Canadian libraries reassess Dr. Seuss books pulled from publication for racist images

Canadian librarians and educators are reassessing several Dr. Seuss titles that are being pulled from publication because of racist and insensitive imagery.

On Tuesday, Dr. Seuss Enterprises, the business that preserves the legacy of the children's author, announced it would be ceasing sales of six titles — including "And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street" and "If I Ran a Zoo" — that portray people in ways that are "hurtful and wrong."

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The decision, which the company said was made last year following a review of its catalogue, also affects "McElligot's Pool,'' "On Beyond Zebra!,'' "Scrambled Eggs Super!,'' and "The Cat's Quizzer.''

The Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board in southern Ontario soon followed suit, telling parents and staff it was in the process of removing about 80 copies of these titles from its libraries.

"We are part of the broader community who have identified these books as being harmful," director of education Manny Figueiredo said in a statement Tuesday.

"The delivery of education must ensure that no child experiences harm from the resources that are shared."

The scrutiny also prompted some public libraries to review their Dr. Seuss collections.

A group of librarians across Toronto Public Library's system will evaluate the titles in question and issue recommendations, according to a spokeswoman.

"Occasionally, children's books written some time ago are brought to our attention for review," Ana-Maria Critchley said in an email.

"If the review determines there are racial and cultural representation concerns the committee will recommend to either withdraw the book from our library collections or move the book from children’s collections to another location, such as a reference collection for use by researchers."

The Vancouver Public Library is also launching reviews of each of the six Dr. Seuss titles.

Scott Fraser, manager of marketing and communications, said this process is usually initiated by a request from a patron, but the library made an exception given the "extremely unusual" decision by a rights holder to suspend publication.

Copies of the books will remain on the shelves while the review is underway, Fraser said, and officials will then decide whether to keep a title in the collection, change its classification or remove it from the stacks.

Vancouver Public Library previously reviewed "If I Ran the Zoo" in 2014 in response to a complaint about stereotypical depictions of Asians. A caption in the book describes three characters as "helpers who all wear their eyes at a slant."

The library decided to keep the book on the shelves, but stop reading it at storytime, and only promote it as an example of how cultural depictions have changed.

Dr. Seuss, who was born Theodor Geisel in 1904 and died in 1991, is beloved by readers across the globe for the positive values in many of his works, including environmentalism and tolerance

But in recent years, some of his children's classics have faced mounting criticism over the way Blacks, Asians and others are depicted.

In "And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street,'' an Asian person is portrayed wearing a conical hat, holding chopsticks, and eating from a bowl. "If I Ran the Zoo" also includes a drawing of two bare-footed African men wearing what appear to be grass skirts with their hair tied above their heads.

News that some Dr. Seuss titles would be put out of print stoked social media outcry from those who called it another example of "cancel culture."

But Colleen Russo Johnson of Ryerson University's Children's Media Lab commended the decision as way to preserve Dr. Seuss's legacy for future generations by acknowledging both the positive and negative impacts of his work.

The images we're exposed to as children can shape our perceptions for the rest of our lives, and need to be curated carefully, said Russo Johnson.

Children shouldn't be able to stumble on negative depictions of other cultures while browsing through a library, she said.

But framed in their proper context, these books can also be used as an educational tool to spur conversation about racism and representation in literature, she said.

"I'm not saying these books should be erased from history," Russo Johnson said. "It's quite the opposite. We should learn from it now, and we should continue to learn from this."

— With files from The Associated Press

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 3, 2021.

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