Updated: Jan 26, 2021
Read Across America Day is celebrated annually on March 2. Traditionally it has served to celebrate children’s book author Dr. Seuss’s birthday.
However, Dr. Seuss was, to be charitable, very much of his time. And that time is not now. For instance, one of his illustrations from a 1939 book features, “an Asian male running while carrying a bowl of rice and chopsticks while dressed in a silk robe, coolie hat, and platform sandals,” according to the article, Are Dr. Seuss' Books Racist? (USA Today, Oct. 6, 2017).
National Public Radio reports that “In If I Ran the Zoo, two men said to be from Africa are shown shirtless, shoeless and wearing grass skirts as they carry an exotic animal. Outside of his books, the author's personal legacy has come into question, too — Seuss wrote an entire minstrel show in college and performed as the main character in full blackface.” (Dr. Seuss Books Can Be Racist, But Students Keep Reading Them, Code Switch, February 26, 2019.)
A 2019 study of his books found that “racism spans across the entire Seuss collection… Notably, every character of color is male. Males of color are only presented in subservient, exotified, or dehumanized roles… Most startling is the complete invisibility and absence of women and girls of color across Seuss’ entire children’s book collection.” Their warning is stark: “Findings from this study promote awareness of the racist narratives and images in Dr. Seuss’ children’s books and implications to the formation and reinforcement of racial biases in children.”
(Katie Ishizuka and Ramón Stephens, St. Catherine University, February 2019: The Cat is Out of the Bag: Orientalism, AntiBlackness, and White Supremacy in Dr. Seuss’ s Children’s Books. Or see people.com, February 28, 2019, for a detailed summary.)
School Library Journal published an excerpt from this same 2019 study that quotes a startling statistic: “White supremacy is seen through the centering of Whiteness and White characters, who comprise 98% (2,195 characters) of all characters.”
(New Study Published on Racism and Dr. Seuss, Kara Yorio, SLJ, Feb. 18, 2019.)
So, why do we continue to celebrate Dr. Seuss Day? Actually, we don’t…not officially anyway. In 2019, the National Education Association announced it was terminating the licensing agreement by which that cat in his red and striped hat would be featured in the Read Across America Logo. Then in September, they announced a “rebranding” of Read Across America to focus on diverse readers. However, according to teacher Joseph Dwyer, in Was Dr. Seuss racist? Should he be a victim of our cancel culture? (March 2, 2020, nj.com), “A quick google search finds many local events still incorporating Seuss during the traditional ‘Read Across America’ week.”
Since the wake of that 2019 report splashed Dr. Seuss’s official day, what have we done about it? Ah. Well. Nothing, actually.
The boat rocked, then continued on. There were articles about the need to have discussions with students about the biases in Seuss books—while still reading those deeply flawed books. I’m sure first graders are reading the footnotes and statistical tables of that report right now.
Here’s an interesting quote from an article published by tolerance.org (March 4, 2019) entitled, It’s Time to Talk About Dr. Seuss: “As with any critical conversation, accept that there may not be a neat and clean conclusion.” Why the heck not? The evidence is simple and irrefutable. These books are not healthy fodder for our young students. As a nation stared stunned and horrified at videos of white adult U.S. citizens storming their own national capital on Jan. 6, 2021, there was consternation and hand-wringing over how so many people could be so racist and hate-filled.
Maybe it’s as simple as reading that report about Dr. Seuss. Because we continue to flood newly forming minds with deeply biased content that subconsciously lays the foundational biases for white supremacist beliefs. Education is not the answer to racism if it teaches racism.
I cringe to have to report that Dr. Seuss's books are still going strong this year. Currently (Jan. 18, 2021), The Cat in the Hat is ranked #922 out of all book sales on Amazon, and its ranking in its particular category, Poetry for Early Learning, is #9. 92% of its 6,320 customer ratings are 5 stars. The unpleasant truth that the cat hat is based on the outmoded, racist trope of the blackface minstrel does not seem to be hurting the book’s sales in the least.
statistica.com does occasional updates on best-selling books, and as of their April 6, 2020 report, three Dr. Seuss titles were among the best-selling frontlist children's books in the United States. Oh, the Places You’ll Go! ranked in third place with sales of 483,480 units for the first half of 2019. Green Eggs and Ham was in fifth place at 237,240 units. One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish came in eighth place with 191,500 units.
Dr. Seuss’s share of top-ten unit sales is a startling 30% of top ten sales. I can hardly believe my own words as I write this, but he was still the best selling children’s book author in 2019, the same year that report came out. And he was the only author to have three books in the top ten. (The second place author in that top ten list is the more contemporary Dav Pilkey of Dog Man fame, with two titles and 23% of top ten unit sales.)
Dr. Seuss continues to be the most popular early-reader children’s book author, despite the deep problems with his body of work. Apologists abound with opinion pieces in educational journals about how teachers and librarians should have earnest talks with young children concerning the systemic biases in his books—but that’s not really at grade level, is it?
As a practical matter, almost everyone went back to what they’ve always done—leaning heavily on Dr. Seuss for early reading and ignoring the strong biases and insulting stereotypes in his work.
These books reinforce Trump’s world, not the real world. If you want to perpetuate white supremacy and racism, keep female lead characters off the page entirely, and reinforce the worst old stereotypes of Blacks and Asians while entirely ignoring Latinx culture, LGBTQ peoples, immigrants, and more, then Dr. Seuss's books are…perfect!
However, there is still time to rethink Read Across America Day. We have a couple of months to get it right for 2021. So a modest suggestion, if I may? Let’s vow NOT to push Dr. Seuss onto impressionable young readers. Instead, please take a moment to look through the wonderful variety of newer, better, and not-so-horribly-biased books available in your local bookstores and school libraries—and pick anything else to read that day!
Alex Hiam is the author of Silent Lee and the Adventure of the Side Door Key available on paperback and kindle at Amazon.com