On March 2 2021, throngs of Twitter users objected to the purported canceling or banning of books by Theodor Geisel, also known as children’s author Dr. Seuss. In some tellings, it was actual censorship — a state-sponsored cancellation that had ordered by none other than United States President Joe Biden:
Lamentations on Twitter
Claims That President Biden ‘Canceled’ Dr. Seuss
One frequently-shared item about the purported cancelation of Dr. Seuss was from the tabloid the New York Post, published just after 2:30 AM on March 2 2021:
President Biden removed mentions of Dr. Seuss from Read Across America Day amid accusations of “racial undertones” in the classic, whimsical tales for children.
Read Across America Day, started by the National Educational Association in 1998 as a way to promote children’s reading, is even celebrated on the author’s March 2 birthday.
In his presidential proclamation, Biden noted that “for many Americans, the path to literacy begins with story time in their school classroom,” USA Today reported.
But unlike his two predecessors, former Presidents Donald Trump and Barack Obama, Biden did not mention Dr. Seuss.
Although the article stated outright that Biden had “removed mentions” of Dr. Seuss from Read Across America, it did not define “Read Across America Day,” nor did it specify precisely how Biden himself eradicated Seuss from the historical record.
Reason.com‘s popular March 2 2021 “Dr. Seuss Is Canceled” (filed to “Cancel Culture”) similarly blamed Biden for the cancellation of Dr. Seuss, and like the New York Post, cited his failure to mention the author in his speech as the mechanism by which Biden “banned” Seuss.
However, Reason.com acknowledged that Biden’s failure to mention Seuss was one thing, but the publisher of Dr. Seuss’ books took things “to the next level”:
The cancel culture bells have tolled for Dr. Seuss, the beloved author of children’s books like Green Eggs and Ham, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, and Oh, the Places You’ll Go.
President Biden declined to mention Dr. Seuss, the pen name of Theodor Seuss Geisel, in his kickoff speech for Read Across America Day, a national event that promotes literacy and is historically connected with Dr. Seuss. (It even takes place on the author’s birthday.)
While the Biden administration got the #DrSeussIsOverParty started, it’s Seuss’ own publisher who’s really taking things to the next level. Dr. Seuss Enterprises announced that it would cease printing six books that contain vaguely racist imagery: And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, McElligot’s Pool, On Beyond Zebra!, If I Ran the Zoo, Scrambled Eggs Super!, and The Cat’s Quizzer.
Presidential Proclamations for ‘Read Across America Day’: Biden, Trump, and Obama
Biden’s Presidential Proclamation for “Read Across America Day” was published on March 1 2021, and it can be read in full here.
Biden made no mention of Dr. Seuss (Theodor Seuss Geisel) in the briefing, but neither did he mention any book or author by name. Broadly, the proclamation extolled the benefits of childhood literacy and pledged to support and encourage the practice:
I have always believed that America’s children are the kite strings that keep our national ambitions aloft — the more we do today to spark their curiosity, their confidence, and their imaginations, the stronger our country will be tomorrow. The key to developing young learners into engaged, active, and innovative thinkers is instilling in them a love of reading at an early age. Reading is the gateway to countless skills and possibilities — it sets children on the path to a lifetime of discovery. On this Read Across America Day, we celebrate the parents, educators, librarians, and other champions of reading who help launch our Nation’s children on that critical path.
WhiteHouse.gov hosted information about the Biden administration in March 2021, while Trump’s White House archives were available and searchable on a different site — TrumpWhiteHouse.archives.gov. During each year of Trump’s term, “Read Across America” entries were published on March 2 of each of the four years (2017-2021).
Dr. Seuss was mentioned in each of the four proclamations:
- March 2 2017: “First Lady Melania Trump celebrated National Read Across America Day and the birthday of Dr. Seuss by visiting the Phyllis and David Komansky Center for Children’s Health at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center …”;
- March 2 2018: “… let us always remember the still-vibrant words of Dr. Seuss: ‘You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose.'”
- March 2 2019: “In the timeless words of Dr. Seuss, ‘the more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.'”
