The Cat, Seuss, and Race

Dr. Seuss, Cat in the Hat's hatLast June, on rather short notice, the Artistic Director for the Adventure Theatre Company asked if I would write a program note for their upcoming production of The Cat in the Hat (June 18-August 21, 2019). They had read my work on Seuss and racism, shared these concerns, and asked if I could provide something, ideally including “‘questions for the ride home’ (a series of questions that parents and kids can talk about, after they leave the theatre).” I’m posting the result today, on Dr. Seuss’s birthday, in case this condensed version of these ideas might be of use to others.

Here is a link to a pdf directly from the program.

Here is the full text (below).


        Was the Cat in the Hat Black? After all, he’s a cat, isn’t he?    

        Seuss’s Cat is racially complicated. Like a lot of 20th century popular culture (i.e. Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse), the Cat is partially inspired by blackface minstrelsy, a popular theatrical entertainment in the 19th century and first half of the 20th century, in which performers blackened their faces to impersonate and mock Blackness. The Cat in the Hat’s outrageous fashion sense (white gloves, brightly colored hat and bow tie), exaggerated styles of movement, breaking rules that he pretends to follow, and his confidence-man behavior all derive from a common minstrel character.

        Seuss (born Theodor Seuss Geisel, 1904-1991) did both racist work and anti-racist work, often at the same time. In the 1940s, he drew political cartoons, some of which dehumanized people of Japanese descent, and others of which opposed both anti-Semitism and racism against African Americans. In the 1950s, Seuss published Horton Hears a Who!, hailed by one reviewer as “a rhymed lesson in protection of minorities and their rights.”  He also wrote his first version of The Sneetches, an anti-racist fable, and he published an essay that critiques racist humor. During that same period, he used racist caricature in his books. In If I Ran the Zoo, protagonist Gerald McGrew travels to “the mountains of Zomba-ma-Tant / With helpers who all wear their eyes at a slant,” and to the “African Island of Yerka” where he meets two stereotypically rendered Black men.

        That Seuss is doing both racist and anti-racist work at the same time can be confusing because many of us see racism as an “either/or”: people are either racist or not racist. Indeed, that’s how Seuss himself understood racism. Unfortunately, racism is more of a “both/and.” It’s not unusual. It’s ordinary. It’s embedded in culture — such as the cartoons and books of Dr. Seuss.

        It’s upsetting to learn that a beloved children’s author used racist caricature. So, many people — especially White people — seek excuses. In response to recent criticism, his grand-nephew Ted Owens has said of Seuss: “I know one thing for sure — I never saw one ounce of racism in anything he said, or how he lived his life, or what his stories were about.” Mr. Owens’ claim relies on perception and intent. But racism does not require either. People can perpetuate racism without intending to. I don’t think Seuss intended to. Because he was unaware of the degree to which his visual imagination was steeped in caricature, he used racist stereotypes even as he was also writing anti-racist stories. We might see Dr. Seuss as the “woke” White guy who wasn’t as woke as he thought.

        “Now, wait just a minute,” you might object. “People thought differently then.” But all people at any given time do not think about race in precisely the same way. As Robin Bernstein has shown in her work on nineteenth-century anti-racism, the range of available racial beliefs remains constant over time, but the distribution of those beliefs change. Both extraordinary and ordinary people have opposed White supremacy. Both extraordinary and ordinary people have supported White supremacy. To claim that people 60 years ago were racist but people now are enlightened both suggests that past racism was inevitable and implies that social change is a natural, ongoing march. Yet, progress makes gains and endures setbacks, and always requires people committed to making a positive difference.

        So, what do we do with the Cat in the Hat? Do we say that the blackface influence would probably not be noticed, and so is not damaging? Does a gentle caricature prepare us to accept a more harmful caricature? Should the race of the actor playing the Cat in this production influence your response? And what do we do with Dr. Seuss?

        These are not easy questions. But these are conversations we need to have.


For a more fully developed version of the above, take a look at the title chapter of my Was the Cat in the Hat Black?: The Hidden Racism of Children’s Literature, and the Need for Diverse Books (Oxford UP, 2017; paperback edition with new afterword, 2019). With luck, it will be available in your local library. If not, it’s available via all the usual venues.


Some previous posts on Seuss

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“The Cat Is Out of the Bag”

At left: Dr. Seuss, from “Four Places Not to Hide While Growing Your Beard” (Life, 15 Nov. 1929). At right: Dr. Seuss, The Cat in the Hat (1957).

As we reconsider the works of Dr. Seuss on what would have been his (well, Theodor Seuss Geisel’s) 115th birthday, I encourage you to take a look at Katie Ishizuka and Ramón Stephens’ “The Cat is Out of the Bag: Orientalism, Anti-Blackness, and White Supremacy in Dr. Seuss’s Children’s Books,” just published in Research on Diversity in Youth Literature last month. To give you a sense of the article’s impact, it has been downloaded over 18,000 times (as of this writing) and is mentioned in an NPR story.

