Theodore Geisel used the pen name Dr Seuss to write his books, mainly children’s books. However Geisel was known also for his illustrations, cartoon work and animation. He was not a doctor, his pen name being purely fictitious, and his books have become famous over the last century, even being adapted (with mixed success) to film and television.
Dr Seuss illustrated his books as well as writing, so everyone would be familiar with his distinctive drawing style. Odd fantasy creatures, bipedal cats, elephants sitting on nests, all have a very distinctive style that is easily recognisable. The characters are often rounded, droopy, and there are seldom straight lines to be seen even when he drew buildings and machinery. Dr Seuss would choose colour very specifically for his books. ‘The Cat in the Hat’, for example, was mostly done in red, green, and blue, colours Seuss judged as being likely to appeal but not be overly distracting to children of about six, his target audience.
Speaking of ‘The Cat in the Hat’ and its sequel, there are some strangely concerning aspects of the stories, and I’ve often wondered if Dr Seuss had a hidden agenda. Both books concern a bipedal cat wearing a tall hat, who visits two children while their mother is out. He likes to have fun, and in doing so makes a spectacular mess. The intention of the books was ostensibly to incorporate words that young children should learn, and encourage reading in schools, but what about some of the events of the stories?
1. Why are these children always being left unsupervised? The mother is ‘out’ and the father is barely mentioned.
2. They seem to be devoid of imagination and unable to entertain themselves. They stare out of the window at the rain instead of reading a book or something.
3. The fish always reminds me of Jiminy Cricket, and not in a good way. Is it mimicking the parents? Is that why the children are incapable of play and in dread of displeasing their mother? Are they starved for love?
Okay, I’m probably reading more into it than is intended, but I can’t help but think they needed the anarchistic cat to shake up their world a little. They needed to have some fun even if it meant taking some risks. The Cat tries to teach them how to do that. Dr Seuss did admit that it was about a revolt against authority, though the cat always cleaned up after himself. Perhaps it was also about putting a little chaos into an orderly existence.
Look at me!
Look at me!
Look at me NOW!
It is fun to have fun
But you have to know how.
“How the Grinch stole Christmas” points a much more obvious moral. The miserable Grinch, feeling so isolated, hates the joy of the celebration and wants to ruin it. But all he sees are the trappings of Christmas, so in his depressed and angry state he imagines that is all there is. Take away the presents and the food, and you take away Christmas. He learns that his plan to make everyone as sad as he is has backfired, as the residents of Whoville have a true understanding of Christmas. That’s how he comes to understand what Christmas is all about. It is a clear statement about the spirit of Christmas being far more important than the materialism and commercialism that is so prevalent at that time of the year.
Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before!
What if Christmas, he thought, doesn’t come from a store.
What if Christmas…perhaps…means a little bit more!
“Green Eggs and Ham”, in contrast, has no moral at all. The story came about when Seuss was challenged to write a book with only fifty words. From this bet he devised “Green Eggs and Ham”, a nonsensical story about a little creature called Sam who constantly harasses another creature to try the title food. The second character, who is not named, resists this stalking until the end of the book, where he tries the food and discovers that he likes it. One wonders if ‘Sam I am’ is a salesperson for the product, so determined he is to get the other character to eat the rather nasty looking food. While I suppose you could argue a theme about the ‘hard sell’ and the influence of marketing, overcoming prejudice, or even about broadening your horizons and trying new things, I think it’s really just a nonsense story meant to amuse.
I will not eat them in a house, i will not eat them with a mouse,
I will not eat them in a box I will not eat them with a fox,
I will not eat them here or there, I will not eat them anywhere,
I do not like green eggs and ham, I do not like them, Sam I am.
My personal favourite, as it espouses a message that is becoming more important than ever now, is “The Lorax”. This story’s environmental plot describes the collapse of an ecosystem as a result of removing one item from it – the trees. While the story’s description of the Lorax is meant to amuse, there is something very poignant about his statements and continued explanations about how the ‘Outler’s actions are disrupting everything.
I am the Lorax. I speak for the trees.
I speak for the trees for the trees have no tongues.
This line always makes me sad. This world could use a Lorax or two. The book’s final message, about how one person who cares can make a difference, is a hopeful reminder for us that our own actions towards a cleaner world do count.
Dr Seuss wrote many books for children and many of these gave advice or had some point. He had a career that went further than this, however. He wrote and directed cartoons, including a series of training cartoons about ‘Private Snafu’ during World War Two. He won an Oscar in the category ‘Best short animated film’ in 1951 for writing ‘Gerald Mcboingboing’, a cartoon about a boy who spoke in sound effects instead of speech. (This can be found on Youtube if you are interested.)
Seuss claimed that he didn’t write books with a moral in mind, but as I’ve discussed, these and many other stories certainly do have a message and a point. He wrote over sixty books in a very long career, and his works have been translated into over twenty languages. Some of his works were published after his death, including the upcoming ‘Horse Museum’, due to be released in September this year. The last book released before he died, however, is called “Oh the places you’ll go!” Designed, as usual, for children, it has become something of a traditional gift to give to students upon graduation. It talks about a wonderful life awaiting the reader, and is a work of optimism and joy. To my mind, it encapsulates the life and career of Theodore Geisel aka Dr Seuss, who brought, and still brings, so much pleasure to readers of all ages.
You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes.
You can steer yourself any direction you choose.
You’re on your own. And you know what you know.
And YOU are the one who’ll decide where to go…