Dr. Seuss is unique.
The mid-20th century was a great time for picture books in general, especially rhyming books and those with minimal words; in addition to Seuss, we had P.D. Eastman, Ludwig Bemelmans, Eric Carle, Mike McClintock, Margaret Wise Brown, and many other great authors and illustrators. But Dr. Seuss stands out among them. What makes him so special?
Many factors; one of the reasons he’s so great is his ability to resonate in some way with just about everyone. There are two elements that I, personally, really connect with: Didacticism and surrealism.
Didacticism may be the holy grail of children’s literature. Parents, educators want picture books to be educational, but kids can spot edutainment (and, worse, moral education) a mile away and adamantly resist it. Dr. Seuss stands entirely apart from this conflict. His books do teach lessons, but we never felt like we were being educated. Returning to these books as an adult, I’m struck by the strength of the morals in stories that, as a kid, I just liked because they were fun: From a simple exhortation to try new things (Green Eggs and Ham) to pacifism (The Butter Battle Book), environmentalism (The Lorax), and the dangers of things like prejudice (The Sneetches) and even fascism (Yertle the Turtle).
Why did I love these books despite the morals? The answer is that I didn’t: There was no “despite” about it. These weren’t great books even though they taught lessons; these were great books written inextricably around their morals. I think the reason they are so appealing when other books with morals are not is the honesty of the message. Nothing here evokes focus groups determining the important issues that children’s books need to address (you know you got that vibe from, say, The Berenstain Bears); instead, every story feels like an honest communication from someone who really cared about this issue and wanted you to care, too.
But there was far more to Seuss than lessons. His books had a distinctive look that placed all of them, even the most accessible, unmistakably in a world not like our own. There was something strange about this world, something Other, something fascinating. And that’s my second point: Surrealism*.
The Seuss books that I liked the most weren’t the ones with plots and lessons, but the celebrations of pure imagination. One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish sounds like a simple counting/colors book, but it diverges almost immediately into strange creatures and situations: the Yink who drinks pink ink, a mouse cutting a telephone wire, the Zeds whose single hair grows so fast that it needs to be cut every day, and so much more. The phrases are so mellifluous and fascinating: “By the light of the moon, by the light of a star, they walked all night from near to far.” “You never yet met a pet, I bet, as wet as they let this wet pet get.” “My hat is old. My teeth are gold. I have a bird I like to hold. My shoe is off. My foot is cold.”
But my absolute favorite was Oh, the Thinks You Can Think! This one had no overarching story at all beyond the encouragement to think and imagine; each spread introduces a self-contained setting where something interesting is happening. Some are friendly, more are creepy, and all are intriguing. Here, too, those simple, rhythmic words stick in your head: “Think of light. Think of bright. Think of stairs in the night.”
This book had a profound effect on me and my imagination. Each picture provided a brief window into its own unique world operating by its own rules. It was impossible not to wonder about them. Is the Rink-Rinker-Fink a living creature? A fossil? A statue? Is it dangerous or benign? Why does its tooth need to be pulled? I found myself automatically creating context and longer stories into which these vignettes could fit. Most picture books were easy to understand, but Dr. Seuss challenged us. He gave us material that was open-ended, not neatly resolved.
When these two elements–didacticism and surrealism–converge, they work incredibly well together. The bizarre imagery makes the story memorable; the otherworldliness of the setting underlines the universality of the lesson. There are many stories about not being afraid of people who are different than you; only one includes a pair of sentient walking pants. And believe me, I remembered.
What do you remember the most about Dr. Seuss? What did he mean to you?
*I’m going against my own principle and using “surrealism” in the general sense, not the academically rigorous sense.