- March 2 2020: “On this Read Across America Day, we recall the motivational words of Dr. Seuss—an American icon of literature—and impart his wisdom on our Nation’s young people: ‘You’re off to Great Places! Today is your day! Your mountain is waiting, so … get on your way!'”
President Obama’s White House archives also included separate “Read Across America” proclamations for each year of his presidency, from 2009 through 2016. Each also mentioned Dr. Seuss or Theodor Geisel by name:
Although George W. Bush’s WhiteHouse.gov was archived, no “Read Across America” proclamations were available — likely due to a smaller White House internet presence prior to the Obama administration.
A Brief History of ‘Read Across America Day’ and a Focus on Dr. Seuss
According to the National Education Association (NEA), Read Across America was established in 1998 and is a year-round initiative, but it is traditionally emphasized on March 2:
Launched in 1998 by the National Education Association (NEA) and guided by a committee of educators, NEA’s Read Across America is the nation’s largest celebration of reading. This year-round program focuses on motivating children and teens to read through events, partnerships, and reading resources that are about everyone, for everyone.
Read Across America offers limitless opportunities for involvement in children’s reading throughout the year. The year-round program can fit reading fun into your calendar daily, weekly, or monthly and includes big celebrations of reading on March 2 and throughout National Reading Month in March.
A NEA FAQ about Read Across America included the following question and answer, about the March 2 date and Dr. Seuss’ connection to the initiative:
DOES READ ACROSS STILL PARTNER WITH DR. SEUSS ENTERPRISES?
There’s a growing need for schools and libraries to include and promote diverse books. Students need books that provide both windows and mirrors if we are going to create more readers, writers, and people who feel included and recognized, and who understand that the world is far richer than just their experiences alone. NEA recognizes the need to work with a more diverse array of organizations and publishers to fulfill this need, and the Read Across America brand is now one that is independent of any one particular book, publisher, or character.
A Trump-era Editor’s Note published in February 2017 and pertaining to the Winter 2017 NEA Today concluded:
Finally, this issue also recognizes the 20th anniversary of NEA’s Read Across America program. Originally created as a one-day celebration of reading on March 2, Dr. Seuss’ birthday, Read Across America has evolved into a year-round initiative with a focus on “Building a Nation of Diverse Readers.”
In March 2019, the NEA reiterated that there was to be a change in the scope of Read Across America, moving from the March 2 yearly focus to a year-round program:
Our student populations are ever-changing and evolving and every year there are new children’s books that reflect that diversity. That’s why NEA’s Read Across America is rebranding with a new logo to appeal to students of all ages and backgrounds and a continued mission of “Celebrating a Nation of Diverse Readers.”
Of course, children still love Dr. Seuss, and his birthday on March 2, also Read Across America Day is still an ideal time for a school-wide reading event when you can serve green eggs and ham, but with the broadened scope of NEA’s Read Across America, there are activities, resources, and ideas to keep students reading all year long.
On February 28 2020 — again, during the Trump administration — the NEA published “NEA Rebrands Read Across America to ‘Celebrate a Nation of Diverse Readers,'” explaining th rebranding of Read Across America and reduced focus on a single day (again, March 2, or the birthday of Dr. Seuss):
In time for the 2019-20 school year, NEA rebranded the Read Across America program with a new visual look and feel, including a new brand identity and a redesigned web site. Read Across America is a year-round program that promotes reading fun and discovery with its digital activity and resource web site and a print version of the web content. The rebranded mission of the popular reading program is to “Celebrate a Nation of Diverse Readers” all year long by focusing on diverse books, authors, and readers.
Read Across America offers limitless opportunities for involvement in children’s reading throughout the year. The year-round program can fit reading fun into your calendar daily, weekly, or monthly and includes big celebrations of reading in classrooms and libraries on March 2, Dr. Seuss’ birthday, throughout National Reading Month in March and on September 8 for International Literacy Day.
In broader context of who started Read Across America Day (the NEA) and its evolving focus (from March 2 to the whole year), Biden’s Read Across America Proclamation appeared to be intended as a reflection of the NEA’s new direction, rather than an intentional snub (or “cancellation”) of Dr. Seuss.
