We all grew up with the lovable and lyrical children’s books by Theodor Seuss Geisel, otherwise known as the immortal Dr. Seuss. His imaginative characters and trisyllabic meter rhymes gave us classics like Green Eggs and Ham, The Cat in the Hat, and One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish.
Before his fame as a children’s author, he spent his early career as a skillful political cartoonist for PM, a New York City newspaper; and during World War II he worked for the U.S. Army, where he wrote Design for Death, a film that would win the 1947 Academy Award for Best Documentary.
So beloved is he for his contributions to literature that, in honor of Geisel’s birthday, March 2 has been adopted as the annual National Read Across America Day, an initiative created by the National Education Association.
In 1954, a magazine report speculated that one of the reasons for declining children’s literacy was that books like “Dick and Jane” were boring. Geisel took up the challenge and wrote Cat in the Hat using 220 words suitable for beginning readers. It didn’t thrill teachers, but became one of the most popular children’s books in history. He later wrote Green Eggs and Ham when someone challenged him to write a book using 50 words or less.
So how, you may ask, could such an adored man as Dr. Seuss be on the banned books list?
In a 1992 New York Times Book Review article, Janet Maslin complained about what she felt was the “scare factor” in children’s literature. Maslin sited Seuss, and complained that educational children’s literature neither entertains nor soothes its young audience.
But Geisel made a point not to begin writing his stories with a particular moral in mind, stating that “kids can see a moral coming a mile off;” he was not, however, against writing about issues. He said that “there’s an inherent moral in any story,” and remarked that he was “subversive as hell.”
A liberal Democrat and supporter of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, Geisel was an outspoken political commentator. His political cartoons showed a passionate opposition to fascism, and he tended to regard the fear of communism as overstated.
Geisel’s cartoons often called attention to the Holocaust, and condemned the discrimination of Blacks and Jews; but he supported the Japanese-American internment during World War II, which has struck many readers as a moral blind spot.
After the war, Geisel rose above his feelings of animosity toward the Japanese with Horton Hears a Who, an allegory for the bombing of Hiroshima and the American post-war occupation of Japan.
Many books expressed his views on social and political issues: How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1957), about the materialism of the Christmas season; Yertle the Turtle (1958), about Hitler and authoritarianism; The Sneetches (1961), about racial equality; The Lorax (1971), about environmentalism and anti-consumerism; The Butter Battle Book (1984), about the arms race; and Horton Hears a Who!
The Butter Battle Book is perhaps one of his most controversial. In the book the Yooks and Zooks declared war on each other because they disagreed on how to butter their bread- butter-side up or butter-side down. Each side has a bomb that will destroy everything; and the book ends with a cliffhanger- a single blank page.
The line “A person’s a person, no matter how small!!” from Horton has been used by pro-life proponents, despite the objections of Geisel’s widow. While Geisel preferred to let his work speak for itself, in 1986, when the line first started being used by pro-life members, Geisel demanded a retraction and received one because in its original context it is unrelated to the abortion issue.
In 1989, the Laytonville, California Unified School District challenged The Lorax. The book was part of the Second Grade reading list and is a symbolic tale about the effects of poor care of the Earth. Those who opposed the book felt it showed an unfair portrayal of, and criminalized, those in the logging industry. They called for a ban with the claim of it “being an allegorical political commentary.”
The line “I hear things are just as bad up in Lake Erie” was removed more than fourteen years after the story was published when two research associates from the Ohio Sea Grant Program wrote to Seuss about the clean-up of Lake Erie. The line remains in the DVD release of the special.
In the end, the school board voted to keep the book on the shelves; but it was challenged in many other communities in which the timber industry was prevalent.
Published by NOFMA, National Wood Flooring Manufacturers’ Association, The Truax, was a rebuttal written to help kids understand the importance of harvesting trees.
It is interesting to note that Geisel’s run-ins with censorship began in his college days. He started using the pen name “Seuss” to avoid getting caught after being banned from writing for Dartmouth College; he added the “Dr.” as homage to his father’s desire that he earn a doctorate at Oxford. He was banned, by the way, after throwing a “raucous” party during prohibition.
Seuss is commonly pronounced sewss, an anglicized pronunciation of his German surname. He switched because most people used this pronunciation, and it “evoked a figure advantageous for an author of children’s books to be associated with- Mother Goose.”
His collaborator on the Dartmouth Jack-O-Lantern, Alexander Liang, wrote:
You’re wrong as the deuce
And you shouldn’t rejoice
If you’re calling him Seuss.
He pronounces it Soice.
Sources: Wikipedia, Sustainablog.com, Amazon. (Photo of book reading by Buddy Stone, all rights reserved)
© 2011 R. Wolf Baldassarro/Deep Forest Productions