Most Controversial Dr. Seuss Books for Kids
Cancel Dr. Seuss? When Theodor Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss, wrote "Oh, the Places You’ll Go," he wasn’t anticipating going to literary jail. But that's exactly where he ended up. Since 2019, several school districts and organizations have spoken out about racist undercurrents beneath the colorful rhymes and illustrations in his popular children's books.
This isn’t the first time concerns were raised. Back in 2017, Book World editor Ron Charles of The Washington Post said: "There’s been some good scholarship about Dr. Seuss and his earlier work. Some are really disturbing. Clearly, his work was based on older racist tropes, that’s a perfectly legitimate discussion to have."
A legitimate discussion indeed. While there's no denying some aspects of Seuss’s work are racially insensitive and tone-deaf by today’s standards, does that mean his books should be removed from classrooms and bookshelves altogether?
Cons of Reading Dr. Seuss Books to Kids
Dr. Seuss wrote more than 60 books, including 45 children's books (or 46, or 47, depending on what you count as a children's book). Parents have been reading Dr. Seuss books to their kids since his first children's book, "And To Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street," was published in 1937.
But some parents and other adults think it's time to stop reading Dr. Seuss books. Here are a few reasons why.
- Few characters of color are included in the stories. Those who are tend to be portrayed in a negative light. One 2019 study found that only 2 percent of Seuss’s characters were people of color, and none were more than racist caricatures.
- The books are rife with subtle racial stereotypes. Children may not consciously pick up on them, but stereotypes can lead to the development of prejudices.
- To students of color, stories that underrepresent them can damage their self-image. In a summary by Psychology In Action of recent studies, they described the impact simply: "If young people are watching negative depictions, or are not seeing themselves reflected at all, in their favorite shows, they may begin to feel invisible or unimportant."
- While Dr. Seuss books could be used to start a conversation about representation and equality, conversations about race in schools are often avoided. This leaves students to decode complicated messages about race and gender on their own, without the tools to do so.
Pros of Reading Dr. Seuss Books to Kids
But there's a reason Dr. Seuss books have sold 650 million copies in 95 countries and been translated into 17 languages.
- Dr. Seuss books are widely used in schools because the way they’re written makes them a popular choice for teaching kids to read.
- In contrast to the dated and problematic themes, the books include plenty of positive ones as well, including perseverance, problem-solving and ingenuity.
- Dr. Seuss books aren’t the only stories that are a product of their time. By including literature with outdated and harmful messages, parents and educators can address them head-on.
- If used as part of a culturally conscious curriculum, the books can be used to identify examples of exclusion, bias and insensitivity in an age-appropriate way. They also can be used to help children understand that racism isn’t a problem from ancient history. Many of his controversial books are younger than their grandparents!
- As difficult as it is to talk about some issues, these books can be used to start conversations in the classroom about race, prejudice and inequality. They also can give students a platform to share their own thoughts and experiences.
Dr. Seuss’s Most Controversial Books
For parents and educators who plan on continuing to share Dr. Seuss books with their children and students, it’s important to educate yourself first.
By understanding why some of Seuss’s work is problematic, you can pass on these lessons to the next generation without erasing the value of Dr. Seuss’s whimsical rhymes and artistic expression.
The following books are among the most highly debated. If you don’t know why, don’t worry. You will in a minute.
Controversial Dr. Seuss Book No. 5: The Sneetches
Year of publication: 1953
What it's about: In the story, some winged, yellow creatures called Sneetches realize that some Sneetches have stars on their bellies and some do not. The ones without the star are ostracized and left out.
An opportunistic character called Sylvester McMonkey McBean arrives to market a "Star-On machine" to the star-less Sneetches. It works well, but the Sneetches with natural stars are upset that they’re no longer "special." McBean offers to remove their stars with his new "Star-Off machine," so that they would once again be unique.
The Sneetches frantically run back and forth from one machine to the other, trying to hang on to their privilege. In the end, McBean is rich, and none of the Sneetches know which are special and which are not. They’re just Sneetches.
Why it's controversial: This isn't the most controversial Dr. Seuss book by a long shot, but it deserves some analysis. The Sneetches were supposed to impart an anti-racist message. Seuss aimed to build a satire about discrimination, stemming from his frustration with anti-Semitism.
Its publication was a well-intended counter to Seuss’s earlier political cartoons, which were blatantly racist in their caricatured portrayal of people of Japanese, Chinese, African, and Arab descent. When "The Sneetches" was first published in 1953, it was hailed by the publisher as "a perfect guide for kids growing up in a multicultural world." In 2021, it’s definitely not.
