Are Dr. Seuss' books racist? Experts weigh in on controversy

A school librarian is refusing a Melania Trump's gift of Dr. Seuss books. Nathan Rousseau Smith (@FantasticMrNate) explains why.

(USA TODAY) - Dr. Seuss has taught generations of children to read with such beloved classics as The Cat in the Hat and Green Eggs and Ham.

His perennial graduation gift, Oh, the Places You’ll Go!, was No. 2 on USA TODAY’s Best-Selling Books list as recently as June.

But now the late Theodor Seuss Geisel and his picture books are in the crosshairs of the culture wars, after a Massachusetts school librarian rejected first lady Melania Trump’s donation, claiming the Seuss titles were racist and unneeded.

MORE:  Melania Trump says librarian turned Dr. Seuss into 'something divisive'

A Seuss museum in Springfield, Mass., the author’s hometown, says it will replace a mural featuring a Chinese character from And To Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street. The 1937 book, in which a young boy concocts an elaborate story about what he sees while on a walk, included an illustration of an Asian male running while carrying a bowl of rice and chopsticks while dressed in a silk robe, coolie hat and platform sandals.

The museum's decision came after three authors said they would boycott an event due to the "jarring racial stereotype."

What do the Seuss experts say? Are his admittedly eccentric works racist?

“Just as every author/illustrator is, I think that Theodor Geisel was a product of his time,” says Ann Neely, professor of children’s literature at Vanderbilt University in Nashville who teaches a course called “Literature of Social Transformation: The Civil Rights Movement as Depicted in Children’s and Young Adult Literature.”

“Yes, there are some Dr. Seuss drawings that, given today’s ideologies and values, can certainly be viewed as being racist,” Neely says. “The illustrations of the Chinese characters in And To Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street are stereotypical, offensive, and inappropriate. I believe the museum is doing the right thing by removing these images from the mural.

“Books like One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish and Green Eggs and Ham are fun books for beginning readers. But we also have current authors/illustrators who provide children with marvelous books as they learn the concept of story. For example, Mo Willems’ 25 books in the 'Elephant and Piggie' series are truly loved by children today as they learn to read and long after.

“We should not judge Theodor Geisel by today’s standards," Neely cautions, "but we must evaluate his books that we decide to share with children using today’s standards. We cannot wallow in our own nostalgia when we make choices for the books we share with young children. There are simply too many outstanding books available.”

Philip Nel, a professor of children's literature at Kansas State University and author of Dr. Seuss: American Icon and Was the Cat in the Hat Black? told USA TODAY that Seuss employed both racist and anti-racist themes in his books, with The Sneetches and Horton Hears a Who! among the latter.

Both books "clearly argue against picking on others for arbitrary marks of difference," he says.

"Racism lurks in children's culture in ways we're not aware of, and (authors) can recycle images and ideas in their work without being aware of it," Nel says. "People don’t take children's lit seriously, they think kids are not going to notice this, only grownups notice. That underestimates their intelligence and doesn't take into account that we learn things without being aware we’re learning things."

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