Today is Dr. Seuss’s 108th birthday. Children everywhere honor it by wearing red-and-white-striped top hats, eating green eggs and ham, and reading Hop On Pop. Most people do not realize that the “King of Children’s Books” was teaching liberal values at a time when intelligent political dialogue was squashed in the public arena.
I tweaked this diary from an eight year old essay I wrote when I was working in the interfaith community and using a Seuss curriculum to teach kindness and compassion, caring for our Mother Earth, inherent worth and dignity, worldwide brotherhood/sisterhood, and critical thinking skills. The more I studied Seuss from a religious perspective, the more I understood the important political undertones of his work, as well.
Those who knew him say Dr. Seuss would have been surprised by his fame, since he was often his own worst critic. He justified his whimsical illustrations because he never learned how to draw, and he was embarrassed by the characters in his books so much he would not be friends with them if they were real. He claimed he didn’t try to write books that teach important lessons, but that they were merely interpreted that way. His humble beginnings shed some light on his discomfort with fame.
Born in Massachusetts in 1904, he was known by his classmates for his sense of humor, disorderly conduct in school, and his constant doodling of cartoons. Although he was generally a good student, his creativity got him into trouble again and again. When he attended Dartmouth College, he was suspended for having a series of parties, and was forbidden to write any more cartoons for the school newspaper. It was at that time Ted Geisel began to use pseudonyms to continue to publish his drawings and one-liners. Upon graduation, he was known as a quick wit but otherwise untalented, landing him the elected title, “Least likely to succeed”. He went on to receive a doctorate in literature.
Early in his career, Ted Geisel was successful in drawing cartoon advertisements for Flit Pest Spray. Although marketing was his bread and butter, he attempted to write children’s books but was soundly rejected by every publisher he approached. His art was not appreciated, and his absurd wit was seen as unsuitable for young children. Despite the mixed reviews, Dr. Seuss did eventually publish To Think That I Saw it on Mulberry Street, his first commercially successful attempt writing for children.
Theodore Geisel served in the army as a cartoonist, where he warned about the dangers of Fascism, particularly with anti-Hitler and anti-Mussolini cartoons. He won two Academy Awards for army training films. Several cartoons of that era are controversial today. They showed Japanese-Americans as possible traitors, not long before thousands of innocent Japanese-Americans were rounded up and forcibly sent to internment camps. This was seen by many of his contemporaries as a serious error in judgment by an otherwise thoughtful and idealistic man. Dr. Seuss’ political awareness grew as his career flourished, just as the generations of Americans have who read his books. He later said he regretted his work on those films.
After the war, Dr. Seuss read an article in Life magazine attributing the reason for the high illiteracy rate in children to kids being bored to death with their primers. “Look, Dick, Look, See Jane run. See Jane and Spot run, Dick” was apparently responsible for the death of the imaginations of millions of school children. Eager to show the world that children’s literature need not be boring, Dr. Seuss took a list of 220 basic words for beginning readers and turned it into the immensely popular Cat In The Hat. Riding a wave of excitement that followed, he accepted a dare to write an entire book using only 50 words, which soon became Green Eggs and Ham, a story which reminds us all to keep an open mind. The world of children’s literature would never be the same. Dr. Seuss went on to write dozens more children’s books including Horton Hears a Who, Bartholomew and the Oobleck, One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish, and Hop on Pop.
It wasn’t long before Dr. Seuss fans picked up on Seuss’s personal politics, and the seriousness of some of his messages. Although Seuss himself never had children, he honored their limitless creativity and interest in ethics. When asked why he never had children, he responded that he was afraid of them. Apparently, he knew they could be much more imaginative and creative than he could ever be, and that frightened him. Nonetheless, Seuss understood something many people did not about children. In a nutshell, despite their limited ability to read, children can often understand deep lessons about life more easily than adults. With each book published, the life-lessons became more obvious and more important to bestow upon future generations.
In Horton Hatches An Egg, an elephant is concerned that a bird’s egg is going un-warmed, so he takes it upon himself to sit on it until it hatches. Although hatching the egg is time-consuming and challenging at times, just as mentoring and nurturing other people’s children can be for adults in our own culture, Horton’s commitment to the egg has a glorious and surprising reward. When it hatches, the creature inside is half-bird and half-elephant. Horton is the adoptive parent who finds that the child he grows to love as deeply as his own is genetically similar to its biological parents, but also very much like himself as well. If ever there were a book advocating the concept of the “It takes a Village” concept, this one is it.
Horton comes back to us again in the book, Horton Hears a Who, published in 1954. In it, Horton is splashing in the pool when he thinks he hears something on a dust speck floating by. While employing mindful listening during his everyday activities, Horton hears a tiny shout for help, made possible by the voice of the tiniest child in the land of Who, being added to all the other voices in the land. Horton commits his life to protecting the inhabitants of who on the dust speck, who are too tiny to be seen, even by Horton. Horton’s love for them is summed up in his famous quote, “A person’s a person, no matter how small.
Spiritual educator’s have seen a Christ-figure in Horton, who teaches that a person’s worth is not measured by his or her status in life, but by the fact that he or she exists. When I talked to several adults about this book recently, they thought the book was written about our relationship with children. When I asked a group of fifth graders at a local elementary school about what they thought Dr. Seuss might have been thinking in 1954, they immediately made the connection to the way African-Americans were being treated at that time. Several students also said it reminded them of how women were treated in Afghanistan under the Taliban. In the story, many “small” voices in unison eventually caught the attention of someone “bigger”, and together they changed the world. Apparently, Dr. Seuss knew what he was talking about when he said that children pick things up very quickly.
