Making sense of Dr. Seuss

Anjali Reddy and Danielle Brennan

Eighty-four years since his first book was published, over Eighty-four years since his first book was published, over
600 million copies of Dr. Seuss’ 60 children’s books have been
sold globally and translated into more than 20 languages.
Before becoming a children’s author, Theodor
Seuss Geisel (1904-1991) freelanced for a decade, selling
humorous writing and cartoons to the predominant
publications of the time, among them Life, Vanity Fair,
and PM, a left-leaning daily publication in New York City.
In 1928, the Standard Oil Company hired Geisel to
draw advertisements for 15 years, during which Geisel
wrote an adult book called “The Seven Lady Godivas.” The
book did not sell, presumably due to its high cost—$2 during
the Great Depression—and because it depicted nudity. The
experience led him to believe “adults are obsolete children.”
Not until Geisel was taking a ship home from
Europe did he discover a new avenue: children’s
books. The sound of the ship’s engine got stuck in
his head, and to pass the time, Geisel created poems
set to its rhythm. On that ship, Dr. Seuss, Geisel’s
pen name, was born, the honorific originating from
Geisel’s incomplete doctoral degree at Oxford.
Dr. Seuss books included notable features: unique
characters, humor, word play, rhyme, and often an
emerging lesson, such as the importance of preserving
nature in “The Lorax,” the wisdom in refraining from
prejudgment in “Green Eggs and Ham,” and the
problems with creating in-groups and out-groups in “The
Sneetches.” For each book he wrote, Dr. Seuss selected
225 words or fewer from a list of 348 words an average
6-year-old would know.
Among Dr. Seuss’ most popular children’s books are
“The Cat in the Hat,” “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,”
and “Oh, the Places You’ll Go!” In 1984, Dr. Seuss
received a Pulitzer Prize for “his special contribution over
nearly half a century for the education and enjoyment of
America’s children and parents.”

—’23Sources: Encyclopædia Britannica, thegreatestbooks.
org, Children’s Literacy Foundation, National Public
Radio, Poetry Foundation, Prindleinstitute.org, Pultizer.
org, World History Project

In early March, Dr. Seuss’ estate
announced the recall of six of his
books that contained disparaging racial
stereotypes. The list includes his first
published work, “And to Think That I
Saw It on Mulberry Street” (1937), as
well as “McElligot’s Pool” (1947), “If I
Ran the Zoo” (1950), “Scrambled Eggs
Super!” (1953), “On Beyond Zebra!”
(1955), and “The Cat’s Quizzer” (1976).
In our community, out of 94 total
respondents, 3% recalled reading “The
Cat’s Quizzer,” 11% “Scrambled Eggs
Super,” 26% “If I Ran the Zoo,” 2% “On
Beyond Zebra,” 10% “McElligot’s Pool,”
and 34% “And to Think That I Saw It
on Mulberry Street,” while 31% recalled
reading at least one of the titles but not
what was in the books, and 35% recalled
reading none.
At issue are some of the author’s
illustrations portraying African, Arabic,
and Asian peoples with imagery Dr.
Seuss Enterprises has since called
harmful and wrong. On Mulberry Street,
readers encounter a chopsticks-carrying
Chinese character with slanted eyes,
a conical hat, and a bowl of rice. At an
imagined zoo, three identical Asian
characters carry a cage on their heads,
“helping” a white boy who sits on top
with a gun, and two topless African men
wear grass skirts and are accompanied
by a wild animal.
The pulling of these books
from Geisel’s extensive catalog soon
prompted heated debate across the
nation’s schools and libraries, social
media, and even Congress. Where Seuss
books once took center stage on Read
Across America Day, begun in 1998 and
taking place on Geisel’s birthday, this
year the National Education Association
promoted a contemporary and more
representative library. Additionally,
President Joe Biden didn’t mention
Geisel in his speech at the event—a first
since 2009.
Can a private company’s decision be
dubbed a cancellation? Can we let it skew
our view on an icon in this nation? Or
should we bid adieu to Seuss’ creations?
—Danielle Brennan ’23
Sources: Chicago Tribune, Dictionary.
com, Seussville, The Guardian, The
Sun, The Associated Press