Is the Cat in the Hat Racist? Read Across America Shifts Away From Dr. Seuss and Toward Diverse Books

For its 20th anniversary year, the literacy awareness program will shift its focus toward a year-round promotion of diverse books. This comes amidst heightened awareness of representation in kid lit and scrutiny of racial imagery in the work of Dr. Seuss.

For 20 years, Read Across America has been synonymous with youngsters wearing red and white striped hats sitting down for story time on March 2, Dr. Seuss’s birthday. But this fall, the biggest national literacy awareness program, sponsored by the National Education Association (NEA), will be shifting its focus toward a year-round promotion of diverse children’s books. It’s a change resulting from both a heightened awareness of representation in kid lit, as well as growing scrutiny of racial imagery in the work of the beloved children’s book author.

Katie Ishizuka has been analyzing Seuss’ body of work for the past year. Ishizuka [a cousin of Kathy Ishizuka, SLJ’s executive editor] and her husband, Ramon Stephens, founded the Conscious Kid Social Justice Library, a subscription service which sends its subscribers monthly shipments of titles featuring multicultural characters.

Stephens is a Ph.D. student in education at the University of California at San Diego, home to the Theodor Seuss Geisel Library, where he first came across a collection of the cartoonist’s early work—World War II political cartoons, featuring slurs and racist drawings of Japanese Americans, portraying them as a danger to nation. Ishizuka, whose grandparents and other relatives were sent by the U.S. government to internment camps during World War II, was very upset.

“My grandmother was fired from her job at Seattle schools [and] then incarcerated,” she says. “This had real impact on my personal family. Thinking about how widely beloved and celebrated Seuss is as an author was another blow.”

In March 2016, Ishizuka wrote a piece on the website Blavity about Seuss’ anti-Japanese cartoons, along with work that used the N-word and depicted blacks at a slave auction or rendered to resemble monkeys. She also pointed out images portraying Middle Eastern men as camel-riding sultans and women as hyper-sexualized harem dwellers. But what Ishizuka found even more troubling were racist images hidden in plain sight in Seuss’s popular picture books. Ishizuka, who holds a Master’s degree in social work, conducted a critical race analysis of 50 children’s books by Seuss and found that 98 percent of the human characters were white, and only two percent were people of color.

The Cat in the Hat and blackface minstrelsy

“In addition to how people of color are portrayed in his children's books through Orientalist and anti-Black stereotypes and caricatures, they are almost always presented as subservient, and peripheral to, the white characters," concludes Ishizuka in her study.

She points out that the Cat in the Hat, perhaps Seuss’ most famous character, is based on minstrel stereotypes.

“The Cat’s physical appearance, including the Cat’s oversized top hat, floppy bow tie, white gloves, and frequently open mouth, mirrors actual blackface performers; as does the role he plays as ‘entertainer’ to the white family—in whose house he doesn’t belong,” says Ishizuka. She isn’t the first scholar to point out racial stereotypes in Dr. Seuss’ picture books.

Kansas State University English professor Phillip Nel recently published a book Was the Cat in the Hat Black? The Hidden Racism in Children’s Literature, and the Need for Diverse Books, which examines The Cat in the Hat’s roots in blackface minstrelsy. However the cat, along with his striped headwear, is also associated with Read Across America, just as Clifford the Big Red Dog is synonymous with the literacy organization Reading is Fundamental.

“One of the reasons we partnered with Seuss 20 years ago in 1997 was to kick-start this program,” says Steven Grant, a NEA spokesperson, who has also managed the Read Across America program since 2005. “That was the strategy up front, so kids would see Dr. Seuss’s Cat in the Hat and spark some attention.”

The program has successfully reached children nationwide; Grant estimates that 45 million students and teachers take part in Read Across America events each year.

Dr. Seuss cartoon from UC San Diego Library collection.
Copyright unknown.

But not all families think the author should be celebrated. In March, two Japanese-American children in South Pasadena, CA, saw their school’s Dr. Seuss Week in conjunction with Read Across America as a chance to educate their classmates about the cartoonist’s role in fanning fears that led to the internment of Japanese Americans.

“Their teachers and administrators shut them down, wouldn’t allow them to hand out the flyers, and told them school was not the appropriate place for that,” says Ishizuka. “To me, this was alarming and represented a serious racial justice issue.”

