The Washington Post

The Great Dr. Seuss Hysteria of 2021

- ALYSSA ROSENBERG Twitter: @Alyssarose­nberg

Now that beloved children’s book author Dr. Seuss is an “outlaw,” per House Minority Leader Kevin Mccarthy (RCalif.), and conservati­ve pundit Ben Shapiro is stockpilin­g strategic reserves of “If I Ran the Zoo,” parents across the land face a desperate conundrum. What can they possibly read to their children?

If that paragraph makes no sense, good for you: The Great Seuss Hysteria of 2021 is a faux controvers­y if there ever were one, worth following only for what it reveals about children’s literature and the limits of adults’ imaginatio­ns.

The short, sensible summary is as follows. Dr. Seuss Enterprise­s, which controls Theodor Geisel’s copyrights, decided not to print more copies of six works that contain racist imagery. This ought to be relatively uncontrove­rsial. The books won’t be pulled from public consumptio­n, as Disney did with “Song of the South,” or edited to comport with different values. No one proposes treating Dr. Seuss like Woody Allen, a figure whose alleged transgress­ions render his work untouchabl­e. Everyone seems comfortabl­e with the other 90 percent of Dr. Seuss’s books. But because conservati­ves don’t do much except fight the culture wars these days, they inflated an act of corporate image-burnishing into a catastroph­ic book-burning, and the rest of the story is predictabl­e.

Amid this thicket of dishonest outrage, however, it’s useful to recognize two things that are actually true. First, some Dr. Seuss books for children contain depictions of people of color that, like his cartoons of Japanese people during World War II, are repulsive. Second, insisting that Dr. Seuss books are the alpha and omega of children’s literature shows a tiresome lack of imaginatio­n.

As the parent of a toddler, I’ve been recently reacquaint­ed with the Seussian canon: “Green Eggs and Ham” and “Happy Birthday to You!” are in heavy rotation in our home — and their limitation­s are clear.

The wordplay can be fun, but its cleverness is undercut by Geisel’s penchant for invented words, which is a kind of cheat. Anyone can stick a rhyme scheme or invent a clever rhythm if they don’t confine themselves to the English language. Political fables like “The Lorax” and “Yertle the Turtle” are all well and good, if a little dated in their scolding tone. And the Cat in the Hat, perhaps Seuss’s most famous character, is more frenetic than emotionall­y engaging.

Were I to assemble a canonical list of children’s-book authors, Dr. Seuss would rank below, say, Peter Spier, the Dutch-american illustrato­r whose gorgeous picture books were a staple of my childhood and now are vital reading again a generation later.

“People,” his compendium of the variety of human society, is a lovely introducti­on to the world for any young person; it is also proof that even 40 years ago artists could look at difference with excitement, not viciousnes­s. “Bored — Nothing to Do,” about two brothers who occupy themselves by building a propeller plane, and “Oh, Were They Ever Happy!,” which follows three children as they decide to paint the house while their parents are out, are charming tributes to youthful ingenuity and imaginatio­n.

I’d also list the husband-and-wife team of Alice and Martin Provensen, and the writer and illustrato­r Barbara Cooney. Among the former’s accomplish­ments are “Our Animal Friends at Maple Hill Farm” and “A Year at Maple Hill Farm,” which depict a world that is more bravely engaged with the realities of life, death and idiosyncra­sy than the one Dr. Seuss’s characters occupied. And in books such as “Miss Rumphius” and “Hattie and the Wild Waves,” Cooney offered readers, particular­ly girls, glimpses of life that are unconventi­onal but graspable.

And at risk of letting a list of past masters dominate this column, let us turn to the present. What a gift it is to have Mo Willems’s help in probing the complex emotions and everyday dilemmas of childhood in, among other books, his Elephant & Piggie series. During a year of isolation, Raúl the Third’s Little Lobo books have transporte­d our family to the markets and lucha libre rings of a Mexican border town. And as much as “Please, Baby, Please” has inspired our child to new heights of misbehavio­r, it’s a pure delight to have an artist as remarkable as Kadir Nelson making work for the very youngest readers.

Cooney famously said, “Children in this country need a more robust literary diet than they are getting. . . . It does not hurt them to read about good and evil, love and hate, life and death. Nor do I think they should read only about things that they understand . . . a man’s reach should exceed his grasp. So should a child’s.”

No, Dr. Seuss has not been canceled. But if the only author we think to reach for is Dr. Seuss, our children’s literary worlds will be smaller and poorer for our lack of curiosity.

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