On Record: Dr. Seuss Controversy

Join the On Record team as we discuss literature that sparks conversation– covering topics like mental health, violence, queer literature, and race/racial identity. In this episode Madeleine, Caitlin, Maddie, and Celia discuss the recent halt in publication for six of Dr Seuss’s books. Is cancel culture at it again? Or was it time to say goodbye?

Hosts: Caitlin Clement, Celia Brocker, Maddie Willey, & Madeleine Bonnallie

Editor: Caitlin Clement

Transcription:

[TEASER]

MADELEINE, HOST: I think it was definitely like people were kind of scared of the cancel culture…

MADDIE, HOST: Definitely

MADELEINE: You know. But there was definitely a lot of fear that oh we’re being really sensitive and there’s a cancel culture so I think  everyone was really scared that Dr. Seuss was going to be the next victim.

[MUSIC/INTRO]

MADELEINE: While our goal in this podcast is to tackle and address controversial topics, we are doing so from an analytical standpoint. Our goal is to educate ourselves and listeners through our discussions. No member of On Record supports racism, derogatory language, or offensive content.

Welcome to “On Record” where we discuss controversial and underrepresented literature. We’re your hosts Madeleine Bonnallie..

CAITLIN, HOST: Caitlin Clement…

MADDIE: Maddie Willey…

CELIA, HOST: And Celia Brocker.

MADELEINE: Okay so, basically this is a podcast talking about books.

[LAUGHTER]

MADELEINE: I mean it started initially as kind of like a banned books idea, like it was literally called banned books for a hot minute. But like as we started doing research and stuff, we realized banned books isn’t all we wanted to focus about. Or focus on, and we realized there were a lot of other conversations and discourse surrounding literature and we kind of wanted to explore those avenues too. So yeah we’re really here to talk about some book that may or may not be controversial or we think are interesting and see where it goes. 

[MUSIC]

CAITLIN: …how many books, that I knew as a kid,  had at one point or another been banned. Like something that I would go into the library and pick out. Like Junie B. Jones, that was crazy, or just any of the classic novels that I was assigned to read in high school like To Kill A Mockingbird or any of Toni Morison’s novels…

MADELEINE: Well and like you said, when I think of banned books I think it might be a classic book or like a book worth talking about, at one point or another it was banned. Like you’re saying with the Junie B. Jones one, I’m pretty sure it was banned because she talked back to her mom and they were like this is just inspiring bad behavior for our kids. And then I went ahead and pulled up a list of banned books for funny reasons and like George Owell’s one was banned because it promoted communist ideas. But if you think about it ‘s literally all about how damaging a totalitarian regime can be so.

CAITLIN: Yeah totally. But I do, I feel like I can somewhat understand why it was banned just from the time period that it was published in and…

CELIA: Looking at like a list of books that are banned, what a lot of them have in common is there the first if not one of the first to talk about a specific subject in a specific way. Like with George Orwell’s 1984, it was probably one of  the first books that actively talked about communism.

[AGREEMENT]

CELIA: There was a children’s book called Tango Makes Three which is about two penguins who are dads and it was for kids but it was one of the first book for kids that talked about gay people so that’s why that parent’s would say “we can’t have that around kids or they’ll go blind”

[LAUGHTER]

CAITLIN: Yeah, yeah that makes sense and I totally agree. The books that, yeah they’re the first ones to talk about those subjects…or to just acknowledge them, ya know?

MADDIE: Yes.

CAITLIN: I think that’s why, you know, all of the books that have been banned , you know they’re all the classics they’ve all been talked about a lot. And while some of the books we talk about on this podcast aren’t necessarily banned, per se, as of now at least, they all kind of center around those topic that their predecessors were banned for. So I think that’s going to be, it’s definitely going to be interesting. And it’s interesting to see how we have evolved and how we have developed to in terms of book content and what is taboo and what isn’t taboo anymore. Obviously Geroge Orwell’s 1984, like that’s being taught in high school everywhere. 

