“Was there nothing to look at . . .no people to greet?
Did nothing excite you or make your heart beat?”
“Nothing,” I said, growing red as a beet,
“But a plain horse and wagon on Mulberry Street.”
from And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street
written and illustrated by Dr. Seuss
Random House, 1937
One hundred and sixteen years ago yesterday, March 2, 1904, the world of children’s literature changed. Dr. Seuss had just been born.
In his lifetime, he published over 60 books beginning in 1937, with his first children’s title And to Think That I Saw it on Mulberry Street. It’s a fanciful romp through a boy’s imagination as he thinks of something exciting to tell his dad about the walk home from school. All he saw was a cart and a horse, but he embellished the tale so much in his imagination that we can’t help but laugh.
Even at the stereotyped illustrations of the “Rajah, with rubies, perched high on a throne” (on an elephant) and “A Chinese man/Who eats with sticks.”
At the end of the story, the boy from Mulberry Street, even with his fantastic imagination, tell his father the truth.
Dr. Seuss wrote The Cat in the Hat at the request of his editor at Random House, a dare, really. A study showed American kids weren’t reading as well as they could. His challenge was to write a story with a very limited vocabulary that appealed to kids. It took him a year, but The Cat in the Hat was born with 236 words in 1957. Kids loved to read that book. Reading scores improved. Dr. Seuss wrote more and more rhyming, funny picture books. And lots of tongue-twisters, too.
In 1971, just as people were beginning to talk about saving trees and conservation, Dr. Seuss published The Lorax, an environmental masterpiece.
So why after more than 20 years has the National Education Association backed away from celebrating Seuss? To put it simply, they are changing their focus. Even just a quick glance at their home page, https://www.readacrossamerica.org , shows cute kids, cartoon and real, interacting with grown-ups and books.
They encourage everyone to “join us as we celebrate a nation of diverse readers with these recommended books, authors, and teaching resources that represent an array of experiences and cultures.”
There is no room for stereotypes, bullies, exclusivism of any kind. And that is a good thing.
We have become, lately, a divided nation. Some people are full of hatred fueled by fear. Some others, I like to think a large group of thinkers and doers, work for a pluralistic, inclusive, society to bring up children where kindness is an important value and learning about each other is encouraged.
So maybe a slide to the side of Seuss is warranted. Maybe it’s time to make room for diversity. Maybe it’s time to modernize. After all, Dr. Seuss was 87 years old when he died in 1991. Aside from a few manuscripts published posthumously and a collaboration between Lane Smith and Jack Prelutsky who finished and illustrated the incomplete manuscript Hooray! For Diffendoofer Day in Seuss’s style, Seuss’s works must stand the test of time on their own. I believe they do. Here are some of my favorites.
The Sneetches and Other Stories In the title story, the bullies and their targets are all so taken with a machine that gives out stars and erases them, that by the end of the story, no one could tell the bad guys from the good guys. They all lived happily ever after, together.
The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins As soon as Bartholomew removes his hat to show respect for the king, another hat appears. The king strikes a deal with Bartholomew. He gives Bartholomew 500 pieces of gold in exchange for the 500 hats, each one (after the 450th) more elegant than the one before. Fairness plays out for all.
Horton Hatches the Egg In an unlikely turn of events, Horton, an elephant, sits (most gently) on Mayzie the Lazy Bird’s egg while she vacations in Florida. When the egg hatches, it is a most fetching combination of elephant and bird. Promises kept are rewarded.
The Lorax In speaking for the trees, the Lorax exposes humanity’s over-dependence on Nature and the destruction caused by greed. A warning ahead of its time.
If you want to see a list (annotated) of all Seuss’s works for kids, try https://www.best-books-for-kids.com/list-of-dr-seuss-books.html Scroll down a little and click on each title for more info.
Theodor Geisel aka Dr. Seuss was a man of his day. Using stereotypes was a common shorthand for those in the majority. And he used them. It was wrong and hurtful, but it’s part of our history, and his.
At the beginning of WWII, Theodor Geisel contributed political cartoons to a liberal magazine. Since he was too old for the draft but wanted to serve, he made animated training films and drew propaganda posters for the Treasury Department. Most were not appropriate for children. Some of his books command an adult audience, too.
Everything changes in this world of ours. Dr. Seuss taught us to take care of our earth, take care of each other, and to allow ourselves and our children to have fun.
His books will live on. American kids will continue to read.
Thank you Dr. Seuss.
-—stay curious! (and read for fun)