Mar 10, 2021

The Dr. Seuss Dilemma

Ah, the internet, where things that don't really matter seem to take on an enormous significance for a few days before fading away into the ether... In yesterday's news, the Dr. Seuss dilemma...

We are living in an interesting time: a time of re-examining the past and attempting to change things for the better. I think this is an undeniably good thing for the future. It is critical for people to examine their beliefs and attitudes and adjust them as necessary to make the experience of living together on this planet as not-terrible as possible for everyone. 

I don't know if the world is any less racist/sexist/classist/homophobic/etc. today than in days of yore (probably not), but people are certainly more aware of the damage their ignorance can cause and are (sometimes) being held accountable for their words and actions. This is a positive step forward.  

Conflicts arise when people forget that the world was a different place 100 or 50 or even 10 years ago, and apply the same rules or expectations to people and their attitudes and behaviour that we apply today. And by people, I mean artists. In this specific case, writers. In this even more specific case, writers of children's books.

Now, if an author of children's literature wrote a book today that depicted horrible racist caricatures of African monkey-men (If I Ran the Zoo), I would hope that particular book would not find a publisher. But in 1950, it did. Schools were still segregated in the U.S. until 1954. 

And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street, the book with the illustration of a "Chinaman who eats with sticks" (later edited to "Chinese man") and the suggestion that "Say, even Jane could think of that," was first published in 1937. Imagine the world of 1937! Women in Quebec weren't even allowed to vote until 1940. And five years after the publication of Dr. Seuss's book, midway through the second World War, the Canadian government rounded up Japanese-Canadians and threw them into internment camps.

Reading Oh, The Places You'll Go!, that perennial graduation gift favourite, today, I find myself uncomfortably aware of Seuss's use of "he" to refer to people in general, but that was published in 1990, in the early days of the implementation of gender-neutral language. As an aside, I was born in the 1970s, a time of policemen and mailmen and stewardesses. The patriarchal use of the masculine pronoun to refer to all human beings, and especially those human beings in positions of power, was a given. Even today, I find myself automatically thinking of animals as boys, a habit I am consciously trying to break, given that the likelihood of the creature having female genitalia is roughly 50/50. Sometimes I think that young people today don't understand how hard it often is to even identify, let alone break, lifelong belief systems. But then, they are products of their time, too. 

So anyway, my point is that Dr. Seuss was living in a different time, and while we should not condone his racist and sexist remarks, we should at least understand why he might not have seen anything wrong with them at the time. There seems to be a tendency these days to assume that every artist who created something that does not conform to our current expectations is somehow evil, or at least immoral, and therefore has nothing of value to offer.  

Literature provides two functions: entertainment and education. It can of course do both things simultaneously, and great, lasting literature always does, but it certainly doesn't have to. However, I do believe that the authors of children's books have a greater responsibility towards education than any other artist. By reading to our children (especially the young ones who enjoy a silly rhyme or two), we are shaping their minds and attitudes, and we should make a conscious effort to make these lessons as valuable as possible. Learning the importance of imagination and sharing and unconditional love and protecting the environment and treating people equally and that everybody poops are things all children should be taught. If a children's story does not have an important life lesson to impart, and if the words and/or pictures reinforce, either consciously or subconsciously, something that can actually harm that child's sense of self-worth, then I heartily support no longer publishing that story. There are other stories out there. 

The current uproar seems to be conflating no longer publishing said offensive works with censoring them (or cancelling them, in newspeak). As a previous bookstore employee, let me assure you that the offensive aspect of the books in question is likely a far less significant consideration than the fact that those books are no longer being purchased. The book business is a business. I spent many work hours locating and sending back books that had lingered for months on the shelf. If people ain't buying, the company ain't reprinting... So don't worry, nobody is "cancelling" Dr. Seuss. Nobody is coming for the beloved childhood copy of McElligot's Pool tucked away in your basement bookshelf. His books aren't being gathered and thrown into a pile in the town square and set ablaze.  

However, and this is where I find my hackles rising, I recently read someone describe Dr. Seuss books as "really brainless rhymes for children." While there are certainly some troubling aspects of some of his books, dismissing his entire catalogue as "brainless" is a pretty limited perspective, the kind of limited perspective we are trying so hard to eliminate from society. 

I can only believe that the author of that observation never read Green Eggs and Ham and learned that trying new things is good for you, or The Sneetches and learned the dangers of capitalism and realized that, despite the number of stars on our bellies, we are all the same. And, sure, One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish IS pretty brainless, I'll admit, but the silly rhymes and goofy pictures teach kids numbers and colours and that reading is fucking fun. By the way, Oh, The Places You'll Go, while encouraging young people to have hopes and dreams and goals, also reminds them that shitty stuff happens in life, so you better be prepared for that, too. 

I have been helping children and young adults with their English homework for over a decade now. Whenever I get a new student, one of the first questions I ask them is if they like to read. And I can state with authority that the children who like to read are more sensitive to the nuances and grey areas of characters and their actions than those who don't. They are more critical thinkers, quicker to pick up on symbolism and bias, more able to make big-world connections between the literature and their lives.

We can only engage with the world based on our own personal experiences. Reading broadens those experiences so that we are better able as individuals to consider other perspectives. That is what we do when we open a book: we live the life of someone else. What a miraculous thing to be able to do.

I will leave you with perhaps the good doctor's most famous lesson, ostensibly about Christmas, but perhaps also about what happens when you look beyond your own limited point of view:

"And he puzzled three hours, till his puzzler was sore.

Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn't before!


And what happened then? Whoville they say, 

That the Grinch's small heart grew three sizes that day!"   

So if those "brainless rhymes" awaken in a child a lifelong love of reading, of thinking and questioning and engaging with the world, are they really so brainless?