In the story, Sneetches can switch their star-status at will. Within the course of a single story, they realize that prejudice is bad, and proceed to live out their happy Sneetch lives in blissful peace and harmony. The issue lies in the fact that human beings cannot change their cultural identities at will. White privilege can’t be bought from a 3 a.m. infomercial. If racism could be cured by people simply realizing that it’s bad, it would have died long ago.
The oversimplification of prejudice is the first problem with the story of the Sneetches. The second is that it implies that all Sneetches are good because they’re fundamentally the same. In the story, Seuss writes:
"...until neither the Plain nor the Star-Bellies knew
whether this one was that one ... or that one was this one."
The problem is that people are different. Early anti-prejudice books like "The Sneetches" were often designed to water down racial and cultural differences rather than celebrating them. In this particular case, Seuss’s work was well-intentioned, just poorly executed.
Conversation starters: Here are some good questions to get the conversation going.
- What do you think the message of this story is?
- Do you think prejudice is as simple in real life as it is in the book?
- Do you think good people can still have prejudices?
From there, teachers and parents can help students understand that race is much more complicated than the book makes it out to be.
Controversial Dr. Seuss Book No. 4: Horton Hears a Who!
Year of publication: 1954
What it’s about: Horton the Elephant, a large and lovable creature, discovers tiny creatures called Whos on a speck of dust. His enemies mock him and try to destroy the little planet, but Horton does everything in his power to keep Whoville safe. The book is written in anapestic tetrameter, Dr. Seuss’s go-to rhyme scheme.
One of the most memorable lines is, "A person's a person, no matter how small". That phrase is repeated in the film and theater versions of the book, and it’s a good representation of the moral of the story — that everyone matters, regardless of where they come from or what they look like.
Why it’s controversial: Horton’s immense efforts to save Whoville demonstrate many positive qualities, like determination, compassion and bravery. He stood up to his tough, intimidating enemies to save people who were nothing like him. Seems like a good message, so why is it on a list of the most controversial Dr. Seuss books?
There are a couple of reasons, actually. Dr. Seuss’s earlier works included blatantly racist cartoons with negative portrayals of Japanese people, yet he never formally apologized. Instead, he published "Horton Hears a Who!" with a brief shoutout to a friend from Japan on the dedication page. His lack of a public apology takes away from his efforts to write a more culturally conscious book.
Speaking of being culturally conscious, "Horton Hears a Who!" isn’t without error. Two characters identifying as African appear in the story, and they’re pictured in grass skirts, without shoes and carrying a white kid’s zoo animal.
Plus, there’s the issue of simplifying the issue. Can everyone make a difference? Sure. Can one savior waltz in and dismantle discrimination? Not so much.
Conversation starters: Some good questions to get the conversation going include these.
- Why did the characters want to destroy the dust speck in the first place?
- What do you notice about the human characters in the story?
- Is it fair that the only Black characters are servants?
- How would you feel if a character who looked like you was portrayed that way?
- How would you change the illustrations to make it better?
Teachers and parents can also bring up Seuss’s cartoons, discussing how Seuss could have offered a more authentic apology.
Controversial Dr. Seuss Book No. 3: The Cat in the Hat
Year of publication: 1957
What it’s about: If you didn’t read this one as a kid, did you even have a childhood? Sadly, the classic tale of the iconic, giant, black and white cat isn’t without issue.
It seems innocent at first glance. The Cat in the hat shows up to visit two children while their mother is out. (OK, maybe it’s not so innocent. Seems a little creepy.) While their pet fish protests repeatedly, the Cat gets the children caught up in all kinds of wild, entertaining and messy adventures. He and his two little friends, Thing One and Thing Two, cause mass chaos.
The children eventually realize the lack of control isn’t fun, and the Cat finally cleans up the destruction with a magical machine just in the nick of time. The problem is all in the story’s roots.
Why it’s controversial "The Cat in the Hat" was far less explicitly racist than some of the other controversial Dr. Seuss books, but the main character himself is a little iffy. According to Philip Nel, a professor of English at Kansas State and the author of "Was the Cat in the Hat Black?" the design of the Cat in the hat was derived from the appearance of a Black woman who worked as an elevator operator.
While the children loved the cat, he also was seen as someone "other" — not a normal part of their white household. And that’s the point. Racism doesn’t have to be aggressive or overtly cruel to be damaging. Ordinary acts, even by those of us who actively try to be anti-racist, can cause damage.
In this case, Seuss imbued his more modern work with the same stereotypes he was born with, whether he intended to do so or not.
Conversation starters: These are some good questions to start a conversation.
- The cat in the story was based on a real person — specifically, a Black person. Do you think the cat was treated as an equal, or did the family treat him differently?
