Dr Seuss, arguably the most influential children’s book author in the US, has been accused of racist portrayals in his books decades after his death. Dr Seuss’ books were once American children’s favorites (and some still are). Now, some of them are no longer available due to the outdated racist stereotypes depicted. The Dr Seuss controversy serves as a prime example of understanding how important it is to study consumer preferences, societal expectations, and business ethics as a forward-thinking entrepreneur.

Our team of experts at Business2Community has done the research to put together this full guide to navigating the controversy surrounding Dr Seuss’ legacy. From the causes to the consequences, this article will help you curate a refined business strategy that puts your customer expectations first.

Dr Seuss Controversy – Key Facts

  • Theodor Seuss Geisel (1904 – 1991) wrote 51 children’s books using the pen name Dr Seuss, with many of his books promoted across schools in the late 20th century and early 21st century.
  • In March 2021, Dr. Seuss Enterprises announced it would cease publication of 6 Dr Seuss books due to the insensitive and racist imagery featured in them, sparking discussion on the “cancel culture” and “free expression”.
  • The National Education Association has been advising readers to turn away from Dr Seuss’ books to other more inclusive choices for several years.

The Story of the Dr Seuss Controversy

In 2021, Dr. Seuss Enterprises decided to stop publishing six of Dr Seuss’ books after they were criticized for containing racist imagery and stereotypes. The decision was quick to draw concerns over free expression, leading to an entire drama surrounding the late author’s work.

Theodor Seuss Geisel (1904 – 1991), who wrote under the pen name of Dr Seuss, was one of the most famous cartoonists and children’s book authors in America with 2 Primetime Emmy Awards for his work. In his lifetime, Geisel wrote under Dr Seuss’ name publishing 51 books and 14 other books under his other pen names, and another 17 books were published after his death.

Theodor Seuss Geisel

Some of his signature books include Green Eggs and Ham, The Lorax, One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish, and The Cat In The Hat. As of 2022, Dr Suess’ books had been sold over 700 million copies globally and were translated into 20 different languages.

Just as people believed the author’s legacy would live on to inspire another generation of young children, Dr Suess’ work began facing controversy over the use of racist imagery and racist stereotypes. This led to certain books being pulled from libraries and shops.

Navigating the Dr Suess controversy allows you to understand the essence of establishing a sustainable business that lives up to consumer expectations and can withstand the test of time.

Dr. Seuss Enterprises Stopped Publishing Six of Dr Seuss’ Books

On March 2, 2021, coinciding with Geisel’s birthday, Dr. Seuss Enterprises announced that it would cease publication of six books written by Geisel due to the insensitive and racist imagery depicted in the books. Dr. Seuss Enterprises was founded by Geisel’s late wife and is now operating as a private for-profit organization to manage Dr Seuss’ work.

The representative said the books “portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong.” At that time, Geisel held more than half the list of Amazon’s bestsellers. The books on the removal list were:

  • And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street (first ever book published by Dr Seuss)
  • If I Ran the Zoo
  • McElligot’s Pool
  • On Beyond Zebra!
  • Scrambled Eggs Super!
  • The Cat’s Quizzer

These books all contained unacceptable stereotypes against people of color. For example, in And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, an Asian person wearing a conical hat was depicted holding chopsticks while eating from a bowl. The children’s literature described Asian people as “helpers who all wear their eyes at a slant,” reflecting the stereotypical image of a Chinese man.

It was not the first time that And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street had gotten into trouble for its jarring portrayal of Asian people. In 2018, the Amazing World of Dr. Seuss Museum, a museum dedicated to the author’s life stories and work, in his hometown Springfield, Massachusetts, had to remove a mural illustrating the same Chinese character in the book with slanted eyes.

Three authors protested against the placement of the mural, fearing how the “jarring racial stereotype” would impact children. They refused to participate in a book fair happening at the museum because of it.

dr seuss And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street book

In another book that was pulled, If I Ran the Zoo, an image featured two African people without shoes, wearing grass skirts, with their hair tied together.

