September 22, 2017

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Is the Cat in the Hat Racist? Read Across America Shifts Away From Dr. Seuss and Toward Diverse Books

For 20 years, Read Across America has been synonymous with youngsters wearing red and white striped hats sitting down for story time on March 2, Dr. Seuss’s birthday. But this fall, the biggest national literacy awareness program, sponsored by the National Education Association (NEA), will be shifting its focus toward a year-round promotion of diverse children’s books. It’s a change resulting from both a heightened awareness of representation in kid lit, as well as growing scrutiny of racial imagery in the work of the beloved children’s book author.

Katie Ishizuka has been analyzing Seuss’ body of work for the past year. Ishizuka [a cousin of Kathy Ishizuka, SLJ’s executive editor] and her husband, Ramon Stephens, founded the Conscious Kid Social Justice Library, a subscription service which sends its subscribers monthly shipments of titles featuring multicultural characters. Stephens is a Ph.D. student in education at the University of California at San Diego, home to the Theodor Seuss Geisel Library, where he first came across a collection of the cartoonist’s early work—World War II political cartoons, featuring slurs and racist drawings of Japanese Americans, portraying them as a danger to nation.

Ishizuka, whose grandparents and other relatives were sent by the U.S. government to internment camps during World War II, was very upset. “My grandmother was fired from her job at Seattle schools [and] then incarcerated,” she says. “This had real impact on my personal family. Thinking about how widely beloved and celebrated Seuss is as an author was another blow.”

In March 2016, Ishizuka wrote a piece on the website Blavity about Seuss’ anti-Japanese cartoons, along with work that used the N-word and depicted blacks at a slave auction or rendered to resemble monkeys. She also pointed out images portraying Middle Eastern men as camel-riding sultans and women as hyper-sexualized harem dwellers. But what Ishizuka found even more troubling were racist images hidden in plain sight in Seuss’s popular picture books. Ishizuka, who holds a Master’s degree in social work, conducted a critical race analysis of 50 children’s books by Seuss and found that 98 percent of the human characters were white, and only two percent were people of color.

The Cat in the Hat and blackface minstrelsy

“In addition to how people of color are portrayed in his children’s books through Orientalist and anti-Black stereotypes and caricatures, they are almost always presented as subservient, and peripheral to, the white characters,” concludes Ishizuka in her study. She points out that the Cat in the Hat, perhaps Seuss’ most famous character, is based on minstrel stereotypes. “The Cat’s physical appearance, including the Cat’s oversized top hat, floppy bow tie, white gloves, and frequently open mouth, mirrors actual blackface performers; as does the role he plays as ‘entertainer’ to the white family—in whose house he doesn’t belong,” says Ishizuka. She isn’t the first scholar to point out racial stereotypes in Dr. Seuss’ picture books. Kansas State University English professor Phillip Nel recently published a book Was the Cat in the Hat Black? The Hidden Racism in Children’s Literature, and the Need for Diverse Books, which examines The Cat in the Hat’s roots in blackface minstrelsy.

However the cat, along with his striped headwear, is also associated with Read Across America, just as Clifford the Big Red Dog is synonymous with the literacy organization Reading is Fundamental.

“One of the reasons we partnered with Seuss 20 years ago in 1997 was to kick-start this program,” says Steven Grant, a NEA spokesperson, who has also managed the Read Across America program since 2005. “That was the strategy up front, so kids would see Dr. Seuss’s Cat in the Hat and spark some attention.” The program has successfully reached children nationwide; Grant estimates that 45 million students and teachers take part in Read Across America events each year.

Dr. Seuss cartoon from UC San Diego Library collection.
Copyright unknown.

But not all families think the author should be celebrated. In March, two Japanese-American children in South Pasadena, CA, saw their school’s Dr. Seuss Week in conjunction with Read Across America as a chance to educate their classmates about the cartoonist’s role in fanning fears that led to the internment of Japanese Americans. “Their teachers and administrators shut them down, wouldn’t allow them to hand out the flyers, and told them school was not the appropriate place for that,” says Ishizuka. “To me, this was alarming and represented a serious racial justice issue.” Ishizuka also points out that black children may feel uncomfortable going to school on Read Across America Day. “It’s very dehumanizing for black children to be expected to wear one of those hats.”