A March 2 2021 Newsweek piece about the controversy addressed Seuss as a focus, and the entirety of Presidential Proclamations for Read Across America Day:
Former presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush did not make any Read Across America Day proclamations.
However, former President Barack Obama began a short-lived tradition by mentioning Dr. Seuss in each one of his Read Across America Day proclamations from 2009 until 2016 … President Donald Trump continued the tradition by mentioning Dr. Seuss in every Read Across America Day proclamation except in 2017 when first lady Melania Trump read Dr. Seuss to children at a hospital.
However, Biden did not personally remove Dr. Seuss from Read Across America Day, as the National Education Association no longer is partnering with Dr. Seuss.
In response to a question asking if the Read Across America Day is partnering with Dr. Seuss Enterprises, the NEA says: “There’s a growing need for schools and libraries to include and promote diverse books … NEA recognizes the need to work with a more diverse array of organizations and publishers to fulfill this need, and the Read Across America brand is now one that is independent of any one particular book, publisher, or character.”
Based on the NEA’s statements in recent years about the Read Across America initiative and its 2021 statement on Seuss in particular, Biden did not initiate the change in focus. The NEA stated it was no longer partnering with Dr. Seuss Enterprises — specifically, it said, to introduce a “more diverse array” of literature and authors.
So Who Canceled Dr. Seuss in 2021?
Conflation of two unrelated matters appeared to be fueling the outrage over Biden and Dr. Seuss in March 2021.
The NEA’s Read Across America stopped partnering with Dr. Seuss Enterprises as part of an effort by the organization (not by Joe Biden) to diversify the initiative and broaden its scope, a decision that took place around the time of Donald Trump’s inauguration in early 2017.
On March 2 2021, the day after Biden’s Read Across America Proclamation was published, NPR reported that Dr. Seuss Enterprises itself — again, not the Biden administration — planned to “shelve” six Dr. Seuss titles due to “hurtful portrayals”:
Dr. Seuss Enterprises will cease publishing six of the author’s books — including And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street and If I Ran the Zoo — saying they “portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong.” The books have been criticized for how they depict Asian and Black people.
The decision to stop publishing and licensing the books follows a review by a panel of educators and other experts, according to Dr. Seuss Enterprises, the company that controls the author’s books and characters. The other four titles that will be permanently shelved are McElligot’s Pool, On Beyond Zebra!, Scrambled Eggs Super! and The Cat’s Quizzer.
The company says the decision was made last year, in an effort to support “all children and families with messages of hope, inspiration, inclusion, and friendship.”
NPR added that Dr. Seuss Enterprises had chosen to disclose the decision on Read Across America Day and Geisel’s birthday, March 2 2021:
Dr. Seuss Enterprises announced the plan to halt publishing and licensing the six books on Read Across America Day, a celebration of children’s books that has long been linked to Dr. Seuss — the March 2 date is also Geisel’s birthday. But the National Education Association says it no longer partners with the Dr. Seuss company for Read Across America, its year-round push for parents and families to read.
Dr. Seuss Enterprises’ March 2 2021 Statement on the Six Affected Books
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 Street, If 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.
“In [And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street], there is an illustration of an Asian person who is wearing a conical hat, holding chopsticks, and eating from a bowl.”
“If I Ran the Zoo has been criticized for its use of racial stereotypes and caricatures. In a 1988 biography of Dr. Seuss, Ruth K. MacDonald notes the presence of “occasional stereotypes of native peoples—potbellied, thick-lipped blacks from Africa, squinty-eyed Orientals,” that “may offend some modern readers.” A study published in the journal Research on Diversity in Youth Literature noted the presence of dehumanizing stereotypes of East Asian and Middle Eastern characters. The Canadian Book and Periodical Council’s Freedom to Read project listed the book as having been challenged in 2015 for “insensitivity and ethnic stereotyping.”
