By Saara Itkonen
Last week for bedtime reading with my daughter, I picked up a collection of Dr. Seuss tales that my father had gifted me when I was younger.
The book had followed me around during many, many moves over the years and I thought my daughter was now at an age where she might enjoy the rhyme, silliness and longer length of a Dr. Seuss story.
The first (and shortest) story in the collection was “And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street” which I began reading with my daughter until we got to the page that depicts a racist caricature of a Chinese person. I stopped the story and pointed out the racist caricature to my daughter and let her know that it wasn’t okay, and why, and that this was an old book that maybe shouldn’t be read much anymore.
Lo, and behold, Dr. Seuss Enterprises — the legal body in charge of making business decisions about Dr. Seuss’ works and preserving his legacy — announced they will no longer be publishing several of Dr. Seuss’ titles because of their racist imagery which “portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong.”
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Among the six titles that will no longer be published is “And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street”, the very book I had just been reading to my daughter.
Many conservative media outlets have been quick to claim that Dr. Seuss is the latest victim of “cancel culture” run amok and that publishers and libraries are censoring free speech. Nevermind that it is Dr. Seuss’ own estate that is choosing to stop publication and that it only includes six of his less-popular titles and none of his bestsellers (such as the “Cat in the Hat”, “How The Grinch Stole Christmas”, or “The Lorax”).
Nevertheless, the announcement resulted in a recent rush of Amazon sales of the more popular Dr. Seuss’ titles, none of which were on the list to cease publication.
That’s the thing about children’s literature and beloved children’s authors. Our experience of their work is tied to childhood nostalgia, which is a powerful thing. Perhaps when you think of Dr. Seuss you remember a parent or grandparent, a teacher or friend, reading a particular story to you and it can be difficult to now have those memories tainted with the ugliness of racism.
But it is essential to also think of the child who pulls the book off the shelf in a library and sees a painful, racist caricature of themselves on the pages. Certainly, their childhood experience is just as important as yours? Especially if they are still a child and you are now an adult.
In their press release, Dr. Seuss Enterprises said, “Ceasing sales of these books is only part of our commitment and our broader plan to ensure Dr. Seuss Enterprises’ catalogue represents all communities and families.” As a long-time children’s librarian, I’m happy when publishers make decisions to be more inclusive.
However, this is also a smart business decision when you consider that criticism of the racist images in Seuss’ work has been mounting from teachers and librarians for some time and sales of Seuss’ books totalled $33 million (US) last year.
It’s also important to understand that the titles that are published or added to a library do not remain static over time. For instance, I adored Tintin comics when I was young. Along with Asterix, they were the only comic books available in my local public library and I read them over and over and over.
However, anyone who has read Tintin lately knows that as beautiful as much of the artwork can be, Tintin’s Belgian author, Hergé, illustrated people of colour through the lens of the racist, colonial ideas of the time.
When I arrived at Creston Library, I moved the Tintin, as well as Asterix (sexist, racist) comics from the children’s section to the adult collection because it’s important for parents to know that these images aren’t benign and require more conversation for children to understand the context they were created in.
And, unlike when I was a child, there are so many other comics being published now – comics that represent a diversity of voices, images, and themes that reflect the diversity of our world’s community. At a time when the publishing world is experiencing a great deal of change and flux, children’s and teen publishing is exploding with beautiful books that are creating a new generation of classics for young people.
Large public libraries can only afford to purchase a small percentage of all the books that are published in any given year, and the Creston Library can only afford an even smaller percentage of that! So, we regularly weed out older books, discarding titles that aren’t popular anymore or refraining from purchasing new copies of books that have worn out.
We do it all the time because part of our job is curation of our materials to best meet our communities’ interests and needs.
Curation is not “cancel culture.”
Saara Itkonen is the chief librarian at the Creston Public Library. For more news from Vancouver Island and beyond delivered daily into your inbox, please click here.