Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Theodore Seuss Geisel

I don't think I've ever shared before just how deeply I am in love with the works of Dr. Seuss. I own  fairly large collection of his books. My parents still get me one I don't yet own for every Christmas and birthday. I also purchase them on my own on occasion, but not near Christmases or birthdays because I want to avoid duplication.   I keep them neatly stacked in a bookcase in alphabetical order in my bedroom. My parents have repeatedly offered to make room for the Dr. Seuss volumes in their own library, but I want them in my own room.

 Someday, assuming nothing else goes out of print and becomes ridiculously expensive before I've collected it, I hope to own every book ever written by him, including the ones written under other pseudonyms. Ones that he has written but not illustrated are published under Theo LeSieg, which is, of course, the backward spelling of his actual last name, Geisel.  Suess, his middle name, was his mother's maiden name. Interestingly enough, the correct pronunciation  of is is /soiss/. He original labored to have his number one pseudonym pronounced correctly, but eventually gave up in his effort.

Sr. Seuss first began using Seuss as a synonym because  he was for some reason banned from writing for a publication at Dartmouth, where he earned his undergraduate degree. He continued to contribute to the publication, though under a synonym.

Dr. Seuss went to Oxford University in England to earn his doctorate, but met and fell in love with a woman, so instead returned to the United States and married her. he never officially earned a doctorate, though he must have possessed a truckload of honorary doctorates by the time of his death, which was, I believe, in 1991.

While Dr. Seuss professed liberal political leanings and was a registered democrat (he once rewrote
Marvin K. Mooney, Will You Please Go Now with the name Richard M. Nixon inserted in each place where "Marvin K Mooney" had been. That alone would make me love the guy as an author even if he had written nothing else of significance.

While his political ideology may have been liberal, I suspect the agenda of Dr. Seuss with most of his books was more about getting people -- children in particular -- to think than to persuade them to believe one way or another. A couple notable exceptions to this, are The Butter Battle Book, which is clearly anti-war and especially a treatise against nuclear power and [my personal favorite] The Lorax, which clearly has an environmental message. For the most part, though, I think he was deliberately open-ended.

Not everyone likes the works of Dr. Seuss. Some people find  the rhyme scheme and the meter usually employed -- anapestic tetrameter --  to be monotonous.  Some elementary school teachers have told me they dislike many of the works because the language is unnatural. They're slightly missing the point in my opinion. The language of poetry is, by nature, unnatural. Anyone who disagrees should compose a lengthy rhyming poem. We'll all dissect it afterward to determine the natural flow of the poem's language.

Furthermore, the natural flow of language should matter only in the Dr. Seuss books for the very earliest readers. (After the earliest stage, the readers should have sufficient vocabulary and reading skills not to require extremely heavy context in order either to decode or to comprehend literature.) Books for early readers should have built-in cues on which young readers can pick up. One such method of creating such cues is making the language very predictable and adding pictures that practically give the words away. Another method of making text predictable is to  employ the technique of rhyme. It's difficult to use both methods simultaneously on a very large scale. Again, anyone who thinks otherwise should give it a try. I'd love to see it done well.

A friend of mine teaches preschool for children with special needs. A mother of one of her students complained about  The Cat in the Hat and The Cat in The Hat Comes Back being read aloud to her child.  The mother felt that Thing 1 and Thing 2 plus Little Cats A, B, C, D, E, F, G, etc., in addition to the cat himself,  were destructive to the extent it encouraged her child to be naughty. my friend explained to the mother that it was not the children behaving badly -- in fact, they, along with the fish, were appalled at the antics of the cat ant the little creatures.  It was intruders misbehaving. My friend explained both that she always made the point whenever she read the books that one should never let strangers into the house when their parents were not home -- that Sally and the boy (he had no name in the book, but in the movie was called Conrad) were very lucky something much worse didn't happen. It's a good opportunity to remind children that it's dangerous to answer the door when mommy is in the bathroom or wherever.

Furthermore, my friend explained to the mother, the sorts of things the cat, the things, and the little cats did -- standing on a ball while holding a rake and balancing a fishbowl on top of it, or flying kites inside a house, for example, were things that would be difficult for young children to manage if they were under any responsible supervision whatsoever. If a parent goes into his or her bedroom, closes the door, and sleeps for three hours while her two- and four-year-olds have the run of the house,  it's conceivable they might attempt some of the cat's feats, but any parent who would provide such incompetent supervision could hardly blame a book for what destruction his or her toddlers might create in a parent's virtual absence.  And any child legitimately old enough to be left alone who would try such things belongs either in a psych ward or in juvey.

My friend's experience is a reminder that whatever profession one chooses, one will inevitably deal with either batshit crazy or highly ignorant people. but, as my friend pointed out, it's better to deal with one of them than to be one of them.

I digressed in a major way. my point is that if you haven't picked up a Dr. Seuss book recently, find one and read it to a child. It will be time well-spent.