I don’t have anything further to add, having written quite a bit on Seuss — including the influence of blackface minstrelsy on the Cat in the Hat. You can find that in the title chapter of Was the Cat in the Hat Black?: The Hidden Racism of Children’s Literature and the Need for Diverse Books (2017), which will be out in paperback on the 29th of this month. The paperback includes a new Afterword on “Why Adults Refuse to Admit Racist Content in the Children’s Books They Love” — in which I read some of the hate mail that the hardcover inspired, with the goal of educating people who are reluctant to reflect on their “problematic faves” from childhood.

Philip Nel, Was the Cat in the Hat Black?: The Hidden Racism of Children's Literature, and the Need for Diverse Books (Oxford UP, July 2017)
Was the Cat in the Hat Black? (paperback out 29 Mar. 2019)

Posts related to Was the Cat in the Hat Black?, including glimpses of the work in progress:


Some previous posts on Seuss

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What to do with Dr. Seuss?

The objects of your nostalgic longing may disappoint you, if you are willing to look at them openly and honestly.  If you read, create, or write about children’s literature, today — the 114th birthday of Theodor Geisel (a.k.a. Dr. Seuss) — would be a good time to admit this to yourself.  OK, the time for such admission is really long overdue, but do not be too hard on yourself. The power of cultural inertia is hard to resist.

That said, do resist. Make the attempt. As Seuss himself wrote in a different context, “face up to your problems / whatever they are.”

Read Across America: An NEA ProjectThis particular problem is one to tackle today because Seuss’s work contains both much to admire and much to oppose. Yet, because of his status, people are much more comfortable admiring than looking critically at his work. In the U.S., he is revered as a patron saint of children’s literacy, and children’s literature. In 1997, the National Education Association adopted his birthday as a day to celebrate “Read Across America Day.” It still uses his Cat in the Hat as its mascot, even though — starting this year — it’s shifting its focus to diverse books.

I am partly to blame for this shift.

Philip Nel, Was the Cat in the Hat Black?: The Hidden Racism of Children's Literature, and the Need for Diverse Books (Oxford UP, July 2017)In a report that helped inspire this change, Katie Ishizuka-Stephens cites the essay that became the title chapter of my Was the Cat in the Hat Black? As I point out, Seuss’s Cat is racially complicated. He’s partially inspired by blackface minstrelsy, African American elevator operator Annie Williams (who wore white gloves and a secret smile), and Krazy Kat (the black, ambiguously gendered creation of bi-racial cartoonist George Herriman).

I’m happy that Ishizuka-Stephens’s report has persuaded the NEA to shift their “Read Across America Day” focus to diverse books. Half of U.S. school-age children are nonwhite. But of children’s books published in 2016, only 22 percent of children’s books published featured nonwhite children, and only 13 percent were by nonwhite creators. Celebrating stories in which our multicultural young people can see themselves is a better choice than celebrating Seuss.

Which is not to say that Seuss must be thrown out of our classrooms — though that is of course an option. It is, rather, to suggest that we consider which Seuss we use, and how we use it.

At left: Dr. Seuss, from “Four Places Not to Hide While Growing Your Beard” (Life, 15 Nov. 1929). At right: Dr. Seuss, The Cat in the Hat (1957).

Racial caricature in Seuss’s work can help people understand how racism works. Seuss did both racist work and anti-racist work, often at the same time. In the 1940s, he created political cartoons, some of which dehumanized people of Japanese descent, and others of which were critical of both anti-Semitism and racism against African Americans. In the 1950s, Seuss published Horton Hears a Who!, hailed by one reviewer as “a rhymed lesson in protection of minorities and their rights”; wrote his first version of The Sneetches, an anti-racist fable; and published an essay that critiques racist humor. During that same period, he recycled racist caricature in his books.  In If I Ran the Zoo, protagonist Gerald McGrew travels to “the mountains of Zomba-ma-Tant / With helpers who all wear their eyes at a slant,” and to the “African Island of Yerka” where he meets two stereotypically rendered Black men.

That Seuss is doing both racist anti-racist work at the same time can be confusing because many of us see racism as an “either/or”: people are either racist or not racist. Indeed, that’s how Seuss himself understood racism. In a June 1942 cartoon titled “What This Country Needs is a Good Mental Insecticide,” he draws a long line of men waiting to get inoculated against the “racial prejudice bug.” The insecticide goes in one ear, and the racist bug tumbles out the other.  I wish we could fumigate racism from our minds, and applaud Seuss’s optimism. Unfortunately, racism is not a bug. It’s a feature. Racism is not aberrant. It’s ordinary. It’s embedded in institutions and in culture — such as the cartoons and books of Dr. Seuss.

Dr. Seuss, "What This Country Needs Is a Good Mental Insecticide" (PM, 10 June 1942)

It’s upsetting to learn that a beloved children’s author used racist caricature. So, many people — especially White people — seek explanations and offer excuses. In response to recent criticism, his grand-nephew Ted Owens has said of Seuss: “I know one thing for sure — I never saw one ounce of racism in anything he said, or how he lived his life, or what his stories were about.” Mr. Owens’ claim relies on perception and intent. But racism does not require either. People can perpetuate racism without intending to. I don’t think Seuss intended to. Because he was unaware of the degree to which his visual imagination was steeped in caricature, he recycled racist stereotypes even as he was also writing anti-racist parables. Dr. Seuss was the “woke” White guy who isn’t as woke as he thinks he is.