In April, Ishizuka sent a copy of her 43-page analysis, along with a compendium of diverse books resources,  to the NEA, which organizes Read Across America.  “Last year was the first year in my 14 years [with NEA] that I had seen so much bubble up as far as concerned interests,” says Grant, who praises Ishizuka’s recommendations for suggested authors and partner organizations to bring wider representation to the event.

Even before Ishizuka sent the material, NEA’s Read Across America advisory committee (comprised of teachers, education support professionals, librarians, and others) had already been discussing issues surrounding Seuss’ early work, based on Richard H. Minear’s 2001 book Dr. Seuss Goes to War, which critiques the cartoonist’s early political drawings, including the anti-Japanese works.

Grant adds that that for the past two years, the NEA board has already shifting Read Across America’s mission towards promoting diverse literature and reaching a broader range of readers.

Ishizuka and Stephens emphasize that they’re not trying to ban Dr. Seuss. “It’s not about reading or not reading certain books, it’s about raising awareness around the social and systemic bias that such books promote,” says Stephens. “Dr. Seuss and whiteness is a reflection of the overwhelming silence in literacy regarding matters of race, especially with both young people and white people.”

This fall, for the 20th anniversary of the program, Read Across America will place greater emphasis on year-round literacy with its annual calendar. In its 10th year in print, the calendar features monthly book recommendations along with online resources. The 2017–18 calendar features the theme of “Building a Nation of Diverse Readers” and gives monthly suggested titles for elementary, middle school, and high school students. For example, September’s choices include All the Way to Havana by Margarita Engle, The Rooster Who Would Not Be Quiet by Carmen Agra Deedy, and The Distance Between Us by Reyna Grande. Read Across America will also be highlighting literacy events, such as El día de los niños/El día de los libros. NEA will distribute 80,000 calendars.

NEA to offer $60K in grants for diverse books

Grant says raising exposure for diverse books is one thing, but putting them in the hands of educators is another. “In a lot of cases, the teacher has to buy the books with her or her own money,” he explains. During the 2017–18 school year, NEA will award $60,000 in grants for diverse books. Over the past two years, the organization gave a total of $250,000 in funds for diverse books, thanks to a contribution from Walden Media and the Weinstein Company. Reading is Fundamental will also offer digital resources to accompany the calendar, and First Book and the publisher Lee & Low Books will provide diverse titles at a discount for Title I schools.

Like the story of the black-and-white cartoon cat, the NEA is finding that something that started off as whimsical fun might be challenging to put back into a box. Grant says Read Across America has never required participants to use Seuss material, but “after 20 years, it’s easy for some folks to just pull Seuss stuff off the bookshelves from last year.” The annual Read Across America Day event may be hard to untangle from its mascot, particularly since the annual event takes place on Dr. Seuss’ birthday. The Read Across America logo —along with all the event merchandise sold on the website—features the black-and-white feline sitting on top of a silhouette of the United States.

Since 1997, the NEA has contracted with Seuss Enterprises for the rights to use the images without royalty fees. The current agreement runs through August 2018. “This is really going to be a transitional year for us,” explains Grant. “We’re going to be trying different things and moving in some different directions to see if that works.” That could include collaborations with other authors or illustrators to re-brand Read Across America Day to appeal to a more diverse student body. “The goal is to encourage the educator, because we can’t force him or her to do anything.”

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Grace Hwang Lynch About Grace Hwang Lynch

Grace Hwang Lynch is a freelance writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. She has written for PBS, PRI, Salon, and BlogHer. Follow her on Twitter at @HapaMamaGrace.

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Comments

  1. The interesting point along this line is that in ‘The Cat in the Hat knows A Lot About That’ tv show, the young male character is dark skinned (his mother seems to be from the Caribbean), while in the books he was white (if I remember correctly).

  2. Georgie Camacho says:

    Not sure I’m ready to jump on any bandwagons. My first reaction was “ridiculous”, but after reading the article, it seems Ms. Lynch has well-reasoned/researched argument – it’s not ridiculous at all. Hard to wrap my mind around the shift in thinking, but that’s ok. It always takes time to process.

    My initial thought in reading the heading of the article was that changing the Read Across America to encourage more diversity is an excellent way to encourage diversity in publishing and children’s reading.

    Thanks for all the great work on the article and the food for thought.

