Local authors object to ‘jarring racial stereotype’ on Dr. Seuss mural

  • In this May 4, 2017, photo John Simpson, left, project director of exhibitions for The Amazing World of Dr. Seuss Museum, and his wife Kay Simpson, right, president of Springfield Museums, unwrap a statue of the "Cat in the Hat," at the museum, in Springfield, Mass. The museum devoted to Dr. Seuss, which opened on June 3 in his hometown, features interactive exhibits, a collection of personal belongings and explains how the childhood experiences of the man, whose real name is Theodor Geisel, shaped his work. AP Photo

For The Recorder
Monday, October 09, 2017

SPRINGFIELD — A Northampton children’s author and two colleagues are facing criticism after highlighting their objections to a mural at The Amazing World of Dr. Seuss Museum in Springfield, the birthplace of Theodor Seuss Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss.

The authors and illustrators, Mo Willems of Northampton, Mike Curato and Lisa Yee, were originally scheduled to appear at the inaugural Springfield Children’s Literature Festival, which was to be held at the museum.

However, the authors took offense to a depiction of a Chinese man on a mural featured at the museum showing artwork from Geisel’s first book, “And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street.” On Thursday, the three released a joint statement saying they would no longer be attending the festival because of this “jarring racial stereotype.”

The caricature of the Chinese man shows him running with a bowl of rice and chopsticks in his hands. On his head is a pointed, wide-brimmed sun hat and his eyes are drawn as slanted lines. In the authors’ statement, they say that “imagery this offensive damages not only Asian American children, but also non-Asian kids who absorb this caricature and could associate it with all Asians or their Asian neighbors and classmates.”

According to the statement, two of the authors are Asian-American, one of whom is Chinese-American.

Subsequently, the festival was canceled and the museum offered to take down the mural. The authors then released another statement, this time “to extend an offer to appear at the museum as previously planned, should you wish it.”

The authors claimed that the decision to remove the mural “will help create an institution that welcomes all children and embodies Ted Geisel’s own growth and career-defining commitment to changing the preconceptions of the world around him.”

As of Sunday night, the museum had not released any further statements saying whether or not the festival would go ahead. While the authors appear to be content with this decision, some are not.

At a press conference Saturday, Mayor Domenic Sarno of Springfield said keeping the mural up would be the “right thing,” and that almost everyone he had talked to supported keeping the mural up.

“Dr. Seuss has entertained kids from all backgrounds from all over the world. He’s not only entertained them, he’s helped them read, have fun and learn life lessons,” Sarno said at The Student Prince restaurant in downtown Springfield.

The owners of The Student Prince, Peter Picknelly and Andy Yee, who is a Chinese-American son of two Chinese immigrants, have offered to buy the mural, and voiced their opinions along with Mayor Sarno that there is nothing offensive about the mural.

“Most people are saying this is political correctness too, too far,” Picknelly said. “I haven’t talked to one person who didn’t think that this was borderline insanity.”

Andy Yee agreed with Picknelly, his business partner, saying at the press conference, “for people saying that, ‘I got offended, I won’t show this to my children,’ it’s ludicrous because it’s history. This is how Asian people came to this country. We didn’t come here wearing Louis Vuitton and Gucci.”

Others echoed their frustrations on Mo Willems’ Twitter page, and in an online poll called, “Are you offended by this Dr. Seuss illustration?” As of Sunday evening, the poll showed that 86 percent of respondents deemed it not offensive, and 14 percent found it offensive.

However, Florence children’s author Grace Lin, who is Taiwanese-American, said she understands the three authors’ decision, and that perhaps those who are criticizing them don’t.

“I am really dismayed at how it seems everyone who is angry about the issue do not seem to have actually read the artists’ initial statement, and are only reacting to headlines,” Lin said in a private Facebook conversation.

Lin noted that none of the authors actually asked for the mural’s removal. Instead, they asked that the museum give some context to the depiction and Geisel’s history of representing Asians.

“Any of us in the ‘business’ know the story of Theodor Geisel. Early in his career, he created racist propaganda, specifically against Japanese-Americans. There’s a pretty horrific cartoon he did where he drew Japanese-Americans waiting in line to receive bombs,” Lin said.

Geisel’s original depiction of the Chinese man from “And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street” on the soon-to-be removed mural showed the cartoon man with bright yellow skin and a long braid, but Geisel altered the image to reduce its harm to children, according to Lin.

“He, of all people, recognized the harm his work could do,” Lin said. “The museum is doing a great disservice to him by leaving this out.”

Lin would rather see an explanatory caption next to the mural than see it taken down altogether. To her, the offensive part is that the image is “displayed as simply a decoration and without context.”

A representative from Disney Publishing Worldwide said Mo Willems feels his released statements with the other authors “cover everything at this time and (he) has no further comment.”

Curato and Lisa Yee were unable to be reached.