What is up everybody? Quick status report, I should be officially returning to blogging next Sunday or Monday. And, I couldn’t be more excited. This hiatus I have taken in the name of NaNoWriMo, has been a tad painful in the sense that I miss blogging, but, gained some perspective and big plans.
Today, I have another special guest post for you and I should tell you, it’s brilliant.
Michael J. Miller of My Comic Relief started blogging around the same time I did. We quickly recognized our equal appreciation for comics, fiction and all things pop culture and never looked back. Trading off recommendations, and getting into some deep commentary on some of the greatest titles in comics. When I announced my NaNoWriMo plans, I secretly hoped that Michael would throw his hat in for a guest post. Why? Couple reasons. 1. Because he is one of the best hidden talents in the blogging community. 2. Dr. Seuss.
Theodor Seuss Geisel is an essential author when discussing children’s literature, and I have talked about that a few times on the blog, in the past. Which lead to Michael and I discussing his importance, and how he, as a theology teacher, uses Dr. Seuss as an example in his lessons of social justice.
That is what we are here to do as book bloggers, isn’t it? To dissect and discuss the world and society around us mirrored in the words and fiction we read. Share our experiences and our introspect on what is most valuable to us, through the books that we choose to read and promote.
Okay, maybe that is a little much, blogging is just fun. But, I do believe that if we choose to have this outlet, this voice, that once and a while we should use it for something important. That is what Michael is about.
So, as soon as Michael said he would be willing to compose a guest post for The Green Onion Blog, I didn’t give him a chance to offer any other commentary. I would have begged him to discuss Dr. Seuss.
I didn’t require any begging.
And, what he sent to me went beyond what I could have ever hoped for.
With that lengthy introduction, I would finish by saying that you should follow the My Comic Relief blog for yourself. However, after you are done reading this post, I am certain, that will be the first thing you do.
I will shut up now.
Michael, the Green Onion garden is all yours…
While Green Onion continues working diligently on his NaNoWriMo project, it’s my pleasure to be your guide today into the wonderfully wacky world of Dr. Seuss! There are few authors, whether they write books for adults or children, who are as memorable as Dr. Seuss. And, looking at content and message, we realize there are also few authors, whether they write books for adults or children, who are more important than Dr. Seuss.
I loved Dr. Seuss as a kid. Who didn’t right? Wild illustrations, a hilariously insane narrative, watching my parents try to read the rhymes in Fox In Socks with a smooth rhythm…ahh, good times. However, there was one book in particular that always made me uncomfortable – The Lorax. I still have vivid memories of the deep, existential unease that would wash over me after we’d finish reading that book. To my little kid mind, I knew we were messing up the world. I knew we had to stop. But I didn’t know how!!! And, it turns out, that anxiety was kind of the point.
Like the biblical prophets of old, Dr. Seuss had instilled a great sense of urgency and action in me. “Prophetic” in fact is a good word for Theodor S. Geisel, the man who would be Seuss. Culturally we often think a prophet is someone who predicts the future. In truth, a biblical prophet is someone who sees injustice in the world and speaks out against it on behalf of God. It’s no surprise that Dr. Seuss would fall into that category, devoting much of his career to challenging oppression. According the biography on the official Dr. Seuss site, he grew up the child of German immigrants in between World Wars. His German-American heritage and the fact that many people presumed he was Jewish meant he experienced both anti-Semitism and persecution for being German through his adolescence and young adulthood.
No stranger to prejudice, Dr. Seuss knew what it was like to live on the margins. As a result, he used his art to help illustrate the fallacious grounds of prejudice and call those who read his books to action against it. His books work very much like the parables of Jesus (someone else who fits within the prophetic tradition). A parable is a short story that includes a surprise reversal/dramatic twist at the end and then calls the listener to choose. Who do we follow? To what value do we pledge ourselves? This is exactly what Dr. Seuss did in his books!!
Look at The Sneetches, first published in 1961. The whole story is a brilliant meditation on both how ridiculously arbitrary our prejudices are and how desperately some of us fight to hold on to them. It is clear from the opening page – what sets the Sneetches apart is trivial and pointless. Seuss tells us, “Those stars weren’t so big. They were really so small / You might think such a thing wouldn’t matter at all.” Even looking at the illustration, at a casual glance you hardly notice the star on the one Sneetch. The discrimination is evident amongst both adults and children as the prejudice was taught as a part of the Sneetch culture. When the Plain-Belly Sneetches get stars the Star-Belly Sneetches won’t relinquish their prejudices. Instead they seek a new way to discriminate and keep themselves elevated. We see this through history with people of different races, religions, genders, and sexual orientations. When science or history disproves the “basis” of our prejudices we often revise the prejudice to keep it alive or ignore that it was discredited at all.
