Saturday, March 06, 2021

"Eskimo" in Seuss Books that Will No Longer Be Published

On March 2, 2021, Dr. Seuss Enterprises released a statement that they would no longer publish several of the Dr. Seuss books. Here's the statement:

Statement from Dr. Seuss Enterprises

Today, on Dr. Seuss’s Birthday, Dr. Seuss Enterprises celebrates reading and also our mission of supporting all children and families with messages of hope, inspiration, inclusion, and friendship.

We are committed to action.  To that end, Dr. Seuss Enterprises, working with a panel of experts, including educators, reviewed our catalog of titles and made the decision last year to cease publication and licensing of the following titles:  And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry StreetIf I Ran the Zoo, McElligot’s Pool, On Beyond Zebra!, Scrambled Eggs Super!, and The Cat’s Quizzer.  These books portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong.

Ceasing sales of these books is only part of our commitment and our broader plan to ensure Dr. Seuss Enterprises’s catalog represents and supports all communities and families.

As you see, their statement says things like "supporting all children and families" and "inclusion" and "represents and supports all communities and families." It lists the six books they will no longer publish but they don't give us any details on what--in those books--motivated their decision. 

The statement does not tell us who the experts on the panel were, or what they used to do their review. I strongly suspect they drew heavily from The Cat is Out of the Bag: Orientalism, Anti-Blackness, and White Supremacy in Dr. Seuss's Children's Books by Katie Ishizuka and Ramón Stephens. Published in Feb of 2019 in Research on Diversity in Youth Literature, as of this writing it has been downloaded 274,425 times. Their study is excellent. 

I followed the news stories as people reacted to the statement. Many focused on the racist depictions in the well-known And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street. It was first published in 1937. The National Post cites the "Chinaman who eats with sticks" and the "Rajah, with rubies" and notes "two fur-clad figures being pulled by a reindeer." The storyteller in the book is a boy named Marco who is imagining what he'll see as he goes to school. 

Here is the page with the two figures in fur:

The words on that page do not tell us anything about the two on the sled, but it is clear they are meant to be what Seuss probably thought of as "Eskimo." Marco is back in McElligot's Pool published in 1947 by Random House. It won a Caldecott Honor Award. In it, Marco is fishing in a pool that, he's told, is too small. It has nothing but junk that people throw in it (a boot, a can, a bottle, etc.) 

Marco, however, imagines that the pool is connected to an underground river that may even go beyond Hudson Bay. Here's that page:

The words on that page are:

Some Eskimo Fish
From beyond Hudson Bay
Might decide to swim down;
Might be headed this way!

In the top left you can see Seuss's depiction of an igloo, and a person holding a spear and clad in fur, much like the two men on the sled in And to Think I Saw It on Mulberry Street. The fish are shown wearing the same fur hood as the person is. Here's a close up of all three:

The third book that has the fur-clad figures is Scrambled Eggs Super! It came out in 1953. In it, a kid named Peter T. Hooper brags about the kinds of eggs he uses to make scrambled eggs and where they are. Here's the page to note:

The text there is:

Eggs! I'd collected three hundred and two!
But I needed still more! And I suddenly knew
That the job was too big for one fellow to do.
So I telegraphed north to some friends near Fa-Zoal
Which is ten miles or so just beyond the North Pole.
And they all of them jumped in their Katta-ma-Side,
Which is sort of a boat made of sea-leopard's hide,
Which they sailed out to sea to go looking for Grice,
Which is sort of a bird which lays eggs on the ice,
Which they grabbed with a tool which is known as a Squitsch,
'Cause those eggs are too cold to be touched without which.

The friends are shown in that same fur attire that we saw in the other two books. Their location is the North Pole, which is another clue for us that they, too, are meant to be "Eskimo." 

The North Pole, the igloo, and the fur are all part of the reductive and stereotypical imagery associated with the Inuit or Yupik people. 

Objections to that stereotyping are not new, but they are gaining visibility in recent years. In 2016, Alaska Native people objected when Alaska Airlines shared their new airplane and website designs that included "Meet our Eskimo.":

Blossom Twitchell said "I would rather be called 'Inupiaq' because that's what I am and my children are Yup'ik." She also said that she wants her children "to be able to connect to their culture" and doesn't want people to think of them as "little people that live in igloo's." The airline apologized and removed "Eskimo" from their website.

More recently, Dreyer's Grand Ice Cream, the maker of "Eskimo Pie" ice cream, announced a change in their use of the word. This image will no longer be used:

Seuss Enterprises, Alaska Airlines, and Dreyer's Grand Ice Cream are making business decisions that are good for their profit margin--and for the rest of us, too. 

If your work in any way includes reading, creating, acquiring, or reviewing children's books, you need to be aware of these developments. Far too many children's books have stereotypical content in them that looks a lot like what we see in the Seuss books. His books are old--but you'll find this sort of imagery in newer books, too. When you have a moment, take a look at the side-by-side analysis I did of Igloo Farm (which became Snowy Farm). 

If you want to help make change happen, follow and share the work of people in children's and young adult literature who are pointing to that imagery. You can start by following @ConsciousKid (Katie Ishizuka and Ramón Stephens) and @CrazyQuilts (Edith Campbell) on Twitter. Stereotypical and racist imagery can end, if you speak up. When you see stereotypes, say something!