Theodor Seuss Geisel, more commonly known as Dr. Seuss, was a childhood favorite of mine. I fondly recall most evenings of my childhood ending lying in bed and being lulled to sleep by my parents reading stories like Horton Hatches The Egg and Yurtle the Turtle. Dr. Seuss’ stories seemed to me to be straightforward, simple and innocent: full of bright, primary colors and happy characters with wacky made up names, funny clothes, and rhythmic ways of speaking. After reading Philip Nel’s biography of Geisel, I found that my beloved Dr. Seuss was actually quite a complex character with strong political views and biases, and a true genius when it came to weaving these biases into his stories. I’d learned about Seuss’ political cartoons within the past few years, but had never thought about his children’s books being so biased and opinionated.
Take The Lorax, for example. Out of anger about deforestation and the general mistreatment and destruction 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, 10) After taking a trip to Africa with his wife, Seuss created a story that sought to consciously address the environmental dilemma, creating the character of the Lorax. The Lorax persistently attempts to save the environment, endeavoring to stop the stubborn Onceler in his trail of destruction and deforestation. Throughout the story, the Lorax warns the Onceler about his careless and harmful actions, but to no avail. After much protest, the Lorax moves on to help the animals find new homes, leaving the Onceler (who represents capitalist society) to clean up the mess he made of the environment for himself. The Onceler is left dwelling alone in the dark and gloomy world he created, pondering his actions for eternity. The Lorax, a representation of Mother Nature, is not going to fix everything for people once they have destroyed it, but instead teaches people that they must learn to protect the environment from the beginning or work to clean it up themselves. The Lorax leaves behind only the word UNLESS and a single Truffula tree seed, which the Onceler saves, waiting for the day when someone will come to care about the state of the environment and change the world for the better.
I had always loved the beautiful, pristine world that Seuss had created with the help of his character, the Lorax, who stands up and speaks for the trees, and I’d hated the bleak, colorless world that the Onceler had created. The clean world in which someone cared to take care of the environment was fun and inviting, and Seuss’ happy illustrations brought this imaginary world to life. There was a reason that one world was colorful and another was dark. The environmentally conscious world full of natural beauty is much more appealing than a dark one where the environment has been ruined. The Onceler is crooked and hides away in guilt. These are not just random character traits. These characteristics are Seuss’ depiction of what will happen to people if we continue to live our lives with greed and selfishness and a complete disregard for anything other than ourselves. The story is a people’s story, appealing to all ages; even if the interpretations of the story become more in depth and distinctive as people age. At any age, The Lorax teaches an important lesson of consideration, taking only what we need and not what we want and protecting the world for future generations to enjoy.
While some more liberal-minded people were overjoyed and in strong agreement with The Lorax’s message, others were infuriated and could not have been more opposed to Seuss’ point of view. “Parents in logging communities … tried to get [The Lorax] removed from school libraries and reading lists… [and it] … even made the American Library Association’s annual list of challenged and banned books.” (Nel, 10)
Author Terri Birkett, “an active member of the hardwood flooring industry” (Birkett, 12) was so infuriated she wrote a rebuttal to The Lorax in the form of a conservative-minded children’s book: Truax. Truax 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 unreasonable 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). The woodcutter is peacefully working one day when he is suddenly interrupted by an ugly and conniving creature, Guardbark, who takes great issue with the hard-working man’s actions. He attempts to defend the trees and the forest, but his thoughts are always made invalid by the words of the woodcutter. The worker explains that there is land set aside for the animals that are losing their original homes, and is glad to see some of the more irksome of these animals go away and die off. In the end, Guardbark’s issue is left unresolved, yet he is seemingly convinced by the wise words of the woodcutter, and leaves to let him continue his work.
The book was published by the National Oak Flooring Manufacturers Association (NOFMA), an organization that has clearly biased views: The Lorax takes issue with deforestation, while NOFMA relies on such practices for profit. NOFMA defends Truax’s purpose and educational value, stating on their website that it “is intended to help students think about the importance of renewable resources and the responsible management of those resources” (NOFMA). 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. ” (NOFMA Activity Sheet)
Truax’s message is 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 obviously biased than The Lorax. Birkett neglects to consider all potential audiences, most of all the one that The Lorax specifically catered to: children. The book is much more geared towards adults. This weakens her argument. Truax’s illustrations don’t come close to Dr. Seuss’ level, and even the woodcutter’s world that we are meant to want to enter is ugly and dull. The Lorax is much more loveable than Guardbark, an ironically named character. The name Guardbark implies that the character guards the trees from harm, but even from the beginning, this character is nothing but a failure, unable to compete with the worker. Guardbark, the environmentalist, cannot live up to his name or defend his opinions with evidence. But it is even hard to take the woodcutter seriously at certain points in the story. In Truax, the worker is ok with the idea of animals dying, and finds that designating areas for animals to live is better than keeping them in their natural habitats. The woodcutter’s arguments seem less and less valid as the story goes on, and the quality of the book overall makes it hard to compare to The Lorax.
Children are potentially the best audience for this type of literature, as they are generally an unbiased audience and have not yet had the time to learn stereotypes. They also solve problems in the clearest and most honest ways. This was something that Dr. Seuss knew and recognized throughout his career. As quoted in Philip Nel’s biography, “I don’t write for children. I write for people” (Seuss). 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.” (Seuss)
The Lorax became an “icon of environmental conservation.”(Nel) and several university groups devoted to conservation have named themselves “The Lorax”. (Dailey, Nasaw). 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: “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.” (The Lorax, p. 58, Dr. Seuss)
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, Dr. Suzanne Churchill and Daniel Thomas for consulting with me about my ideas for this essay.