Theodor Seuss Geisel, more commonly known as Dr. Seuss, was a childhood favorite of mine, and has been a household name for children around the world for decades. I fondly recall most evenings of my childhood ending lying in bed and being lulled to sleep by stories like Horton Hatches The Egg and Yurtle the Turtle, read to me by my parents. His work is timeless and classic, telling stories that all ages and generations can learn from and understand. After reading Philip Nel’s biography of Geisel, I found that my beloved Dr. Seuss was quite complex, and truly a genius. On the outside, at a glance, Dr. Seuss’ stories seem simple and innocent: full of bright, primary colors and happy characters with wacky made up names, funny clothes and rhythmic ways of speaking. However, look more closely, and you will find that there are much deeper meanings in many of his fantastical tales. In the words of Seuss’ step daughter, Lark Grey Dimond-Cates “If you sit down and read his books carefully, they have so much more to them” (Nel). Many of his children’s books have intricate underlying themes. More than just a method of teaching children a basic lesson, the messages of Dr. Seuss’ stories have political background and are representations of the views of many liberal people at the time they were written. He cleverly discusses issues such as racism, totalitarianism and environmental destruction, disguising them beneath colorful landscapes and peculiar characters.
Take The Lorax, for example. Out of anger about the treatment of the environment, Seuss drafted an idea for an environmentally friendly book. He was aiming to convey a political message, as he does in many of his children’s books, but didn’t want his book to be too “preachy” (Nel). After taking a trip to Africa with his wife, Seuss came up with a story to go around the environmentally conscious message, basing the Truffula trees on his travels and creating the character of The Lorax. The Lorax spreads his message of saving the environment, attempting to stop the stubborn Once-ler in his trail of destruction. In the end, the Lorax is forced to give up (leaving behind only the word UNLESS) as are all the other animals who once lived in the Truffula trees, and the world becomes a dark and gloomy place, where only one truffula seed remains, waiting for someone to care and change the world. The Lorax’s message is : “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not” (The Lorax, Dr. Seuss)
Many people reacted to the book. As might have been expected, there were two very strong and distinct reactions: some were overjoyed and in strong agreement, others were infuriated and could not have disagreed more. “Parents in logging communities have tried to get the book removed from school libraries and reading lists…Seuss’s The Lorax has even made the American Library Association’s annual list of challenged and banned books.” (Nel)
Author Terri Birkett was so infuriated she wrote a rebuttal to The Lorax in the form of a conservative children’s book: Truax. The story is essentially a parody of the story told in The Lorax, only this time, the Lorax, known in Birkett’s story as ‘Guardbark,’ is the misinformed and unknowledgable antagonist. The protagonist is the well informed, highly knowledgeable woodcutting worker, who has a seemingly simple solution to all of the problems that Guardbark poses. (Birkett, Truax). According to the National Oak Flooring Manufacturers Association (the publisher of the book) Truax is “Told in the style of Dr. Seuss [and] is intended to help students think about the importance of renewable resources and the responsible management of those resources” (National Wood Flooring Association). Also on their website can be found a series of activities and exercises to be done with children in a classroom setting. Teachers are asked to do things like:
- Discuss why the woodcutter thought it was reasonable and necessary to cut trees (including: his livelihood, having products for people’s use, we can renew the resources, etc.)
- Discuss why the Guardbark did not want the trees cut (include love of trees beauty, fear of having no trees, misinformation, etc.)
- Talk about the number of people who have jobs because of wood products. (National Wood Flooring Association Activity Sheet)
Truax sends a clear message that deforestation is not as bad as it seems, and that liberal environmentalists like Dr. Seuss need to understand the perspective of the hard working woodcutter.
The book is equally if not more biased than The Lorax; the bias is just coming from the opposing side. Both books are narrow and open minded in different ways, and both offer solutions to the large, complex issue of deforestation. As both books have displayed, an argument can be made for why both sides are correct, but also, why both sides are wrong.
The further argument here is, should children’s literature involve these deeper themes, or should bias be kept out of this genre? Based on this conflict in particular, I think the answer is that political bias is good and even beneficial to incorporate into children’s literature. I think it is important that children read stories like The Lorax, and I even think that it is important for children to read Truax. However, one should not be read without the other. Political bias can be present in children’s books, but both sides should be presented, allowing children to form their own thoughts and opinions. Children are potentially the best audience for this type of literature. They are generally an unbiased audience and have not yet had the time to learn stereotypes. In some ways, they are a blank slate, open to learning new things from new perspectives. However, they also solve problems in the clearest and most honest ways. This was something that Dr. Seuss knew and recognized throughout his career “I don’t write for children. I write for people.” Or, as he once told an interviewer, “I think I can communicate with kids because I don’t try to communicate with kids. Ninety percent of the children’s books patronize the child and say there’s a difference between you and me, so you listen to this story. I, for some reason or another, don’t do that. I treat the child as an equal.” (Nel)
Society has absolutely been changed by Dr. Seuss and the Lorax: both in the time it was written and published and in the world of today. The Lorax became an “icon of environmental conservation.”(Nel) and Several university groups devoted to conservation have named themselves “The Lorax”. (Dailey, Nasaw). The Lorax is a character that we can’t help but love, no matter what our political biases. He wants only what is best for the world, as all people should. The book continues to be read by readers young and old, and the recent animated production has brought the story and the purpose of The Lorax back to life, opening it’s message up to a whole new group. The message continues to have meaning, and it will for generations to come.
Works Cited and Consulted
B., Tom. “This Book Actually Exists: The Truax – A Parody of The Lorax from the National Oak Flooring Association.” Building a Library: Finding the Right Books for Your Kid (Through Trial and Error), Building A Library, 17 Sept. 2013, www.buildingalibrary.com/miscellany/this-book-actually-exists-the-truax-%E2%80%93-a-parody-of-the-lorax-from-the-national-oak-flooring-association/68.
Birkett, Terri, and Lundgren, Orren. Truax. Hardwood Forest Foundation, 1995.
Dailey, Kate and Nasaw, Daniel,. “Five Interpretations of The Lorax.” BBC News, BBC, 3 Mar. 2012, www.bbc.com/news/magazine-17224775.
“NWFA.” National Wood Flooring Association, National Wood Flooring Association, 2017, www.nwfa.org/edu-resources.aspx.
Seuss. The Lorax. HarperCollins Children’s Books, 2017.
I would like to thank Dr. Shelley Rigger and Daniel Thomas for consulting with me about my ideas for this essay.