Readers are mourning a fallen Monterey cypress tree, said to have inspired the classic Dr. Seuss book The Lorax (once considered a very dangerous book). “The tree was estimated to be about 80 to 100 years old,” according to Tim Graham, a spokesman for the San Diego Parks and Recreation Department, who added that there is “no definitive cause on why it fell.” Let’s hope a Truffula Seed is found quickly before things get worse.
The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins was more than just a Dr. Seuss book but a reality for the writer. Seuss was as fond of hats as he was rhyming and now part of his chapeau collection will be touring the U.S. 26 of his hats will stop in Atlanta, New Orleans, South Lake Tahoe, Tampa, Midlothian, and Northampton. For more Seuss, read our essay on censorship of The Lorax.
The movie adaptation of The Lorax opens on March 2nd, Dr. Seuss’ birthday. His yellow-mustached crusader now appears on countless billboards and buses, and stars in environmentally conscious ads. I’m pleased that the grumpy guy is getting so much attention. He speaks for the trees (the Truffula Trees!), and the Humming-Fish, and the Swomee-Swans, and the Brown Bar-ba-loots. A good creature. An important message. A powerful ally in the fight against Gluppity-Glupp and smogulous smoke, the byproducts of Thneed overproduction.
So it upset me when I heard that in 1989 a group of parents tried to censor The Lorax. They took out a full-page newspaper ad accusing second-grade teachers of brainwashing students. Who would do that? Only someone who doesn’t understand the value of free speech, right?
Before laying into logger Bill Bailey of Laytonville, Calif., and his supporters, I’m going to ask you to consider a different book — Alfie’s Home, published four years after The Lorax came under fire. It tells the story of a boy named Alfie whose father is “working all the time, and when he’s at home, he screams a lot.” Into this paternal void steps Uncle Pete: “One night when he was holding me, he started touching my private parts. Over time, he taught me to touch and play with his. It felt very strange, scary, and a little good too.”
Young Alfie comes to believe he is gay, a “confusion” exacerbated by “the other guys” at school who call him names like “‘Sissy, ‘Faggot,’ ‘Queer,’ ‘Homo.’” But the book ends on what it presents as a positive note. Alfie seeks counseling and learns that he was merely looking for closeness with other boys to fill the need for “Dad’s love.” Everyone lives happily ever after, including Alfie’s parents, who, thanks to the same African-American counselor, manage to cultivate a loving relationship with each other and their son.
Needless to say, Alfie’s Home (by “ex-gay” Richard A. Cohen) does not appear in many libraries, much less on second-grade required reading lists (as The Lorax did for the Laytonville Unified School District). For me that’s far from a regrettable absence. But why? Am I a closet censor, ready to suppress repugnant ideologies while trumpeting the importance of Banned Books Week?
The short answer is yes. Fortunately, books I find disgusting simply don’t get purchased by libraries or required by schools, saving me, and other like-minded individuals, from the embarrassing and hypocritical task of challenging them.
My home town of Chicago does not have its public school library catalogue online, but a search of the New York and Portland catalogues shows multiple copies of And Tango Makes Three (and Tres Con Tango), a picture-book about two male chinstrap penguins who raise an egg together at New York’s Central Park Zoo. According to the ALA, And Tango Makes Three was the most challenged book from 2006 to 2010 (except for 2009 when it came it second). Tango is great as far as I’m concerned, but not everyone feels the same way. You know who I mean — the people, generally conservative, who rail against everything from Roald Dahl’s The Witches to Judy Blume. Religion is often in the mix — one group of censorial parents and students in Oceanside, Calif., was actually called the “God Squad.” (A classic battle: D.T. Suzuki’s Zen Buddhism: Selected Writings was challenged in Canton, Mich., because “this book details the teachings of the religion of Buddhism in such a way that the reader could very likely embrace its teachings and choose this as his religion.”)
Alfie’s Home never made the ALA’s list of most challenged books. Not because liberals are happy to see it sharing shelf space with The Lorax, though, but rather because libraries aren’t willing to stock it, and teachers would never assign it if they did. For good reason, too. There’s an easy, non-ideological argument to be made against Alfie’s Home — aesthetically, it’s a disaster. To quote the School Library Journal review: “Everything about this book screams fake. The illustrations are flat and garish in their simplicity, lacking any personality or appeal. If the generic illustrations aren’t a complete turnoff, the saccharine tone of the writing gives further challenge to credibility. If readers were able to ignore the presentation, there is still the message of the text to choke them. A boy from a dysfunctional family who is abused throughout his childhood and into his teens sees a counselor and everything is suddenly wonderful.”