Robin Bernstein, page 1 from "Signposts on the Road Less Taken: John Newton Hyde's Anti-Racist Illustrations of African-American Children"“Now, wait just a minute,” some may object. “Seuss was a man of his time. We should not impose contemporary standards on him or his work. People thought differently then.” But that is a gross oversimplification. All people in any given historical moment do not think about race in precisely the same way. As Robin Bernstein has shown in her work on nineteenth-century anti-racism, the range of available racial beliefs remains constant over time, but the distribution of those beliefs change. In the past and in the present, both extraordinary and perfectly ordinary people have opposed White supremacy. Similarly, both remarkable and unremarkable people have supported White supremacy. To claim that people 60 years ago were racist but people now are enlightened both naturalizes past racism as inevitable and implies that social change is a natural, ongoing march towards a brighter, fairer future. Yet, as we are reminded daily, our current president and his party are actively working against precisely such a future. Progress moves in fits and starts, makes gains and endures setbacks, and always requires people committed to making a positive difference.

Dr. Seuss, Horton Hears a Who! (1954)Seuss can be part of this positive difference. His more progressive books — The Lorax (1971) or The Butter Battle Book (1984), to name two examples — might teach children about the need to care for the environment or to oppose the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Horton Hears a Who! could teach them to stand up for those who are targeted by bigots: the Whos’ size is an arbitrary mark of difference that could represent any such visible sign of human variance. As for the books featuring racist caricature, one option is to remove them from the curriculum. Another is to read them critically. With the guidance of a thoughtful educator, Seuss’s racist caricature can help young people understand that racism is not anomalous. It permeates the culture. Seeing this caricature can also let them know that it’s OK to be angry at art — that anger can in fact be a healthy response to work that demeans you.

We might also follow Roxane Gay’s advice. As she writes, “There is no scarcity of creative genius, and that is the artistic work we can and should turn to instead.” Gay is writing in the context of the current #MeToo movement, suggesting that we discard work built on the dehumanization of others. We could follow her advice by pushing Seuss aside and instead celebrating diverse books — doing what the NEA is doing in its program even if it (curiously) retains the Cat in the Hat as its mascot.  Ishizuka-Stephens has assembled a great collection of  “21 Books for an Inclusive Read Across America Day.”  That’s an excellent place to start.

Wrapping yourself in an unreflective nostalgia for the art you grew up with may comfort you, but if that art denigrates women, or caricatures people of color, or otherwise harms minoritized communities, then you bear responsibility for the pain that this art inflicts. I realize this is a hard truth to face and that some who read this will — instead of facing themselves and acknowledging their responsibility — attack the messenger. Some may indulge in projection, locating in the messenger those faults that they refuse to admit in themselves. Others will find different strategies of denial, displacement, or dismissal. In so doing, they will continue to be part of the problem.

Boym, The Future of NostalgiaFor those who prefer to be part of the solution, know that you need not abandon nostalgia. It’s OK to be nostalgic, as long as that nostalgia is what Svetlana Boym called “reflective nostalgia.” It “dwells on the ambivalences of human longing and belonging and does not shy away from the contradictions of modernity. Restorative nostalgia protects the absolute truth, while reflective nostalgia calls it into doubt” (xviii).  As Boym wrote, reflective nostalgia reminds us that “longing and critical thinking are not opposed to one another, as affective memories do not absolve one from compassion, judgment or critical reflection” (The Future of  Nostalgia 49-50).

So. Reflect. Dwell on those ambivalences. Develop your capacity to reflect.  Activate your compassion.

And buy diverse books. Teach diverse books. Read diverse books.


Posts related to Was the Cat in the Hat Black?, including glimpses of the work in progress:


Some previous posts on Seuss

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Racism & Seuss: It’s not a bug. It’s a feature. (A Twitter Essay)

So, as racism is on the rise, people seek examples of anti-racist thought to share.  This is helpful!  We need models from the past and present to guide us through these perilous times and (let us hope) towards a better future.

Dr. Seuss is one of the people who is often quoted and shared.  He’s a useful example, although not always in the ways that people think.  Seuss often gets portrayed as someone whose thinking on race evolved.  And to come clean here, I myself am personally responsible for promoting this belief in my earlier scholarship on his work.  The problem is that this is only half true: his thinking on race did change, but it also didn’t.

Dr. Seuss, "What This Country Needs Is a Good Mental Insecticide" (PM, 10 June 1942)

This evening, seeing the Seuss “racial prejudice bug” cartoon shared again (in the wake of white supremacist terrorism in Charlottesville) inspired this impromptu Twitter essay.  It seemed worth sharing with a wider audience — so, I’ve gathered my Tweets into this blog post.


