When I was reading to A before bed a few nights ago, every book he pulled out was Dr. Seuss: Green Eggs and Ham, Cat in the Hat, Oh, the Places You’ll Go!, and Fox in Socks are among the favorites in our house. It always surprises me how much he reaches for Dr. Seuss. We didn’t particularly push them on him, but there is something in them that A just gravitates towards. Something completely fun and flamboyant.
Completely timeless, though, Dr. Seuss’s books are not. Dr. Seuss is a product of his time, and I notice that in how he treats female characters and characters of color. In Cat in the Hat, for example, Sally never speaks nor has much agency in story. In And to Think that I saw it on Mulberry Street (admittedly one of his earliest and more notorious works), his portrayal of Asian characters is undeniably stereotypical. In Oh, the Places You’ll Go (one of my favorite books of all time, kid book or not!), there is a weird, racialized exoticization of turban-wearing people. And I haven’t found a Dr. Seuss book with a human character that looks African American.
Despite that, I can’t abandon Dr. Seuss. I can’t completely censor unfair and unjust images out of A’s life, no matter how much I want to. First, I think that would breed resentment in A—when he sees his friends are able to watch certain TV shows but we don’t let him, he won’t understand and may start to look for opportunities to engage in that content outside of our supervision. Second, explicitly discussing how race and gender are represented in books and movies makes it clear to A our perspective. Color-blind parenting assumes that kids will unconsciously pick-up the messages of tolerance when we put them in diverse environments or expose them to diverse children’s literature. In reality, kids are likely picking up the unconscious biases and unfair treatment of some of their friends or some of the characters in their books. In order to counter that, parents need to have conscious, explicit conversations with kids. Because many parts of Dr. Seuss books are so great and relatively non-problematic, his books provide an opportunity to engage in such conscious parenting, without being overwhelmed by such problematic images with every turn of the page.
Complete censorship for kids is not always the best option. Dr. Seuss is not perfect but rather a product of his time. We can recognize and enjoy the parts of his canon that are absolutely amazing/hilarious/whimsical, while using other parts of his books opportunities to engage in color-conscious and gender-conscious conversations with kids.
P.S. For someone doing a way better job at deconstructing Dr. Seuss than me, look here.