Becoming Dr. Seuss: An exploration of the good and the bad from our favorite children’s author

If you’ve been on the Internet in recent months, you’ll be aware that people have been up in arms over the Seuss estate allowing a few older titles to go out of print. My growing irritation with people completely (and willfully, in some cases) misunderstanding what’s gone on led me to finally picking up a Dr. Seuss biography. Becoming Dr. Seuss Theodor Geisel and the Making of an American Imagination by Brian Jay Jones, one of the more recent Seuss biographies, seemed to be the logical choice, as it had the potential to touch on the topic of caricatures that has landed Seuss in hot water, now and in the past.

Geisel never set out to be a children’s book author and actually got his start in college humor magazines and advertising campaigns. He learned most of his storytelling skills from his work in the U.S. Army, working on propaganda during World War II. When he did decide to write for kids, he got off to a slow start, until The Cat in the Hat launched him into the spotlight, revolutionizing children’s primers. Seuss ultimately became the leader of several imprints within Random House Publishing, focused on writing books that teach kids both to love reading as well as how to do it.

And while many of us would love to make a hero out of this favorite author, the reality is that Geisel had several black marks against him. Throughout his years cartooning he never balked at using misogyny as the punchline of his jokes and during World War II actually used his cartoons to support and promote Japanese-American internment. Added to this was his embracing of the era’s common practice of racist caricaturing within cartoons and drawings. But, as he aged, Geisel himself came to acknowledge that, while acceptable for the time, not everything he’d drawn was tasteful and appropriate. And though he perhaps wasn’t as public about it as we’d expect of someone today, I believe his work shows the growth and change of mindset Geisel experienced.

Jones draws from a vast array of research and content to paint a comprehensive picture of Geisel’s life, and he doesn’t try to cover up some of Geisel’s shortcomings. It’s an engaging book that goes beyond just Dr. Seuss–or rather, explores various experiences that made him who he was. Touching on cartoon crusades, propaganda creation, author-publisher relationships, the revolution of children’s primers and the birth of several well-known imprints, readers get knowledge on a lot more than just the man who illustrated many of our childhoods.

I did feel like the book was lacking in visuals, though. A 400+ page book and it only contained eight pages of photos and illustrations. Whether it was too much of an expense to get the rights or they didn’t want to trim the book to make room for more, I felt like this was a lost opportunity, especially when considering many people are unaware of Geisel’s art outside of Seuss books.

While this already-published book can’t touch on the foolish drama of 2021, it’s interesting to see that Jones does touch on the topics in general–in fact, this isn’t the first time some of these titles have been in the hot seat because of problematic illustrations and words.

Knowing this, and knowing that some of the books have already been changed to be more politically correct, it definitely highlights the idea that these books, while containing problematic content, have been retired more because of lack of sales. If the books were still selling well, they’d most likely take them back to the drawing board, as they have done before.

I’ve kept my silence on this topic because I’m inclined to believe that most people aren’t actually interested in learning and dialoguing but just want something to be up in arms about (and I’m jealous of that energy. I’d like to channel some of it just to help me get through my daily to-do list.). But I’ll throw a couple thoughts out here.

First, these titles have not been censored or banned. They’ve been allowed to go out of print. And, surprise, this happens to books all the time. Ever try to go to a bookstore and buy the random books you read as a kid (not the classics everyone read, the random ones no one else was reading)? The reason you can’t find them is because they went out of print. The demand to publish wasn’t there. That’s all that’s happened here, except the Seuss estate used it as an opportunity to stand against caricatures and problematic content in the books (and if you don’t know, I worked for 5+ years in book sales, so I can attest to the fact that these retired titles were no where near bestsellers, they didn’t even compete with other Seuss titles).

Second, I’ve heard a lot of arguments about preserving history and keeping examples so that people know what’s not appropriate to do (and not just about Seuss). And I think it’s a really weak argument, especially for this situation. Seuss engaged in the kinds of jokes and drawings he did because they were the fare of the era. By keeping them around and sharing them with kids, it indicates there’s something of value to them. And while we can debate whether there is academic value in preserving them in a historical way to see how we’ve improved (and I believe there’s a compelling case there), we don’t need any more reasons for kids to draw lines of division among themselves. There will be plenty of hurtful childhood antics without contributing to it by continuing to provide them with stories that make differences seem funny, abnormal, or bad.

In the end, when someone tells us something is problematic or hurtful, we don’t get to tell them they are wrong. The response we should have is one of dialogue, hearing their concern and doing better. Too often the people fighting against the action are the ones who haven’t been hurt by it or anything similar. And just because we can’t understand the experience doesn’t mean we can write it off. Why wouldn’t we improve when given a concrete place to start?

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