Children’s literature sits at an awkward crossroads, where it is expected to be art, education and moral instruction. Children’s books are designed to teach our kids to read, to teach them about the world, about themselves and their bodies, about how to be kind, about society’s morals and values.
This is true of all children’s literature, but it is particularly true of books by Theodor Seuss Geisel (Dr Seuss), which do all these things deliberately and explicitly. Which is why I’m not at all surprised that Seuss’s estate has decided to cease publication of six titles due to their racist portrayal of people of colour. To do otherwise would be disrespectful to Seuss’s legacy of kindness and empathy.
We make changes to the books our children read all the time. In 1812, the Brothers Grimm changed the evil mothers in traditional fairy tales to wicked stepmothers, because they wanted to preserve the sanctity of motherhood. The Faraway Tree’s Dick and Fannie are Rick and Frannie in newer editions – a fact which seems to infuriate nostalgic readers (I genuinely don’t understand why).
If you buy a recent copy of Judy Blume’s Are You There, God? It’s Me Margaret, you’ll find that Margaret no longer attaches a “Teenage Softie” to the hooks on her pink belt when she gets her first period – now she has an adhesive pad with wings. I welcome this change; there are few enough mentions of periods in children’s and teen literature, so let’s not unnecessarily confuse our newly menstruating young people and their supportive friends.
It is always worth re-examining our literary canon and asking – does the cultural value of this book outweigh the potential harm? For Seuss’s estate, the answer was ‘no’ for the six books that won’t be licensed any more. (It’s worth mentioning that the six books in question were far from being bestsellers, and the much more popular Cat In The Hat remains in print despite the cat’s design being linked to racist traditions of blackface minstrel entertainment.)
This is not ‘cancel culture’, and it’s not censorship. It’s a commercial decision made by a board of experts, trying to protect an author’s legacy and relevance in changing times. Not everything can stay in print. Sometimes we can’t buy our childhood favourites in bookshops any more – there is only so much room on the shelves. Dr Seuss wrote over sixty books, and they aren’t all available today. His first book went out of print decades ago. It was called The Pocket Book of Boners which … well, you know.
Disney recently released the back catalogue of The Muppet Show on its streaming service. Eighteen episodes feature a content warning at the beginning – acknowledging that they contain “negative depictions and/or mistreatment of people or cultures”. In this situation, the content producers decided that the value of these episodes outweighed the harmful stereotypes, and that they should remain part of our current cultural narrative.
I’m glad, because I love sharing The Muppet Show with my son. And the content warnings are a helpful reminder to talk to him about harmful stereotypes. I’m in the privileged position of needing to be reminded – my son doesn’t experience the negative consequences of these stereotypes every day, but there are many children who do, and we should all be working towards a world where no child is the victim of racism or other forms of bigotry and prejudice.
Classic Australian literature isn’t without its jarring content. Norman Lindsay’s The Magic Pudding’s frolics through the bush come with racist and anti-semitic barbs, while May Gibbs’ beloved Snugglepot and Cuddlepie frequently come into conflict with the “big bad” Banksia Men that appear far too close to racist caricature for comfort.
Children’s and YA publishing in Australia and overseas has been striving to rectify a historical lack of diversity, on the page and behind it. Every child deserves to see themselves reflected in our cultural narratives. There’s still a lot of work to be done, but it is heartening to walk into a bookshop and see children’s books written by a growing number of racially and culturally diverse authors, by queer authors, by neurodivergent authors and disabled authors.
I want my white, male child to grow up knowing that while he is the centre of my universe, he is not the be-all and end-all of the human race. I want him to read books that reflect the world he lives in, because I know (as Theodor Seuss Geisel did) that literature is the best way to teach children empathy.
There are still plenty of Dr Seuss books available to buy, but next time you’re in a book shop, maybe consider something a bit more recent and local, such as Sophie Beer’s Love Makes a Family, Jessica Walton’s Introducing Teddy, Maxine Beneba Clarke’s When We Say Black Lives Matter, or any of the beautiful picture books available by First Nations writers and illustrators, such as Welcome to Country by Lisa Kennedy and Auntie Joy Murphy, Young Dark Emu by Bruce Pascoe, Hello and Welcome by Gregg Dreise or I Want To Be A Superhero by Breanna Humes and Ambelin Kwaymullina.