Then Sylvester McMonkey McBean shows up with his star-producer/star-remover machine to illustrate how culturally the forces of corruption profit from prejudice, discrimination, and segregation. Our corrupt culture wants prejudice to survive so we stay unhappy, divided, and consuming things to make us “happy.” The results of his work were twofold. He made a ton of money as the Sneetches kept running through his machine. But it also had the effect of making the Sneetches forget who was who at the start. They learned to see with new eyes. They no longer look upon one another with judgment but they see one another as equal beings. Only when we leave behind our petty prejudices (which Dr. Seuss is saying is possible here) can we begin to see who others truly are.
Is this heavy for a children’s book? For Dr. Seuss, posing these questions to children were every bit as important as posing them to adults – if not more so! To quote directly from the author section of the Dr. Seuss website, “…Seuss did not just want to teach children how to read. He also hoped to teach them how to think. As he wrote in an essay published in 1960, ‘children’s reading and children’s thinking are the rock-bottom base upon which this country will rise. Or not rise. In these days of tension and confusion, writers are beginning to realize that books for children have a greater potential for good or evil than any other form of literature on earth.’ ”
We see this call to justice echoed in so many of Seuss’ most popular works. Horton Hears a Who! (1954) also tackles the idea of prejudices while illustrating the power of organization and nonviolent protest. Every Who, even the tiniest, was essential to save Who-ville. Those with power must protect the marginalized and dispossessed and those on the margins must join together to make their voices heard. The mayor tells the boy, “We’ve GOT to make noises in greater amounts! / So, open your mouth, lad! For every voice counts!” Yertle the Turtle (1958) was a pretty direct commentary on Hitler’s rise to power. You can’t rise to the top, Dr. Seuss tells us, if you aren’t on the backs of the marginalized. Oppression allows a few to rise over the many… until the burp of one of the little ones brings it all crashing down. This has powerful implications. When any of us get mad enough, when we act, we can bring corruption toppling down. The tiniest of actions can change the structures of power. We just need the courage to act.
The Yooks and Zooks of The Butter Battle Book (1984) showcase the futility of amassing weapons of mass destruction as well as the ridiculous things we fight over. Fuelled by which side of the bread you butter, it was a commentary on the Cold War Arms Race between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. Sadly it works just as well today when the idea of true disarmament (nuclear and otherwise) seems so outlandish. The books ends on a dark, somber note. Will they destroy each other…or will they see reason? We’re still asking that question now, over thirty years later.
Of course there’s also The Lorax (1971), the book that made Past Michael sooooo anxious. With vivid clarity the book illustrates how our thoughtless consumption of natural resources will ultimately ruin the world we’re living on. The Once-ler meant no harm! He wasn’t trying to destroy everything! He just wanted to make a profit. And he didn’t realize what he was doing until it was too late. Importantly, we never see the Once-ler’s face in the whole story. This symbolizes that he can be any of us. Can we honestly destroy the earth? Of course not. Life will always find a way. But can we make it impossible for us to live here…taking countless species with us? Absolutely. And we’re doing a pretty good job of that every day.
Again, is all of this too heavy for a children’s book? I don’t think so. I agree with Dr. Seuss. These are the messages we should be teaching our children if we want a better and brighter tomorrow. And these are the lessons we too must try and internalize as adults, if we hope to preserve the world for our children to inherit.
Awareness, action, inclusion, pacifism, stewardship – these are the core values of Dr. Seuss’ work. All of his books, in one way or another, are reminding us we all have a responsibility to stand up, speak out, and make a difference. We can all effect change, no matter how little or insignificant we believe we are. When we act, we can change things. This point is where Dr. Seuss is trying to lead us all. What can be more important than that?
We must be aware. We must be active. And we must be fighting ceaselessly for a better, brighter, more equal future for all. But we must choose to do so. The Once-ler’s lesson becomes the challenge and choice for us all – “UNLESS someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”