There are many other posts on this blog tagged Seuss. Here’s a selection:

From time to time, I get asked to talk about Dr. Seuss:

  • Sarah Begley, “The Hidden (and Not So Hidden) Racism in Children’s Books,” Time 27 July 2017.
  • Sopan Deb, “At the Dr. Seuss Museum: Oh, the Places They Don’t Go!” New York Times 21 June 2017.
  • Joshua Barajas, “8 Things You Didn’t Know About Dr. Seuss,” PBS News Hour blog, 22 July 2015.
  • “New Window into Dr. Seuss’s genius” (26 Feb. 2014). John Wilkens’ article in the San Diego Tribune discusses new Seuss material that his widow, Audrey, donated to the Dr. Seuss Papers at UCSD.
  • “Dr. Seuss: Mini-Biography.”  A&E Biography (2013).  Time: 4 minutes.
  • All Things Considered. Lynn Neary, “‘The Bippolo Seed’ : The ‘Lost’ Dr. Seuss Stories” (13 Apr. 2011): audio & transcript.  Charles Cohen & I talk about the new book of “lost” Seuss stories (edited by Charles).  Time: 3 mins, 30 secs.
  • Diane Rehm Show. Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (22 Dec. 2010): audio | transcript. Reverend Derrick Harkins, Maria Salvadore, and I talk with Diane Rehm about the Grinch.  Time: 1 hour.
  • Morning Edition. Lynn Neary, “Fifty Years of The Cat in the Hat” (1 Mar. 2007): audio & transcript. Anita Silvey and I talk with Lynn Neary about the Cat in the Hat.  Time: 7 mins, 20 secs.
  • Talk of the Nation.  Steve Inskeep, “Celebrating the 100th Birthday of Dr. Seuss: A New Book Looks Back on the Life of Theodor Geisel” (10 Feb. 2004): audio.  I was a bit nervous at the beginning (I believe it was my first time on live national radio), but after the first few minutes I seem to settle into it well enough.  Time: 1 hour.

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Seuss’s Matilda: Horton’s Ancestor

Happy Birthday, Dr. Seuss!  To celebrate the 113th anniversary of Theodor Seuss Geisel’s birth, here are two things Seussian.

1. The True Story of Horton Hatches the Egg

Dr. Seuss, Horton Hatches the Egg (1940)When asked how he came up with the idea of Horton Hatches the Egg (1940), Seuss would often give an answer like this (from a September 1972 interview):

Horton Hatches the Egg was a lucky accident. I was in my New York studio one day, sketching on transparent tracing paper, and I had the window open. The wind simply took a picture of an elephant that I’d drawn and put it on top of another sheet of paper that had a tree on it. All I had to do was to figure out what the elephant was doing in that tree. I’ve left my window open for 30 years since that, but nothing’s happened.

That’s a delightful story, but it’s not true.  Not only do earlier accounts contradict it, but in a 1938 issue of Judge magazine, Seuss published “Matilda, the Elephant with a Mother Complex.” In that story, an elephant also hatches an egg — but it does not turn out happily. Matilda’s egg hatches, the bird sees her, and it flies off in terror. In contrast, Horton’s baby elephant-bird chooses him over its biological mother, Mayzie.

This past December, Southebys attempted to auction some original art of Matilda — though not precisely the art used in that Judge story. It seems to be an earlier version of the art, but it’s not clear how much earlier. Its provenance suggests it could be over a decade older.

Dr. Seuss, Matilda the Compassionate Elephant (1938)

The auction described the piece like this:

ESTIMATE: $30,000 – $40,000
DESCRIPTION: signed Dr.Seuss pen-and-ink drawing on paper 10 1/2 x 6 1/2 inches; 11 x 8 1/2 inches (267 x 165 mm; 279 x 216 mm) Executed circa 1938.
CATALOG NOTE: A delightful original drawing comprising the earliest known version of Dr Seuss’s beloved character Horton (here a femaile [sic] elephant, Matilda), looking very pleased with herself, seated on a small egg, with captions written on banners above and below the image.

The catalogue offers other information, some of it accurate and some of it less so.  But let’s skip ahead to the provenance:

PROVENANCE: Given by Geisel to Harvey Poe, Jr (born in 1916) while the artist was vacationing in Brookline, Maine (Harvey Poe, Sr managed the Mountain Ash Inn & Cottages, where the artist stayed). Mr Poe believes it was given to him when he was about 9 (i.e. 1925) and while this is of course possible, it seems more likely the drawing was given to him well after Geisel’s return from Europe, probably soon after the similar design appeared in Judge magazine (April 1938).

Is the piece really from 1925? It could be. On June 23rd, Geisel graduated from Dartmouth, and two months later left for Oxford, England.  He was in the U.S. for most of 1925, and not far from Brookline, Maine.  In addition to New Hampshire (where Dartmouth is), Geisel was also in Springfield, Massachusetts (his hometown). Prior to then, he had been drawing cartoons for Dartmouth’s Jack-o-Lantern.  Stylistically, however, this piece looks closer to his art from a decade later.

Priced at $30,000-$40,000, the original “Matilda” drawing failed to sell.  To the best of my knowledge, it is still being held at Southebys. So, if you have that sort of cash lying around (I don’t!), try bidding on next time it goes up for auction.

2. Me, talking about Seuss, yesterday on The Joy Cardin Show.

I was on for the entire 8 o’clock hour of yesterday’s show.  Did I have anything interesting to say?  You be the judge.  Listen here.


