Children’s authors Mike Curato, Mo Willems, and Lisa Yee withdrew from scheduled appearances at the upcoming inaugural Springfield Children’s Literature Festival in Springfield, Mass., on Thursday after the host refused to address their concerns regarding a mural that includes what the authors termed an “obviously offensive” depiction of a Chinese man.
Located at The Amazing World of Dr. Seuss Museum, the mural is a replica from a page in Seuss’s first book, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, which was published in 1937. The museum, which opened earlier this year, is dedicated to Seuss, the pen name of Springfield native Theodor Seuss Geisel.
In response to the authors’ announcement, the museum announced the cancellation of the festival, and later posted on Facebook that they would “replace [the mural] with a new image that reflects the wonderful characters and messages from Dr. Seuss’s later works.”
In their statement, the authors said they had privately appealed to have the mural taken down, or for the museum to “provide context” for the image, which shows a Chinese man with chopsticks in his hands, slits for eyes, and a pointed hat. Otherwise, they wrote, “[d]isplaying 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.”
When their requests were denied, Curato, Willems, and Yee announced that they were backing out of the festival, which was slated for October 14.
In protesting the mural, the authors sought to draw a distinction between the painting and the author, noting that “the career of Ted Geisel, writing as Dr. Seuss, is a story of growth, from accepting the baser racial stereotypes of the times in his early career, to challenging those divisive impulses with work that delighted his readers and changed the times.”
With the image displayed as a standalone, however, they wrote that the museum was undermining the story of Geisel’s transformation by leaving small children to interpret it for themselves. “While this image may have been considered amusing to some when it was published 80 years ago,” they concluded, “it is obviously offensive in 2017 (the year the mural was painted).”
This is the second time in recent weeks that the issue of racist images in the work of the beloved children’s author have been raised in Massachusetts. In late September, Cambridge, Mass. school librarian Liz Phipps Soero posted an open letter to Melania Trump in the Horn Book, rebuking the First Lady for her donation of 10 Dr. Seuss books to the school for National Read a Book Day on September 6. Soero wrote that “Dr. Seuss’s illustrations are steeped in racist propaganda, caricatures, and harmful stereotypes.”
Soero’s letter was denounced by Springfield Mayor Domenic J. Sarno, who posted a statement to the city’s Facebook page saying that her “comments ‘stink’ and are ridiculous towards our beloved Dr. Seuss.” Sarno went on to call the letter “ ‘political correctness’ at its worst.”
Curato, Willems, and Yee included an apology to parents in their statement, and wrote that they would find a way to visit the city at a later date. But they made no apologies for their stand on the mural. “Two of us are Asian American (one is Chinese American), and two of us are the children of immigrants,” they wrote. “We will not endorse racism in any form.”
In their statement agreeing to remove the mural Thursday night, Dr. Seuss Enterprises and the Springfield Museum wrote that changing the mural “is what Dr. Seuss would have wanted us to do. Dr. Seuss would have loved to be a part of this dialogue for change. In fact, Ted Geisel himself said, ‘It’s not how you start that counts. It’s what you are at the finish.’ ”
The authors replied with a statement of their own late on Thursday evening, offering to appear at the museum as originally planned. The decision to remove the mural, they wrote, “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.”