If you spend any amount of time reminiscing on your childhood, chances are you will remember reading a book authored by Theodor Seuss Geisel, more famously known as Dr. Seuss. Books like The Cat in the Hat, Green Eggs and Ham, and How the Grinch Stole Christmas! have become iconic works within the realm of children’s literature and pop culture. Today, we are celebrating what would have been Theodor’s 116th birthday, and what better way to celebrate than by looking back at his most memorable works?
Horton Hears a Who! (1954)
Horton the Elephant discovers the microscopic planet of Whoville after hearing what he thought was a talking speck of dust. He places Whoville on a clover and vows to protect the town from all the dangers of the much larger world that surrounds the tiny community. However, Horton is harassed by the other animals of the jungle for caring about people whom they cannot see or hear. This does not stop him from going to great lengths to ensure the safety of Whoville after they are captured by a black-bottomed eagle. When the other animals threaten to destroy the small town, Horton implores Whoville to make as much noise as possible to prove their existence. After the smallest shirker of Whoville cries out, the animals finally hear the town and promise to preserve it.
Considering the time period in which it was written, Horton Hears a Who! is very much reflective of the social conscious Geisel possessed. The 1950s saw the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement in America, as well as a great deal of animosity towards nations of the Axis Powers in the recently resolved World War II. With many of the racial minorities experiencing systematic marginalization, Geisel encourages these oppressed groups of people to speak out against the injustices they encounter. Even while these individuals represented a small portion of the American population (in the same way that the Whos of Whoville were microscopic compared to the animals), Geisel still pushes for them to use their collective voice for good, for “a person’s a person, no matter how small.”
The Cat in the Hat (1957)
Perhaps his most widely celebrated work, Geisel tells the story of two siblings left alone on a boring, rainy day until a cat enters the house with many games and tricks to entertain the children. The children’s fish discourages the cat’s activities, to which the cat responds by balancing the fish on his umbrella. The cat eventually brings out two identical characters, Thing 1 and Thing 2, both of whom wreak havoc throughout the house and create a giant mess just before the children’s mother comes home. After the Things are caught in a net, the cat quickly cleans everything in the house before the children’s mother walks through the door.
Geisel creates an interesting dynamic between the troublesome cat and the paranoid fish to represent the children’s conflicting desires between chaotic entertainment and orderly obedience. Even as the cat brings a fair amount of trouble into the house, his eagerness in attempting to brighten the gloomy day of the kids makes him a jovial and likeable character. On the opposite side, the fish’s longing for order dampens the cheeriness that the cat brings into the house, despite the fish having good intentions. Geisel’s ability to speak to the childish and imaginative nature of older readers while simultaneously simplifying his language for the younger audience makes for a classic story appealing to audiences of all ages.
How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (1957)
The Grinch, who dwells in a cave high above Whoville, is annoyed by the cheery, Christmas spirit of all the Whos below him, so he devises a plan to dress up as Santa and steal the presents, trees, and feasts in Whoville. With his dog dressed as a reindeer, the Grinch flies down to the town and sneaks into the first house to enact his plan when he is interrupted by a little girl, Cindy Lou Who. She asks why he is taking the Christmas tree away, and the Grinch lies about fixing the tree’s lights before sending her back to bed. After he has stolen all the presents, trees, and fire logs from Whoville, the Grinch returns to his cave, only to hear the Whos belt out a joyous Christmas tune. Shocked by the Whos’ unwavering high spirits, the Grinch comes to realize that the meaning of Christmas expands beyond material possessions, and he gives all the belongings back to the Whos, with his heart growing three times its previous size.
Geisel puts a unique twist on the tale of Christmas by shifting the main perspective to an unhappy, yet strangely relatable, pessimistic protagonist. What the Grinch goes through is indicative of Geisel’s belief in people’s ability to change for the better, no matter how far gone they appear. In this sense, Geisel is not only speaking to the Grinches of his audience, but also those who know a Grinch. Obviously, if you’re being a stinky little Grinch, your attitude needs to change. However, if you see someone who is a Grinch, do not berate them. Show them the same kindness you would want to be shown if you were being a Grinch.
Green Eggs and Ham (1960)
Sam-I-Am spends almost the entirety of the book trying to convince his friend, Guy-Am-I, to try a plate of green eggs and ham. Even though Guy-Am-I adamantly refuses his offer multiple times, Sam-I-Am persists in asking, following Guy-Am-I to numerous locations. Finally, Guy-Am-I decides to try the dish just to get Sam-I-Am to leave him alone, and he ends up enjoying green eggs and ham much more than he thought.
Green Eggs and Ham is one of the more interesting works in Geisel’s catalog, as its simplistic vocabulary is not merely a product of writing for young children. After Cat in the Hat employed a total of 236 words, Bennett Cerf, Geisel’s publisher, bet that Geisel couldn’t write a book without exceeding that word count. As a result, Green Eggs and Ham was completed with only 50 words being used. So while he was challenging his young audience to expand their horizons by trying new things, Geisel was challenging himself in his own creative endeavors. He was willing to practice what he preached.
Oh, the Places You’ll Go! (1990)
The narrator speaks directly to the reader while detailing the journey of an unnamed character going through the highs and lows of life. The character, representing the reader, gets to travel down the fun, opportunity-filled roads as well as the low, gloomy valleys. One of these low places is “The Waiting Place,” where everyone is waiting for their situation to improve, but the narrator implores the reader to get up and create a better life for him/herself. The narrator challenges the reader to fight for success despite the roadblocks faced.
One of the most popular graduation gifts, Oh, the Places You’ll Go! was the last book published during Geisel’s lifetime and serves as a challenge to the generations coming after him. Instead of crafting a narrative with specific characters and events like many of his past works, Geisel opts for speaking directly to the reader and uses his own reflection on the ups-and-downs of life to encourage younger generations as they enter new stages of life. The book functions as a wonderful model of Geisel’s youthful optimism which extended through the entirety of his life.
While it’s likely that most of us haven’t thought about Dr. Seuss in a few years, the impact he continues to have on children’s literature with his simplistic language and thoughtful messaging is undeniable.
Happy Birthday, Dr. Seuss!