- Some of Dr. Seuss’s earlier books are even more unfair to people of color. In "The Cat in the Hat," he did better, but it still wasn’t perfect. Do you think that people can be racist without trying to?
- Dr. Seuss was born in 1904, over a hundred years ago, and this book was written a long time ago, too. How do you think that influenced his writing?
- Does being anti-racist mean that we never make mistakes?
- What are some good ways to be an ally?
Controversial Dr. Seuss Book No. 2: And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street
Year of publication: 1937
What it’s about: A young boy named Marco is told by his father to go take a walk and pay attention to what he sees. He thinks his actual view isn’t interesting enough, so he concocts a wild tale in his imagination to entertain himself. He dreams up a parade of fantastical vehicles and people traveling along Mulberry Street, repeating the following phrase throughout:
"And that is a story that no one can beat
And to think that I saw it on Mulberry Street."
At the end of the story, he returns home excited to tell his father his outlandish tale, but when his father asks him what he saw, he replies, "Nothing ... but a plain horse and wagon on Mulberry Street."
Why it’s controversial: The biggest point of contention in this controversial Dr. Seuss book lies in one particular illustration. During one of the final scenes, a Chinese man is pictured running in a silk robe, coolie hat and platform sandals while carrying a bowl of rice and chopsticks.
There was no particular relevance to these details. Because of this, they’re more of a caricature of Chinese culture than anything else. The portrayal of Chinese characters throughout Seuss’s work is extremely stereotypical and offensive. In this case, he was described as having two lines for eyes.
Because of the insensitive imagery, "And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry" and five other Dr. Seuss books — "If I Ran the Zoo," "McElligot's Pool," "On Beyond Zebra!," "Scrambled Eggs Super!," and "The Cat's Quizzer" — will no longer be published.
"These books portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong," Dr. Seuss Enterprises said in a statement on March 2 that coincided with the late author and illustrator’s birthday. "Ceasing sales of these books is only part of our commitment and our broader plan to ensure Dr. Seuss Enterprises’s catalog represents and supports all communities and families."
Conversation starter: These questions could help begin a dialogue.
- What’s wrong with how Dr. Seuss portrayed the Chinese characters in his books?
- The Amazing World of Dr. Seuss Museum included a mural of the Chinese man in this book. When people spoke out and said it was racist, they changed the mural. Do you think they made the right choice?
- When we’re reading old books, are they always racially sensitive?
- What can we look for to tell if a character is being portrayed respectfully?
Talking about difficult topics isn't easy, but you have to start somewhere to get anywhere.
Controversial Dr. Seuss Book No. 1: If I Ran the Zoo
Year of publication: 1950
What it’s about: A little boy named Gerald McGrew decides that the current zoo animals aren’t cool enough. He wants to start over fresh by finding even wilder ones to fill the zoo with. He lists all kinds of imaginary creatures, including everything from lions with 10 feet to giant tree-eating birds.
His imagination takes him to remote corners of the earth where he catches each imaginary creature, returning them to the zoo. At the end, zoogoers applaud him for his whimsical new zoo.
Why it’s controversial: Yet again, stereotypes are what lead Dr. Seuss’s work in the wrong direction. The way he portrays non-white characters is rarely positive. Africans are shown with large bellies and thick lips while Asians have slits for eyes. In "If I Ran the Zoo," it gets worse than that. The white main character says that he would "put a person of colour wearing a turban" on display.
These kinds of descriptions go beyond insensitive stereotypes and tread into the dark waters of dehumanization, which is every bit as sinister as it sounds. According to Oxford Languages, dehumanization is defined as the "process of depriving a person or group of positive human qualities." In other words, it’s stereotyping to its detrimental extreme.
Dehumanization can lead to the systematic destruction of the reputation of entire cultures. While that may not have been Dr. Seuss’s intention, aspects of his work perpetuated derogatory rhetoric about more races than one.
Conversation starters: These are some good questions to get the conversation going.
- Why does it matter how authors describe characters of different races?
- Do you think the way people are shown in books, movies and TV shows changes how we see them?
- How are stereotypes harmful?
Controversial Dr. Seuss Books Offer Big Lessons
Dr. Seuss is far from the first author to write culturally blind content. If you were ever forced to read "Tom Sawyer" or "Huckleberry Finn," you know it can get much, much worse.
While handing these books to our children without explanation would, without a doubt, give them all kinds of terrible impressions, they aren't alone. They have us to help them understand the history of these books, the history of racism and the lessons we continue to learn as we go forward.
Across nearly a century, Dr. Seuss's books have helped millions of children learn to read. While some of his books contain culturally offensive material, isn't it possible to address those issues without erasing the countless positive elements of his work?
What do you think?
Related:Best Dr. Seuss Books, Ranked Worst to First