Sunday, March 09, 2014

Rediscovering the Brilliance of Dr. Seuss

This month is Dr. Seuss' birthday, celebrated in elementary schools far and wide. Of course, in this era of short school years and pressures to meet the standards, it's a bit harder to manage a full day devoted to Dr. Seuss, with Cat-in-the-Hat hats and so forth. But I couldn't let the moment pass without some acknowledgment. So, I read YERTLE THE TURTLE to my students, and in the process I was reminded of how truly brilliant Dr. Seuss was.

We think of Dr. Seuss and we think of GREEN EGGS AND HAM, THE CAT IN THE HAT - fun rhymes and childlike simplicity. Those books manage to use words accessible to early readers without being dull as dishwater. Cat?  Hat? Can you think of any more basic rhymes? But that's part of Dr. Seuss' brilliance - the deceptive ease of his rhyme. Read it aloud and it flows, smoothly, effortlessly, from one idea to the next, the rhyme and meter giving the whole text this magnificent lift without ever getting in the way or collapsing into obvious rhymes and predictability. Have you ever tried to write in a Seussian rhyme scheme? It is anything but easy.

But the doctor's genius goes beyond his remarkable skill with language. His books are subversive, revolutionary, political. When I asked my third graders to identify the theme of YERTLE THE TURTLE, they didn't miss a beat. "If you have power," they said, "You shouldn't abuse it."  Think of HORTON HEARS A WHO, a statement about the power of one small person to make a difference in the world against the great and powerful. Think of THE SNEETCHES, a fable on the importance of diversity and difference. The BUTTER BATTLE, THE LORAX - time and again, Dr. Seuss dove boldly into the political arena via his children's books. No wonder. He started as a political cartoonist. And yet, despite the unflinching, often explicitly stated, morals of his stories, he never seems "preachy," a term we writers have been warned against in the strictest of terms when it comes to picture books. Somehow, Dr. Seuss is able, through his humor, his clever writing, his fantastical visions, to hurl these powerful morals at his readers without insult or condescension.

While I was reading YERTLE THE TURTLE, one of my students pointed out that Yertle really shouldn't be claiming he is king of a house and king of a tree and king of all he can see because nobody elected him. And just like that, we were connecting with current events in the Ukraine. The issue of rightfully elected leadership is at play there, just as it was for Yertle. Geopolitics emerges from a children's story about a turtle in a pond. That's the brilliance of Dr. Seuss. Happy birthday, Theodore!

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