Kathy Manos Penn with Lord Banjo
I have fond memories of reading my Dr. Seuss books and still have three titles on my bookshelf. The sing-song verses and the bold illustrations made me laugh. I also have a vague memory of Melania Trump being chastised by a librarian for sending a box of books containing Dr. Seuss titles to a school in Massachusetts in celebration of National Read a Book Day.
The librarian noted: "Dr. Seuss is a bit of a cliché, a tired and worn ambassador for children's literature ... Dr. Suess's illustrations are steeped in racist propaganda, caricatures, and harmful stereotypes." This memory was resurrected for me when I read a Wall Street Journal book review of a new biography "Becoming Dr. Seuss." The reviewer notes that despite this negative sentiment, Dr. Seuss books "occupied 14 of the 25 top slots in Publisher's Weekly's list of best-selling children's picture books" in March of this year.
Before he became the beloved Dr. Seuss, many of Theodore Geisel's political cartoons during WWII attacked "racism, bigotry, and anti-Semitism" but at the same time portrayed Japanese Americans as a danger to America. And, as his biographer points out, Geisel's early children's books, before "The Cat in the Hat," contained ethnic and racial caricatures that would be seen as horrifying today.
One researcher "conducted a critical race analysis of 50 children's books by Seuss and found that 98 percent of the human characters were white, and only two percent were people of color." Yet another determined that the Cat in the Hat has its "roots in blackface minstrelsy."
Perhaps I cannot see the harm in his later books because I've never seen the earlier works. The hoopla around rethinking Dr. Seuss prompted me to look at my books, "The Cat in the Hat," "The Cat in the Hat Comes Back," and "One fish two fish red fish blue fish." I smiled as I flipped through them searching in vain for the "racist propaganda, caricatures, and harmful stereotypes" pointed out by others. My inability to see them may be an indicator that I'm not sufficiently woke.
I had a sudden flash of Rosie O'Donnell playing The Cat in the Hat in "Seussical" on Broadway in 2000 and Jim Carrey playing the Grinch in "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" the same year. I could not, however, unearth any condemnation of either actor for starring in these shows. Further research revealed that "Seussical" is still being produced by theatre companies and schools despite the shortcomings of its namesake. How is it that we can condemn the books but not the plays and movies based on them?
Of course, Dr. Seuss is in good company these days, as people call for removing the names of Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and Woodrow Wilson from buildings and institutions across America because of their beliefs and behaviors hundreds of years ago despite their contributions to our nation. Singer Kate Smith's rendition of "God Bless America" has similarly been banished by the New York Yankees and The Philadelphia Flyers because she recorded songs with racial content in the 30s. To borrow a term from George Orwell's "1984," these historical icons are being dumped down the memory hole, "in effect, re-writing all of history to match the often-changing" world we live in.
Perhaps Dr. Seuss said it best: "Humor is a funny thing. You pick something out of the air. If the air changes, It's not funny anymore."
My air hasn't changed. I cherish the memories of sitting with my mom, laughing, as I read his books aloud. I choose to remember the magic he brought into my life.
Kathy is a Georgia resident. Find her books "The Ink Penn: Celebrating the Magic in the Everyday" and "Lord Banjo the Royal Pooch" on Amazon. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org, and follow her on Facebook, www.facebook.com/KathyManosPennAuthor/.