March 2nd, 2016 marks Theodore Seuss Geisel’s 112th birthday. As my regular readers and friends will know all too well, Dr Seuss is my all-time favourite writer. The master of rhyme and rhythm, he inspires imagination through endearing morals, clever words and his signature art style. He made reading fun for generations of children.
As a child, I devoured his books. He felt like a friend to me. Now in my glorious early twenties, I love his books more than ever.
Dr Seuss believed in the intelligence of children and treated them as equals. “I write for myself,” he once said. “Children are just as smart as you are. The main difference is they don’t know so many words. If your story is simple, you can tell it just as if you’re telling it to adults,”
With this in mind and in honour of Dr Seuss’ birthday, here are my ten favourite Dr Seuss books.
10. Horton Hatches the Egg (1940)/Horton Hears a Who! (1954)
In Horton Hatches the Egg, Horton the elephant is scammed by a bird named Mayzie into sitting on her egg while she takes a vacation (she doesn’t return). Horton is mocked by the Jungle of Nool and ends up being sold to a circus. However, he is unwavering in his resolve, saying “I meant what I said, and I said what I meant. An elephant’s faithful, one hundred percent.”
Seuss came up with the concept for the book when he left a window open in his office one day and returned to find a transparent sketch of an elephant had blown onto a tree.
The titular elephant made a reappearance in the sequel, Horton Hears a Who! Horton hears the tiny planet of Who on a dust speck, and swear to protect him, despite the entire Jungle of Nool believing Horton to be insane. It’s a common belief that the story was a comment on abortion, but it was actually about how the Japanese were treated post WWII. Seuss was very active during the war with drawing propaganda cartoons. As the grandson of German immigrants, Seuss was very keen to prove his patriotism. When a pro-life group used Horton’s line “A person’s a person, no matter how small,” for their campaigns, Seuss was enraged and received a retraction from the group.
Overall, these are two very basic moral stories which even adults can learn from. Horton is a great role model, there’s a lot of creativity in the narratives and Seuss doesn’t shy away from drama and comedy, knowing exactly where and how to mix both.
Of course, there was a very sub-par film adaption starring Jim Carrey in 2008, and if you haven’t already read my thoughts on the movie, you can check it out here.
9. Yertle the Turtle and Other Stories (1958)
The chaplain at my second high school was a massive Dr Seuss fan, and sometimes he’d use the books in Scripture class. That’s where I first discovered this gem. Yertle the Turtle, possibly the greatest middle finger to Hitler ever, tells a great story of King Yertle who forces his turtle subjects to stack on top of his rock so he can be king of “all that he sees”. Of course, the lone turtle at the very bottom, Mack, stands up and topples the chair over, leaving Yertle to be king of the mud.
It’s an allegory to Nazi Germany, but in all seriousness, Yertle could be applied to a number of people and situations. Yertle is every bullying monster with delusions of grandeur and a sense of entitlement the size of the Soviet union.
Can’t imagine who this could apply to. At all.
When a message is based on a historical event, yet is hidden enough to be unnoticeable and still holds up sixty odd years later, that’s the sign of a skilled and wise writer.
Gertrude McFuzz and The Big Brag deal with themes of vanity, self-image and the futility of comparing yourself to others. All three are great stories and considering how long I searched to find a copy of the book, I’d say it’s definitely worthy of a spot on the list.
8. There’s a Wocket in my Pocket! (1974)
In this book, Dr Seuss shows his wildly creative drawing and rhyming style. I remember reading this book as a little girl and laughing out loud at the absurdity of these creatures living in this house. Frankly I don’t think I’d mind having a Noothgrush on my toothbrush.
With a title like that, at first glance it would appear this was a hilarious mistake, but personally I doubt that very much. Though known and revered for his unique take on the English language, Seuss was in reality a quiet man of few words, preferring to let the work speak for itself. This didn’t stop him from having a very wicked sense of humour however. To ensure his editors were actually paying attention, he inserted an extra page into the manuscript of Dr Seuss’ ABC. For the letter X, a large-chested woman brandished the words
Big X, little x,
X, X, X
Some day, kiddies, you will learn about SEX.
A note scrawled in the corner read “If Bob Bernstein sees any sales problems inherent in this concept, I won’t object to substituting my alternative suggestion. Signed, T.S.G”
Another time, at an event in a large department store, Seuss grew weary of the crowd and vanished. He was found in the women’s shoe section, marking down the prices.
7. The Cat in the Hat (1957)/The Cat in the Hat Comes Back! (1958)
Doubtless the titular character is the Seuss mascot, instantly recognisable to all. Both books written to address the crippling illiteracy in young people, Seuss created a highly memorable and fun book while still managing to be educational. Too bad the movie was not.
“Hollywood is not suited to me, and I am not suited to it,” Seuss said after the disaster of The 5000 Fingers of Dr T, the only feature film of his work made in his lifetime.
Seuss himself may have known this. Sadly, Hollywood has not learned. After that trainwreck film adaptation in 2003, which I absolutely ripped to shreds, Audrey Geisel (Ted’s widow) refused to allow any more live action films of her husband’s work.
6. How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (1982)
How the Grinch Stole Christmas! One of the most iconic Christmas villains based on Seuss himself, the Grinch has ingrained himself in the holiday season.
The movie isn’t perfect, but as I’ve said before, it’s a guilty pleasure.
5. Green Eggs and Ham (1960)
As if I even need to go into much detail. If there’s anyone who hasn’t read this book I haven’t met them.
