Eighth-grader Beezus Murphy has always loved Dr. Seuss.
“I feel like he just kind of sees the world differently than other people, like the same way I do," Murphy said. "Because he envisions a world filled with socks-wearing foxes, and elephants raising bird-children, and green eggs and ham.”
Murphy attends Louisa Boren STEM K-8 School in West Seattle, where an annual highlight for her has been Dr. Seuss Day. That's when students get to leave their uniforms at home and come to school dressed as their favorite book character. For Murphy, that's usually Sally from "The Cat in the Hat."
But lately, she’s been reconsidering her affection for the famous children’s books.
"The first time I started seeing a different side to Dr. Seuss was when we were learning about the Japanese internment last year in school," Murphy said.
She saw racist cartoons Seuss had drawn during World War II, depicting Japanese-Americans heading for internment camps. He drew them as slanted-eyed caricatures, and as traitors who all still swore allegiance to Japan.
"Actually, you know, I was very shocked," Murphy said.
But the problem with Dr. Seuss doesn’t end there.
One librarian recently analyzed the characters from his 50 most popular children’s books and found that 98 percent of the human characters were white. And that every person of color in the books was stereotyped, caricatured, subservient, exotified or dehumanized – often all of the above.
Seuss drew Asian characters with yellow skin and rice-paddy hats.
Turban-wearing characters riding exotic animals.
African people depicted as monkeys.
"One time my mom and I were reading this big book of Dr. Seuss stories, and my mom was pointing out the racial imagery in the drawings. I just felt kind of naive for not noticing it sooner," Murphy said.
A lot of people have been looking differently at Dr. Seuss lately.
The National Education Association created Dr. Seuss Day – otherwise known as Read Across America Day – 20 years ago. It falls on the birthday of Dr. Seuss’ alter ego, Theodor Geisel.
This school year, the NEA shifted the focus of Read Across America away from Seuss and toward diverse books and readers.
At Beezus Murphy’s school, Principal Ben Ostrom followed suit: no more Dr. Seuss Day.
"The increase in the number of books that are available that really reflect diverse authors and perspectives is gigantic. We've had just a huge explosion in publishing, and those are opportunities that kids need to see as they see themselves and the complexity of our country.”
Even Dr. Seuss's books that are hailed as messages of tolerance and inclusion, like "Horton Hears a Who!" and "The Sneetches," are written from a very privileged perspective, Ostrom said.
Still, he said, for him, it’s not about getting rid of Dr. Seuss.
The books are classics – and like most classics, they’re reflective of their times.
But Ostrom said in order to teach Dr. Seuss appropriately, teachers need to be ready to go far beyond the rhyming whimsy.
"It's a complex conversation in terms of understanding, from a broad range of ages, how is Dr. Seuss reflective of the racism in our country — at the time, and that exists through his life, and today, and a reflection of privilege, and how can we learn from that?" Ostrom said.
That’s something teachers and librarians are increasingly thinking about today: how to address prejudice and bias in children’s literature.
Which books belong on the shelves?
Which do more harm than good?
"They drove away and left it lonely and empty in the clearing among the big trees. And they never saw that little house again. They were going to the Indian country."
Recognize those opening lines?
That’s the ominous first page of "Little House on the Prairie."
Kate Eads, librarian at Northgate Elementary, says this is just one of the books she struggles with.
"Do I just tell the student up-front, 'you're going to come across some words that are inappropriate,' or do I take the book off?” Eads said. “I want them to know the story. I want them to know how people treated and talked about people. I want them to know the complete history. But I also don't want to be enforcing a stereotype or a negative connotation or a demoralizing term.”
Eads says in the case of Little House on the Prairie, she might suggest the child next read a book from a Native American perspective.
But a lot of books she just pulls from the shelves.
"I was once [working] in a library, and the books about black children were either about their hair or about being enslaved," Eads said. But then, after weeding the collection, "I was left with fewer than a dozen books that were appropriate, complete, authentic representations of African-American or black children."
Pulling books is easy. Replacing them is tougher. For years, Seattle Public Schools has not provided libraries with any budget for new materials. Libraries tend to rely on PTA money, which means schools with the wealthier families tend to have the most up-to-date books.
Eads is lucky – her low-income school got a private grant to upgrade its library. But she still has to supplement with money from her own pocket. Eads focuses on books that reflect the diversity of her school, where many children come from immigrant families.
Last year, she surveyed the school’s fifth-graders: "In our library, do you think there is at least one book that is about someone just like you? What you like to do? What you look like? What your home is like?”
Eads flips through the responses.
"I don't think so.”
“I don't know.”
Eads had mixed feelings about the results.
"I was happy to see they were honest,” she said. “I was not surprised by the answer. I was frustrated that I couldn't solve the problem, because I don't have the money."
Gov. Jay Inslee just signed a bill that could change this. The law includes $20 in library materials funding per year for every public school student in the state. Eads said if school libraries actually see that money, it could be revolutionary for kids.
"Right now it's our number one need they have: to see themselves, that we care about them, and that we respect them enough to spend money on books for them, to seek out authors that will show them as a complete, authentic, whole child instead of the shallow stuff," she said.
Back at Louisa Boren STEM K-8 School, those are the books teachers focused on for this year’s Read Across America Day. But Principal Ostrom says they plan to keep teaching Dr. Seuss, too.
"As white people in America, we so easily have the choice to pay attention to issues of race or not," Ostrom said. "Dr. Seuss has a really powerful opportunity for people to say, 'wait a minute, we can't just ignore that history, and that set of images, that are part of our experiences — because that's part of how we got to this place.'"