To continue your celebration of Seuss’s birthday, you may enjoy perusing other posts tagged Seuss. Here’s a selection:

From time to time, I get asked to talk about Dr. Seuss:

  • Joshua Barajas, “8 Things You Didn’t Know About Dr. Seuss,” PBS News Hour blog, 22 July 2015.
  • “New Window into Dr. Seuss’s genius” (26 Feb. 2014). John Wilkens’ article in the San Diego Tribune discusses new Seuss material that his widow, Audrey, donated to the Dr. Seuss Papers at UCSD.
  • “Dr. Seuss: Mini-Biography.”  A&E Biography (2013).  Time: 4 minutes.
  • All Things Considered. Lynn Neary, “‘The Bippolo Seed’ : The ‘Lost’ Dr. Seuss Stories” (13 Apr. 2011): audio & transcript.  Charles Cohen & I talk about the new book of “lost” Seuss stories (edited by Charles).  Time: 3 mins, 30 secs.
  • Diane Rehm Show. Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (22 Dec. 2010): audio | transcript. Reverend Derrick Harkins, Maria Salvadore, and I talk with Diane Rehm about the Grinch.  Time: 1 hour.
  • Morning Edition. Lynn Neary, “Fifty Years of The Cat in the Hat” (1 Mar. 2007): audio & transcript. Anita Silvey and I talk with Lynn Neary about the Cat in the Hat.  Time: 7 mins, 20 secs.
  • Talk of the Nation.  Steve Inskeep, “Celebrating the 100th Birthday of Dr. Seuss: A New Book Looks Back on the Life of Theodor Geisel” (10 Feb. 2004): audio.  I was a bit nervous at the beginning (I believe it was my first time on live national radio), but after the first few minutes I seem to settle into it well enough.  Time: 1 hour.

Though the website design impedes its utility, Random House’s Seussville‘s author section includes a bio. and timeline I wrote — the former heavily influenced by Judith and Neil Morgan’s excellent Dr. Seuss & Mr. Geisel.  (If you read only one book about Dr. Seuss, the Morgans’ bio is the one I’d recommend.) Happy Read Across America Day!*


*Each year on or near March 2nd (the birthday of Theodor Seuss Geisel, a.k.a. Dr. Seuss), the National Education Association sponsors Read Across America, designed to promote literacy. This year, it’s being celebrated on Wednesday, March 2nd. Read more about it at the NEA’s website.

Read Across America: An NEA Project

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You’re a mean one, Dr. Nel. Your voice is full of gunk!

GrinchThe holidays! When people sing — and expect you to sing. Except, perhaps, you don’t want to sing. Maybe you are shy. Or self-conscious about your voice. Or you imagine that everyone else sings better than you do.

Well, worry no more!  I am here to cure your self-consciousness, and to prove that many people are much, much worse singers. Me, for example. So, here I am performing “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” — the lyrics of Dr. Seuss, and music of Albert Hague — from the 1966 TV special How the Grinch Stole Christmas!

To cleanse your palate after that, here’s the original, as performed by Thurl Ravenscroft. No, Boris Karloff does not sing the songs in How the Grinch Stole Christmas! He does the narration only. All songs are performed by the late great Thurl Ravenscroft (1914-2005) — whom you may also know as the voice of Tony the Tiger (“They’re grrrrreat!”). Learn more about him at All Things Thurl.

May your bingle balls brighten, your whofoo fluff lighten, your pantookas heighten, and your bizzle-binks delight ’em.  Happy Holidays!  Merry Christmas!  Happy Hanukkah!  Merry Solstice!  Festive Festivus!  Indeed, happy Whatever-You-Would-Like-to-Celebrate!

(It’s been a tough year.  Do not deny yourself joy.  Find light where you can.  Take care of yourself.  Tougher times lie ahead.  During the holidays, do your best to recharge your spirit.  Peace.)

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Was the Cat in the Hat Black? — cover reveal

Here is the cover for my next book, Was the Cat in the Hat Black?: The Hidden Racism of Children’s Literature, and the Need for Diverse Books, forthcoming from Oxford University Press in July 2017.  Since it (the cover) is now on some websites (notably Oxford UP & Amazon.com), I thought I’d share it here.

Philip Nel, Was the Cat in the Hat Black?: The Hidden Racism of Children's Literature, and the Need for Diverse Books (Oxford UP, July 2017)

THANKS to Oxford UP’s Lucas Heinrich for his design and editor Sarah Pirovitz for her tolerance of my perfectionism.* And thanks to aesthetically adept friends who shared their thoughts on the cover: Megan Montague Cash, Mark Newgarden, Mervi Pakaste, and Dan Warner.  Thanks also to all of my colleagues who I polled on a rather minor distinction between two versions of the cover.

While I’m offering a preview of the cover, here’s a preview of the…

Table of Contents

Introduction: Race, Racism, and the Cultures of Childhood

1. The Strange Career of the Cat in the Hat; or, Dr. Seuss’s Racial Imagination

2. How to Read Uncomfortably: Racism, Affect, and Classic Children’s Books

3. Whiteness, Nostalgia, and Fantastic Flying Books: William Joyce’s Racial Erasures vs. Hurricane Katrina

4. Don’t Judge a Book by Its Color: The Destructive Fantasy of Whitewashing (and Vice-Versa)

5. Childhoods “Outside the Boundaries of Imagination”: Genre is the New Jim Crow

Conclusion: A Manifesto for Anti-Racist Children’s Literature

_________________

*Just to be clear: we made only minor tweaks to Mr. Heinrich’s design. This is a testament to his talents.  I’m very particular about covers!  (A few proposed book covers — none of which were seen publicly in that form — have yielded a fair bit of email debate between me and the publisher of the work.  This one yielded hardly any such debate… because it’s great!)