Green Eggs and Ham came around when Seuss’ publisher Bennet Cerf bet Seuss $50 that he couldn’t write a book using only 50 words. It took him a year but considering it remains one of the highest selling books ever and still has a good message about trying new things, I’d say Seuss won that bet.
If you’re wondering, the 50 words are:
A, am, and, anywhere, are, be, boat, box, car, could, dark, do, eat, eggs,fox, goat, good, green, ham, here, house, I, if, in, let, like, may, me, mouse, not, on, or, rain, Sam, say, see, so, thank, that, the, them, there, they, train, tree, try, will, with, would, you.
For the record, Bennet Cerf never paid up.
4. The Butter Battle Book (1984)
Now, I doubt many of you have ever read or even heard of this book. It was rather controversial and copies of it are very hard to find but trust me, it’s one of Seuss’ finest.
The Yooks and Zooks are fighting a terrible war….over, you guessed it, butter. The Yooks eat bread butter side up while the Zooks commit the terrible crime of eating bread with the butter side down. Gasp! Both sides despise and mistrust the other while vying to build bigger and better weapons to deter their enemy. But this ends in an unresolved climax with the leaders of both armies trying to drop highly destructive bombs on the opposite town.
As you might have figured out, the book is a not-so-subtle stab at the Cold War. The satire is obvious, as is the message. But when viewed from this perspective, we are once again reminded of how futile a lot of conflict is.
If you can manage to get a copy give this a read, watch the animated special or listen to the audio book. You’ll likely end with chills.
3. I Had Trouble in Getting to Solla Sollew (1965)
After a very bad day filled with various troubles, our unnamed protagonist is invited to move to Solla Sollew, where troubles are few. He proceeds to travel along with a variety of companions, each getting him into worse scrapes and detours as time goes on. The only thing sustaining him is the thought of finally reaching the paradise of Solla Sollew.
I read this book at the age of about eight and I still remember every bit of emotion as I turned the pages. And it has stayed with me ever since. This might not be the most original of stories. We’ve all seen road trips and travels. But it’s what Seuss does with the storytelling that makes it so powerful. Speaking of which, the ending is so perfect I will not dare spoil it for you. It has to be read to be fully appreciated.
So what are you waiting for? Get your hands on this gem and read it!
2. The Lorax (1971)
I must admit, when I first picked up The Lorax, I had my doubts. I grew up watching Captain Planet and Pocahontas, and overall I’m not exactly fond of environmental themed media. Thankfully this is a shining example of subtlety and brilliant writing, making everyone who reads it come away with an unshakeable realisation of how fragile life is. It’s a sad and grim warning of greed and misplaced priorities without pointing the finger of blame and anyone in particular. There’s no villain, just characters. The ambiguous nature and truth of the story brings people back over and over with the choices they can make. There’s no question. This book is about as flawless an environmental and morality tale as you can ever find.
And while the 2012 film adaptation isn’t as bad as Cat in the Hat, it’s definitely the one I hated the most, and for good reason.
The time has come to unveil my favourite book by my favourite author. But first, some honourable mentions.
One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish (1960)
“If you never did, you should.
These things are fun, and fun is good,”
Fox in Socks (1965)
When tweetle beetles fight, it’s called a tweetle beetle battle
And when they battle in a puddle, it’s a tweetle beetle puddle battle
Did I Ever Tell You How Lucky You Are? (1973)
“When the news is all bad, when you feel sour and blue,
When you start to get mad, you should do what I do.
Just tell yourself Duckie, you’re really quite lucky.
Some people are much more, ever so much more,
Oh muchly-much-much more unlucky than you!”
And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street (1937)*
“That can’t be my story. That’s only a start.
I’ll say that a zebra was pulling the cart!”
*Seuss’ first book, rejected by 27 publishers. He was on his way home to burn the manuscript when he ran into an old friend who worked in publishing. Seuss said if he’d walked on the other side of the street that day, he would have ended up in the dry cleaning business.
I’m very glad he didn’t.
McElligot’s Pool (1947)
“Oh the sea is so full of a number of fish.
If a fellow is patient, he MIGHT get his wish,
And that’s why I think that I’m not such a fool,
When I sit here and fish in McElligot’s pool!”
1. Oh, The Places You’ll Go! (1990)
Is it a coincidence that my favourite Dr Seuss book is the final one published in his lifetime? Probably not.
This book is a masterpiece and I will argue this til my dying day. Written in second person, the reader is the protagonist receving commentary and advice on the journey of life.
How often do you see that?
This was the farewell message Dr Seuss wanted to leave to the world. He is open and honest about the ups and downs of being human. He doesn’t shy away from reality. He is completely honest that life is not easy. Not everything turns out the way you expect or want. But at the same time, he gives a message or hope and encouragement.
The book is again very high on the all time best sellers list, with sales going up around graduation season every year. I myself used this book as the basis for my graduating recital when I finished my music theatre degree in 2014. I know people who read this book not only to their children, but to adults as well.
I’m not kidding when I say everybody needs to read this book regardless of age. It’s a masterpiece of writing. It showcases Dr Seuss’ infinite wisdom to absolute perfection. I still re-read this book whenever I’m feeling down. It always manages to give me a lift. It remains not only at the top of my list here but also on my favourite books of all time.
“On and on you will hike and I know you’ll hike far, and face up to your problems, whatever they are.”
Next week: What’s happening to Australian theatre?