Today is Read Across American Day in honor of the birthday of Dr. Seuss. Children in schools across America celebrate the day. Lunch rooms serve green eggs and ham, teachers wear crazy hats, and libraries hold special reading events.
This would have been Dr. Seuss’ 113th birthday. Children love his zany, colorful, rhyming stories. Not only are his books fun, they also contain many words of wisdom. There is no denying Dr. Seuss did much to promote reading among young children.
But during the 1940s, Theodore Geisel, a political cartoonist, drew and published some very offensive cartoons depicting the Japanese in a derogatory light. He also spoke of his support of Japanese-American Internment camps.
Learning that was like learning the Atticus Finch of Go Set a Watchman was not the Atticus Finch of To Kill a Mockingbird. I was crushed.
I was also angry. The internment of 120,000 Japanese-Americans, including my husband’s family, during World War II was one of the darkest episodes in the history of the United States. Theodore Geisel fanned the flames of racism.
So today, when we honor the man who gave children so much joy and did so much to promote reading, I am conflicted about honoring him.
The Dr. Seuss who helped children love reading does not seem to be the Theodore Geisel who drew racist cartoons. In fact, Horton Hears a Who was apparently written as an apology of sorts for his past views after he visited Japan and witnessed the devastating aftermath of the bombing of Hiroshima.*
Over time, many of us evolve in our view of the world. I know I have evolved in many ways. Perhaps that is what happened with Theodore Geisel. I will work on forgiving him for his earlier views.
Although I remain conflicted, I honor the literary legacy of Dr. Seuss. To balance the message, I also pay tribute to the Japanese-Americans who were held prisoner by their government.
A few good children’s and young adult books.