Dr. Seuss has taught generations of children to read with such beloved classics as The Cat in the Hat, Green Eggs and Ham, The Sneetches and Other Stories, Horton Hears a Who!, and One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish. Dr. Seuss's books have inspired young readers for decades and teach many life lessons, including the importance of being true to yourself, treating others with kindness, and the need for acceptance and inclusion.
Most of Theodor Seuss Geisel's (Dr. Seuss) works are positive and inspiring. However, early in his career Ted Geisel also created images that are disturbing and hurtful. He used racially stereotypical images that were hurtful then and are still hurtful today. Ted's images and books show his evolution toward a more well-rounded understanding of the world around him and the people in it. Later works like The Sneetches and Horton Hears a Who! emphasize inclusion and acceptance. His developing understanding is reflected by the fact that Ted went back and edited some of the racially inappropriate images himself.
Many experts have weighed in on the question: Was Dr. Seuss racist? Needless to say, the question sparks a variety of opinions.
Mommyish's Jayme Kennedy writes, "Rather than completely write off the works of Dr. Seuss, we should be using this opportunity to talk about who he was, before he was Dr. Seuss. We shouldn't shy away from his past, and instead talk about the mistakes he made, and the ways in which he rectified those mistakes."
"Justice is not always about canceling someone and their body of work. Sometimes it looks like providing room for restorative justice to take place," writes Danielle Slaughter for Mamademics. "In my opinion, Dr. Seuss using the remainder of his career to focus on writing books full of important lessons is an example of restorative justice."
Slaughter also notes that two of Dr. Seuss's most well-known works, Horton Hears a Who! and The Sneetches, "teach about the importance of inclusion and acceptance of others and yourself."
In his book Becoming Dr. Seuss: Theodor Geisel and the Making of an American Imagination, noted biographer Brian Jay Jones says that "Dr. Seuss trafficked in racist stereotypes in his early work."
"‘As I say in the book, it's not a great look for him,' Jones said to the San Diego Union-Tribune. ‘But he evolves.' By the end of the 1950s, Geisel had written Horton Hears a Who! which is dedicated to a Japanese friend and is seen by scholars now as an apology for the earlier cartoons. He'd written Yertle the Turtle, an anti-fascist send-up of Hitler, and he'd penned a magazine story that would become the anti-discrimination book The Sneetches. ‘I don't think you write a book like Sneetches if you haven't evolved,' Jones said."
Ted Geisel was born in 1904 and grew up in Springfield, Massachusetts. Well before any of his iconic books were written, he joined the World War II effort on the home front. At first, he drew posters for the Treasury Department and the War Production Board. But by 1943, Geisel wanted to do more, so he joined the United States Army. He wrote pamphlets and films and contributed to the famous Private Snafu cartoon series. According to National Archives staff, it's possible that the Snafu cartoons influenced Geisel's career as Dr. Seuss. Geisel left the army in January 1946, having attained the rank of lieutenant colonel. He stayed in the filmmaking industry for a few years, even working on documentaries and shorts that earned Academy Awards, but he eventually switched to using his pen name, Dr. Seuss, to write children's books.
When Geisel first began to write for children in 1937, many depictions of people of color in books, on the radio, on stage, and elsewhere were racial stereotypes. Seuss's first book, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, was no exception. For example, Geisel represented Asian characters using what he saw as traditional clothing and chopsticks. In this book, Geisel originally referred to the Asian character as a "Chinaman," and made his skin yellow. It is important to note that in a later reprint he corrected the color and changed the text to "a Chinese man." With that change, he began to indicate his personal growth toward racial sensitivity.
Geisel's great-nephew Ted Owens recalled his uncle's decision to make that change: "It was the first time he had changed one of his books. . . . Art and humanity are always evolving."
Mulberry Street was written in 1937. By contrast, the much-beloved "Sneetches" was written in 1961, as the civil rights movement was well underway. Geisel wrote "The Sneetches" as a parable about equality. By using characters that were not human he transcended the pitfalls of using people as characters, allowing all readers to relate to the story. They could be the Sneetch with the star or without the star. In 2015, Barack Obama said, "Pretty much all you need to know you can learn from Dr. Seuss. Take the Star-Belly Sneetches. We are all the same. Why would we treat someone differently just because they have a star on their belly?"
Geisel's later works show an evolution of values and beliefs. We believe that if he were alive today, he would have jumped at the chance to be a part of the country's evolving dialogue about diversity and inclusion. Dr. Seuss's body of work, as a whole, encourages personal growth, shared values, tolerance, and compassion and kindness toward others. These are the lessons Dr. Seuss teaches children.