Dr. Seuss is a contender for the most famous author of children’s books, especially if we restrict that category to picture books. So, he’s not someone who needs my advertising here, but I only had a couple of his books when I was growing up, so reading these with my children is a new experience for me and I thought I may as well share a few thoughts on them.
The two I had as a child were The Foot Bookand One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish. I remember some scenes but the memory is hazy after multiple decades. I do know I enjoyed them, but for my children we’re largely starting with his more popular books.
The Cat in the Hat is the first book you think of when you think Dr. Seuss. The Cat is a bit of a jerk, making a mess of a stranger’s house, but he does clean up after himself so I guess it’s not all bad. This book, and a couple others, is less colourful than I expected – the illustrations are dynamic and fun, but he only used a handful of colours. I assume this was to minimise printing costs, especially for these earlier books. Cat is also a good length for a picture book, long enough to convey a story but the Cat doesn’t overstay his welcome (for the reader, anyway).
If I Ran the Circus is more of a series of illustrations than a story. It’s a bit too long and doesn’t hold my toddler’s interest; it doesn’t hold my interest, either. I suspect it would be better if it were shorter, since books like The Lorax and Oh, the Places You’ll Go are engaging throughout despite also being on the longer side.
Green Eggs and Ham is the family favourite right now, or rather, Les œufs verts au jambon, since we have the French edition. It’s a lot of fun to read, and the translator caught a break in how many of the English rhyming words have near-analogues that also work in French, like box/fox becoming placard/renard, or goat/boat becoming chevreau/bateau. The only one that doesn’t quite make sense is, while going through a tunnel, instead of asking about eating green eggs and ham “in the dark” it’s “dans la nuit.” Oddly, he also seems to have added a recurring line, “Et quand je dis non, c’est non!” This doesn’t seem to correlate with anything in the original.
People sometimes mention that Sam I Am (er, Sam C’est-moi) is rather too aggressive in pushing green eggs and ham onto the book’s protagonist, but they do become friends at the end, and for the sake of a fun children’s book I think we can cut Sam C’est-moi a little slack, like we do the Cat in the Hat. Encouraging children to try new foods is also a message I can get behind.
The Lorax is Dr. Seuss’s environmentalist propaganda book. It’s by far the most coherent story of these works, and the most colourful. It’s probably best for slightly older children than the rest, though, since it’s relatively long and sophisticated. Also, there are a couple rude phrases (“Shut up, if you please”) which isn’t so bad coming from a villain, but very young children tend to just repeat everything they hear.
The Lorax himself seems rather useless. He speaks for the trees, yes, but that’s all he can do: nag.
We’ve also read Oh, the Places You’ll Go, which has the best message of all these but is another one for older children since it’s also relatively long and sophisticated.
Finally, I suppose I should address whether Dr. Seuss is subversive, since that question is occasionally raised about his work (for either praise or blame, depending on your point of view). In his political cartoons from his early career, yes, he was a liberal and like all political cartoonists was often polemical. His children’s books do sometimes have a political undertone; this article describes a few. Apparently The Cat in the Hat is a revolt against authority, but frankly it’s not much of a revolt. The authority figure (the children’s mother) isn’t home when the Cat arrives, nobody likes the Cat, he makes a mess of the house, and then cleans up after himself. The problematic part of the story is at the end, when the children wonder whether they should tell their mother about the day’s events. The answer is “yes, always be truthful with your parents,” but the question is presented as ambiguous. The parent can make that answer clear to the child when reading together, though.
The only really political book that I’ve read here is The Lorax, which, again, is environmentalist propaganda. However, there are good and bad forms that environmentalism can take. Practicing good stewardship of the natural world and not trashing the place to make a quick buck is a good message. As for the other books with liberal messaging, I haven’t read them, but we do vet everything our children read or watch.
Anyway, setting that aside, Dr. Seuss isn’t my favourite picture book author; that title belongs to Richard Scarry. Still, most of these books have been as good as their reputation, so I expect we’ll be getting a few more of these.…