Why we love Dr. Seuss
Children’s literature fans everywhere rejoiced this week as the newly discovered book What Pet Should I Get? by Dr. Seuss hit bookstores. UBC professor of language and literacy education Margot Filipenko explains why the beloved late author continues to inspire such devotion among children and educators alike.
Who was Dr. Seuss and why do his books captivate children and adults?
Theodor Seuss Geisel was born in 1904 and was a complicated man. He didn’t start his life as a children’s author or illustrator. He was a political cartoonist whose work appeared in a wide range of well-known American magazines, including Life. Later he worked in the advertising industry for Standard Oil and produced one of the most famous advertising captions Quick Henry! The Flit!
His first children’s book came about when he was travelling by sea, and his attention was captured by the rhythm of the ship’s engine. He couldn’t get the rhythm out of his head. He ended up writing And to Think I Saw it on Mulberry Street published in 1937. Like J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, the manuscript was sent to a number of publishers before it was finally accepted.
The rhythm carrying the language in that first Seuss book is anapastic tetrameter, which is often used for comic verse. You can hear it in most of Dr. Seuss’s books: “da da DUM, da da DUM, da da DUM, da da DUM.” It’s very breezy, it carries you along—it’s got a lively and humorous feel to it. I think that’s partly what captures everybody—the reader and the listener.
His drawings are bold and vivid and full of surprises. Most of all, there’s an interplay or synergy between text and illustration that invites and delights the reader.
What are Dr. Seuss’s most significant titles?
After Mulberry Street came a number of books, including Horton Hears a Who and The Grinch Who Stole Christmas. But what changed everything was a 1954 article in Life that asked why somebody like Dr. Seuss, whose books were lively and engaging, didn’t write a primer for children to learn to read with.
Early literacy books for children in the 1950s were terribly boring: “Janet. John. Janet and John. Look, John, look!” It was believed that children needed to see and hear the same words over and over again for them to become part of their reading lexicon. But the controlled vocabulary was extraordinarily boring.
Dr. Seuss created The Cat in the Hat as a response. It uses just over 200 words taken from approved lists of words thought essential for any six-year-old to read. Although the book seems very breezy and easy it took Seuss three years to write. For me, the strengths of Cat in the Hat are the really lively use of language, and the illustrations, which, while reflecting and supporting the text, also provide plenty of white space for young readers’ eyes to settle on the text or words to be decoded.
The book is incredibly inviting. When a child opens the book, they are met with the gaze of a very dapper Cat – the gaze is friendly, benign and yet there’s no doubt that this cat is going to get you involved in all kinds of things that, frankly, you shouldn’t be involved in. And there are no adults in the book to stop or impede this Cat’s antics. Like all Dr. Seuss books, the language is rhythmic, rollicking and interesting—it’s fun to read out loud and it’s fun to listen to, too.
Do his books have deeper underlying messages?
Perhaps because of his background in political cartooning, Dr. Seuss tackles some very tough subjects, among them tolerance and equality, warfare, commercialism and the environment. The Sneetches is about anti-Semitism. Horton Hears a Who is about tolerance and equality and The Lorax is a stunning book about the need to care for the environment, what we’ve done to it, and links between exploitation and the economy. But it’s all done in a very approachable way, ending on a somewhat hopeful note, which is something many adults feel is important in children’s books.