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Looking Again At A Doctor's Old Rhymes, Seuss Works Haven't Kept Up With The Times

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The news that six books by Dr. Seuss will no longer be published was greeted today with applause and outrage. Those books contain racist images. And as NPR's Neda Ulaby reports, an early critic of racism in the books was Dr. Seuss himself.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: Most of the six books in question are pretty obscure. The book "On Beyond Zebra!" is not exactly "The Cat In The Hat." All of the books contain racist caricatures. There was only one I'd ever heard of.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: And to think that I saw it on Mulberry Street.

ULABY: In that 1937 book, a little boy describes all the weird things he says he's seen on the street.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Suppose that I add a Chinese man who eats with sticks.

ULABY: That reading aired on NPR in 2004. Theodor Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss, created a lot of racist work. Donald Pease is a professor who holds a position named for Theodor Geisel at Dartmouth College. He says Geisel, or Dr. Seuss, came to regret it.

DONALD PEASE: Dr. Seuss himself reexamined sometime in the 1980s the figure described as a Chinaman colored in yellow.

ULABY: So Seuss changed the character's skin color and called him a Chinese man, making it slightly less racist.

MICHELLE MARTIN: Seuss was not thinking about Black kids and Asian kids when he was writing these books. He was writing for white kids.

ULABY: Michelle H. Martin teaches children's literature at the University of Washington. She says Dr. Seuss evolved, especially after World War II, when he helped create propaganda that demonized Japanese people. Both she and Donald Pease think Dr. Seuss would've been absolutely fine with taking his racist books for kids out of circulation.

MARTIN: I'm sure they will have a long life in archives and art exhibits.

ULABY: Where they can be put in context. Martin says Theodor Geisel wanted his books for kids to feel resonant, contemporary. He was writing against the stiff, humorless children's literature of his day.

MARTIN: Kids were bored out of their minds with, like, "Dick And Jane" and those basal readers that I grew up - I'm a child of the '60s.

ULABY: Children of the 2020s, Martin points out, can reach for beautiful books by writers from lots of different backgrounds. Theodor Geisel, who was himself tormented as a child for being German during World War I, did not want any kid to feel bullied. As he grew to reflect on the racism in his books, she says it would have been consistent for Dr. Seuss to ask...

MARTIN: Are there some things that just need to be retired? There's so many stories in the world. Why do we have to keep recycling ones that are damaging?

ULABY: There are plenty of Seuss books in circulation. Some of them, Martin predicts, will stand the test of time.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF LITTLE PEOPLE'S "START SHOOTIN'") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.