  3. Alicia Garbelman says:

    Children do not have the same frame of reference as historians and scholars. To say that “It’s very dehumanizing for black children to be expected to wear one of those hats” is to put adult consciousness into elementary school minds.
    I’m not suggesting that we ignore the past. We have the opportunity to make new choices and change the future for a more inclusive celebration of reading. Great! Let’s do it. But remember that our children deserve to see the whole picture with their own eyes and from their own perspectives.

  4. Thank you for highlighting this issue. While I hate to learn the dark side to Seuss, these things must be brought to light. While it’s true this may not be in the “consciousness” of children’s minds now… later in life they will question why the adults chose to continue. As a preschool teacher, I will be discussing that week with my fellow teachers and what we should do. But a suggestion for going forward next year as the contract runs out: Tomie DePaola. Beloved by all. Diverse. American. Bilingual. Etc ❤

    • I humbly suggest checking out the allegations made by the researchers cited in this article. Confirmation bias run amok. As for the man, Theodor Geisel not only also made cartoons promoting civil rights for African Americans and Jews way back in the 1940s, but he publicly recanted his cartoons, visited Japan and dedicated The Sneetches (strong anti-racism theme) to a Japanese friend.

      • Thank you for responding so well. I’d love if you could share a link to some of his later cartoons, or his recanting..

        • This article gives one African-American perspective on Dr. Seuss, which is the observable truth that Geisel did have some racial prejudice (again, not a surprise given the culture of the day), but that he overcame that and much faster than one would expect. http://multiracialmedia.com/dr-seuss-once-racist-writes-a-wrong/
          Also, in “Dr. Seuss Goes to War” by Richard H. Minear, the author explains that Geisel tried to make up for his earlier prejudice in other later works as well. “Horton Hears a Who” can be read allegorically. The people of Whoville are Japan, Vlad Vladikoff is Russia, etc. The whole idea for the book came from his trip to war ravaged Japan. In later decades, Geisel scanned his earlier books for racial stereotypes. In “And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street”, he changed a reference to a “yellow-faced Chinaman who eats with sticks.”
          Here are some cartoon links:
          http://library.ucsd.edu/speccoll/dswenttowar/index.html#ark:bb99667762
          http://library.ucsd.edu/speccoll/dswenttowar/index.html#ark:bb2185136v

        • Here’s a link to many of his WWII era cartoons. Even then you will see both racist ones and this link to find them. I think I cited 2 from 1942.
          http://library.ucsd.edu/speccoll/dswenttowar/index.html#intro
          Also, here’s an African American perspective on Dr. Seuss that takes his atonement into consideration. http://multiracialmedia.com/dr-seuss-once-racist-writes-a-wrong/

        • Mindy I’ve tried twice now to share links to the information you’re inquiring about. Those comments keep getting rejected. Ironic since they would demonstrate evidence how Theodor Geisel’s attitudes about race progressed. His early advertising cartoons depicting blacks were highly offensive, even if they were not promoting outright racial hatred. Then you have the war cartoons, which mock a wide range of peoples (Germans, Italians, Japanese) and groups (Isolationists, Nazi-sympathisers, and the GOP) that were considered threats to America or the war effort. But also included are cartoons mocking segregation and supporting civil rights.
          Then there is the matter of how Mr. Geisel atoned for those past portrayals. One observer noted,
          “I think Theodor Geisel apologized profusely in the 60 children’s books he authored and illustrated. Most of those books had a very strong message and they spoke out against racism, anti-imperialism, fascism, anti-corporatism, while praising or advocating for the environment, embracing and celebrating other races and cultures, being a strong role model for kids and telling kids they can achieve anything they want to achieve—not White kids, but all kids.”
          How can that be offensive to anyone? Oh, except those who want to suppress documentary evidence that counters the claims they’ve staked their credentials on.
          UC San Diego has the online special collection “Dr. Seuss Went to War” that has many cartoons you can access.

  5. We all know about Theodor Geisel’s wartime cartoons. They have been discussed for years. And? How many people in the past harbored sentiments that would be criticized widely now? Are we going to purge history of all the authors, artists, composers and creators who are suspect?

    As for the idea that the Cat in the Hat is wearing a minstrel hat and gloves? Let’s ask Dr. Seuss if that is what he meant by it.

    Oh. He’s dead. So we don’t know what inspired him. He came up with all sorts of fanciful creatures and outfits. Perhaps it came from his IMAGINATION or was inadvertently inspired by minstrel shows but not intended to be a reference to such.

    Why do talentless people spend their time deconstructing and shaming artists from the past? Why do librarians and educators indulge this trend? The average American is horrified and baffled by this behavior. Stop it.

