Let’s talk about what it means for a book to be banned, and why Doctor Seuss’s publisher taking six of his books off the market is not a cause for alarm.
Dr. Seuss’s books, or collections of his books, made up 16 of the top 20 best-selling books on Amazon following the news of the books’ discontinuing. While Associated Press had reported on Tuesday, March 2 that two of the six books that will no longer be published — And To Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street and If I Ran the Zoo were on this list — they are no longer available for purchase from Amazon, as well as Barnes and Nobles, eBay, and the official Dr. Seuss website. Still, it is clear that neither the ghost of Dr. Seuss nor the company in charge of his creative productions, Dr. Seuss Enterprises, are hurting or cancelled, with the majority of his books still available for sale and seeing increased sales.
On Amazon, those who oppose the removal of Dr. Seuss books with racist imagery and text have swarmed the reviews, making “cancel culture” one of the top mentions in reviews. These exist alongside reviews that bring awareness to some of the racist phrases and images in the books, such as caricatures of Black and Asian people and use of slurs in If I Ran the Zoo. The books are now considered a collectible for sale through third party vendors on Amazon, with the cheapest edition of If I Ran the Zoo (as of Thursday, March 4) being $499.00 with “some wear.” The children’s book is included with membership for Kindle Unlimited. There are currently zero copies available on Thriftbooks, although over 4,000 people are interested in various copies. What can be said except, clearly, racism is in demand.
This is not the marketplace banning Dr. Seuss’s books for the heck of it, nor is it Footloose with communities burning any book over a bonfire. This is actually the marketplace becoming outraged that Dr. Seuss Enterprises made a conscious and deliberate choice to remove six of the author’s 60 written books after deciding they did not favorably or accurately reflect Dr. Seuss. As the second richest dead guy in 2020, his estate bringing in $33 million, Dr. Seuss is not looking to fade into obscurity from cancel culture anytime soon. Instead, the decision to remove these books from the Dr. Seuss literary universe should reflect how the literary community is ready to grow and progress. Wait? It isn’t?
“[T]he field is just as White today as it was four years ago,” said children’s book publisher Lee & Low in their blog post that announced their 2019 Diversity Baseline Survey report. The survey found that, in 2019, “76 percent of publishing staff, review journal staff, and literary agents are White.” The Cooperative Children’s Book Center 2019 survey reported that 71 percent of main characters in children’s books were either white or animals. For books with a human main character, 84 percent of books received by a U.S. publisher were written by a white author in 2018, and 83.2 percent in 2019.
Even when diverse authors and narratives are published, they still face obstacles. Each year, the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom publishes a list of the most banned books in libraries from the previous year. In 2020, they published a list of the 100 most frequently banned books from 2010 – 19. At the top of the list was The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie. The second most banned book is actually a series: Captain Underpants. Also on the list are Anne Frank: Diary of a Young Girl, The Giver, and two Toni Morrison novels, as well as countless other novels and children’s books that feature LGBTQIA+ main characters. Yet, even this extensive list may not be entirely accurate, as 82 to 97 percent of challenged or banned books go unreported, leaving many banned authors and this impact stuck in obscurity.
Dr. Seuss Enterprises recognized the flaws in some of Dr. Seuss’ books and how they were not in accordance with a progressive literary environment. The estate was not hurt from the continued publication of racist figures, but were profiting and continue to do so, albeit inadvertently. The bottom line is that this is not ‘cancel culture’ or the banning of books. This is not an infringement of free speech or whatever dystopian book extremists are misreading today. This was a business choice, something that many diverse authors and their stories are prevented from ever doing since they face many obstacles in the path to notoriety Dr. Seuss never did.
Dr. Seuss nor the six books that will no longer be published will not suddenly cease to exist. His books will continue to top lists of children’s books, be featured in libraries across the world, and likely still be cherished (though, perhaps out of a sense of obligation from those keen to defend his racism) in households. While many are quick to jump to his defense, maybe the problem is not the decision to no longer publish six of his books, but, instead, the fact that his books still reign supreme among children’s literature. It has been decades and over half a century since the original publication of many of Dr. Seuss’s books. There is nothing wrong with clinging to classics, but when they have developed a monopoly on children’s books, it’s time to take a closer look.
Many diverse children’s authors and their stories will never get the chance to be published. When and if they do, they face the possibility of being banned simply for sharing an honest experience and will live under a cat-in-the-hat-sized shadow. Dr. Seuss Enterprises decision to no longer publish Dr. Seuss books because of their racist images and texts means diverse books no longer have to share as much shelf space or compete (as much) with narratives that demean them. Instead of acting like the dead Dr. Seuss is suddenly oppressed, it is time to pick up actually banned books and populate children’s shelves with stories that celebrate and depict diverse experiences in their joy and honesty.
Featured Image: Aubry Acosta / Quaker Campus