Related posts on this blog; or, glimpses of the work in progress:

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How Do We Stop the Trump on the Stump? The Truth Is in Seuss!

Many have likened Donald Trump to a “schoolyard bully.” Back in September, Mr. Trump even admitted that his own campaign rhetoric had been “a little childish.” To best understand a candidate who addresses voters at a fourth-grade level, we need the stories of one of our most plain-spoken political analysts — Dr. Seuss. These four Seuss books best explain Mr. Trump’s character, and offer insight into how to prevent him from conning his way into the presidency.

Dr. Seuss, The Cat in the Hat (1957)At first, the Trump on the stump may seem like the Cat in the Hat. He refuses to play by the rules, and disdains the advice of the political establishment (represented by the fish in Seuss’s story), but he’s very entertaining. He knows some new tricks — a lot of good tricks. Perhaps he should not be here, but — wait — he’s going to show us another good game that he knows? And it’s going to be amazing, fantastic, tremendous, hugely classy? The Trump, like the Cat, is disruptive and exciting. However, as Robert Coover’s satirical novella The Cat in the Hat for President (1968) points out, nominating Seuss’s Cat for president would be very risky. While an unpredictable clown can be fun to watch, he’s dangerous to put in charge.

Dr. Seuss, The Sneetches (1961)Of Seuss’s many con-artist characters (the Cat, the Grinch, the Once-Ler), Sylvester McMonkey McBean is the most Trumpish. A businessman, McBean makes his money by exploiting the prejudices of the Star-Belly Sneetches and the Plain-Belly Sneetches. To the excluded Plain-Belly Sneetches, he says: “I’ve heard you’re unhappy. But I can fix that.” He insists, “I have what you need,” and promises “my work is one hundred per cent guaranteed!” After the formerly star-less have all paid for stars on their bellies, McBean then turns to the original star-bellied group, and offers to remove their stars. So begins an “Off again! On again!” race in which Sneetches alternately pay to gain and pay to lose stars, until they all run out of money. Seated in a car now overflowing with bags of their cash, McBean drives away laughing.

Like McBean, Trump is adept at exploiting the hatreds of his constituents. According to him, Mexicans are “criminals” but also “good people.” Muslims should be banned from entering the U.S. but also are “wonderful people.” Oh, and Islam “hates us.” He flaunts his racism less out of conviction and more because he knows that manipulating people’s prejudices will help him sell himself as the solution.

Dr. Seuss, Horton Hears a Who! (1954)As Ezra Klein observes, Donald Trump has “the demagogue’s instinct for finding the angriest voice in the crowd and amplifying it.” This talent makes Trump an ally of the kangaroo from Horton Hears a Who! (1954). While Horton the elephant works to save the Whos, the kangaroo rallies the mob that nearly kills them. Her delight in encouraging violence echoes that of Trump, who has said of one protester “I’d like to punch him in the face.” When two of his followers attacked a homeless man, Trump excused their behavior by noting that his supporters were “very passionate.” At rallies, Trump condones violence against his opponents.

Dr. Seuss, Yertle the Turtle (1958)The kangaroo, the Cat, and McBean all illuminate aspects of the Trump psyche, but, to glimpse a Trump presidency, we need look to Yertle the Turtle, the despotic reptile who loves to brag about all he owns: “I’m king of the butterflies! King of the air! / Ah, me! What a throne! What a wonderful chair!” If Trump delivered one of his “I’m really rich” speeches in anapestic verse, he would sound just like Yertle. Seuss wrote Yertle the Turtle (1958) as an anti-fascist parable, in which the turtle king represented Hitler. Trump is not Hitler, but he is an authoritarian bully who scapegoats society’s vulnerable. He rejects democratic institutions — many of his proposals (such as the mass deportation of Muslims) are unconstitutional. Like Yertle, Trump is interested only in his own power, and not in his constituents’ welfare. In Seuss’s book, Yertle quite literally builds his empire on the backs of his citizens. This, too, is how Trump operates, and is what a Trump presidency would look like.

At the end of each Seuss story, the villain either fails or changes. Led by Mack’s revolutionary “burp,” Yertle’s subjects topple their king, freeing themselves and relegating Yertle to “King of the Mud.” In Horton Hears a Who!, the kangaroo changes her mind, recognizes the Whos’ humanity, and vows to protect them. The Sneetches (1961) ends with the Sneetches poorer, but wiser, having learned “that Sneetches are Sneetches / And no kind of Sneetch is the best on the beaches.” But what will be the end of Trump’s story?

Will the Trump on the stump make us all chumps?

Or will people wise up, and send Trump to the dump?

There’s no land of the free in his presidency.

Only anger and threats, bluster and bigotry.

