Reading Racism in Dr. Seuss

A children’s-literature scholar argues it’s time to acknowledge the perturbing themes in some of the most beloved books.

Mike Blake / Reuters

Reminiscing about the Dr. Seuss books we loved as children is usually a happy time for adults. We might remember first learning about equality in Horton Hears a Who! or getting starry-eyed about our futures reading Oh, the Places You’ll Go! (of course, for some of us there’s also a bit of residual terror about that green-food-obsessed apparition in Green Eggs and Ham).

But Philip Nel, a scholar and professor of children's literature whose specialties include Dr. Seuss and Harry Potter, is pushing readers to grapple with the political and social implications of the stories that inspire such warm, fuzzy memories. In his new book, Was the Cat in the Hat Black?: The Hidden Racism of Children’s Literature, and the Need for Diverse Books, Nel argues that, yes, the Cat in the Hat was black—or, more precisely, that Seuss’s depiction of the character was based on racial stereotypes and inspired by traditions of blackface minstrel entertainment—and that dozens more children’s books of decades past are brimming with insidious, racist themes.

I spoke with Nel about how teachers and parents should discuss these books with children, how one’s nostalgia for children's books can coexist with an understanding of their not-so-innocent makings, and why he’s dedicated his adult life to thinking about children’s literature. Below is a lightly edited version of our conversation.

Fattal: You say that your book is “about how race is present especially when it seems to be absent.” Can you give an example of a character or a scene in a children’s book that seems to be “race-free” but actually isn’t when you take a second look?

Nel: One obvious example would be the Oompa Loompas in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, who are these orange people who are enslaved happily by Mr. Wonka. The book presents slavery as happy and fun, and the kind of thing that others would enjoy, and I'm not sure that everyone thinks of the book in those terms. In the original version, the Oompa Loompas are not white people from Loompaland—they are in fact black pygmies from Africa. And though [Roald] Dahl changed that, he didn't change the broader themes of racism and colonialism when he did that.

Fattal: In your book you talk about nostalgia and how parents are reluctant to acknowledge racism in the books they loved growing up and want to read to their kids. Can parents share these books with their kids while also acknowledging their troubling elements?

Nel: I think that what we have to do is admit that our relationships with these books can be complicated. It's okay to think fondly of a beautiful story, but you need to also think about the way in which that beautiful story may also be racist. We can talk about what is masterful about it or what is artistic about it, but we also need to talk about some of the things in the book which are not, and if presented uncritically are simply transmitting these ideas to a new generation. I think adults need to recognize that their fondness for a book or a movie is not a defense of that. I think you would actually have a richer and more profound relationship with a work if you do think about it critically, and if we do acknowledge those mixed feelings.

Fattal: You argue that there is an imperative to keep reading these problematic children’s books. What would you say to those who ask why we wouldn’t just stop reading them?

Nel: There is actually a very strong case for not reading them. Racist books inflict real damage on children of all races. So there’s a very strong argument to be made for that, and I don’t want to diminish that at all. The reason that I am not making that argument is that I don’t think that ignoring the symptom cures the disease. People need to learn that this is one place that racism comes from. They need to learn it in context. You definitely shouldn’t only teach racist children’s books. There’s a wealth of really thoughtful, historically oriented and carefully written books that can help us think about colonialism or racism or sexism more thoughtfully, and you would only want to teach these books in that context.

I think that to erase the crime does not erase its effects. It’s still there and we still have to deal with it, and in some ways, the unvarnished awfulness of it, as painful as it is to look at, can be a way to do that, and can be a way to help make it visible elsewhere. If you don’t know the history of minstrelsy, then you don’t notice it in Mickey Mouse or Bugs Bunny or the Cat in the Hat. It’s knowing the history that helps you say, “this pop culture that I enjoy is way more racialized than I was aware of, and that’s troubling.”

Fattal: You talk about the need for a parent or teacher to facilitate discussions on the racist elements of children's books with students who may be too young to do this kind of critical reading on their own. What might that conversation look like?

Nel: It will obviously depend on the individual child, the age of the child, et cetera, but the best way is to ask questions. When you notice something in a book, ask questions about it. Would you be happy working in a factory and being imprisoned there? What do you make of presenting the Oompa Loompas as happy? What are some of the assumptions of this work? Why is it presenting this character in this way? Why are all the characters in this book white? What do you make of that? You want children to think about power in the text, whose interests are represented in the text, who is not being heard in the text. And you can focus those on the specific work.

