From “Cat in the Hat” to “Green Eggs and Ham,” Gainesville resident Brian Houghton has enjoyed throughout his life reading many of Dr. Theodor Seuss Geisel’s famous works to his two now-adult children and grandchildren.
“Dr. Seuss is formative literature in most of our childhood and transcends generation,” said Houghton. “I can remember reading them to my kids, who are now reading it to my grandchildren. They have this timeless impact on people’s childhood through all generations.”
But Houghton is concerned that the recent controversy surrounding six books published under Geisel’s pen name, Dr. Seuss, is setting a “dangerous precedent.”
Dr. Seuss Enterprises announced this week that it would discontinue publication and licensing of six Dr. Seuss books, citing racist depictions of people of color.
The six books mentioned in the publishing ban include Seuss’s first book, “And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street,” and other works, such as, “If I Ran the Zoo,” “McElligot’s Pool,” “On Beyond Zebra!” “Scrambled Eggs Super!” and “The Cat’s Quizzer.”
“I’m shocked by the level of concern surrounding a children’s cartoon book written in the (mid-20th-century),” Houghton said. “I think it’s a bit silly to look at the breadth of Seuss’ work and link it to inherently racist and derogatory intent.”
In “If I Ran the Zoo,” the narrator states that he wants to put a chieftain — symbolized by a man in a turban — on display in a zoo. Other depictions include African characters portrayed as monkeys and comments about Asian characters that describe them as “helpers who all wear their eyes at a slant” from “countries no one can spell.”
The decision made by Dr. Seuss Enterprises, which has the authority over the author-illustrator’s estate, has drawn criticism from conservative pundits who cite the harm of “cancel culture.”
Libraries across the country have policies to address the addition or removal of controversial or challenging literature in their collection.
And for local libraries, the decision on which books to keep in circulation and which books to remove from its shelves is a detailed and delicate process.
“The decision to keep or remove a book from a library is solely a local issue because every community is different,” said Julie Walker, state librarian for the Georgia Public Library Service. “One of the standards of our profession is to have a balanced selection that caters to all interests and entertains all sides and viewpoints.”
Adrienne Junius, assistant director of the Hall County Library System, said that the Library Board of Trustees ultimately determines the process of deciding if a particular book is acceptable to remain on the bookshelves of its five branches.
As of now, there is no open review regarding the aforementioned Seuss books among the five branches in the Hall County Library System.
However, the process of reviewing a book’s content is undertaken by professional library staff under the system’s collection development policy.
The policy provides annual information to library stakeholders about how the collection is chosen and who is responsible for making decisions about the library’s collection when a particular book is under review.
“The purpose of a public library is to provide the informational and recreational needs of its community,” Junius said. “When you’re talking about content, there’s something for everyone, and we try to oblige that, and those interests depend on the location of a particular branch.”
Patrons can file formal complaints about a book through a patron grievance form. The process for reconsideration of particular material includes library staff providing book reviews and contextual analysis that aid the Board of Trustees in deciding whether the library will continue to circulate the book.
“These are professionals who have been trained to examine the content of a book, and when we receive a particular complaint, we take it very seriously,“ Junius said. “Our library board has the ultimate say of what stays in the collection and what doesn’t stay in the collection.”
Libraries adhere to First Amendment protections regarding intellectual freedom, and books in those collections are designed to span different races, cultures, social and political views.
Literature cannot be added or removed for “partisan or doctrinal reasons,” according to the policy.
Junius said that often before a challenge to a particular book is made, library staff will make a recommendation to patrons on content that suits their interests.
“We always tell our patrons that if you do not like a book, you do not have to check it out,” she said. “Part of our job is to cater to the interests of our patrons and the basis of our collection is intended to make sure we cater to a host of interests and perspectives in our community.”
In the Hall and Gainesville school systems, vetting for books in school libraries is reviewed by individual committees when libraries make purchases for their collection.
Removal of a book from a school library is contingent on a patron’s formal challenge of a particular book, and it is handled on a school-by-school basis.
Matt McClure, media specialist for Fair Street International Academy in the Gainesville district, said that the process includes opinion gathering and a formal challenge of a particular book by a patron or parent before consideration of a book’s removal from the library.
“(In regards to the Dr. Seuss’ books), it’s like the Harry Potter series, when it was receiving a lot of divided opinions,” McClure said. “We aren’t going to remove those books until we get a formal challenge and then go through the process of collecting opinion on the matter.”
Brianna Caldwell, media specialist for Gainesville’s New Holland Knowledge Academy, said the process for school libraries is a “proactive” one, and she added that she hasn’t seen a book from their collection challenged in her seven years with the school.
“There’s a lot of work done before the books are purchased in making sure that it meets the standards for our library collection,” Caldwell said. “The process is meant to be proactive so we avoid a situation down the road.”
Both McClure and Caldwell said there have been no formal challenges to any of the books published by Seuss.
Hall County Schools officials were not immediately available for comment.
The American Library Association keeps a running record of challenges to books in school libraries and curriculum across the country.
While there isn’t an official list of banned books in Georgia, libraries across the state refer to annual lists of most challenged books regarding yearly reviews of their collection.
“There are sensibilities within each community that as a public library involves a discussion with patrons or parents on how to avoid certain content,” Junius said. “It’s our job to make sure we can meet the needs of our patrons by providing a variety of options.”
The Harry Potter series, Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel “Handmaiden’s Tale,” and books exploring non-binary identities like Alex Gino’s “George” have become staples on these particular lists over the past few years.
Houghton said he disagrees with the notion of literary censorship but offered a recommendation for patrons offended by specific themes in a book.
“Perhaps, if we had a rating system or a general review site that offered warnings on certain content, we wouldn’t get to the point of just getting rid of a book because it was written in a different time,” he said.
Houghton hopes that instead of banning a book due to offensive or socially regressive content, future conversations will include contextualizing the author’s intent and having meaningful discussions on its place in the current social stratosphere.
“It does more harm than good, and I think we do a great disservice when we try to ban a meaningful book that was a product of its time,” he said. “I think we need to evolve our conversations and talk about the issue rather than get rid of a book.”