But what about a much, much better book, Regina Doman’s Angel in the Waters? Exquisitely illustrated by Ben Hatke (whose Zita the Spacegirl does appear in the New York and Portland catalogues), the book is a poetic paean to human development, starting at the moment of conception: “In the beginning, I was./I was for a long time. Then things began to happen.” Why don’t the Portland and New York libraries stock any copies of Angel? And why isn’t it on any school reading lists?
There are a number of plausible reasons: educators just aren’t familiar with it, or don’t think it is popular enough to purchase. Let me suggest an additional reason — many librarians and teachers don’t want young, impressionable children reading about anthropomorphized fetuses that have an “Angel” and talk in the first person. Nor do they want to reinforce the (false?) notion that babies somehow remember their early time in the womb: “Sometimes, when I am in my bath, I remember the waters, and swimming.” It feels too much like pro-life indoctrination, no matter how nice the writing and illustrations. (At least that’s how it feels to me.)
The fact is, when censorship fits with one’s values, even the staunchest defenders of free speech are willing to bend the rules. Take the ALA, perhaps the most vociferous opponents of censorship in America. Through the Association for Library Service to Children, they administer the prestigious Newbery Medal, awarded to countless banned and challenged classics. In 2007, The New York Times reported how the ALA cried censorship when some librarians foresaw pressure from parents and refused to purchase 2007 Newbery winner The Higher Power of Lucky. The reason? “Scrotum” appears on the first page of the book. Presumably requests to publish a bowdlerized version without the offensive word would have met with similar disapprobation. Conservative mores getting in the way of free speech yet again.
What’s strange, however, is that the Newbery award is still allowed on the cover of Hugh Lofting’s The Voyages of Dr. Dolittle. Both Dell Yearling and HarperCollins published Voyages in a highly censored form of the 1922 award-winning original (and the same is true of its predecessor, The Story of Dr. Dolittle.) Concerned with racially insensitive material, editors at each publishing house saw fit to expunge potentially offensive slurs, rewrite or delete stereotypical depictions of Africans, and replace illustrations of black characters.
None of this is described explicitly as censorship. In the afterword to HarperCollins’ The Story of Dr. Dolittle, the editorial changes are referred to as “gentle revision.” And in the afterword to the Dell Yearling version of Voyages, Christopher Lofting, the author’s son, writes: “Book banning or censorship is not an American tradition! To change the original could be interpreted as censorship. Then again, so could a decision to deny children access to an entire series of classics on the basis of isolated passing references.” There are references in both editions to the certain approval of Hugh Lofting, were he only alive to give it. (KSU professor Philip Nel has an excellent discussion of Dr. Dolittle, along with Roald Dahl’s Oompa-Loompas, who used to be African pygmies.)
Of course, if you worry less about racism or homophobia and more about anti-religious indoctrination or anti-capitalist sentiment, there will be an entirely different set of books you want off readings lists, and themes you want out of books. Which brings us back to logger (actually logging equipment manufacturer) Bill Bailey and The Lorax. According to People magazine, Bailey found out about the book when his son Sammy came home, distraught. “If you cut down a tree,” Sammy told his father, “then it’s just like someone coming in and taking away your home.” Ouch.
Now it’s clear to me The Lorax isn’t an anti-logging book so much as a plea for the environment. Theodore Geisel agrees: “The Lorax doesn’t say lumbering is immoral. I live in a house made of wood and write books printed on paper. It’s a book about going easy on what we’ve got. It’s antipollution and antigreed.” But that’s not really the point. Angel in the Waters might not be meant to convince young children that abortion is evil. Nevertheless, imagine a woman deciding whether or not to have an abortion. Her seven-year-old daughter comes home from school one day and tells her that, from the very moment of conception, babies can think and have angels. One of her classmates told her how some parents murder those babies. Is that true, she asks? Do people really murder their babies and their angels?