Concurrent Controversy Regarding Dr. Seuss and a Virginia School District
On February 27 2021, the Washington Post published “No, a Virginia school district didn’t ban Dr. Seuss books. Here’s what really happened,” explaining:
This statement from Loudoun schools spokesman Wayde B. Byard explains the likely source of the false reports and what the district has actually done. Loudoun, to be clear, did not ban Seuss books but did issue a statement saying that the district had provided guidance to schools in recent years to avoid connecting Read Across America Day to Seuss. The state says that “[r]esearch in recent years has revealed strong racial undertones in many books written/illustrated by Dr. Seuss.”
Here’s the statement provided by Byard:
Dr. Seuss books have not been banned in Loudoun County Public Schools (LCPS). LCPS believes that rumor started because March 2 is “Read Across America” day. Schools in LCPS, and across the country, have historically connected Read Across America Day with Dr. Seuss’ birthday. Research in recent years has revealed strong racial undertones in many books written/illustrated by Dr. Seuss. Given this research, and LCPS’ focus on equity and culturally responsive instruction, LCPS has provided guidance to schools in the past couple of years to not connect Read Across America Day with Dr. Seuss’ birthday exclusively. We want to encourage our young readers to read all types of books that are inclusive and diverse and reflective of our student community, not simply celebrate Dr. Seuss. Dr. Seuss and his books are no longer the emphasis of Read Across America Day. That being said, Dr. Seuss books have not been banned; they are still available to students in our libraries and classrooms.
Byard emphasized that Seuss’ books were neither canceled nor banned, like the NEA, the district simply stopped connecting “Read Across America Day with Dr. Seuss’ birthday exclusively.”
So Who Canceled Dr. Seuss?
Based on the totality of information, the only restrictions on Geisel’s works introduced in March 2021 were imposed by Dr. Seuss Enterprises, in what could only reasonably be described as a “self-cancellation,” if that. The company is simply choosing to stop publishing six titles.
Did Anything Else Relevant to the Controversy Occur in 2021?
As a matter of fact, yes.
On January 28 2021, the NEA issued another statement titled “NEA’s Read Across America: Approved Logos.” In that statement, the NEA indicated that its licensing agreement with Dr. Seuss Enterprises expired in August 2019, and thus entities participating in Read Across America could no longer use the old logo featuring the Cat in the Hat character:
Effective August 31, 2019, NEA will no longer have a licensing agreement with Dr. Seuss Enterprises. After August 31, NEA Affiliates and members may no longer use the old Read Across America logo with the Cat in the Hat leaning over U.S. map.
A new Read Across America logo has been developed and is now available to members and Association staff.
A longer set of Read Across America guidelines issued by the NEA reiterated the above-quoted passage and explained at length which logos could be used and the manner in which Read Across America could be referenced:
What you must keep in mind is that the NEA’s Read Across America logo cannot be used in any way that could imply endorsement of that business by NEA and its Affiliates. So, for example, you cannot post a large banner or sign with the NEA’s Read Across America logo and the logo of the local business. You can, however, thank the business for their donation of refreshments, etc., with a sign, in newsletters, etc. If an event/activity is held in a local bookstore or other business, there can be no requirement for those participating to make a purchase of any kind.
The involvement of Dr. Seuss Enterprises and its relationship with the NEA (and Read Across America by extension) was complicated, but as of August 2019, the NEA no longer had the ability to license Dr. Seuss Enterprises images.
On March 2 2021, a number of people lamented that Dr. Seuss had been “cancelled” — often blaming U.S. President Joe Biden for claiming the children’s author as the latest victim of out-of-control political correctness, also called “cancel culture.” Viral articles claimed that Biden broke with ancient tradition to bury Theodor Geisel’s legacy on Read Across America Day, a claim that was extremely misleading and failed to take into account a number of factors. Read Across America (and Read Across America Day) is a NEA initiative, and the NEA’s licensing agreement with Dr. Seuss Enterprises ended in August 2019 — a factor which had previously been used for branding purposes, strongly influencing the organization’s inclusion of Dr. Seuss books and mentions in its programs. Dr. Seuss Enterprises elected to announce its decision to “shelve” six Dr. Seuss books on March 2 2021, advancing the false rumors that the children’s author had been “cancelled” or “banned” by woke mobs.