If the Trump’s demagoguery wins in the fall,

Then a new idiocracy threatens us all.


I wrote this about a month ago, & pitched it to Buzzfeed & Politico, but got no response. In one version, I opened with a reference to Jimmy Kimmel’s December 2015 clip, in which he presents an ersatz Seuss children’s book as a commentary on Mr. Trump. I offer it here as a little bonus material.

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Seuss on Film

Dr. Seuss Working, c. 1940sAs a famous author whose life spanned the twentieth century, Dr. Seuss (1904-1991) should have been often in newsreels and on TV, right? From time to time, he does appear on camera — but less often than we might expect. In celebration of what would have been his 112th birthday, here’s a brief (but far from complete) collection of Seuss on film!

Below, are four film clips — two from the 1940s, one from 1958, and one from 1964. All are short: Unusual Occupations (1940) is 2 minutes, he’s only in the first 45 seconds of Making SNAFU (c. 1943), To Tell the Truth (1958) is under 8 minutes, and the New Zealand schoolroom (1964) is under 4 minutes.  However, if you’re running short on time, skip ahead to the New Zealand schoolroom.  That’s my favorite of the group.

Two of these (c. 1943, 1958) were already on YouTube, but the other two (1940, 1964) are — as far as I know — making their YouTube debut today. Enjoy!


Unusual Occupations (1940)

The earliest known film footage of Dr. Seuss is in color!  Sadly, there’s no audio. But you do get to see him with the sculptures he was making. He called them “Unorthodox Taxidermy” and sold them via mail.  Though his fourth children’s book (Horton Hatches the Egg) was published the same year as this clip, Seuss’s main occupation at this time was advertising: the “Seuss Navy” line in the narration references his adds for Esso.  Also, though the narrator describes him as a “doctor of literature,” he wasn’t.  He dropped out of his M.A. program, and never pursued the Ph.D.  But he did use “Dr.” for his professional pseudonym.

Horton Hatches the Egg would be Seuss’s last children’s book until 1947. With the World War raging in Europe and the Pacific, Seuss set aside children’s books and “Unorthodox Taxidermy.” Instead, he began working on propaganda — first, political cartoons, and next, educational videos for the U.S. Army.


Making SNAFU (c. 1943)

In April 1941, Theodor Seuss Geisel — a.k.a. Dr. Seuss — became a political cartoonist for PM, New York’s Popular Front newspaper. Convinced that America would be drawn into the rapidly expanding World War, he feared that isolationism made the United States vulnerable.  As he recalled,

The way I went to work for PM is that I got annoyed with Lindbergh and his America-Firsters. I was already somewhat prominent as a cartoonist, but nobody would print my cartoons against Lindbergh. So I went to work for PM for almost nothing. When the United States got into the war I started receiving a lot of letters saying I was a dirty old man who had helped get us into the war, and I was too old to fight. So I enlisted.

In January 1943, after having written over 400 political cartoons for PM, Geisel left New York and took the train out to Hollywood, California, where he would be a captain in the U.S. Army’s Information and Education Division — “Fort Fox,” headed by Major Frank Capra, the Oscar-winning director.

Capra placed Ted Geisel in charge of the animation branch and assigned him to make educational films that would run in the Army-Navy Screen Magazine, a biweekly newsreel shown to the troops. Ted Geisel and Phil Eastman (later famous for Go, Dog. Go!, but then an ex-Disney animator) teamed up with directors Chuck Jones and Friz Freleng; vocal impressionist Mel Blanc; composer Carl Stalling; and the other creative minds behind Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and Porky Pig. Exactly who came up with the idea of Private SNAFU is not clear, but the idea itself was simple: Teaching by negative example, Private SNAFU would embody his name, an acronym for (as the first cartoon put it) “Situation Normal All … All Fouled Up.”1

In the clip below, you’ll see Ted Geisel, at the desk on the left (0:15-0:40).  As Jerry Beck says, the clip is “unedited footage shot by the First Motion Picture unit, likely intended to be used for a newsreel or other production.”  They’ve added some of Stalling’s score (from SNAFU shorts) as a soundtrack. Though Beck lists this piece as circa 1944, I think it slightly more likely to have been 1943: once the SNAFU cartoons started being screened (July 1943), they were very popular. By 1944, there would have been no need to create promotional footage. But either date is close enough.


To Tell the Truth (1958)

Up until 1957, Seuss was more famous for his advertising work than his children’s books. Then, he published The Cat in the Hat (spring, 1957) and How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (fall, 1957) — both of which were very popular and, to this day, remain two of his best-known works. Buoyed by this popularity, he appeared on the April 29, 1958 episode of the TV quiz show To Tell the Truth.


New Zealand TV (1964)

During a book tour in Australia and New Zealand, Seuss visited Auckland’s May Road School, where this film was made. This is my favorite footage of Dr. Seuss because he’s improvising with the children, playfully answering their questions with what he was by then calling “logical nonsense.” I also like it because it refutes the oft-repeated claim that Seuss did not like children. His response to children was similar to his response to adults: he liked some, and not others.