MADELEINE: I think that’s the cool thing we’re kind of trying to do with this podcast is, you know, were looking at books for issues that may have been controversial but we’re also looking at diving deeper into some of those issues and maybe like exploring the misrepresentation of them or it’s more like what not necessarily talked about books are bringing to the table and the bigger conversation. So I’m really excited about that. We’re not just exactly tackling banned books or banned topics that could be the next big thing that they’re teaching at high schools or something.

[PAUSE]

[CROSSTALK AND LAUGHTER] 

CAITLIN: People say that we are, like today, there are still so many things we don’t talk about and there’s still so many books out there that you know do cover topics that are still taboo or still kind of hush hush things. Regarding different kinds of mental health, yeah mental health is being talked about as a whole more widely and more representatively but there’s still so many different subcategories to that that we haven’t opened up as much as other things have. So I’m excited to get into that too.

MADELEINE: Yeah I think, I think it’s going to be some good conversations. I think we’ve also got a good list of books picked out too.

[MUSIC]

CAITLIN: But Celia..

[LAUGHTER]

CELIA: I have a story..

[LAUGHTER]

MADELEINE: I love this story

CELIA: So, I got a book banned from my middle school. Not on purpose, let’s just preface that. I didn’t intend for this book to get banned. It was Looking for Alaska by John Green.

[CROSSTALK]

CAITLIN: The John Green days when everybody was like “I’m going to read every single John Green book…

[CROSSTALK]

CELIA: It started when The Fault in Our Stars came out and everyone went insane for that. It was about as big as the Hunger Games which was rare because it wasn’t like a fantasy or a series it was just the same one book. Everyone was cutting their hair short in my middle school. They were doing the Hazel Grace haircut. And then everyone wanted to read all of John Green’s books and one of my teachers had Looking for Alaska, personally, on her back shelf and she was thinking about putting it out but I don’t think she actually ever read it. If I’m remembering correctly…

[LAUGHTER]

She never read it but I saw it back there and I had a reputation for being a reader and also a bit of a goodie two shoes. So I was like “Oh I would love to read that book,” and she’s like “Oh I don’t know if I’m putting it out yet.” And then she had this brilliant idea where she said, “I’m going to give you this book Celia, and I want you to read it and I want you to tell me what’s in it”. Of course being a goodie two shoes I didn’t really understand what was happening, I was only thirteen at the time..

CAITLIN: I was going to say, “how old were you?”

[LAUGHTER AND CROSSTALK]

CELIA: I was just like “Anything to be the teacher’s pet I was down for”. So I was just like “Oh my god she’s trusting me like to look at this book and tell her what’s in it and review it.”

CAITLIN: Also like let’s unpack that-

[LAUGHTER]

MADDIE: Yeah.

CAITLIN: – your teacher is giving a 13-year-old a book and saying “hey determine whether or not this is like coursework material”

[CROSSTALK]

CELIA: She was like “tell me if it’s appropriate”.

[CROSSTALK]

MADDIE: That’s such a… such a time.

CELIA: To briefly sum up Looking for Alaska, not necessarily the book but what’s in it. There is a lot of material that some teachers or adults might be concerned about young adults reading. There is a lot of smoking in it, there’s a lot of drinking. There is a lot of sex and talk about sex. And there is also discussion of mental health and suicide. Which are all topics I am assuming we are going to hit on at some point or another in this podcast. This book kind of really had it all and I remember when I read it, I wouldn’t say that I particularly felt one way or another about it. To me I was just a 13-year old me reading a book by an author I liked.

And so I finished it, I brought it up to my teacher and she’s like ‘Tell me what’s in it’. So I thought  I was just giving her a summary of -.

CAITLIN: a synopsis of… yeah.

MADDIE: Yeah.

CELIA: And she’s like “Is there a lot of smoking in it?” And I didn’t know how to lie so I was like “Yeah, [group laughter]  there’s a lot of smoking, there’s a lot of drinking, there’s a lot of this” So then my teacher decides to- without ever reading the book for herself as far as I know of- that she’s just not going to put it out based on what I told her. And she announced to the whole class. Because everyone saw that I had it and were waiting to read this book because they were John Green fanatics and they were waiting. Then, she’s like “Yeah, I’ve decided not to put this book on the shelves after what Celia has told me is in the book”.

