For a number of years I spent my days in a school library and working on an early literacy project with children from Junior Kindergarten to Grade Two. In later years I worked with three year olds who were identified as “at risk”: either developmentally or psycho-socially. Our focus was to help develop readiness for learning as they prepared for school. I reflect back on that time with great fondness, kick myself some days for not re-immersing myself with some new kids who need a little push and still cannot walk past a bookstore without checking out the Children’s section. My girls are long past the days of bedtime stories but it is a memory I hold very dear and I believe it helped shape them into the brilliant young women they are today.
There is a profound gift in the ability to read, it opens the world to you in ways you could never have imagined. The developing minds of our very young children are now, more than ever before, in over-drive for stimulation with the computer age. It is perhaps harder than ever to nurture a young reader. It is proven that there is a positive correlation between reading for pleasure and future academic achievement. It is also proven that if a person dislikes reading in their childhood, they are far less likely to engage in reading as a pleasurable leisure activity as an adult. The seeds of learning must be planted when they are very young.
And so it is without hesitation that I am writing today to honour the birthday of perhaps the greatest children’s author and illustrator, the beloved Dr. Seuss. His birthday was March2, 1904 and he lived a long and full life, producing 44 books for children and a tremendous amount of work in political and societal pieces designed for the adult reader. Of course the genre varied but his messages were strong in both juvenile and adult formats, powerful reflections on a great variety of social and political issues.
Dr. Seuss was actually named Theodor Seuss Geisel at birth. It is said that when he got into some trouble in university during Prohibition years for having alcohol in his college dorm room, he was banned from working on the school newsletters and publishing in the school paper. He switched his pen name to Seuss, his mothers’ maiden name and ‘kept on writing. At some point the Dr. was included. He had no children and perhaps that was his magic. He wrote less like a father and more like a friend, a co-conspirator and a mentor, without ever being authoritarian or condescending. His books made reading and listening to them being read fun. He travelled the world and brought his perspective to everything he wrote. His first book, “ And to think I saw it on Mulberry Street” was rejected by some accounts by more than 40 publishers. Thank goodness for his tenacity and conviction to keep submitting. His poetry and rhyme entertained and delighted children and adults a like. Simple and brilliant, just like his line in Oh the Places You’ll Go .
Think and Wonder.
Wonder and Think.
During the first two years of World War II, Dr. Seuss produced over 400 political cartoons. Amongst other things he heavily criticized racism at home in the USA against Jewish and Black people, disparaged the Congress, particularly the Republicans and vilified Hitler and Mussolini. He was terribly hard on the Japanese but some say he reflected greatly on this position and in later years sought to apologize for that. After the war he seemed to devote himself entirely to improving literacy in children.
In 1954 Life magazine published an article about illiteracy in school children. The report suggested that kids couldn’t read well because there were not books they wanted to read available, in essence, children’s literature was limited and boring.
A director of education at a publishing house named William Spaulding was concerned and forward thinking enough about this to try a new tactic. He developed a list of 348 words that he thought a child in first grade should be able to identify. He then went to Dr. Seuss and asked him to create a book with 250 words from that list and only those words. He asked that the book captivate kids enough that they would want to read it again and again. Nine months and 236 words later The Cat In The Hat was ready for beginning readers to enjoy. The drawings were captivating, the rhyming was fun, the vocabulary was understandable and recognizable to emergent readers and the story was delightful. That book still outsells many newly published children’s books today.
There is a message in many of Dr.Seuss ‘s books if you care to examine them more deeply. Here are just a few for consideration. The Sneetches , written in 1961 was about racial equality. Yertle the Turtle written in 1958 was about Hitler and anti-authoritarianism. Of ‘course most of us recognize that materialism and consumerism were the critical reflections in How the Grinch Stole Christmas and that was in 1957!
My favourite of all would have to be The Lorax. It was written in 1971 but perhaps it is more timely now than ever it has been before. Living in British Columbia where forestry is huge might make it less popular here I suppose, It is not just about those Trufulla trees however, it is about environmentalism and anti-consumerism, about the stuff that really matters most. I cannot help but see so many present day examples of the “ Once-ler” who kept “biggering his business”. If you haven’t read it, you really must… here’s a bit to hold you…
Now all that was left ‘neath the bad-smelling sky
was my big empty factory…
The Lorax said nothing
Just gave me a glance,
just gave me a very sad, sad backward glance,
as he lifted himself by the seat of his pants.
And I’ll never forget the grim look on his face
when he hoisted himself and took leave of this place,
through a hole in the smog, without leaving a trace.
And all that the Lorax left here in this mess
was a small pile of rocks with the one word:
Whatever that meant . . . well, I just couldn’t guess.