This week marked the birthday of Theodor Geisel, a man that generations of young readers know as Dr. Seuss. To recognize Dr. Seuss, our friends at NCAC took a look back on many of the censorious challenges that Dr. Seuss had to overcome throughout the years.
Dr. Seuss may be best known and appreciated as one of America’s most beloved children’s book authors and illustrators (so beloved, in fact, that his birthday is celebrated at Read Across America day), but for as much as we might love Horton Hears a Who and Yertle the Turtle, there were those (heartless) few who didn’t love his work, making it a near-constant target of censorship and controversy.
Before The Cat in the Hat, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, and The Lorax, Dr. Seuss was a political cartoonist and columnist for PM, a the New York newspaper. During and post-World War II, Geisel produced more than 400 cartoons that not only tackled issues like the war, but also expressed his discontent and concern over racial prejudice, political corruption, and even carelessness, complacency, and defeatism in the United States. “As the chief editorial cartoonist,” Annie Shi of NCAC writes, “Geisel used his column to mock isolationists, fascists, and even fellow Americans who discriminated against African-Americans, at a time when such racism was all too common.”
From his career and time abroad as a political cartoonist, Seuss saw many disheartening things and it was his personal experiences that led him to create the books that we know and love today — books that teach us compassion towards others and awareness of our world. But these messages of acceptance and social responsibility, as conveyed through cartoon and rhyme, frequently meant Dr. Seuss’s books were the target of challenges and bans, even today.
In 2012, a poster featuring a quote from Yertle the Turtle was removed from British Columbia classrooms when the Prince Rupert School District claimed that the quote violated a district policy against using political speech in classroom settings. A year later, the material was allowed back into schools, but not before the British Columbia Teacher’s Federation was forced to file a freedom of expression grievance against the Public School’s Employer’s Association.
Yertle isn’t the only book that has caused a stir. The People’s Republic of China banned Green Eggs and Ham upon its release in 1960 on the basis that its repetitive utterances was a negative commentary on Marxism. The ban stood until 1991, when it was lifted with the death of Dr. Seuss. The Lorax has also come under attack for its message of environmental stewardship. In 1989, a handful of parents in the logging community of Laytonville, California, protested the book’s inclusion on required reading lists. After multiple complaints by groups like the National Oak Flooring Manufacturers Association, the book was pulled from the list. This wasn’t an isolated incident: According to the ALA, The Lorax is one of the most frequently challenged books in America.
Commenting not only on his own titles but also the changing role of writers and cartoonists, Dr. Seuss once wrote, “Writers are beginning to realize that books for children have a greater potential for good or evil than any other form of literature on earth.” For much of his career, Dr. Seuss used the power of cartoon and written word not only to express his feelings but also to incite dialog and teach children — and adults — to look at their world more critically. Dr. Seuss may have had to spend much of his time fighting censors, but he understood that cartoons and books could empower future generations and that censorship was an anathema to that idea. Dr. Seuss recognized the value in standing up for your beliefs and fighting the authorities who would suppress and censor your voice, an idea that found a warm — and often rhyming — home in his work.
Happy birthday to you, Dr. Seuss, and thank you for teaching us to speak up!