‘NOW they’re burning Dr Seuss books!’ Except ‘they’ aren’t burning Dr Seuss books. Six of the great writer’s children’s stories (he wrote more than 60) are being withheld from publication because they're now seen as out of synch with modern sensibilities.

The decision was taken by Dr Seuss Enterprises – the company which represents the Seuss brand. Seuss Enterprises felt these few books contained stereotypes no longer appropriate in 2021. In And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, for instance, there’s an image of an Asian character with slit eyes, conical hat, bowl and chopsticks. Another book has barefoot African characters in grass skirts.

Nobody forced the decision on the company. Yet still, the move was immediately twisted into another front in our endless ‘culture wars’.

Seuss stands amongst literature’s greatest children’s authors. He’s up there in the immortal pantheon with the likes of Roald Dahl and Lewis Carroll. Unlike many famous children’s authors of the past, though, Seuss was a pretty decent person – there’s little that can be said to besmirch his life. Yet he was also, crucially, of his time – as we all are.

READ MORE NEIL MACKAY: In praise of Dr Seuss

Inevitably, then, some of his views – or rather the way some of his work reflected the spirit of the period in which he lived – no longer chimes with how most of us think today. How can anyone be surprised by this? Read Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift and you’ll find a host of Georgian attitudes that – quelle surprise – don’t fit with 2021.

Great children’s literature teaches kids important lessons under the guise of entertainment. So let’s use this Seuss controversy to learn a few lessons about how our increasingly nonsensical and divisive culture wars work. Here’s a clue: there is no culture war – it’s manufactured, it’s created by the cynical to manipulate the gullible. There’s fitting serendipity to this debate, today is World Book Day after all – a day that’s almost synonymous with Seuss’s work when it comes to children’s literature in schools.

At the heart of our ‘culture wars’ is the refusal – by a ideological but vocal few – to accept that times and attitudes must inevitably, thankfully, change. Nobody is cancelling Seuss – if they were I’d be the first on the barricades. I’m an author. I cherish free speech. I adore Seuss – he shaped my childhood, and my children’s childhoods. I’ve written about Seuss. His work even prompted me to write children’s stories myself.

I think of Seuss the way I think of my much loved grandmother. She was a radical, progressive woman – born in the Edwardian era but far ahead of her time when it came to issues like feminism and equality. Today, some would call her ‘woke’ – surely the most boring word in the English language, designed solely to shut down debate.

But despite her radicalism, my gran would be seen as a bit racist today. Some words she used are no longer acceptable. Crucially, though, she wasn’t racist in the Britain of her era. Should I reject her legacy – the achievements she made in life? Certainly not. On this one – important – issue, she was simply of her time. Although, knowing her, I reckon if she were alive today, she’d change the way she spoke, realising – as intelligent people do – that attitudes always need updating.


If you’ve read Seuss, you’ll know what a radical writer he was. His message was love and tolerance. Read Oh, the Places You’ll Go for proof of what an overflowing, gentle heart the man had. He was a hippy before hippies existed. Nobody needs a history lesson on what racism meant in the 1950s when Seuss was at his height. In his own time period, Seuss wasn’t racist, though – that we must remember. The issue is: he used period stereotypes which are no longer appropriate today.

That he reflected a thin echo of the deep racism of the era in which he lived should surprise nobody. If you took the most socially progressive human alive today and projected them 70 years into the future unquestionably they’d be seen by the people of 2091 as distinctly out of touch with the values of the time.

So let’s get one thing straight – Seuss isn’t bad. Let’s get our caveats correct too: some of his work reflects some of the spirt of the age – which we, rightly, no longer deem appropriate.

Seuss Enterprises should be applauded for having the intelligence to see that some of his canon no longer fits with 2021. I’m white – but if I were Asian or black, I’d be upset if I was reading a book to my child, and there was some image that stereotyped my race. I wouldn’t want my child exposed to that.

Books matter – they shape a child’s worldview. They explain to children how the world sees them, and the place they have in the world. No child should feel stereotyped. Seuss, if he were alive today, would unquestionably realise that, and, if I can read his soul correctly, he’d probably go and tweak his drawings and books accordingly. He wanted children to be happy – that was his life’s mission.

Instead of a reasoned, thoughtful approach, though, we get conservative culture warriors like Ben Shapiro firing up outrage with tweets (of course it was on Twitter) like: “We’ve now got foundations book burning the authors to whom they are dedicated.” Fostering a permanent state of angry upset – shorn of all context and nuance – is what passes for debate these days. Evidently, it’s lucrative.

READ MORE NEIL MACKAY: A question of literature

If we anatomise this latest culture war skirmish – the Battle of Dr Seuss – it’s clear there’s no battle, let alone a war. Culture wars are confected. Times change, that’s all. Dr Seuss Enterprises was simply wise enough to move with the slow, incremental pace of society’s shifting values.

I preserve the memory of my grandmother in the full understanding that she was a great woman with a few flaws that were solely a mark of her being a person of her time, not of bad character. We’ve many Seuss books to treasure today, a few simply don’t fit with 2021. That’s no bad thing – it’s a mark of a decent, mature, developing society that understands progress.

Our columns are a platform for writers to express their opinions. They do not necessarily represent the views of The Herald