. “One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish,” is the first book I could ever read on my own. (Or maybe I memorized it. Either way, impressive.) To call the man’s work iconic is an understatement.
But the nostalgia of older people should not be a priority. Progress is a good thing, and surely we’ve progressed to the point where we do not need to perpetuate overtly racist illustrations just because they were drawn by Theodor Geisel.
Dr. Seuss Enterprises is making the right call, a call you have to believe Geisel himself would agree with. His last published book from 1990, “Oh, the Places You’ll Go,” has become a graduation staple for its encouraging message around changing yourself and exploring new things as a way to enjoy life’s challenges.
Growth is good. The people whose job it is to make the decision are doing the deciding.
Unless you enjoy outrage for the sake of being outraged, we can spare the angst on this one.
John Warner is the author of “Sustainable. Resilient. Free.: The Future of Public Higher Education.”
Book recommendations from the Biblioracle
John Warner tells you what to read based on the last five books you’ve read.
1. “Bold: How to Go Big, Create Wealth and Impact the World” by Peter H. Diamandis and Steven Kotler
2. “Seduced” by Randy Wayne White
3. “The Fifties” by David Halberstam
4. “The Sentinel: A Jack Reacher Novel” by Lee Child and Andrew Child
5. “The Spymasters: How the CIA Directors Shape History and the Future” by Chris Whipple
— Dean N., Chicago
This strikes me as the list of a curious person, and I find curious people enjoy John McPhee. In this case, it’s his collection focusing on how we move things from one place to another: “Uncommon Carriers.”
1. “Hemingway: The 1930s through the Final Years” by Michael Reynolds
2. “The Late Mrs. Dorothy Parker” by Leslie Frewin
3. “Children Are Civilians Too” by Heinrich Boll
4. “The Oxford Book of Death,” edited by D. J. Enright
5. “Scorched Earth: Hitler’s War On Russia” by Paul Carell
— William H., Westchester
An interest in both history and literature makes me think William might favor a book that explores a fascinating part of literary history: “When Books Went to War” by Molly Guptill Manning.
1. “The Guest List” by Lucy Foley
2. “Anxious People” by Fredrik Backman
3. “Law of Innocence” by Michael Connelly
4. “How to Change Your Mind” by Michael Pollan
5. “Caste” by Isabel Wilkerson
— Anne L., Highland Park
Angela Flournoy gives us a mix of family drama, comedy and even a bit of a ghost story in “The Turner House.”
Get a reading from the Biblioracle
Send a list of the last five books you’ve read to email@example.com.