Dr. Seuss has been in the news this week. Not because Tuesday was the 117th birthday of Theodor Seuss Geisel, the man behind the pen name of the beloved children’s book series. Rather, Seuss is in the news because Dr. Seuss Enterprises, the company that controls the estate of Geisel, elected to stop publishing six of his more than 50 books. The company informed Random House Children Books that it was pulling the titles because of racial stereotypes about Black and Asian people that “portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong.”
Plenty of cultural commentators quickly bemoaned the company’s decision as a censorial “outlawing of Dr. Seuss.” One talk show host even referred to it as “the end of freedom in America” – quite possibly an unintended overstatement. Clearing aside the hysteria, we should note that Seuss’s own estate – not the publisher or some public boycott – found the stereotypes inappropriate and offensive. The company has no plans to gut its profitable business or ban the whole Dr. Seuss collection. It merely recognizes that racial stereotypes, which may have been culturally acceptable a half-century and more ago, no longer fit with who we want to be as people today. Many of those who knew Geisel (1904-1991) believe he would’ve made the change himself, recognizing how we grow in awareness over time.
When our two children were young, which was a few years before yesterday, I remember how my wife Susan and I made an effort to try and find children’s books that displayed a more diverse world than the mostly white-encased one they grew up in. Our book selection team for the St. Paul bookstore tries to do some of the same, recognizing that children benefit from experiencing a world larger than their own immediate circles, which are often comprised of kids with backgrounds very similar to their own.
An interesting side note: Theodor Seuss Geisel struggled to publish his first book. Twenty-seven different publishers turned away his manuscript: And To Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street. While walking down New York City’s Madison Avenue one day in 1937, Geisel planned a manuscript burning ceremony to vent his frustration. That’s when he bumped into a Dartmouth college classmate who was recently appointed to an editor’s job at Vanguard Press. Mike McClintock promptly walked Geisel up to his Vanguard office right then and there and signed a contract on the spot. “If I’d been going down the other side of Madison Avenue,” Geisel later said, “I would be in the dry-cleaning business today.”
We can assume the dry-cleaning line makes for a better story than for what Geisel actually would have done with the rest of his life. But isn’t it interesting how serendipitously and unpredictably any one of us can stumble into a vocation? In the case of Geisel, what a privilege to have his talent, and now to have his own people remind us of the permission we all have to alter some of the ways we previously thought acceptable.