Michael Thompson says he’s proud of his godfather but supports Seuss estate’s action on offensive imagery.

By Kate Bradshaw

Michael Thompson knew his godfather as Uncle Ted.

But to many, many others, Theodor Seuss Geisel was best known by his pen name, Dr. Seuss.

Thompson, who now lives in Redwood City, said he was around 3 years old when Geisel dedicated his book “If I Ran the Zoo” to him.

That book is one of the six that the Seuss estate, Dr. Seuss Enterprises, announced on March 2 that it has decided to stop selling. “These books portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong,” Dr. Seuss Enterprises said.

Specifically, some illustrations of Asian and Black people in those books are considered to be crude racial stereotypes. The other books that will cease to be published and licensed are “And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street,” “McElligot’s Pool,” “On Beyond Zebra!,” “Scrambled Eggs Super!” and “The Cat’s Quizzer,” the announcement said.

A stereotypical depiction of eight Persian princes in “If I Ran the Zoo” by Dr. Seuss. (Photo by Magali Gauthier)

The announcement has triggered an uproar. Some have decried it as an example of “cancel culture” run amok while others have argued that Seuss came from a culture that was white supremacist, and that children’s books today should not just avoid containing harmful racial stereotypes, but should better represent positive protagonists from different races.

In the meantime, some of the titles to cease publication have skyrocketed in demand and price. Amazon now lists copies of “If I Ran the Zoo” selling between $500 and $800.

In an interview with this publication, Thompson shared his memories of the late children’s author and how he’s feeling about the Seuss estate’s decision to no longer publish the author’s book dedicated to him.

“I’m sad I can no longer wander into a bookstore and take a copy off the shelf and see my name there, but that’s OK,” he said.

Michael Thompson laughs at the inscription his godfather left him in “Dr Seuss’s Sleep Book”. (Photo by Magali Gauthier)

“Kind, loving and obviously immensely talented”

Thompson said he has fond memories of his godfather.

His parents were friends with Geisel and his first wife in Manhattan before the couple moved to La Jolla, and the two families maintained a long-term friendship despite the distance.

Geisel would regularly visit New York City to meet with his editors and publishers at Random House, and one evening while out at dinner, Thompson recalled Geisel criticizing the publishing house’s books for early readers. Geisel had said at the time that he believed he could come up with better stories using limited vocabularies, and that’s how Seuss’ foray into writing “Beginner Books,” which would come to include his famous “The Cat in the Hat” book began, Thompson said.

As a child, Thompson also recalled Geisel saying his full name — Michael Gordon Tackaberry Thompson — and telling him that it “scans.” Thompson didn’t know what that meant at the time, but later learned that the term applies to how the stresses of each syllable are distributed — a relevant observation by someone so well known for his rhyming abilities.

His godfather encouraged him to travel — by land. As a college student, Thompson said he took a trip to California to visit friends and made a stop at the Geisels’ home. His godfather asked him how he planned to return to New York City and Thompson replied that he planned to fly.

“He said, ‘Hmm, you know, you don’t really get a sense of the United States just by flying over it. Let’s see if we can’t set you up with something better,’” Thompson remembered Geisel telling him.

So Geisel called his travel agent and booked Thompson a seat on the train from Seattle to Chicago, and then Thompson flew the rest of the way home.

“I’ll never forget that trip,” he said. “That was the kind of person he was. I just knew him as a kind, loving and obviously immensely talented person.”

“He’s had a big impact on my life and I’m grateful that I knew him,” he added.

An inscription in “On Beyond Zebra!” to Michael Thompson from his godfather, Dr. Seuss, reads “For my old pal, Michael, from his young pal, Dr. Seuss.” (Photo by Magali Gauthier)

“…a long way to go before we overreact.”

While Thompson can reminisce fondly of his godfather, he can also see the point the Seuss estate is making by discontinuing to publish or license certain books.

His godfather did do propaganda work during World War II, and as was not uncommon during that time period, he said, “it was very anti-Japanese propaganda.”

One 2019 study found that only 2% of the human characters depicted in 50 Dr. Seuss children’s books were characters of color. They were all male and were “only presented in subservient, exotified or dehumanized roles,” the study stated.

Thompson said he’s come to think about the situation as something like a #MeToo reckoning in recent years at his former boarding school. As he described it, a previously well-liked headmaster was found to not have taken appropriate measures when a teacher was rumored to have sexually abused a student. In response, the school erased the headmaster from public recognition.

“My feeling was, while it made me very sad, if by taking that action, one or more victims might feel that they had been listened to or heard, or apologized to, then it’s probably worth it.”

“If there were aspects of Ted’s books that caused offense to people today — which they probably do — then this is probably OK.”

It might be an easier attitude for him to simply say that Dr. Seuss Enterprises is overreacting, but, he said, “I don’t think that’s an honest view. We have been so insensitive to so many people for so many years, we have a long way to go before we overreact.”

Michael Thompson holds a 1937 copy of “And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street” by Dr. Seuss. The Seuss estate, Dr. Seuss Enterprises, announced on March 2 that it has decided to stop selling it along with five other Dr. Seuss books. Photo by Magali Gauthier.

“I don’t think it’s enough to say that when they did these things, there was nothing wrong with them,” he added.

Still, he said, there will be some loss, especially of the pride he used to get from being able to point out his name in a Dr. Seuss book. One time, he said, he went into Linden Tree Books in Los Altos, a local children’s bookstore, and mentioned his connection to Dr. Seuss.

“They just about swooned,” he said. “Who doesn’t take some joy and happiness from that?”

Of his godfather’s literary creations, he added, “I think they’re wonderful, and how widespread they’ve been is a testament to that. The rhyming is so amazing, and a fun aspect of the way he told the stories,” he said.

“But the flip side is, if it made parents or children uncomfortable, or made them angry or hurt or something, then maybe their time is past.”

Charles Russo

Award-winning writer and photographer with extensive experience across mediums, including videography, investigative reporting, editing, advanced research, and a wide range of photography.

Author of Striking Distance: Bruce Lee and the Dawn of Martial Arts in America; represented by Levine Greenberg Rostan Agency.

Freelance clients include Google, VICE and Stanford University.

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