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5.0 out of 5 starsThe New McGrew Zoo
Reviewed in the United States 🇺🇸 on December 26, 2017
Like "McElligot's Pool,""If I Ran the Zoo" is a non-narrative paean to unbridled childhood imagination. A young tyke, Gerald McGrew, is unimpressed by everyday lions and tigers, so he dreams up his own menagerie, which gets wilder and more ambitious by the page. If "McElligot" boasted some lavish watercolors, "Zoo" stays with Seuss's trademark pen and ink, with occasional fill-in colors. The whimsy factor of "Zoo," however, is kicked up several notches beyond the "Pool." The vocabulary level is that of the better known "Horton Hears a Who!," two books down the road.
UPDATE (03.06.21): When I wrote this review some years ago I had no idea that the book would be proscribed. (To clarify: Amazon hasn't pulled it from publication. The trustees of Theodore Geisel's estate and owners of all his books' copyrights have done so.). When I purchased its reissue (ISBN 0-394-80083-4) at twenty bucks, which at the time I reckoned a high price for childhood nostalgia, I would never have dreamt that it fetches forty times that price a this writing and will doubtless continue to climb. Needless to add, it's going into my safe deposit box.
I pulled from our shelves the Seussiana that we own, which is now no longer in publication. I examined its images. In "If I Ran the Zoo" the questionable cartoon and text appear eighteen (unnumbered) pages from the end. The accompanying text refers to "the African island of Yerka." The accompanying picture presents an outsized "Yerka" being supported by two fellows, inked in black, with rings through their noses. A child of the 50s, I can detect in their faces a suggestion of minstrelsy. I have no moral standing to judge the image and text as racist. If African or African-American parents found the cartoon and text offensive and harmful for their children, I would respect their judgment. On the other side of the debate: all the human beings in Seuss's books are caricatures. On this book's first page, a middle-aged Caucasian is presented as obese, which, I suppose, could be interpreted as fat-shaming.
Ted Geisel, now dead for thirty years, can no longer defend himself. While he was alive, the record is clear: he was publicly progressive in his era and sensitive to the danger of injurious images, especially for children. (For evidence, consult Donald E. Pease's "Theodore Seuss Geisel" [Oxford University Press, 2010[). As a student at Dartmouth he was denied fraternity admission because the brothers believed him Jewish. During Army service in World War II, he wrote in a memo of his mortification by the racism he witnessed (Pease, p. 73). He went on record as protesting southern segregation (Pease, 65-66). When he learned that his presentation of a Chinese fellow in "And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street," his first children's book) was regraded by some as offensive, he altered the image and modified the text for further printings. While writing and illustrating "The Sneetches" (1958), a parable about Nazi racism, he almost dropped the entire project when a single critic claimed of the work-in-progress as anti-Semitic. (Geisel went ahead only when convinced by a Jewish friend that the charge was without merit.) At a writer's conference in Utah (ca. 1950) he challenged writers to spurn racist stereotypes and to use the pens to promote social justice and equality (Pease, 77). He also warned writers away from patronizing kids. "On their humor there is no political or social pressure gauge" (Pease, 79).
Whether Geisel achieved his ideals or fell prey to the stereotypes of his time is for all of us to judge. Unless you already own or have access to copies of "If I Ran The Zoo" and the other five books that have been pulled, you no longer can. One thing seems certain: Dr. Seuss never intended racial prejudice or prejudice of any kind. The evidence is clearest in "Horton Hears A Who" (1954). Horton, the kindhearted elephant, organizes his fellow animals to speak against mean kangaroos on behalf the Whos, so tiny that their voices cannot be easily heard. The fable's denouement: "THEIR VOICES WERE HEARD! . . . They proved they ARE persons, no matter how small./And their whole world was saved by the Smallest of All!"
I loathe censorship, bigotry, and any harm to a child or to children's capacity for imaginative delight. Is there no remedy that reconciles them all?