Ishizuka also points out that black children may feel uncomfortable going to school on Read Across America Day.

“It’s very dehumanizing for black children to be expected to wear one of those hats.”

In April, Ishizuka sent a copy of her 43-page analysis, along with a compendium of diverse books resources, to the NEA, which organizes Read Across America.  

“Last year was the first year in my 14 years [with NEA] that I had seen so much bubble up as far as concerned interests,” says Grant, who praises Ishizuka’s recommendations for suggested authors and partner organizations to bring wider representation to the event. Even before Ishizuka sent the material, NEA’s Read Across America advisory committee (comprised of teachers, education support professionals, librarians, and others) had already been discussing issues surrounding Seuss’ early work, based on Richard H. Minear's 2001 book Dr. Seuss Goes to War, which critiques the cartoonist’s early political drawings, including the anti-Japanese works. Grant adds that that for the past two years, the NEA board has already shifting Read Across America’s mission towards promoting diverse literature and reaching a broader range of readers.

Ishizuka and Stephens emphasize that they’re not trying to ban Dr. Seuss.

“It's not about reading or not reading certain books, it’s about raising awareness around the social and systemic bias that such books promote,” says Stephens. “Dr. Seuss and whiteness is a reflection of the overwhelming silence in literacy regarding matters of race, especially with both young people and white people.”

This fall, for the 20th anniversary of the program, Read Across America will place greater emphasis on year-round literacy with its annual calendar. In its 10th year in print, the calendar features monthly book recommendations along with online resources. The 2017–18 calendar features the theme of “Building a Nation of Diverse Readers” and gives monthly suggested titles for elementary, middle school, and high school students. For example, September’s choices include All the Way to Havana by Margarita Engle, The Rooster Who Would Not Be Quiet by Carmen Agra Deedy, and The Distance Between Us by Reyna Grande. Read Across America will also be highlighting literacy events, such as El día de los niños/El día de los libros. NEA will distribute 80,000 calendars.

NEA to offer $60K in grants for diverse books

Grant says raising exposure for diverse books is one thing, but putting them in the hands of educators is another.

“In a lot of cases, the teacher has to buy the books with her or her own money,” he explains.

During the 2017–18 school year, NEA will award $60,000 in grants for diverse books. Over the past two years, the organization gave a total of $250,000 in funds for diverse books, thanks to a contribution from Walden Media and the Weinstein Company. Reading is Fundamental will also offer digital resources to accompany the calendar, and First Book and the publisher Lee & Low Books will provide diverse titles at a discount for Title I schools. Like the story of the black-and-white cartoon cat, the NEA is finding that something that started off as whimsical fun might be challenging to put back into a box.

Grant says Read Across America has never required participants to use Seuss material, but “after 20 years, it’s easy for some folks to just pull Seuss stuff off the bookshelves from last year.”

The annual Read Across America Day event may be hard to untangle from its mascot, particularly since the annual event takes place on Dr. Seuss’ birthday. The Read Across America logo —along with all the event merchandise sold on the website—features the black-and-white feline sitting on top of a silhouette of the United States. Since 1997, the NEA has contracted with Seuss Enterprises for the rights to use the images without royalty fees. The current agreement runs through August 2018.

“This is really going to be a transitional year for us,” explains Grant. “We’re going to be trying different things and moving in some different directions to see if that works.” That could include collaborations with other authors or illustrators to re-brand Read Across America Day to appeal to a more diverse student body. “The goal is to encourage the educator, because we can’t force him or her to do anything.”

Comment Policy:
  • Be respectful, and do not attack the author, people mentioned in the article, or other commenters. Take on the idea, not the messenger.
  • Don't use obscene, profane, or vulgar language.
  • Stay on point. Comments that stray from the topic at hand may be deleted.
  • Comments may be republished in print, online, or other forms of media.
  • If you see something objectionable, please let us know. Once a comment has been flagged, a staff member will investigate.

vso moyo

Dr. Suess is AWESOME, even if he did catch the propaganda/racism disease. Do we know if he stayed like that until death, or did he take some antibiotics and stuff?

