×

Editorial: Seuss controversy offers learning opportunity 

  •   


Friday, October 13, 2017

Controversy over a mural including the caricature of a Chinese man at The Amazing World of Dr. Seuss Museum in Springfield has resulted in much noise and often polarizing positions during the past 10 days.

We hope that shifts now to a more measured conversation centered on how the four-month-old museum can educate visitors about one of the nation’s most prolific writers and illustrators of children’s books and his move away from using racial and cultural stereotypes in his early works to embracing civil rights and tolerance in his later books.

Current children’s book writers and illustrators Mike Curato, Mo Willems and Lisa Yee announced Oct. 5 in a letter posted on Twitter that they would not attend the Children’s Literature Festival scheduled for Saturday at the museum. They objected to a mural at the entrance to the museum, which opened in June, with scenes from “And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street,” published in 1937 and the first book written by Theodor Seuss Geisel, who was born in 1904 in Springfield.

“… (W)ithin the selected art is a jarring racial stereotype of a Chinese man, who is depicted with chopsticks, a pointed hat and slanted slit eyes. We find this caricature of ‘the Chinaman’ deeply hurtful, and have concerns about children’s exposure to it,” Curato, Willems and Yee wrote. “The career of Ted Geisel, writing as Dr. Seuss, is a story of growth, from accepting the baser racial stereotype of the times in his early career to challenging those divisive impulses with work that delighted his readers and changed the times.”

The first response by the museum was to say it would remove the mural and cancel the festival, before adding at least some of the requested context for people viewing Seuss’ early work.

Meanwhile, Springfield business partners Peter Picknelly and Andy Yee offered to buy the mural and display it elsewhere in the city. Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno called the whole thing “political correctness at its worst, and this is what is wrong with our country.”

But now there is the first step toward a fuller explanation of the work by Seuss. The mural remains in the museum with a new sign informing viewers that in “And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street” and other works by Geisel before 1955, “one can see characters that depict racial or other stereotypes common at that time. This image is part of the history and evolution of Dr. Seuss. We hope it can be a teachable moment for parents and teachers to discuss with children why stereotypes can be hurtful.”

With that context, the museum now has a wonderful opportunity to fully explore the complicated career of an artist whose work was informed by some of the most tumultuous events of the 20th century. Part of that mission is to honor Geisel, whose rhyming style and fanciful creatures engaged children and helped teach thousands how to read. The museum’s interactive education center encouraging younger children to read is a fitting tribute.

For older children, there also needs to be an understanding of how shifting cultural assumptions were reflected as Geisel’s work progressed. “The Sneetches and Other Stories,” published in 1953, is widely recognized for its themes examining anti-Semitism, racism and tolerance. “Horton Hears a Who!” published in 1954, includes this telling line: “A person’s a person, no matter how small.”

We hope that the museum staff joins with contemporary children’s writers, perhaps including Willems, who lives in Northampton, and Grace Lin, of Florence, in curating a portion of the Seuss exhibit that thoughtfully examines that evolution and challenges children to think about the themes Geisel might write about today if he were still alive.

Lin wrote Oct. 8 on her blog, “All children’s book creators worth their salt know the history of the industry’s giants and almost all of us know Dr. Seuss. So, while most of the mass public doesn’t realize this, we know that Dr. Seuss’ early career is filled with creations of racist propaganda. He drew horrible stereotypes against Jews, African-Americans — you name it. … However, as time passed, Geisel began to regret his earlier images. … And that is what makes Geisel a good man and artist. Because he was willing to grow from his original mindset, realize the harm his work could do and get better.”

That’s an important lesson that deserves to be taught at The Amazing World of Dr. Seuss Museum.