Publishers regularly make decisions about whether to continue printing their titles once the current run is nearing its end. Three broad factors comprise the equation:
- Money: Is the title still profitable? And is it sufficiently profitable to be worth re-upping, or would resources be better spent on a different asset?
- Legal: Does the publisher still have the rights? (If not, see “Money”.) Have any potential legal liabilities surfaced? If not, is there a likelihood that they will?
- Intangibles: Does the title fit with current branding? Has the author turned out to be an asshole we’d really not rather keep working with? Is there an “ick factor” somewhere that makes stakeholders personally averse to the project?
One strike is enough to see a property dropped. In the case of the “Seuss Six”, both money and intangibles were stacked against them.
None of these titles were cash cows. As an early reader back in the Pleistocene Era, I only had two of them — Mulberry Street and If I Ran the Zoo — and my family were definite Seussheads. (I still have some surviving Seuss books stashed away, waiting to be a shower gift for whichever next-gen delivers the first grandbaby. But shhh, don’t tell them that. Thanks.) And there’s no reason to think their trendlines were going to take an upswing any time soon. So clearing up press space for higher earning titles wouldn’t exactly have been a high-conflict decision in the first place.
Still, that alone might not have earned them the ax if not for the intangibles. Seuss is an early reader brand, and as such they are obliged to closely nurture their relationship not only with younger parents and with grandparents, but also with schools and children’s media enterprises. And in their case, their entire product line is anchored to an actual person, Theodore Seuss Geisel, so distaste for any single product can taint the entire barrel of Seuss products.
It’s been clear for some time now that some of Geisel’s early work has not aged well, most notably his World War II propaganda work targeted at Japan and his minstrel-show depictions of black people from the first half of the 20th century. One 1929 cartoon for Judge magazine, “Cross-Section of The World’s Most Prosperous Department Store”, includes a grossly offensive representation of a then-common figure of speech which today is unutterable in polite and professional company (which is not to say it doesn’t yet survive in some quarters of American English usage).
Smart publishers keep close tabs on stakeholder perception of their brand, and Seuss Enterprises is no exception. In 2020 they convened a panel to review their current catalog, and ethnic representation was, quite deservedly, placed squarely on the table for evaluation.
The pertinent question in such reviews really has nothing to do with media “culture wars”. It’s not about championing a social movement toward inclusion, or trying to preserve American traditions, or anything like that. (And it’s certainly not about placating some imaginary angry mob.) When you get right down to it, the central focus is the reader — whether that’s the kid reading on their own, or the adult reading to the child. You want every reader to have a positive experience when that book is in their hands. If you fail to provide that, you’re not doing your job.
Now, granted, some readers have idiosyncratic responses that are impossible to predict, or placate. I’ll never forget the day I received notice that an image of a chocolate-covered strawberry had been reported to the US Postal Service as obscene. Ditto a blurb that read “Discover things you never thought you’d be able to do with your computer”.
But when you actually look at the texts in question, it’s clear none of them fall into that category. Exaggerated, inaccurate, stereotypical renderings of non-European ethnic groups, especially when juxtaposed with normative renderings of “white” characters, simply do not fly in the 21st century. The fact that they ever did is nothing to be proud of, either.
At the end of the day, it is not Seuss Enterprises’ business to either champion social progress or defend any generation’s childhood memories against the stigma of racism. It’s just not. It’s their business to provide positive experiences for readers. These six books were not pulling their weight on that front, which may well be part of the reason they didn’t have stellar numbers.
Nobody dragged Seuss Enterprises into the culture wars. Nobody recruited them into the woke army. They’re a business doing business. And once you understand how that business is run, the discontinuation of the Seuss Six is stripped of its white flag of surrender and its shining armor. Because it was never part of that war to begin with.
What’s left is a group of people doing the best they can to teach kids, all kids, to read. How about we all step back a bit and let them do it.
Header image by OpenClipart-Vectors