November 21, 2017

The Advocate's Toolbox

Authors “Heartened” by Seuss Museum’s Removal of Mural

The Amazing World of Dr. Seuss Museum
Photo: Springfield Museums

An illustration published 80 years ago by children’s book author Theodor Geisel, aka Dr. Seuss, sparked a social media firestorm and the cancellation of a literary festival to honor the writer.

The inaugural Springfield Children’s Literature Festival at the Springfield (MA) Museums was to launch the opening of its new “The Amazing World of Dr. Seuss Museum” and feature children’s book authors Mo Willems, Lisa Yee, and Mike Curato.

But 11 days before the event, the three contacted the museum to express concerns about a mural adorning the front entrance to the space. The mural features an illustration from And To Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, Dr. Seuss’s first book, published in 1937, of an Asian man drawn with slanted eyes, wearing a pointed hat, and carrying chopsticks.

Karen Fisk, director of public relations and marketing at the Springfield Museums, says that after the authors made the initial contact, the museum asked the writers for further dialogue.

But the authors, says Fisk, went public with a letter on Twitter instead. In the letter, the authors state that the museum’s “…administration replied that it was the responsibility of visitors to contextualize the oversize painting of the ‘Chinaman’ for their younger wards, not theirs.”

That exchange, says Fisk, is not correct.

“I will restate that our original response was, ‘Please let’s talk about this,’ which means ‘let’s make sure we all understand what we all think before we move forward with anything,’” Fisk says. “They didn’t take me up on the offer to talk.”

Curato declined to speak to School Library Journal through an email from agent Brenda Bowen. Emails to Willems and Yee’s publishers were not returned.

Hundreds of comments followed the original Twitter posting from Willems’s account, some expressing anger at the authors’ refusal to attend the Seuss Museum event, with others supporting them for their stance.

The decision by the authors came one month after school librarian Liz Phipps Soeiro penned a public letter to First Lady Melania Trump, posted on The Horn Book site, declining a gift of 10 books by Seuss to her school for reasons that include his illustrations being “steeped in racist propaganda, caricatures, and harmful stereotypes.”

That the early work of Dr. Seuss included racial stereotypes, particularly during World War II, is fairly well-documented. And Dr. Seuss himself reportedly expressed regret over some of his early illustrations.

Grace Lin 
Photo by Alan Bradley

Author Grace Lin, recipient of the American Library Association’s Theodor Seuss Geisel Award, weighed in on the matter regarding the Seuss Museum, writing on her blog that some of Dr. Seuss’s children’s stories, including Horton Hears a Who and The Sneetches, were later thought to be apologies for his earlier work. She further wrote that Geisel even changed the figure in the Mulberry Street book, removing the character’s pigtail and turning his coloring from yellow to white.

“And that is what makes Geisel a good man and artist,” Lin posts. “He was willing to grow from his original mindset, realize the harm that [sic] his work could do and get better.”

Lin believes the image itself, while something that causes her to “wince,” could be used as a teachable moment—if put into context where museum goers could learn about this earlier work of Geisel’s, and how he himself addressed later in his career.

But instead, the museum will remove the mural, “and replace it with a new image that reflects the wonderful characters and messages from Dr. Seuss’s later works,” according to the Springfield Museums’ Facebook page in a post that went live at 7:30 p.m. on October 5.

Although a businessman reportedly offered to purchase the mural from the museum, Fisk says that the museum is not considering the proposal.

“Nor would we be able to sell it,” she says. “It’s not possible.”

Instead, the museum is looking for a way to potentially use the mural “…as a teachable moment, and we are presently exploring ways to help guide parents and teachers in addressing this issue with children,” said Kay Simpson, president of the Springfield Museums, in a statement forwarded to SLJ.

Willems, Lee, and Curato all stated they were “heartened” by the museum’s decision to remove what Willems called the “objectionable mural” in a letter dated October 5 and posted to Twitter. They further extended their offer to “appear at the museum as previously planned, should you wish it.”

That event, is for now, rescheduled.

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Lauren Barack About Lauren Barack

School Library Journal contributing editor Lauren Barack writes about the connection between media and education, business, and technology. A recipient of the Loeb Award for online journalism, she can be found at www.laurenbarack.com.

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