[CROSSTALK]

CAITLIN: She ratted you out!

MADELEINE: What a way too…

MADDIE: name dropped.

CELIA: She did and my entire class hated me!

MADDIE: Oh no.

MADELEINE: I can imagine, John Green fans were cut throat-

MADDIE: Yeah.

MADELEINE: – like trying to get those books, it was hard.

CAITLIN: Yeah, you better believe I was reading Paper Towns and Looking for Alaska. I got all those books.

MADELEINE: I got tickets to that special screen of The Fault in Our Stars movie where you waited in line and they have the interview with John Green and them afterwards. I was really into it”

CAITLIN: Okay, but honestly, your teacher. She is trying to figure out if this book is appropriate for 13-year-olds. So she asks a 13-year-old to read the book and see.

MADDIE: Yeah, she definitely should had read the book herself as well

CELIA: I will also add, this was probably like my first time reading a book with that amount of that kind of content in there. At that age, in middle school, when you are just getting into the young adult phase. So we are just growing out of Harry Potter and Percy Jackson and those kids of stories. So it was just…I was just, not overwhelmed. I wouldn’t say that it scared me necessarily. But I was just, you know, a little taken aback and I think she took that the wrong way. And thought that it scared me or traumatized me. She’s like little 13-year olds, 14-year olds, shouldn’t be reading about sex and drugs and drinking and mental health. But the reality of it is that it happens and no matter how young you are you can’t be protected. Obviously there can be some barriers. It doesn’t need to be super explicit for younger kids

MADDIE: Yeah

CELIA: But just ignoring it and pretending it doesn’t exist doesn’t mean that kids aren’t going to be exposed to it.

CAITLIN: Yeah, I mean, I am not a parent, and I’m not going to say that I know what it feels like or know what it means to be a parent. But, I would rather my kid be exposed to those things in a book, than in real life. You know? Then someone handing them drugs or stuff like that. And then having absolutely no clue. I just…yeah. To me, I feel like books are a safer way to be introduced to things. 

MADDIE: Yeah, I agree with that 100%. I would much rather them experience it in a book, then somehow in real life. 

CELIA: And I think people forget about, you know, not just books. But in movies and TV shows, is after you consume that content, then you talk about it with people. So it’s just another way to start a conversation. My family, whenever we watch a movie together, or we all read a book. No matter what it was, we would sit and talk and be like “What did you think about this?” So that was a way for our parents to be like, if they didn’t know how to talk to us about a certain subject, or how to introduce it, that was a way for them to break the ice and then explain it to us. So, it’s never really outside of the parents control. In my point of view. Again, I’m not a parent, I have no experience in that. But I would think I would want to be able to have a conversation with my child about those things, instead of trying to keep it from my child and my child learning about it in a way that I am not comfortable with. 

MADELEINE: I mean, look at Thirteen Reasons Why. When that book came out there was a very strong either you loved it or you hated it. And when the TV show became big on Netflix, it was even more, people were either so mad about it, or they’re like “It was good, why can’t we talk about it?”. And it opened up, whether or not you hated it or liked it, it started a conversation. I remember fighting with my brother at the table. He was like “it’s horrible, it’s selfish. She is just doing all of these things” And I was like “But it started a conversation about suicide and mental health, and also rape. There were so many things to unpack from that book. That even if you watched it and hated it, you also became more aware and it also just jump started that whole discussion about what’s going on in it”

CAITLIN: Absolutely, and I think it helped a lot of people feel less alone too, you know?

[AGREEMENT]

People that are struggling with all of those things, mental health issues, depression, suicidal thoughts, suicidal ideation. They now have this example that showed them that what they are feeling is real. And that a lot of other people feel it too. 

[MUSICAL TRANSITION]

MADELEINE: I’ve personally been enjoying this talk. But I know we did have a main reason that we wanted to come and talk on this first episode. And, it’s definitely kind of a hot topic right now.

