Why the decision to pull 6 Dr. Seuss books is an important move for diversity

On Tuesday, Dr. Seuss Enterprises marked what would have been the late children's author and illustrator's 117th birthday with a major announcement: It will stop the publication and licensing of six Seuss titles which "portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong," according to a statement shared on social media.

Those titles — If I Ran the Zoo, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, McElligot's Pool, Scrambled Eggs Super!, The Cat's Quizzer and On Beyond Zebra! — have been singled out for featuring racist imagery, with a 2019 study conducted by researchers from the Conscious Kid's Library and the University of California-San Diego finding that the writer's work contained Orientalist and anti-Black references, including characters of color "presented in subservient, exotified or dehumanized roles."

The announcement coincides with the National Education Association's Read Across America Day, a youth literacy event which, until 2018, was aligned with the birthday of Seuss (born Theodor Seuss Geisel) but has since pivoted to celebrating children's books featuring more diversity and inclusivity. That's a mission that Dr. Seuss Enterprises, which manages the Cat in the Hat author's catalog, expressed support for in its statement, saying it was committed to ensuring his work "represents and supports all communities and families."

Conservative critics, meanwhile, are blaming the decision to stop publishing the six books on "cancel culture," with Florida Sen. Marco Rubio tweeting, "When history looks back at this time it will be held up as an example of a depraved sociopolitical purge driven by hysteria and lunacy." A common refrain is that Seuss — who died in 1991 and wrote the majority of the offending books in the 1950s, with the most recent published in 1976 — is being unfairly held to standards set by modern-day PC culture.

But book industry professionals object to this being framed as a cancellation of Dr. Seuss — whose remaining titles, including The Lorax, which was removed from a California school district's reading list in 1988 for being too liberal on environmental issues — will continue to be published and licensed. Deborah Caldwell Stone, director of the American Library Association's (ALA) Office for Intellectual Freedom, notes to Yahoo Life that the Dr. Seuss Enterprises' move is "well within their rights" and doesn't mean that the six titles will necessarily be banned.

Dr. Seuss Enterprises will stop publishing six of the famed author and illustrator's books over racist depictions. (Photo: Gene Lester/Getty Images)
Dr. Seuss Enterprises will stop publishing six of the famed author and illustrator's books over racist depictions. (Photo: Gene Lester/Getty Images)

"They haven't asked for anyone else to remove the books from their collections, whether it's libraries, schools or personal collections," she says. She confirms that, as the ALA's lists of banned and challenged books attest, "diverse topics like LGBTQ themes and characters or books that deal with racial justice" have been more frequent "targets of complaints."

Despite rumors that it had banned Seuss's books, Loudoun County Public Schools in Virginia issued a statement ahead of Read Across America Day clarifying that no ban existed, and that the school district was using the event to encourage students to read "all types of books that are inclusive, diverse and reflective of our student community, not simply celebrate Dr. Seuss." His works continue to be available in its school libraries and classrooms.

Caldwell Stone adds that, while the publishing halt wouldn't in itself be grounds for the books' removal, it could present "an opportunity" for libraries and schools to "evaluate the work" according to their collection development policies and determine its suitability for their collections going forward.

"It's part of librarians' professional responsibility to critically evaluate the items in their collection and take into account issues like prejudice, racism [and] stereotypical portrayals and consider those things when they're making decisions about whether or not to collect a book or retain a book in their collection," she says.

"And it is important for libraries as community institutions to take on the issues of racism and prejudice and discrimination and make that part of their mission to foster cultural understanding and to defend equity, diversity and inclusion.

"In the end, we think that this is an opportunity for discussion — that this decision by Dr. Seuss Enterprises can be seen as a way for adults to think critically about Seuss books, to make a decision whether or not to share those books with the children in their lives and to engage in discussions with children and adults both about race and racial prejudice."

While critics have complained that children will be losing out if their access to the full Seuss catalog is threatened, early education experts like Shantel Meek, founding director of Arizona State University's Children's Equity Project, which advises on policy to make learning opportunities more equitable, argue that these changes will in fact benefit young readers who don't see themselves in the books they read.

"The children's books we lift up should be reflective of the beautiful diversity in America's young children," Meek tells Yahoo Life. "For too long, children of color have been under-represented, grossly misrepresented or left out altogether of books and other learning resources. It's long past due to expand our horizons and ensure that all children have access to literature that is representative of our young readers and all of their stories."

Rheeda Walker, a licensed clinical psychologist and professor of psychology at the University of Houston, echoes that sentiment. While Walker says "there are some who will likely be incensed by the decision to discontinue certain Seuss books," she sees it as an opportunity to amplify stories that empower young people of color instead of those that take an emotional toll by perpetuating "demeaning" stereotypes.

"We can also learn to embrace the diversity of Black people — who aren't a monolith — by elevating narratives that speak more so to strength, brilliance and creativity in Black communities rather than racist tropes," she tells Yahoo Life. "We can move forward, collectively, when we resist negative imagery and bias and instead embrace more accurate and positive roles for Black people in all aspects of art."

Read more from Yahoo Life:

Want lifestyle and wellness news delivered to your inbox? Sign up here for Yahoo Life’s newsletter.