This year marks the 21st year of the National Education Association’s Read Across America Day. This event is celebrated in many schools across America on March 2nd on Dr. Seuss’ birthday. Some schools, like my sons’ school, have special activities planned today to celebrate the event. The school, where I was an elementary literacy coach last year, had a big family event to celebrate; it was one of our highest attended school events of the year.
Last school year, during a professional learning community (PLC), a meeting where educators collaborate to improve students’ academic performance, I was asked by a teacher, “Should we even celebrate this? Wasn’t he racist?” Another teacher replied, “What are you talking about? I love Dr. Seuss. We can’t stop using his books.”
Before Theodor Seuss Geisel, who wrote under the name Dr. Seuss, became a beloved author by children and adults, he drew racist cartoons during World War II depicting Japanese citizens negatively which promoted propaganda about them. He also drew stereotypical cartoons of African Americans depicting them as savages.
What should we do? As a parent, I read Dr. Seuss’ stories to my children and his stories were some of their favorites. As an educator, I have used his books during my lessons when I was teaching middle school. (Yes, middle school students can benefit from picture books too.) As an adjunct instructor for IU School of Education at IUPUI, I have my students read The Butter Battle Book to learn how they can use this text with both elementary and secondary students when they are teaching about war. “In the article, “Children’s literature expert discusses enduring value of ‘Dr. Seuss’”Ann Neely, associate professor of education at Vanderbilt’s Peabody College of education and human development shared, “This readability is a key part of the enduring power of Dr. Seuss literature. Children can read Dr. Seuss books many, many times without tiring of the rhythms, the plots or the art. The moral lessons in Dr. Seuss stories also contribute to the learning experiences for older children.”
Why does it has to be use his books and ignore the racist cartoons or don’t use his books because of the racist cartoons? Parent Steve Wong who is the curator at the Chinese American Museum in Los Angeles and an adjunct professor at Pasadena City College, shared in “Kids Use ‘Dr. Seuss Week’ To Teach Classmates About His Racist Cartoons” that even though his wife Leslie and him read Dr. Seuss books to their children, they also taught them about “Dr. Seuss’ racist cartoons and role in swaying public opinion.” This led to Wong’s children sharing this information with their classmates. I agree with Mr. Wong, it should not be an either/or, but both. It provides students with a culturally responsive education. We also have to keep in mind when it is developmentally appropriate to talk to children about Dr. Seuss’ racist cartoons. My twins sons are now seven and now is not the time to have this conversation, but when they are older, I will discuss the cartoons with them.
The key to fostering a love of reading in a child is to engage him or her in text and the bottom line is Dr. Seuss’ books are engaging and memorable. The rhyming and patterns help children when they are learning to read. There is no need to hide Dr. Seuss’ earlier cartoons; it provides an opportunity for a teachable moment when the time is right. It’s an opportunity to share that we all have flaws. It is an opportunity to discuss if a person can change and stop being racist. These are important conversations to have with children. Many researchers have shared that they believe Seuss tried to make up for his early cartoons with the lessons in his later books. Unfortunately, he is not here for us to ask him, so we all have to make that judgment for ourselves.
Note: This is an updated version of an article I wrote last year for Geder Writes Media Group.