CAITLIN: Yeah, I mean it goes along the lines of childhood books

MADELEINE: Yeah. Definitely

CAITLIN: You know, being surprised about the banning of certain books. And so, we are going to talk about, the highly talked about –  

[LAUGHTER]

CAITLIN: – discussion right now, that is Dr. Seuss. Some of his books are being called, or some of the imagery in his books are being called racist and insensitive to cultures and people. So, we want to discuss that today because, I mean, honestly that’s what our podcast is about, right? [laughs] It is about…

CELIA: That’s why we’re here.

MADDIE: Yeah.

MADELEINE: Which, honestly, I personally I was more of a Green Eggs and Ham kind of person, like One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish or whatever. So I, when I was reading about these, I actually hadn’t heard of these – anyway I’d heard of them but I’d definitely certainly never read them. So it was kinda interesting to…like, these just weren’t common, and now they’re this huge big discussion. I don’t know if anyone else has heard of these titles before…

CELIA: Yeah, do we wanna, like, read the titles…

[CHORUS OF AGREEMENT]

CAITLIN: I’ll read the titles off for those people at home that maybe haven’t read the articles on them. So the books that are not being published anymore by the Dr. Seuss Enterprise are And To Think I Saw It On Mulberry Street, If I Ran The Zoo, McElligot’s Pool, On Beyond Zebra!, Scrambled Eggs Super!, and The Cat’s Quizzer. I, personally, have never, I have heard of And to Think I Saw It On Mulberry Street, I’ve definitely heard that title before. But I don’t think I’ve ever heard of any of these books. So when I heard, you know, when they started coming up on pretty much any sort of news source possible, I didn’t quite know why they were, you know? Just because I hadn’t ever read them, so I obviously decided to look into it.

MADDIE: Yeah, like when the announcement went out about these books I was, at first I was slightly concerned because all I saw was that Dr. Seuss books were being banned. But then when I looked into it further, I saw that it was just these six books, and I was like, “Well, I’ve never heard of any of – well I’ve heard of the titles of some of em, I’ve never read em, I’m guessing they weren’t that popular in the first place.” I mean, they could’ve slowly been fading them out before this point. But I think a lot of people really jumped on this news, and took offence to the attack on Dr. Seuss, and kind of thinking that they were just attacking Dr. Seuss all together, and all of his books, all of his material so far.

MADELEINE: I think it was definitely kind of, like, people are scared of the cancel culture, you know?

MADDIE: Definitely.

MADELEINE: Um, there’s a lot of things, Mr. Potato head, um, is another recent one. But there’s a lot of, like, fear that like, “oh, we’re being really sensitive’ and there’s a cancel culture” so I think everyone was really scared that Dr. Seuss was going to be the next victim to –

MADDIE: Yeah

MADELEINE: – fall into cancel culture. I definitely think it was worth looking into to make sure it wasn’t. But, I think it brings up a bigger discussion, is cancel culture something that should always apply to like, books and stuff. Should we cancel full authors or stop publishing books that maybe are problematic, or offensive, or maybe need to be revisited, I don’t know.

CAITLIN: Yeah, I mean I feel like it’s safe to say that as history writes itself that we, you know, progress and we learn things, we educate ourselves on certain topics and we look back at, you know, certain literature and books that are from a different time period and we’re like, “okay so that’s not – you know, that’s not okay, anymore, right.” So we have to – I feel like instead of cancel culture we have to change the narrative for how we talk about those books.

MADELEINE: Definitely.

CELIA: Right.

CAITLIN: So if someone’s going to read the book or if someone’s introduced the book, you know we as individuals need to go into it knowing, like, “Hey, you know this book has racist imagery in it, and you have to realize that.

[PAUSE]

The Associated Press talked about, or mentioned about how libraries are trying to kind of decide what they want to do with the books because of the whole freedom of expression and stuff, and libraries often don’t, entirely get rid of books they just put them into different sections, because it’s still [pause] it’s still historical, right? It’s still a snapshot of a period in time, we just have to change the narrative of how we look at them.

