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Laurie Hertzel is the Minneapolis Star Tribune’s senior editor for books.
There are so many things in this world to be outraged at. Insurrection, brutality, systemic racism, gerrymandering, child abuse, anti-maskers, domestic violence.
So to be outraged over a few Dr. Seuss books going out of print? Please. That is nowhere near the top thousand outrageous things.
Actually, it’s not even on the list.
The big book news earlier this month was that six of the rhyming picture books for children written by Theodor Seuss Geisel — the man we all know as Dr. Seuss — will go out of print because they contain racist and offensive material.
Moments after the news came out, so did oodles of disinformation. (Disinformation: another thing to be outraged by.) So here are a few things I hope you already know:
Books go out of print all the time, and when that happens it is not “censorship.”
The folks in charge of a writer’s literary estate make decisions about what is to be done with that writer’s work, and their decisions are not always popular — witness the estate of Harper Lee publishing “Go Set a Watchman,” a book she firmly had not wanted published.
The decision to let six of Geisel’s books go out of print was made by Dr. Seuss Enterprises. It wasn’t made by the government, or Amazon, or your local bookseller or library. It wasn’t the mythical Deep State. It was Geisel’s estate, and the estate calls the shots.
Also: The books aren’t being destroyed. They are merely going out of print, which means that new copies will not be published going forward. But there are already millions of copies of these books out there, and if you are determined to find a copy, you can easily do so.
Geisel wrote more than 60 books. Some of them are wonderful. But some of them reflect his outdated and offensive views.
In the original version of “And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street,” he drew a caricature of an Asian person with a pigtail and wooden shoes. He drew slanty slashes for eyes and tinted the person’s skin bright yellow. He called this person a “Chinaman.”
In 1978, Geisel altered the image — removed the pigtail and the yellow tint, changed “Chinaman” to “Chinese man” — but I’m not sure it’s significantly better.
Let’s look at “If I Ran the Zoo,” another book that is going out of print. In that book, there are not just offensive caricatures of Asian people (“helpers who wear their eyes at a slant”) but deeply offensive depictions of African people wearing grass skirts and topknots while barefoot and shirtless.
Honestly, I don’t know why the estate didn’t make this decision a long time ago.
You might remember the Dr. Seuss books fondly. You likely first encountered them when you were tiny and loved and being read to by someone you adored — a parent, a grandparent, an older sibling. The memories of these books are sentimental and happy.
The stories have a rhyme scheme and cadence that stick in the mind and help a child learn to sound out words and read. But I challenge you to look at these books today and tell me that these representations of people are perfectly fine.
I’ve heard it argued that this can be a “teachable moment” — to share the book and point out how these illustrations are no longer appropriate. To that I say, get real.
You might make an argument for using “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” as a teachable moment for high school students. But a toddler who is nestled in your lap listening as you read aloud?
There are so many other great books that you can read to your grandchild — some of them are even by Dr. Seuss. Let’s let these six go.