And you know what you know
And you are the one
Who’ll decide where to go
from Oh, The Places You’ll Go!
written and illustrated by Dr. Seuss
Random House, 1990
A raging controversy (in some circles) about the appropriateness of Dr. Seuss’s work has recently come back to my attention. Here’s my defense. Dr. Seuss single-handedly moved children’s literature from a focus on morals and values to a celebration of children’s innate curiosity about themselves and their world.
And today is his birthday.
Theodor Seuss Geisel was born in Springfield MA of immigrant parents on March 2, 1904.
In many ways the world was a different place. In many ways it is the same. Immigrants were flocking here from eastern and southern Europe and Russia. Now people are coming here from Central America and South America. In the 1920s, activists were fighting for civil rights for women and Blacks. In the 2020s people are fighting for civil rights for women and Blacks and people of all colors, commonly abbreviated BIPOC: Black; indigenous; and people of color.
Here’s a very short (over-simplified, maybe) timeline focusing on children’s literature:
1693 John Locke. Some Thought Concerning Education. Locke
wanted to make reading fun for children, but stay firmly
based in reality.
1865 Lewis Carroll. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Children
were moving from an economical asset (farm help, factory
workers) to an emotional asset. Parents, and society as a
whole, sought to protect the innocence of childhood through
the development of their imagination and creative play. Mark
Twain was also publishing during this time. So was Jules Verne.
Heidi by Johanna Spyri was published in 1880.
1954 John Hersey. Life magazine, May 24, 1954. “Why Do
Students Bog Down on First R? A Local Committee Sheds
Light on a National Problem: Reading.” Hersey blamed poor
reading scores on boring reading texts like the Dick and Jane
series by the Scott Foresman Company. I learned with
Alice and Jerry, published by Row, Peterson and Company,
which later became part of HarperCollins.
1955 Rudolf Flesch. Why Johnny Can’t Read. A response to
Hersey’s article, Flesch’s book was an immediate best seller
and stayed on the list for 37 weeks.
1957 Dr. Seuss The Cat in the Hat. Seuss’s first commercial
success. William Spaulding, director of Houghton Mifflin’s
Department of Education, asked Dr. Seuss to “write a
story that first-graders can’t put down.”
Spaulding's Bet With Dr. Seuss. He was allowed 225 unique
words chosen from the 348 words on the standard first
graders’ word list. The good doctor lost the bet. The Cat
in the Hat came in at 236 words. He lost a bet, but gained
a career. The commercial success of his book allowed
Dr. Seuss to quit advertising and write children’s books
But the controversy is real.
In 1998, the National Educational Association founded Read Across America. They chose to celebrate on March 2 every year, Dr. Seuss’s birthday. From its inception, RAA has been linked with Dr. Seuss. Three years ago all that changed. In 2018, the national reading celebration moved away from the Seuss canon to highlight different authors and diverse and contemporary titles.
While the move to emphasize more diversity and to be more inclusive in reading choices and recommendations is a step in a good direction, demonizing the Dr. is a step too far. Does the Cat depict stereotyped minstrel shows? Is “The Sneetches” an historical narrative that impacts present-day power structures? Or could these analyses be over-reactions to a Learning for Justice article, the educational arm of the Southern Poverty Law Center, It's Time to Talk About Dr Seuss and quoted in School Library Journal SJL: Is the Cat in the Hat Racist? ?
The American Library Association presents The Geisel Award annually to the author(s) and illustrator(s) of the most distinguished American book for beginning readers published in English in the United States during the preceding year. The winner(s) are recognized for their literary and artistic achievements that demonstrate creativity and imagination to engage children in reading. The award was established in 2004, and first presented in 2006. The award that year went to Henry and Mudge and the Great Grandpas written by Cynthia Rylant and illustrated by Suçie Stevenson.
Dr. Seuss was not a sociologist. He was not an historian. He was not an environmentalist. He was not even a doctor. He took the title doctor to honor his father who wanted him to earn his PhD. He did not, but held many honorary titles. Seuss, actually pronounced to rhyme with “voice,” is his mother’s maiden name as well as his own middle name.
Detractors point to the beginning of WWII when Geisel contributed political cartoons to a liberal magazine. Since he was too old for the draft but wanted to serve, he made animated training films and drew propaganda posters for the Treasury Department. Some were racist depictions of Japanese immigrants. Most were not appropriate for children. Some of his books command an adult audience, too.
Dr. Seuss taught us to take care of our earth in The Lorax, to take care of each other in Horton Hatches the Egg and “The Sneetches” and so many more, and to allow ourselves and our children to Hop on Pop, put a Fox in Socks, and have fun with a Cat. He encouraged language-play by making up words.
Dr. Seuss was aware of his world and aware of his missteps. He advised us in Oh, The Places You’ll Go!
So be sure when you step,
Step with care and great tact.
And remember that Life’s
A Great Balancing Act.
His books will live on. American kids will continue to read.
Thank you Dr. Seuss. Happy Birthday!
-—stay curious! (and read to a child)