The Atlantic

Reading Racism in Dr. Seuss

A children’s-literature scholar argues it’s time to acknowledge the perturbing themes in some of the most beloved books.

Source: Mike Blake / Reuters

Reminiscing about the Dr. Seuss books we loved as children is usually a happy time for adults. We might remember first learning about equality in Horton Hears a Who! or getting starry-eyed about our futures reading Oh, the Places You’ll Go! (of course, for some of us there’s also a bit of residual terror about that green-food-obsessed apparition in Green Eggs and Ham).

But Philip Nel, a scholar and professor of children's literature whose specialties include Dr. Seuss and Harry Potter, is pushing readers to grapple with the political and social implications of the stories that inspire such warm, fuzzy memories. In his new book, Was the Cat in the Hat Black?: The Hidden Racism of Children’s Literature, and the Need for Diverse Books, Nel argues that, yes, the Cat in the Hat was black—or, more precisely, that Seuss’s depiction of the character was based on racial stereotypes and inspired by traditions of blackface minstrel entertainment—and that dozens more children’s books of decades past are brimming with insidious, racist themes.

I spoke with Nel about how teachers and parents should discuss these books with children, how one’s nostalgia for children's

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