Dr. Seuss: Politics in Children’s Literature
On the 2nd of March 1904, the famous writer and illustrator Theodor Seuss Geisel, known as ‘Dr. Seuss’, was born in Footloose, Springfield, MA, USA. An Oxford University graduate, Geisel published 46 children’s books, characterized by imaginative characters and the use of anapestic meter – a breezy melodic rhythm for comic verse. His most celebrated books include Green Eggs and Ham, The Cat in the Hat, The Lorax, Horton Hears a Who!, and How the Grinch Stole Christmas!. Most of them were adapted extensively to theatre, television and cinema. Geisel’s birthday, March 2, has been named National Read Across America Day by the U.S. National Education Association.
The son of Lutheran German immigrants, Geisel was a liberal Democrat and a supporter of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal. In the early 1940s, before America became aware of the destructive power of Nazism and its threat on European Jews, Geisel had the foresight to draw editorial cartoons for PM, the progressive daily newspaper in New York, warning about the matter; in them, he was criticising “America First” isolationists who campaigned to stay inactive in the fight against the Holocaust in a bid to ‘protect’ America. His cartoons showed that the irrational fear of communism was largely overstated, urging the public to look for greater threats on home turf, in the House ‘Un-American’ Activities Committee. Geisel’s children’s books were unavoidably permeated by his subversive ideas. Nevertheless, he never set off writing them with a moral in mind, stating that “kids can see a moral coming a mile off,” “there’s an inherent moral in any story,” which made itself known at some point. His most popular children’s books included parables about racism, anti-Semitism, the arms race, and the environment. He also used his writing to encourage youngsters to challenge bullies and injustice.
“Most Seuss’ books are concerned with questions and problems of power and authority in one guise or another, and at least five have overtly political themes. The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins (1938) is about the dilemmas of the title-character who takes off his hat when ordered to do so by King Derwin only to have a new one appear in its place; The King’s Stilts (1939) relates how King Birtram’s evil Prime Minister hides the King’s stilts and brings the Kingdom of Binn to the brink of destruction; Bartholomew and the Oobleck (1949) involves King Derwin’s disastrous attempt to create a new kind of weather; Yertle the Turtle (1950) concerns the turtle-king’s thirst for more power and his construction of a literal hierarchy of his subjects; and Horton Hears a Who (1954) is about an elephant who manages, over frightful opposition, to save a miniature city built on a dustspeck threatened with being boiled in beetle-nut oil. Even Seuss’s most popular books, the Cat in the Hat series, focuses upon the adventures of child- protagonists indulging in harmless disobedience of a non-political authority figure, their mother.” (Timothy E. Cook, ‘Another Perspective on Political Authority in Children’s Literature: The Fallible Leader in L. Frank Baum and Dr. Seuss’, The Western Political Quarterly, Vol. 36, No. 2, Jun., 1983).
In Dr. Seuss’ books, there is a ongoing dynamic between the leader and the small person. The former is never depicted as perfectly dependable, possessing superhuman powers, but egotistical, inept and deceitful. The leader is shown to be pretty plain and average, having acquired his power by illegitimate, unfair or accidental means. The writer is clearly hinting at the fact that the role of governments should be limited in the effect they can exert on communities and individuals. Most often the story happens within a quiet, self-sufficient, happy community which is suddenly overtaken by some selfish ruler, who puts his or her interests before those of the people. The central character then turns out to be a small individual who manages to make the community aware of the dangers of centralised power and overthrows the ruling power, as a result of which harmony is restored within the community. This is visible in books such as The Lorax, which has a predominant ‘green’ eco message, and the leader is seen as some form of political authority which threatens the harmonious lifestyle of a community of happy individuals by trying to pursue personal wealth at the detriment of the environment which was the source of their happiness. Many of Seuss’ leaders are violating the norms of equality and individualism.
Playful rhyme, colourful illustrations, jolly catchphrases contribute to a most pleasing introductory platform for Seuss’ deeper ideological content. Authors Zipes and Mickenberg of Tales for Little Rebels: A Collection of Radical Children’s Literature (N.Y. Univ. Press, 2010) prove how various forms of children’s literature “distill revolutionary ideas into their simplest forms, and show that an accessible medium may be a powerful vehicle for radical messages. Whether very young children can or should absorb all of these messages will probably depend on the message.” Although an entirely subjective and sensitive area to pass judgment on, it could be said that the works of Dr. Seuss as well as other important authors such as L. Frank Baum (The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, 1900) teach their small readers valuable lessons. Seeing as “younger children perceive political authority in an idealized, personalized way (…) in its most altruistic light.” (Cook), it is useful to have somebody hold their hand and point out the negatives as well as the positives which come with the acquisition of power.
Seuss showed them that “enlightened statesmen may not always be at the helm” and urged the primacy of individual enterprise against the threats of strong government or strong majorities. We might then say that children reading the stories of L. Frank Baum and Dr. Seuss are than not only witnessing wizards and kings but are encountering, in rudimentary fashion, the essential philosophical bases of American political life.” (Timothy E. Cook, ‘Another Perspective on Political Authority in Children’s Literature: The Fallible Leader in L. Frank Baum and Dr. Seuss’, The Western Political Quarterly, Vol. 36, No. 2, Jun., 1983). And that is good practice and forewarning for the way they chose to live their future lives. As a matter of fact, generations of progressive activists have been motivated by their childhood exposure to Dr. Seuss’ genial work; such is the formative effect of good children’s literature.