If I were that mother, I would be devastated. And if I found out Angel in the Waters was somehow behind my child’s questions, there’s a good chance I’d ask for it to be removed from a required reading list. Depending on how upset I was, I might even challenge its presence in the library. And I’d rationalize that challenge: “It’s not censorship. It’s separation of church and state. This is a public school, religion shouldn’t be taught here, especially not to very young children.” (I wouldn’t think too hard about the religious overtones of A Wrinkle in Time, and whether ecumenical spirituality still belongs in schools.)
Stanley Fish likes to remind us there is no such thing as free speech, even in America, and points out that censorship in the colloquial sense happens all the time: “Censorship occurs whenever we don’t say or write something because we fear adverse consequences, or because we feel that what we would like to say is inappropriate in the circumstances, or because we don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings. (This is often called self-censorship. I call it civilized behavior.)” When a library rejects a book, or a school deems material inappropriate for a reading list, it is a form of censorship that is widespread and inevitable, which Fish calls “judgment.” Such censorship can be based on aesthetics — this book is bad, truth — this book is wrong, or ethics — this book is Wrong.
(Interestingly, Dr. Seuss engaged in a bit of self-censorship based on truth and ethics. After pressure from research associates in the Ohio Sea Grant program, he acknowledged the clean-up of Lake Erie by removing the third of these lines from The Lorax: “They’ll walk on their fins and get woefully weary/in search of some water that isn’t so smeary./I hear things are just as bad up in Lake Erie.” He also felt the need to remove racial stereotypes from And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street: “I had a gentleman with a pigtail. I colored him yellow and called him a Chinaman. That’s the way thing were fifty years ago. In later editions I refer to him as a Chinese man. I have taken the color out of the gentleman and removed the pigtail and now he looks like an Irishman.”)
Since the dominant ideology of the ALA, librarians, educators, and publishing houses lines up with my own, de facto censorship occurs via their judgments without any effort on my part, and I don’t have to risk looking intolerant or hypocritical. It helps, too, that most skilled children’s book authors are liberal (you’d think there would be more “pro-life” children’s books, given that over 50 percent of the population identifies as such.)
I still believe those of my own political persuasion are far less draconian in their intolerance. I would never call for the New York or Portland public school libraries to remove their copies of Left Behind: The Kids, a juvenile version of the best-selling series about the Rapture. But it is important to acknowledge the role that ideology does (and must) play in the make-up of library collections and reading lists, and the content of children’s books in general. Conservatives frustrated with the dominance of “liberal” children’s literature should tone down their censorial rhetoric, and instead start producing high-quality books that emphasize values important to them, like Angel in the Waters. If nothing else, it would force people like me to make tough decisions, instead of sitting back and dismissing bigoted trash like Alfie’s Home. What if there were a well-executed picture-book about a child who realizes society will collapse without strong belief in God? Or about a homeless man who deserved it, because he was lazy?
And for even-handed people who want to temper the message of The Lorax with the underrepresented perspective of Bill Bailey, let me recommend Terri Birkett’s The Truax, published jointly by the Hardwood Forest Foundation and the National Oak Flooring Manufacturers Association in 1994. It features a grumpy environmentalist named Guardbark, who asks tough questions of a good and decent logger named the Truax: “‘BIODIVERSITY. Now there is a word./A Science-y, Frogbirdy word I have heard.’/He thought for a moment and then he went on,/‘Will THIS still be there when the trees have been sawn?’” The Truax has answers, and if you read it with your child before watching The Lorax maybe you can do justice to the impossible ideal of free and neutral speech.
My friends who have children won’t let me read it to theirs, though, so you’ll have to tell me how that works out.
The books that parents read to their very young children don’t change much from generation to generation. When my son was born two years ago I was surprised to find that with few exceptions, the titles we welcomed into our Philadelphia apartment were the same ones that three decades earlier had served as my own introduction to storytelling.
I made an informal study of the Amazon sales rankings of the books I enjoyed having read to me most as a kid. It seemed to confirm that taste in books for young children is remarkably constant. Here are just a handful of popular titles with their publication years and their overall Amazon ranks:
The Very Hungry Caterpillar (1969), #169
Goodnight Moon (1947), #227
Where the Wild Things Are (1963), #314
The Giving Tree (1964), #342
Harold and the Purple Crayon (1955), #559
Pat the Bunny (1940), #743
Richard Scarry’s What Do People Do All Day (1968), #817
For comparison’s sake, consider Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat, which was a bestseller only a few years ago and enjoys strong residual sales. It’s currently ranked #2,194, which leaves it well behind the leading titles in the Dr. Seuss canon (Green Eggs and Ham, #1,050; The Lorax, #1,063).