  6. Let’s review ALL the evidence and use some critical thinking, shall we? During the WWII era, Theodor Seuss Geisel made racially insensitive cartoons of Japanese and Japanese Americans (oh, and Germans, Nazi-sympathizers, Italians). Sad, yes, but not exactly shocking given the context. Noteworthy that no mention is made of his cartoons promoting civil rights for blacks and Jews and making fun of white America First racists and isolationists because the whole theme of this article is how Geisel was racist. We must ignore it because it doesn’t fit the invented accusation that The Cat in the Hat is a racist portrayal of African-Americans. Not surprising then that the cited “research” ignores how Dr. Seuss didn’t just issue an apology for those cartoons, but visited Japan in 1953 after which he publicly recanted his anti-Japanese views during the war. To top it off he dedicates Horton Hears a Who!, the theme of which is “A person is a person no matter how small” to “My Great Friend, Mitsugi Nakamura of Kyoto, Japan.” So it turns out that Dr. Seuss is a wonderful example of ignorance being overcome by cultural understanding and racial reconciliation. One would think that would be something to promote in children’s literature. Sadly, the NEA and SLJ fell hook, line, and sinker for “analysis” rooted in confirmation bias that ignored the actual good, in order to promote a much more in vogue accusation like, Dr. Seuss books promote “social and systemic bias” because their “whiteness” is a conspiracy of silence about race. That false narrative betrays a shocking lack of knowledge of Geisel’s core beliefs as evidenced in Dr. Seuss books. The Lorax (environmental stewardship), The Butter Battle Book (absurdities of war), and, surprise, The Sneetches (a bold statement against anti-Semitism and racism). The NEA’s goal of promoting more diversity in children’s literature is a noble one. Allowing others to abuse that goal as a means to disparage the good name of Dr. Seuss with poor literary criticism because of an ax to grind or agenda, is intellectually dishonest and shameful.

    • Well said. Thank you.

    • Tween librarian says:

      Bravo!

    • Thank you so much for this answer.

    • Thank you. You have supported my thoughts with information. I am now a 30 yr. retired K/1 teacher who supplied her students with huge numbers of Dr. Seuss books to practice reading…along with over 1,000 other books, mostly science related, that I gave away to my students and the next teacher when I left teaching 3 years ago. While I can see the points made by the article, and think they are worthy of further discussion, I cannot fight against the power of his words for beginning readers. Who among us cannot quote parts of his rhyming, sing-song stories by heart…”I will not eat them with a fox, I will not eat them in a box. I will not eat them here or there. I will not eat them anywhere!”? The arguments seem to revolve a great deal around his artwork..but the words hold the greatest power.

  7. This isn’t anything to do with “racism” it has everything to do with destruction, anger and hate. These people aren’t anti racist, they are pro-chaos.

  8. Frank Rizzo says:

    Liberalism is a mental disorder.

    • James Martin says:

      What Ian said had nothing to do with Liberalism or Conservatism but with critical thinking. I’m a liberal and pretty much completely agree with him. Go elsewhere for facile idealoguist posts, please.

    • Charlotte Ballard says:

      I should think this is the kind of comment that is not permitted in SLJ commentaries, Frank. This isn’t Facebook.

  9. Mrs. Library says:

    This just proves anyone can make something out of nothing!

    I love Dr. Suess books and will continue to use them with my classes. Read the Sneetches.

  10. @Frank Rizzo, liberals — not leftists, liberals — have far more in common with conservatives than they have with leftists. This column is written from a leftist point of view, not a liberal one. Liberals operate from facts, not from feelings, and understand that it can only be feelings that would compel a view of Dr. Seuss as “centering whiteness” and drawing the Cat in the Hat as an example of minstrelsy. It is this kind of muddled analysis that leaves both liberals and conservatives in disbelief of those who see children’s literature as part of a struggle for social justice a.k.a. cultural Marxism.

  11. A person is a person no matter how small!

  12. Kelibrarian says:

    Well, I now know that SLJ is a racist organization. It’s so obvious! The eNewsletter is called “Extra Helping” and when I hear the word “helping” I think of Hamburger Helper, and the mascot for Hamburger Helper is what? A WHITE GLOVE! So. There you go. SLJ = racist.