Notes:

  1. All information in this and preceding “Making SNAFU” paragraphs lifted from the opening of my article “Children’s Literature Goes to War: Dr. Seuss, P.D. Eastman, Munro Leaf, and the Private SNAFU Films (1943-46),” The Journal of Popular Culture 40.3 (June 2007), pp. 468-69. <www.blackwell-synergy.com/doi/full/10.1111/j.1540-5931.2007.00404.x> (Full text available to subscribers.)

Since it is Seuss’s birthday, you might enjoy perusing other posts tagged Seuss. Here’s a selection:

From time to time, I get asked to talk about Dr. Seuss:

  • Joshua Barajas, “8 Things You Didn’t Know About Dr. Seuss,” PBS News Hour blog, 22 July 2015.
  • “New Window into Dr. Seuss’s genius” (26 Feb. 2014). John Wilkens’ article in the San Diego Tribune discusses new Seuss material that his widow, Audrey, donated to the Dr. Seuss Papers at UCSD.
  • “Dr. Seuss: Mini-Biography.”  A&E Biography (2013).  Time: 4 minutes.
  • All Things Considered. Lynn Neary, “‘The Bippolo Seed’ : The ‘Lost’ Dr. Seuss Stories” (13 Apr. 2011): audio & transcript.  Charles Cohen & I talk about the new book of “lost” Seuss stories (edited by Charles).  Time: 3 mins, 30 secs.
  • Diane Rehm Show. Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (22 Dec. 2010): audio | transcript. Reverend Derrick Harkins, Maria Salvadore, and I talk with Diane Rehm about the Grinch.  Time: 1 hour.
  • Morning Edition. Lynn Neary, “Fifty Years of The Cat in the Hat” (1 Mar. 2007): audio & transcript. Anita Silvey and I talk with Lynn Neary about the Cat in the Hat.  Time: 7 mins, 20 secs.
  • Talk of the Nation.  Steve Inskeep, “Celebrating the 100th Birthday of Dr. Seuss: A New Book Looks Back on the Life of Theodor Geisel” (10 Feb. 2004): audio.  I was a bit nervous at the beginning (I believe it was my first time on live national radio), but after the first few minutes I seem to settle into it well enough.  Time: 1 hour.

Though the website design impedes its utility, Random House’s Seussville‘s author section includes a bio. and timeline I wrote — the former heavily influenced by Judith and Neil Morgan’s excellent Dr. Seuss & Mr. Geisel.  (If you read only one book about Dr. Seuss, the Morgans’ bio is the one I’d recommend.) Happy Read Across America Day!*


*Each year on or near March 2nd (the birthday of Theodor Seuss Geisel, a.k.a. Dr. Seuss), the National Education Association sponsors Read Across America, designed to promote literacy. This year, it’s being celebrated on Wednesday, March 2nd. Read more about it at the NEA’s website.

Read Across America: An NEA Project

Credit: Photo of Dr. Seuss working from Marcus Ashley Fine Art Gallery.

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Meter Matters: Better No Seuss Than Faux Seuss

Dr. Seuss, What Pet Should I Get? (2015)The “new” Seuss book (due out tomorrow) is attracting a lot of notice — some of it, unfortunately, in verse.  It is possible to write great ersatz Seuss.  But it’s not easy. For faux Seuss, you must know Seuss.  It helps, too, if you’re a poet.

Michiko Kakutani’s metrical mess offers an excellent caution to aspiring Seussifiers. Though doubtless intended as a fond tribute, it betrays little awareness of Seussian poetics or, for that matter, of poetry in general.  Seuss typically wrote in anapestic tetrameter, sometimes introducing a pair of anapestic feet with an iamb.  For those unfamiliar with these terms, an iamb is an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. An anapest is two unstressed syllables followed by a stressed syllable; tetrameter means that this pattern repeats four times in one line. If you need to hear an example in your head and cannot recall a Seuss lyric, then think of a limerick. Limericks typically use anapestic trimeter (three anapests per line) for the first, second, and fifth lines.  Edward Lear is the limerick’s most famous purveyor, but the form strongly influenced Seuss’s work, too. Those anapests give Seuss’s verse its particular swing.

Kakutani‘s verse, on the other hand, has no regular metrical pattern.  It seems to switch between iambs and anapests at random.  And yet, I keep seeing her poem (I use the term “poem” loosely) described as “Seussian.”  It isn’t.

Writing fake Seuss is a challenge, but not impossible. The late David Rakoff’s “Samsa and Seuss” does it brilliantly. It imagines an epistolary exchange between Gregor Samsa (of Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis”) and Dr. Seuss.  It aired on This American Life exactly three years ago, read by Jonathan Goldstein (as Samsa) and Rakoff (as Seuss). It runs 13 minutes. I’ve embedded the audio below. Or click here for a link to the whole show.

Finally,…

As you enjoy the new Seuss (or do not),

Remember that rhythm that can’t be forgot.

Anapestic’s the metric. It swings! And it sings!

It dances and shimmies. It gives words their wings.

If in versification you are not a leader,

You’ll be better off if you don’t mess with meter.

Related reading:

Hat tip to Jonathan Gorbach for “Samsa and Seuss.”  An additional tip of the red-and-white-striped topper to Joseph Thomas for catching an error in the initial version of this post, and to Richard Flynn for correcting that correction.

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