The reason children’s books endure seems clear enough: The books that toddlers read are determined entirely by adults, and when adults select books for kids they naturally gravitate towards the books they loved as kids. As a result, the market for children’s books is probably more resistant to cultural churn than just about any other slice of the consumer economy; it’s a closed circuit that reproduces itself one generation after another.
There are benefits to this system. For one, it helps to ensure that passing fads doesn’t wash quality books away. It’s doubtful, for example, that toddlers would opt for Goodnight Moon as often as their parents do, so maybe it’s just as well that they don’t have a say. For two, the persistence of children’s books yields a kind of experience we don’t get so often in a culture that has relatively few traditions: the chance to revisit childhood experiences through an older set of eyes.
Just the other weekend I took my two-year-old son to Barnes and Noble to buy a birthday present for a friend of his. I browsed the aisles while my son emptied a carousel of Berenstain Bears books onto the floor. After a few minutes I spotted Caps for Sale (#5057), a book that had once meant a great deal to me but which I had not thought about in decades. It was nice to see that it had managed to last all this time without my attention. We bought two copies, one for the friend and one for us.
That night I put my son in his pajamas, filled his cup with milk, sat him in my lap and began to read Caps for Sale. It only took a few lines before the entire story came back to me: an old world peddler walks around a village with a stack of caps on his head; one luckless afternoon he leans back against a tree to take a nap and when he wakes up he finds his caps have been confiscated by a troop of monkeys in the tree branches above him; he demands the monkeys give him his caps back by shaking his fists and stomping his feet but the monkeys mock his efforts and for a moment it seems like he’ll never get them back.
In addition to remembering the plot, I was somewhat stunned by how vividly the feelings the book had elicited in me as a kid came tumbling back. It’s noted several times in the book, for example, that the peddler always stacks his caps on his head in the same order—“first his own checked cap, then the gray caps, then the brown caps, then blue caps, then the red caps on the very top.” As I read this to my son I found myself flush with the same covetousness for the red caps, so bright and distinct above the rest, that I’d felt as a child.
I had a similar experience at the end of the story. In order to get his caps back, the peddler remonstrates the monkeys every way he can: he shakes his fists, stomps his feet, jumps up and down. The monkeys repeat his actions back to him but the simple peddler doesn’t see what’s going on. He thinks the monkeys are mocking his suffering when really they’re just aping (monkeying?) him like the lower-order mammals that they are. In despair the peddler takes his own checked cap off his head—the one cap that’s not for sale, and the only cap the monkeys didn’t take—and throws it to the ground and starts to walk away.
As my son finished his milk and started to fall asleep, I found myself awash in the same anguish I’d felt at this point in the story as a child. I couldn’t have explained why at the time, but as a child I knew there was something deeply sad about the peddler throwing his own cap to the ground. Now as an adult, I can put words to that sadness; I can see that by throwing his own cap to the ground the peddler is effectively saying that without his caps, nothing in the world matters anymore.
I was surprised by the complexity of the reaction to Caps for Sale I’d had as a kid. As a four-year-old I had no firsthand experiences that would have taught me there is such a thing as despair in the face of an unforgiving world, but on an intuitive level I understood that what the peddler was experiencing went beyond mere frustration.
When the peddler throws down his cap the monkeys throw their caps down too, and tragedy is averted. The peddler collects his caps from the ground, stacks them back atop his head, and walks back to town calling “Caps for sale, fifty cents a cap.” It is not exactly a happy ending—the fact that the peddler became so desperate over the loss of a few caps reveals just how precarious his life really is—but there is a melancholic satisfaction in knowing that he gets to go on selling for one more day at least.
For me, the feeling I had after I’d closed Caps for Sale and laid my son down in his crib was melancholic and satisfying, too. It was an unexpected gift to have glimpsed myself as a child through the pages of the book, and a wonder to imagine that if trends hold, my son might one day have the same experience himself.
Bonus Link: Are Picture Books Leading Our Children Astray?