As readers became more anti-racist and aware of building an inclusive surrounding for all communities, the call for removing inappropriate previous publications became more intense.

“Dr. Seuss Enterprises listened and took feedback from our audiences including teachers, academics, and specialists in the field as part of our review process. We then worked with a panel of experts, including educators, to review our catalog of titles,” the organization said in a statement.

The National Education Association Wanted to Divert Readers 

The National Education Association started Read Across America Day in 1998, on the birthday of Theodor Seuss Geisel, to celebrate American literature and encourage reading books among students at schools. For almost two decades, Read Across America Day promoted Dr Seuss’ children’s books.

However, for several years now, the association has tried to advise readers to seek alternatives to Dr Seuss’ creation as there are other books that better celebrate literacy and inclusiveness.

The Consequences of the Dr Seuss Controversy

Following the decision to pull Geisel’s books, various groups responded to the matter – in a drastically different manner.

Some suspected the move was merely out of financial consideration as there were other books containing insensitive imagery that were not pulled while others feared how the decision would affect free expression on intellectual properties that were created before modern values were developed.

Dr. Seuss Enterprises Criticized for Not Pulling Other Racist Books

Although a total of 6 books would cease publication, Dr. Seuss Enterprises was criticized for keeping other racist literature. For example, The Cat in the Hat, which also depicted racial stereotypes against African people and had received backlash in recent years, was not among the removed titles.

dr seuss cat in the hat controversy

The move raised questions as the removal was then seen as a commercial tactic. The books on the removal list were not as popular as The Cat in the Hat, which sold 1 million copies within 3 years of its publication and continued to be one of the best-selling books created by Geisel.

In response to the criticism, the organization said that it would be “committed to listening and learning and will continue to review our entire portfolio.”

Possible Free Expression Questions Raised 

The demand from educators, parents, and teachers to remove reading materials created by Geisel sparked debate over free expression, a core value embedded into American society since its inception. Most of the time, libraries do not remove controversial books, even if they may contain insensitive and racist imagery that causes discomfort to readers.

Deborah Caldwell Stone, head of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, told the press after Dr Seuss Enterprises’ announcement:

Shelf space is precious and librarians do periodically cull the book collections and remove some titles. But they usually do so because no one is asking for that book anymore.

She added that libraries may decide to put books with offensive content on less visible and popular shelves or not promote them. However, in most cases, those books would not be taken down.

Debate Over “Cancel Culture”

The removal of Dr Seuss’ books sparked debate about so-called “cancel culture.” Educators have to decide how a writer’s work should be posthumously appreciated, in accordance with today’s values.

Some people criticized Dr Seuss Enterprises for conceding to public pressure in hopes of not getting the entire series canceled and judging an author’s past work based on today’s values.

Samuel Karnick, the director for publications at the Heartland Institute, said, “This is actually a decision by a private organization that has come to the conclusion, that given the controversy over the author’s other works that he did leading up to and during World War II, that a target was going to be on their backs. And they made a financial decision here to throw six of the books out in hopes that the entire canon wouldn’t be ultimately canceled. That’s what happened here.”

What Can We Learn From the Dr Seuss Controversy?

Dr Seuss, a household name in the US and an icon for children, faced criticism over his creations decades after his death. The Dr Seuss controversy serves as the perfect example of reading the business environment and your consumers’ minds.

As society advances, customers will only demand more inclusive designs and products that speak to their current values. To build a sustainable business model, you need to make sure your brand is morally and ethically conscious, not just by today’s standards.

Damage control is also crucial. Once you have identified flaws in your past creation, it is your responsibility to acknowledge them and offer actionable solutions to build trust and establish goodwill. In this case, by removing some of the worst-offending Dr Seuss books, it was hoped that the rest of the books would maintain their value to buyers for years to come.


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