As Ed pointed out this morning, the company that owns Dr. Seuss’s books decided sometime last year that it would allow six of the books to go out of print. “These books portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong,” the company told the Associated Press. One of the six books on the list is one that I used to read to my daughter. McElligot’s Pool is not a Seuss book that everyone remembers but it’s basically a charming story about a child’s imagination.
The main character is a boy who decides to go fishing in McElligot’s Pool. An adult tells him that the pool is too small and nothing lives there so he’s wasting his time. Most of the book is made up of the child imagining how the small pool may be connected to the ocean underground and through this connection any number of unusual fish from around the world may in fact turn up in this small pool. The book is full of Seuss’s own imaginary creatures.
I spent about half an hour trying to figure out why this particular book was included in the list of ones that were offensive. Unfortunately, I can’t find my copy so I’m not able to check it for myself. Instead I checked the study that seems to be driving this decision by the publisher. There is only one mention of McElligot’s Pool in that study. Here it is:
Between 1945 and 1946, Seuss worked for Frank Capra in the army to create films called Know Your Enemy: Japan and Our Job in Japan (Minear 261). The latter was made to indoctrinate US servicemen to “re-educate” the “backward” Japanese (Minear 262). In 1947, he returned to children’s books with McElligot’s Pool and published over fifty more before his death in 1991.
The study also includes an appendix which summarizes all of the offensive material identified in the various books. McElligot’s Pool is listed but none of the boxes for offensive content (subservience, dehumanization, exotification, stereotypes, caricature) are checked. (For comparison, the one with all the boxes checked is If I Ran the Zoo.)
I read through a few news stories about this and while all of them mention that McElligot’s Pool is one of the books being dropped, none of the stories I read explained why. Finally I checked Twitter thinking maybe someone has posted the offensive material there. Here’s what I came up with:
Here's the full double page picture 🤷🏽♂️ pic.twitter.com/9FBVzwPzkb
— #hashtag (@joehayhurst) March 2, 2021
Inuit people, aka Eskimos, really did wear coats with fur lining around their faces and build igloos. Maybe it’s the spear that’s stereotypical? Maybe it’s the fact the fish have fur around their faces? But there are still things for kids about Eskimos which rely on basically the same images.
There are at least a couple more human characters like this in the book (hat tip to this Twitter thread):
I don’t know who that guy is supposed to be. He’s sort of dressed like a gaucho but he’s on an island in the tropics. There’s nothing dehumanizing about it that I can see. Is the suggestion that it’s hot in the tropics offensive? And one more:
This guy’s beard is a bit exotic but it’s not as if real men in Tibet don’t sometimes have long beards. The wizard hat is a stretch but is this a harmful stereotype or just a fanciful drawing for a children’s book. I mean, if you’ve ever taken the It’s a Small World ride at Disneyland, it’s full of this sort of stuff, i.e. colorful characters from various places around the world wearing somewhat stereotypical costumes, though they seem based on real traditions. I’ve actually wondered if this book wasn’t a bit of inspiration for that ride. The book is from 1947 and the ride opened in 1966. The do share the idea of a child’s view of the colorful wider world.
I wonder if the offense here is as specific as the images above or if the publisher just decided the whole concept of this book was Orientalist in some broad sense, i.e. othering. All of the made-up fish are certainly exotic and the book does present the idea that far away things are different from what you might find in a small pool nearby. I guess I could see someone finding that offensive these days but in this case I’m definitely not convinced that’s a good thing.
Again, since I can’t find my own copy I can’t verify there isn’t something else in it that someone may find offensive. If so, it’s odd that the study looking for such offenses didn’t flag it. From what I remember, this is a pretty great book for kids and one I’m sad to see go out of print under a cloud of racism.
Update: Called my wife and she remembered where our copy of McElligot’s Pool was. She also remembers it was one I read a lot to my son who is now 13. He’s here at home doing school but on his lunch break he confirms this was his favorite Dr. Seuss book.
Found my copy… My son confirms this was his favorite Dr. Seuss book when he was little. pic.twitter.com/x3enRPWojr
— John Sexton (@verumserum) March 2, 2021
I paged through it and the three images above are the only ones anyone could possibly consider stereotypical. In fact there are hardly any humans in the book beyond the main character, the adult farmer and some generic people seen at a restaurant. So it has to be one of those three images above that was judged racist.
Update: Maybe it was just the use of the word Eskimo? That has very much fallen out of favor. Last year Dreyer’s Ice Cream announced it was retiring the name Eskimo Pie for the ice cream treats. The word Eskimo was still in use by the NY Times 35 years after the publication of McElligot’s Pool. For example: “ESKIMOS ARE SHOWING NEW MILITANCY.“