MADELEINE: Yeah, I think you walk a very line with you don’t won’t erase what’s happened, but you also like you’re saying, change the narrative. Like, I think it’s important to have certain books and literature and information out there, so the whole ‘we don’t want history to repeat itself.’ We don’t want to repeat these kind of things, we want to bring attention to them, understand why they’re no longer accepted in the place they’re at but also understand that over time values change, beliefs change, how you represent things change. And it’s also still valuable to understand where people were at one point in time and realize we’ve grown from there.

CAITLIN: Yeah, I mean Dr. Seuss was born in 1905 –

MADELEINE: Exactly!

CAITLIN: – the very beginning of the 20th century. No matter what kind of author you are, you’re always going to put the time of history that you’re in into your books. Like, it’s gonna be there. It’s gonna be there in different ways for different authors and different books, but you know, there’s always going to be that history time stamp.

CELIA: I think when we talk about cancel culture, as it’s called, I think we also need to acknowledge to like, a certain point there really isn’t possibility in cancel culture. Cause at a certain point if it’s something that has been around for as long as Dr. Seuss and as iconic as Dr. Seuss and so ingrained in our culture, it’s not really possible to just take those out. Like, if you look at what happened with Harry Potter when some news came out about J.K. Rowling and problematic beliefs about people who are transgender. You know, Harry Potter is so ingrained into our culture, like, it’s referenced all the time in different forms of media, we have two theme parks of Harry Potter, we have a bunch of Harry Potter merchandise. And that’s just like, such a part of our culture now that it’s, like, impossible to take that out. And so, it’s also, I also think it’s important to acknowledge that despite there being things wrong, there’s [PAUSE] it’s hard to completely, like, take art that’s been around for as long as it has and then just pretend it didn’t exist anymore. So like, I don’t think we’re ever going to really see the end of Dr. Seuss. If these six books, um stop being published I think that would be fine, especially because he has so many other ones that are like so well-known, I had never even heard of any of these ones and I read a lot of Dr. Seuss growing up. So I don’t think we’re cancelling Dr. Seuss per se, we’re just not publishing any more of these works.

MADELEINE: And I mean, like, a lot of his books have a lot of great messages, that’s why they’re so important. They have, like, they instill great values, these six might just need to be out of that narrative. Like, we just don’t need to acknowledge that Dr. Seuss did those and we can focus on the good ones. And, I don’t know, like you’re saying I don’t think Dr. Seuss is going to be cancelled or thrown out, I think his books will still be around. I just think it’s fine if we take a closer look at some of the imagery and some of the content and figure out what’s best in alliance with our beliefs and our values now, and what no longer serves a purpose.

HOSTS: Yeah.

CAITLIN: And I think it’s important to point out some statistics here about the Dr. Seuss enterprise. I mean, he, you know, he still remains super popular, um, earning an estimated 33 million before taxes in 2020 for his books. And he is, um, number two on Forbes highest paid dead celebrities in 2021. So you know –

MADELEINE: He’s gonna be alright.

CAITLIN: He’s doing okay for a dead guy. 

MADDIE: Yeah. 

CAITLIN: So, yeah, Dr. Seuss is not cancelled. He has so many other books that, you know, almost, I would say many graduates get the “Oh The Places You’ll Go” book — 

MADDIE: Yep. 

CAITLIN: When you graduate high school or college. And you gotta love a good “Green Eggs and Ham” moments. We love him but also, you know, sometimes you have to take a step back and look at the things that you’ve written and that are in the media and just realize that they’re not relevant anymore. 

[MUSIC]

CELIA: I think it’s interesting that you brought up Huck Finn earlier because I know there’s talks about that one cause there’s racists thoughts, you know, from the main protagonist in that novel and the n-word is said a lot and that’s just interesting, I think, to talk about. Because that’s still being taught in schools. I remember I had to learn in school despite the racisms that’s in that novel it’s still considered a very important part of American literature. And I’m also just wondering do we draw a line between, you know, this is problematic or this has problematic elements to it but it still needs to be part of our culture. 