  13. “He wrote a children’s book. Horton Hears a Who!, published in 1954, is about an elephant that has to protect a speck of dust populated by little tiny people. The book’s hopeful, inclusive refrain – “A person is a person no matter how small” — is about as far away as you can get from his ignoble words about the Japanese a decade earlier. He even dedicated the book to “My Great Friend, Mitsugi Nakamura of Kyoto, Japan.” http://www.openculture.com/2014/08/dr-seuss-draws-racist-anti-japanese-cartoons-during-ww-ii.html

  14. Leftists must be rejoicing that this calendar omits all the major religious holidays like Good Friday, Easter, Ramadan, and Yom Kippur (Christmas is there, but it is a national holiday too.). Extra rejoicing at the Engle ode to the people of Cuba, one of the western hemisphere’s worst human rights violators, where a magazine like SLJ and a Comments section like this would be banned by the state (not that Cubans can access the Internet at home, anyway).

    As for rejoicing by the rest of us, not so much.

  15. Presidential Proclamation — Read Across America Day, 2016 (proving that Katie Ishizuka knows much more about the cultural significance and racism of Dr. Seuss than former President Obama)

    READ ACROSS AMERICA DAY, 2016
    BY THE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA A PROCLAMATION

    From a child’s first foray into the depths of a story to an adult’s escape into a world of words, reading plays an integral role in our lives. Works of fiction and non-fiction alike pique interest and inspiration and shape our understanding of each other and ourselves, teaching us lessons in kindness and humility, responsibility and respect. The moment we persuade a child to pick up a book for the first time we change their lives forever for the better, and on Read Across America Day, we recommit to getting literary works into our young peoples’ hands early and often.

    March 2 is also the birthday of one of America’s revered wordsmiths. Theodor Seuss Geisel — or Dr. Seuss — used his incredible talent to instill in his most impressionable readers universal values we all hold dear. Through a prolific collection of stories, he made children see that reading is fun, and in the process, he emphasized respect for all; pushed us to accept ourselves for who we are; challenged preconceived notions and encouraged trying new things; and by example, taught us that we are limited by nothing but the range of our aspirations and the vibrancy of our imaginations. And for older lovers of literature, he reminded us not to take ourselves too seriously, creating wacky and wild characters and envisioning creative and colorful places.

    Books reveal unexplored universes and stimulate curiosity, and in underserved communities, they play a particularly important role in prompting inquisition and encouraging ambition. Last month, the First Lady announced the launch of Open eBooks, a new project that will unlock a world of learning and possibility for millions of American children and provide over $250 million worth of reading material to students who need it most. As we work to get every child engrossed in literature, we honor the many people who devote their lives and careers to carrying forward this important cause — including our librarians, educators, and parents. We can all get lost in a good read, and we owe it to rising learners to give them the chance to experience that same enjoyment and fulfillment.

    Today, and every day, let us celebrate the power of reading by promoting literacy and supporting new opportunities for students to plunge into the pages of a book. As Dr. Seuss noted, “The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.” Together, we can help all children go plenty of places along their unending journey for knowledge and ensure everyone can find joy and satisfaction in the wonders of the written word.

    NOW, THEREFORE, I, BARACK OBAMA, President of the United States of America, by virtue of the authority vested in me by the Constitution and the laws of the United States, do hereby proclaim March 2, 2016, as Read Across America Day. I call upon children, families, educators, librarians, public officials, and all the people of the United States to observe this day with appropriate programs, ceremonies, and activities.

    IN WITNESS WHEREOF, I have hereunto set my hand this first day of March, in the year of our Lord two thousand sixteen, and of the Independence of the United States of America the two hundred and fortieth.

    BARACK OBAMA

  16. “Ishizuka [a cousin of Kathy Ishizuka, SLJ’s executive editor] and Stephens emphasize that they’re not trying to ban Dr. Seuss.”

    Oh no, of course not.
    They’d rather he be Unpersoned.

  17. Lona Sepessy says:

    This is purely a response comment not an analysis. I appreciate dialogue about these issues as so many different points-of-view provide a direct experience of the richness of diversity. But as happens all to often, initial replies are thought provoking and well-reasoned, followed by a descent into name-calling and a sarcasm that is not humorous and degrades the value of your point as well as sours the whole conversation. Self-monitor before clicking and ask yourself, “am I just venting,” or is my comment providing a new perspective and adding to the conversation. I soured on this conversation as the name calling and pigeon-holing began. Bring your best to your comments please.

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