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Deconstructing Dr Seuss: the issue of diversity in children’s literature

Beth Procter examines the problem of diversity in children's literature.

CW: racism

We don’t talk about children’s books like other literature. I’ve never heard anyone claim that The Gruffalo ‘blew their mind’ or that We’re Going on a Bear Hunt ‘changed their life’, yet these stories stay with us long after we think we may have outgrown them. It is easy to look back nostalgically at the books we used to love, but in the wake of recent controversy we need to take off our rose-tinted glasses and re-examine the books we read as children. 

Early in March this year Dr Seuss Enterprises, the organisation that owns the rights to the author’s work, announced that they would withdraw the publication of six of his books containing racist illustrations. One of the books contains an image of a white man using a whip on a man of colour. Another shows a white boy standing on the heads of three Asian men, holding a large gun. It is shocking that they have only just been recalled. 

As a writer and illustrator, Dr Seuss produced hundreds of racist cartoons, comics and adverts. In 2019, a study of his work described his depictions of Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour (BIPOC) and people from other marginalized groups as ‘dehumanising and degrading.’

The report went on to reveal that many of his children’s books reflect the same racist stereotypes as his cartoons, and convey messages of Orientalism, anti-Blackness, and white supremacy.

Researchers Katie Ishizuka and Ramón Stephens found that 98% of Seuss’ human characters were white, with these characters also occupying all of the speaking and narratorial roles in his stories. In their report they noted that ‘[when] children’s books center Whiteness, erase people of color and other oppressed groups, or present people of color in stereotypical, dehumanizing, or subordinate ways, they both ingrain and reinforce internalized racism and White supremacy.’ Although children may be too young to understand why these books are racist, they are still able to internalise the message they give. As such, many feel that Dr Seuss’s work should no longer take up space on reading lists and classroom bookshelves. 

Luckily, there are many more deserving books to replace them. The best-selling author of Dear Zoo, Rod Campbell, has recently published a non-fiction book that highlights the importance of animal conservation. In Look After Us, the narrator searches for their favourite animals and discovers that many species are threatened by extinction. The book ends on a happy note with the final page showing whales living freely in the wild because “kind people are looking after them really well”- it’s a message of hope as much as anything else.  

After a report in 2020 revealed that only 5% of British children’s books featured a Black or minority ethnic main character, other titles are providing much needed representation. Sulwe by Lupita Nyong’o features a young Black protagonist who wishes she looked more like her mother. The story deals with colourism as the girl is taken on a magical journey that shows her how beautiful she is. Meanwhile, Hair Love by Mathew Cherry is “an ode to your natural hair” in which an African-American father learns to help his daughter style her hair. For older readers there are books like The Boy at the Back of the Class by Onjali Q. Raúf, an award-winning story about the refugee crisis told from a child’s perspective. 

These titles show that children’s literature is becoming more diverse, but there is still a long way to go. From 2007 to 2017, one study showed that fewer than 2% of UK children’s authors and illustrators were people of colour. Then, in 2018 another study examining the content of children’s books featuring black and minority ethnic main characters, discovered that half of them fell into the category of ‘contemporary realism’, whilst 10% contained ‘social justice’ issues, like war and conflict. In an interview with the Guardian, the director of the project, Farrah Serroukh stated that it was all about balance. ‘Topics such as conflict and the refugee experience are valid subjects for authors to explore and unpick,’ he said, but added that it was equally important for stories to focus on normal, everyday events like ‘going to the dentist’ or ‘going to the supermarket.’

Every child deserves to see themselves represented in the books they read. New titles like Sulwe and The Boy at the Back of the Class are helping make this a reality, whilst others are tackling important issues like climate change. These are the kind of books that children will love and learn from and, ultimately, that is what reading is all about. 

Image Credit: Al Ravenna via Wikimedia Commons

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