In How the Grinch Stole Christmas, the Grinch, as many of you know, has a heart “two sizes too small”. The festivity and merriment of the residents of Who-ville at Christmas-time upsets this chronically depressed recluse, so he attempts to steal their happiness by taking their Christmas trees, gifts and even the “roast beast”. As you know, when Christmas does arrive, the residents sing and dance as they always had, without their commercialism and material goods. As the Grinch learns, there is something much deeper and more valuable than presents and food and decorating at Christmas-time, and any other day of the year, for that matter.
Yertle the Turtle, written in 1958, is another religious educator’s classic. In it, King Yertle wishes to be seen as the important turtle that he is. He discovers that by climbing on the back of another turtle, he elevates himself to a higher position, and is more easily seen by the masses. The more turtles he stacks to climb upon their backs, the higher he rises. As in many great lessons, Yertle the Turtle ends up with disappointment. Although rising above others by putting them below himself sounded like a great idea, Yertle learns that the tower he made for himself out of the sacrifices of others, was bound to crumble eventually.
In Sneetches and Other Stories, the Sneetches live side by side peacefully on the beaches until they are made aware of their physical differences. Some of the Sneetches have stars upon their bellies, while the others do not. The Sneetches with stars become arrogant and decide it is better to have stars, and segregate themselves from those who do not have stars. Not to be left out, the Sneetches with “no stars upon thars” quickly purchase stars from an opportunistic salesman. When everyone eventually has stars, the original star-bellied Sneetches decide to identify themselves further by having their stars removed, and the others follow. The story continues in lunacy as stars are applied and removed at a dizzying pace, and the only person who benefits from it is the salesman who takes them off and puts them on again for a fee. Sadly, the Sneetches never quite figure out that they are worthy and whole with or without the stars, and that the star salesman is the only one who benefits from their insecurities. (I think Michael Moore makes a similar point to Dr. Seuss in “Bowling for Columbine”.)
One of Dr. Seuss’s books was so controversial there was an attempt to ban it from libraries in Laytonville, California. In The Lorax, published in 1971, a greedy entrepreneur called the Onceler, attempts to cut down all of the Truffula trees which are home to many animals and creatures, including the wise, guru-like Lorax. The book was obviously an environmental warning long before the days of organized environmental protection efforts. It was immediately seen as a threat to the lumbering industry and created a huge controversy. Seuss himself admitted The Lorax was the only one of his books he deliberately wrote just to get a point across.(The Lorax has been made into a full-length feature film to be released in 2012 — no doubt extreme religious fundamentalists will boycott it for this reason.)
Already being in some trouble over The Lorax, Dr. Seuss decided to take on bigger political issues. When friend and columnist Art Buchwald asked him what he thought of Richard Nixon, Dr. Seuss penned Marvin K. Mooney, Will You Please Go Now! Afraid the public would not pick up on the inference, Art Buchwald printed the text of the book in his syndicated column, substituting Richard M. Nixon for Marvin K. Mooney.
Richard M. Nixon, will you please go now!
The time has come.
The time is now.
I don’t care how.
You can go by foot.
You can go by cow.
Richard M. Nixon, will you please go now!
Nine days later, Richard M. Nixon resigned as President of the United States.
Even more controversial was the Butter Battle Book, written in 1984, during the height of the Reagan administration and with “Star Wars” in mind (the policy, not the movie). In it, two groups of people are at odds over which side of a piece of bread is the correct side for buttering. The argument becomes very heated, and the two groups separate from one another. Each group is convinced there is something wrong with the other. “How could they possibly believe that the other side of the bread should be buttered”, they ask themselves? “There must be something wrong with those people”, they conclude, as they build a massive wall to separate the two sides. As suspicion mounts about the other group, weapons are made to keep them at bay. Each group of bread-butterers insists on having a weapon bigger and more powerful than the other, in true Dr. Seuss exaggerated art, until one side develops a seed-size bomb that can blow up the world. As the side that discovered it creeps to the great dividing wall, the other side develops the same technology. The book ends with representatives of each side sitting on either side of the wall holding the small but powerful bomb, waiting and waiting, and wondering what their future will bring.
Dr. Seuss went on to write the ultimate liberal battle cry, Oh the Thinks You Can Think, extolling the many possibilities of reading, thinking, and choosing what one believes for oneself. In it, Dr. Seuss suggests that thinking outside of any box that we may find ourselves in, offers potentially great rewards. It also speaks to the idea that there is value in the diversity of opinions whirling around us — diversity for diversity’s sake.
Seuss also wrote a book poking fun at growing older called You Are Only Old Once before eventually succumbing to throat and mouth cancer in 1991. Although a serious issue, our own mortality can also be taken lightly, according to Seuss.
When Dr. Seuss passed away, he left an unfinished manuscript, which was illustrated and published by some of his contemporaries in his honor, which is my favorite of all of his works. Hurray for Diffendorfer Day is the story of a school where the children are encouraged to dream, to be creative, to use their unique talents, and to think outside of the box, just as Dr. Seuss himself had done all of his life. Hurray for Diffendorfer Day should be required reading for any politician interested in Education Reform.
As adults who care about children in our community, Dr. Seuss challenges us to nurture them as Horton nurtured the bird’s egg he found, to protect them as Horton protected the Whos on the dust speck, and to teach them the many lessons of The Sneetches, The Lorax and The Butter Battle Book. We are asked to challenge them with “all the thinks they can think”. Even more importantly, the legacy of Dr. Seuss is to never stop honoring the intuitive gifts of children, to learn from as well as with them, and to remember what is truly important in life.
Happy Birthday and thank-you, Dr. Seuss!