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ISU Children's Literature Scholar: Ending Dr. Seuss Publication Reflects Societal Change

Illinois State University
Roberta Trites is children's literature scholar at Illinois State University.

A children's literature expert says a publisher's decision to stop issuing several Dr. Seuss books over concerns about racism is a normal part of societal change.

Recently, the publisher of several books by Dr. Seuss said those popular children's works would no longer be published because they contained racist material.

Illinois State University children's literature scholar Roberta Trites said ending publication of what many consider classics is a normal part of the evolution of society. She said the field has become richer, and that the decision to stop publishing books with racist images or elements is similar to what has happened in other times.

“Children's literature is much more diverse,” Trites said. “Children's literature is much more complex. We have much more intricate books that challenge children very cognitively, especially at the picture book level, to become better visual readers, as well as being in good readers of the written word.”

Trites said there are many classics that society is fond of, but many popular children's books in the 1800s fell out of publication by the 1920s and many popular 1920s books cycled out by the 1970s. She said it’s a normal historical evolution.

“We would change what we value, then in this case, I don't mind if I never see 'Little Black Sambo' again. I don't mind if I never see ''And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street' again. I've read it to my kids. I've taught it. But there's an image in there that is very disturbing to many, many people. And I would not want any Asian American child or even my own children to see that image and think it's acceptable.

"The publisher pulled it, it wasn't censored. It was a market force decision because people don't want to buy racist children's books anymore. So we really believe in free enterprise. That's just how the market has developed.”

Trites said children’s books have become more sophisticated to the point that they often tackle tough topics discussed in the real world.

“Children's literature's always been reasonably willing to deal with death. But it was often the death of a grandparent or a goldfish or a dog. But now, we have a lot of sensitive children's novels and even some pretty good picture books that deal with the fact that we can die at any unexpected moment. How do we deal with that grief? How do we, how do we anticipate our own loss?”

Trites is this year's Lois Lenski Children's literature lecturer at ISU. She retires at the end of the summer. In her career as a Mark Twain, Louisa May Alcott, and children's literature scholar, Trites said she also has hooded more than 20 Ph.D. students.

The Lenski Children's Literature Lecture is scheduled for 7 p.m. on Monday, March 29, via Zoom.

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Darnysha Mitchell is an Illinois State University student and reporting and social media intern at WGLT.
WGLT Senior Reporter Charlie Schlenker has spent more than three award-winning decades in radio. He lives in Normal with his family.