  1. I remember visiting the Maryland Science Museum in Baltimore about twelve years ago with my husband and they had a great Dr. Seuss exhibit. I was mildly exposed to his books when I was coming along, so while I am familiar with them, I didn't fall in love with them. My husband's ex, on the other hand, is a big time Seuss fan. While I think he was brilliant and came up with some really great ways to teach object lessons, the fact that my husband's ex wife probably counts him as her favorite author kind of turns me off of him... and says a lot about her reading ability. She used to use examples from Dr. Seuss and Shel Silverstein to make "points" to my husband about why he needed to change to suit her. (To others who may be reading this comment, please don't mind me... I justifiably despise my husband's ex wife and don't want to be like her at all...)

    If I had kids, though, I would probably expose them to Dr. Seuss. Just because my husband's ex likes him doesn't mean he wasn't a national treasure.

  2. His works aren't scripture. Using excerpts to point out a need for change is almost cult-ish, in my opinion.

    My mom has told me of teachers (invariably middle-aged females) who, when -- maybe as an ice-breaker at meetings or such -- what is their favorite book, insist upon naming a children's book. To me, that, too, speaks volumes about either their reading levels or stunted emotional growth.

    Dr. seus is like my comfortble blanket or stuffed animal from childhood. As I get older, I see the brilliance in what he did to aid children's literacy and how he often -- but not always -- made a deeper point, usually allowing the reader to come to his or her own conclusion asopposed to directly ttelling him what to think.

    But to end one's reading at that level? I'd think that would go against everything for which Dr. Seuss stood, as he was attempting to promote literacy wit his books.

    1. Yeah. In all honesty, the ex is very much like a 13 year old in a 46 year old body. My husband once ran across a posting she'd made on a messageboard for Ron Paul that referenced "Horton Hears a Who". In that very same posting, she basically called herself a conservative socialist. I think she has designs on becoming a local politician because he's found several postings that show her dabbling in politics and trying to get people on her cause du jour.

      But she's not into deep reading and prefers fantasy and kids' books to anything else. I remember when she sent adoption papers to my husband along with hateful letters from his daughters around the time of his 42nd birthday. She included a copy of a children's book he used to read to the kids about forgiveness. He ended up sending it back to her right before he deployed to Iraq without comment. She needed it more than he did. Sending it to him along with adoption papers was such a condescending thing to do, though I'm sure she thought she was being "profound".

      Anyway, not to take away from Dr. Seuss's brilliance. He was a fun writer and helped many kids feel safe and learn how to read. For that alone, he's a very admirable figure. I still like Shel Silverstein too, even though the ex claimed my husband was like the little boy in "The Giving Tree" (barf). I think it's time I took a nice hot shower and had a drink. Sorry for going off in your comments! ;-)

    2. I like Shel Silverstein but dislike The Giving Tree, in part because when I was in elementary school and in camp, kids frequently did lame plays or skits based on the book that were so similar that we may as well have recorded the first one to save the other s the trouble of creating more identical versions.

  3. My mom has always been weird about Dr. Seuss, without really any basis for disliking him. Other than he's "weird".

    Her views aside, I understand what you mean about his books being like a "comfortable blanket" to you. Being reminded that we have any type of voice is a great subliminal message to initiate during childhood.

    "Oh the places you'll go" is one of my favorites.

    1. I love, "Oh the Places You'll Go," too.

      I'm a not of a Law & Order junkie. One of the more memorable sVU episodes to mewas a little girl who was abused by her mother and was in a coma. Munsch had flashbacks to a little girl in his neighborhood when he was a child who was pushed to her deaath through a second-story plate glass window deliberately by her own mother, and he took the more recent case hard. (Doesn't at least one of the characters always have a personal connection to each case?)

      Anyway, the episode ends up with Munsch "befriending" the mother to get a confession out of her. Then , in the final scene, Munsch appears at the little girl's hospital bedside as she lies comatose. He places a stuffed animal next to her, sits on a chair beside her bed, and takes out "Oh, the Places You'll Go." Though she's comatose, he reads,

      "But on you will go
      though the weather be foul
      On you will go
      though your enemies prowl
      On you will go
      though the Hakken-Kraks howl
      Onward up many
      a frightening creek,
      though your arms may get sore
      and your sneakers may leak.

      On and on you will hike
      and I know you'll hike far
      and face up to your problems
      whatever they are."

      It's a little melodramatic, but it was touching.

    2. I was at my Aunt Tracy's daycare today for an "Art Show" (basically scribbles on construction paper, in creative made by teacher designs) and one of the rooms was Dr. Seuss themed. One of the books on display was "Why Hitler is Dangerous and Other Stories".

      I thought of you. :)

  4. He was indeed a genius. My favorite is "Horton Hears a Who." :)

  5. I love "Horton Hears a Who" as well. It features prominently in "Seussical, the Musical." I saw a version with a girl playing the part of "JoJo and thought it actually worked out if anything better with a girl in the role.

  6. Thanks for thinking of me. Yes, Seuss was vERY anti Hitler and had a big problem with any politicians who wanted to bury their heads in the sand and try to avoid the ward. he was also (unfortunately, in my opinion) pro-Japanese internment camps in the US. He failed to differentiate between the citizens of Japan and the loyal Americans of Japanese descent living here. I believe he came to regret his stance on that in later life.