Posted : Mar 06, 2018 04:28

vsyo moyo


Posted : Mar 06, 2018 04:24

vso moyo

oops I meant vso moyo

Posted : Mar 06, 2018 04:25

Ken Wilson

What are “diverse” children’s books, and what are they as opposed to Dr. Seuss books? For one thing, surely the NEA is not only promoting books with a diversity of characters – that would leave our books about, say, African-American families or Latino families. For another, diversity means variety – for example, Dr. Seuss books and books that are nothing like Dr. Seuss. Read Across America is not shifting “away” from non-diverse books towards diverse ones. It is achieving diversity by widening its focus to include other books besides Dr. Seuss. Likewise, what are “multi-cultural” characters? What the author is trying to say is “a multi-cultural cast of characters.” Instead she has denoted individual characters who are themselves multi-cultural, which – see above – is surely not the standard being promoted. Likewise, Ramon Stephens is mistaken when he talks about “the social and systemic bias that [Dr. Seuss] books promote.” Reading Dr. Seuss exclusively would might promote such bias, just as reading books about a minority as opposed to a majority group might give the impression that the particular minority was special and superior. But individual books by themselves don’t teach bias, and while read Across America may previously have focused Dr. Seuss books, these books were hardly the only ones taught and read in schools. Seuss’ racist cartoons are vile, but he’s not widely beloved for his cartoons, but for his children’s books. Young kids today know nothing of the blackface minstrelsy tradition. They read Seuss’ books, learn to read better, and imbibe not one particle of racism from doing so. In regards to the supposed “serious racial justice issue” of not being allowed to distribute flyers in a South Pasadena school, who is Ms. Ishizuka to presume she has a right to educate kids at a school she is not employed at? Who is she to presume all the kids at the school need to be thinking about racism – as opposed to being taught to appreciate racial diversity – at so young an age? Read Across America should be applauded for promoting a diversity of children’s books, and I thank Grace Hwang Lynch for bringing their efforts to our attention. But it is disheartening to encounter such sloppy thinking in educators.

Posted : Mar 02, 2018 06:49

vso moyo

Jeez y'all comments are so long.

Posted : Mar 06, 2018 04:28


Censorship is rarely a good thing. So many fantastic books have been banned from our classrooms due censorship. Does this mean we also remove one of the most celebrated writers of children's poetry - Shel Silverstein? Research his background along with all the material he wrote for adults. I was even surprised! I believe it all has a place in the classroom whether it's for appreciation at face value or for educating children about the implications. Access to literature should not be restricted. Education is the key. Sweeping things under the carpet and pretending like they never existed is so not the answer - not ever.

Posted : Feb 06, 2018 09:29


I did read Seuss' books as a child and enjoyed them simply for words and...various illustrations. I am by formal university training and professionally a librarian but not in school libraries, but in the corporate and government world. Do not underestimate what children pick up from adult attitudes around them , tv, etc. My first memory of racism was on the first wk. of kindergarten in a small Canadian city in the 1960's where I grew up. I barely knew any English but clearly was hurt and shocked when a little white boy yelled "Jap" at me and threw some stones at me. It was traumatic for me and I feared for the next few wks. going home by myself, wondering if I was going to be bullied again. I didn't understand why I was called "Jap".....because I am Chinese-Canadian. I did not know of the internment of the Japanes-CAnadians (and Americans). I did not know the history of the Chinese-CAnadians for gold rush, the lives lost in building the national railroad, the head tax law...until I was 16 yrs. old. I didn't know my own history in Canada....because the school curriculum did not change until after I was in high school. We were learning about Hadrian's wall in England, British history..hangover from Canada's colonial past to Great Britain. I am not asking for removal the books, but perhaps yes, Read Across America marketing/outreach campaign need not to focus on a particular author like Geisel. There needs to be support material for school teacher librarians to provide a means if they wish, how to help children develop a more critical eye.. The focus of reading needs to include even at a young age, some simple 1-2 questions why certain characters appear in a certain way when in reality, people aren't as depicted. This is not about being politically correct. It is educating children even in a fun way, that's respectful. It's happening already..just carry on and make it better.

Posted : Dec 14, 2017 07:08

View More Comments



We are currently offering this content for free. Sign up now to activate your personal profile, where you can save articles for future viewing