I think with children you have to have a conversation—you have to ask them critical questions, and you have to invite them to ask critical questions about the book that they are reading. It's a conversation that's going to be uncomfortable, a conversation in which you may have to admit you don't know all the answers. It's not an easy conversation to have, by any means. One of the things that I do when I teach [college students] in class is I acknowledge my own uncomfortableness. Because sometimes students don't want to talk about this. And so I acknowledge why they’re uncomfortable and that I’m uncomfortable, too, and that it’s okay to be uncomfortable. I think that’s the kind of tone to set when you have these conversations: that this is going to be uncomfortable.

Fattal: Is learning to engage with discomfort harder for children than it is in a classroom of college students? How might educators navigate that difficulty?

Nel: Children notice race from when they’re very young. Children of color have to face it head-on. But I just got a note from a friend of mine who was talking about her 5-year-old who was worried when she was getting tan that she might turn black. And that worried her, because [the 5-year-old] knows what black means. She knows that puts you at a disadvantage based on this country’s laws and values. And her mother explained, and had the uncomfortable conversation of indicating, “Well that’s not how race works, but also … black is beautiful, and we have black friends who are beautiful.” Kids get it. I think the failure to have that conversation is an abdication of responsibility on the part of parents and educators.

Fattal: You talk in the book about showing children that anger can be channeled toward productive action. Are kids really capable of this move from anger or discomfort to action, and how might educators facilitate that?

Nel: The emotional experience of dealing with racism is tough, especially if you’re the target. I think what’s worse, though, is not dealing with it and not being given any tools for dealing with it—to experience the injury and then not know how to deal with it. I think if a teacher is able to talk to a child and say, “it’s okay not to like a book or to be angry at the author or to be angry at a text; this is infuriating in the way that it’s presenting this Native American character or this character of Asian descent, and I see why you’d be angry at it.” I think that’s actually really healthy, because it lets the child direct the anger at the appropriate target rather than internally, or rather than just kind of stewing over it.

Educators can also ask students, “what should we do?” “Should we take it off the curriculum?” “Is it helpful to have a conversation about it?” “Should we contact the publisher?” The emotional interest can translate to political interest, if you give those emotions an outlet, first for being expressed, and then secondly to say, “right, I’m with you, let’s do something”—to ask, “what can we do? Because this is upsetting.” That shows children they have agency, they have power, they have a voice. That’s so important. Adults like to think of children as innocent, as uncorrupted by this corrupt world, but that’s not actually how life works. As soon as you enter this world you begin to be affected by it. You need to talk about it. You need to help children become better adults than the ones they’re interacting with.

Fattal: How might a classroom discussion change on the basis of age and reading levels?

Nel: The way that you have the conversation will vary depending upon the age of the child. It’d be unlikely for me to have a conversation with a 5-year-old about The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn because a) that’s not at their reading level, and b) the explicit content of that book may go beyond them. But it may not be over their heads to look at a book that’s more appropriate in terms of reading level or age range. For example, The Skippyjon Jones books that caricature Mexican culture—those would be a great opportunity for talking with younger readers, because they’re really popular, and they’re a super example of stories that can be fun and funny but also hurtful because of the way that they caricature Mexican culture and reduce it to a bunch of stereotypes.

Fattal: You’ve spent your life studying children’s books. Do you think there’s a place for children’s literature in education for older students? What makes children’s literature such an important genre to study?

Nel: When we revisit the books we read as children, we understand things we did not understand when we were children. The books we read as children are some of the most important books that we read, because we read them when we are in the process of figuring out who we are, what we believe, whose stories are important. And children’s books are fun. I think one of the great appeals of children’s books is that they need to reach a reader who is not going to be persuaded by a good review to pick it up. They need to reach a reader right away. So they’re fun to read, and they are just as sophisticated and just as literary and just as thoughtfully put together as the books created for older readers. I think as grownups we need to appreciate that and we need to think about that when we buy them for or read them to the young people in our lives, because children’s books are not lesser just because they are for people who have less height or experience.