Columnist Maria José Botelho: Dr. Seuss’ books reflection of their times


Published: 10/13/2017 9:26:31 PM

Books are historically and socially made because of the many decisions rendered in their production. All kinds of world views are embedded in their words and images.

The recent controversy at The Amazing World of Dr. Seuss Museum in Springfield shows how Dr. Seuss’ texts are records of the time and place in which they were created. In many ways, U.S. race, ethnic, gender, and class relations at the time were resources for his writing and illustrating for children.

As readers, we tend to associate single meanings with single books. This belief extracts texts from their cultural context. Focusing solely on the author is adhering to the notion that an individual is the source of all meaning.

Meaning is not locked between the covers of a book, but is made through the interaction between the reader and the text. In reading an author’s body of work, readers can actively resist the perspectives represented in the text and consider new possibilities for being in the world with their critical reading practices.

The scene on the mural at the museum causing controversy is drawn from “And to Think I Saw It on Mulberry Street,” a text that draws on Dr. Seuss’ experience as a young child in Springfield. The mural not only represents a public procession but also depicts a parade of racial, ethnic and regional stereotypes. The racist representation of a Chinese character on the mural, like many of his other misrepresentations, needs to be contextualized, as local children’s book authors and community members have recommended.

Theodor Seuss Geisel (1904-1991) already had experience in producing advertisements, creating political cartoons, and writing and illustrating children’s books when in 1957 Houghton Mifflin in Boston commissioned him to write a new early reader, “The Cat in the Hat,” which displaced the then-popular Dick and Jane readers in the school market. His playfulness with language and illustration offered child readers fanciful spaces and places to co-construct meaning.

However, misrepresentations of African, Japanese, Chinese and other cultural groups, and the lack of female main characters, are common in his work for children. For example, “The Cat in the Hat” has racialized origins from blackface minstrels. In “Come Over to My House,” the white male protagonist travels from one stereotype about people’s dress and housing to another across the globe.

Of all 42 books Dr. Seuss published before his death, not one had a female main character. The bird Gertrude McFuzz laments her fate of having one plain tail feather in “Yertle the Turtle and Other Stories.”

Seussian scholar Philip Nel, a professor at Kansas State University, maintains that World War II had a great influence on Dr. Seuss’ later work. “Horton Hears a Who” is considered a public apology for the U.S. atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The text reminds the reader: “A person’s a person no matter how small.” While this statement humanizes the Japanese, it also dehumanizes them as it perpetuates the stereotype associated with their stature.

In “The Sneetches and Other Stories,” Dr. Seuss tells an allegory of race relations. This story brings readers up close to how power relations are group-made as the star-belly Sneetches discriminate against the plain-belly Sneetches. Capitalist McBean offers a possible solution with his star-on machine.

These stories implore the reader to read wide-awake as Dr. Seuss magnifies social hierarchies, environmental issues and the arms race in “Yertle the Turtle,” “The Lorax” and “The Butter Battle Book,” respectively.

Dr. Seuss’ books have become a common experience for many children. Many of us have a great fondness for these stories because they were a mainstay of family bedtime and school reading.

Because his words and images are beguiling, they render race, gender, and class in subtle and harmful ways. These stories can dispense “gentle doses of racism,” as librarian Nancy Larrick argued in 1965 about how children’s literature just rendered white worlds. Yet, critically reading Dr. Seuss is not necessarily contradictory to his intent.

Showcasing the complexity of Dr. Seuss’ work at the museum does not absolve him from his social responsibility as an artist but offers windows into how society was organized during his lifetime. The museum’s responsibility is to provide information to situate Dr. Seuss’ work. These details convey to visitors that, while Dr. Seuss’ words and images can entertain and persuade, visitors have the power to question and to co-create meaning as they engage with the exhibits.

These museum visits have the potential to affirm and expand children’s and adults’ experiences. These stories are historical records that offer commentary on the past, present, and “oh, the places we might go” as a society.

Maria José Botelho is an associate professor of language, literacy, and culture for the College of Education of the University of Massachusetts Amherst and faculty director of the Five College Doors to the World Project, an online resource for practitioners and parents to support critical selection of and engagement with children’s literature. The Springfield Museums invited her to present “Critical Reading of Dr. Seuss: Contextualizing His Life Work” on June 7, 2018.

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