Dr. Seuss was born 106 years ago yesterday, and wrote his first book 73 years ago, but impressively his books are still entirely entertaining. Beyond entertaining, in fact. Sure, it’s fun to join in with the wacky antics of The Cat in the Hat or to gleefully recount all the places where Green Eggs and Ham should not be eaten, but Dr. Seuss had so much more in him than just bouncy rhymes and colorful creatures that nearly burst off the page. He was profound. He was political. He wrote books that quietly (and sometimes not-so-quietly) protested the injustices he witnessed in the world. Here are three of his more overtly message-driven works, works that continue to teach kids important lessons about justice, tolerance, and the importance of our environment.
Yertle the Turtle and Other Stories — Published in 1950, the story of Yertle the Turtle is Dr. Seuss’ critique of Totalitarian governments. Yertle, you see, is a turtle-king who rules all that he can see, but he doesn’t see enough. He wants to be higher, and therefore see more, and therefore rule more. So he proceeds to get nine turtles to stand on each other’s backs, and he uses this turtle tower as his new throne. He’s momentarily happy, but soon wants an even grander view. So he gets 200 turtles to pile on. Again, briefly happy, but then wants 5607 turtles to pile on. As the turtles begin to assemble for their massive turtle tower, one hungry and tired turtle named Mack burps, and the entire tower comes toppling down. Yertle the dictator has an appropriate end, “And today the great Yertle, that Marvelous he, / Is King of the Mud. That is all he can see. / And the turtles, of course … all the turtles are free / As turtles and, maybe, all creatures should be.” Boo, Hitler & Mussolini! Yay, Dr. Seuss!
The Sneetches and Other Stories — Just in time to help kids understand the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement, Dr. Seuss penned the story The Sneetches in 1961. I’ve read that this was a response to anti-semitism, but it strikes me as an indictment of intolerance in all shapes and sizes. If you don’t know the story, here it is — the star-belly sneetches feel that they are better than the plain-belly sneetches, simply because they have “stars on thars.” The star-bellies don’t talk to plain-bellies, don’t play with plain-bellies, and generally make the plain-bellies feel terrible. Enter Sylvester McMonkey McBean, who has a machine to put stars on the bellies of the plain-belly sneetches for just $3.00. Plain-bellies are very happy, until the star-bellies pay $10.00 to remove their stars. This goes on and on, until no one knows who was a star and who was a plain-belly, and McBean leaves ridiculously wealthy, mocking that the sneetches will never learn. “But McBean was quite wrong. I’m quite happy to say / That the Sneetches got really quite smart on that day, / The day they decided that Sneetches are Sneetches / And no kind of Sneetch is the best on the beaches.” Boo, racists & anti-semites! Yay, Dr. Seuss!
The Lorax — The Lorax tells the story of the greedy Once-ler, who cuts down a lovely Truffula tree to find that he can make an all-purpose thneed (a thing that everyone needs!). The Lorax asks him to think about what he’s doing, but the Once-ler just wants to go on “biggering and biggering and biggering” his factory as he sells more and more thneeds. He cuts down more and more Truffulas, until animals are driven out of their homes, the skies are filled with smog, and the lakes are “glumpy” and “smeary.” In the end, the Once-ler realizes the error of his ways and passes on the last Truffula seed to a little boy, with this advice, “You’re in charge of the last of the Truffula Seeds. / And Truffula Trees are what everyone needs. / Plant a new Truffula. Treat it with care. / Give it clean water. And feed it fresh air. / Grow a forest. Protect it from axes that hack. / Then the Lorax and all of his friends may come back.” Boo, polluters and over-consumption! Yay, Dr. Seuss!
For some life lessons that will stick with your kids for years and years, look no further than the great author you read when you were a kid, the inimitable Dr. Seuss. May he never be forgotten!