MADELEINE: You know, that’s definitely something I’m always considering cause I think that books and movies and things reflect, a point in time. Like Grease, it’s kind of under attack now too. But it’s supposed to represent the 50s or 60s, um, and that was a time that was very problematic. Like, these are very real beliefs that were held at that time, so then how do we, like Huckleberry Finn, how do you, those were beliefs that were there and you can’t just erase that that happened or pretend those beliefs weren’t there, so how do you teach that and acknowledge it but be more progressive towards that. So that’s always a question that I always ask myself, I don’t know. 

CAITLIN: I think you do what you said, you acknowledge it, right? So as a teacher if you’re going to teach these, you know, literary novels. At least when we would start a controversial book at my high school. There was always that introduction period where my teacher would step in front of the room and be like “so listen guys, this book, it’s gonna cover some heavy shit, right.”

[LAUGHTER]

Um, you know it’s gonna cover mental health or it’s gonna cover, it’s gonna have the n-word in it or it’s gonna have sex scenes in it, and they would always, you know, they would assign chapter by chapter and, um, if there was a chapter coming up where there was a hot, steamy sex scene going on, they would warn us and be like if you don’t want to read that you don’t have to read that. Obviously, if you’re not comfortable, we’re not going to force you to read that. But forewarning, that’s in this chapter, so yeah, I think just acknowledging it, you know. 

MADDIE: Yeah. 

CAITLIN: Giving a, giving a, warning label to it in a sense. Letting people know what’s in it, so that they can decide whether or not they want to actually read that 

MADDIE: Yeah, I think that’s the biggest point. With a lot of these books we want to keep it in, run, because it is a snapshot in history but just, we have to acknowledge the issues that are in the book and let people decide themselves if it’s something they want to read or not all the time. 

CELIA: Yes, I agree with everything that’s been said. You know, um, because we want to think about this topic, you know I think that as much as I might not want to read something there might be someone out there who does and as frustrating as it can be to me personally, I wouldn’t want, you know, it reversed. Like say Looking for Alaska was not banned at my school library but was banned at my public library, like, I would want access to that book. I wouldn’t want someone saying I’m too young to understand what these themes mean or I wanted to read a piece of queer media, I wouldn’t want the library to say, you know, “well we don’t condone, you know, homosexual or any kind of activity like that so we’re not going to put those books in the library” you know, so I wouldn’t want someone to say that to me so I think its, as much as, you know, I might not agree with something published in a certain book I wouldn’t want my rights taken away, so I, me personally, I always try to be mindful of someone else. And like you guys are saying, you know, it’s a moment of history of where we were at a certain time so as long as we acknowledge this is where we were then and not where we are now and how much more we still have to grow, then I guess I agree. 

MADDIE: Yeah. And going off of that as well, cause I mean it’s different between the public and people canceling the books compared to the actual cooperation that cancels books. Cause like in the case of Dr. Seuss it’s like the actual Dr. Seuss enterprise that decided to pull these books, and while they just announced it now it was something they decided a year ago even. So how does, how do we think this kind of works when it’s the actual cooperation or publishing company that decides to kind of self-ban their books. 

CAITLIN: Yeah, I mean that kind of goes into the law side of things, looking into the– I’m taking journalism law right now and that’s like a huge topic that we’re talking about, like what private companies, private enterprises can do and what government run, like private industries like the Dr. Seuss enterprises, they can do whatever the hell they want, um, with those books, they can choose to stop publishing them. That’s totally fine. But obviously they’re still out there, they’re still circulating, they’re still going around, um, so what other people do with it, you know, that’s their thing.

Thanks for listening to the Urban Plains podcast On Record. Join us next week where we’ll be discussing The Dance Boots by Linda Legarde Grover, a multigenerational story about the Ojibwe community that showcases the cycle of Indian boarding schools, alcoholism, and violence, as well as the pride and love these characters have for their family, language, customs, and history. Check out our website urban-plains.com to listen to our podcast and follow us on our social media to get the latest news on all things On Record. 

[MUSIC]

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