Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Oh the Places He Took Us!

I wanted to being my post in honour of Dr. Seuss' birthday (March 2) with some witty remarks in verse, but I found that nothing sufficiently droll and “Seuss-ian” came to mind. This of course reminded me, how the great Theodore Geisel AKA Dr. Seuss would have probably been able to produce something fun, clever and delightful in no time flat (or maybe longer, after all these things can take time even for genii).

After all, the good doctor produced some of the best children’s books ever. Books which can appeal to adults too (even to some of you lifelong adults if you stop looking down your noses at anything which is ostensibly targeted to people over twenty). Like all good children’s books, Dr. Seuss’ works transcend the boundaries of the genre, and like most true classics, they are engrained in our psyches.

Even if you haven’t heard of Dr. Seuss, surely the phrase “the Cat in the Hat” sounds familiar to you. And even if you’ve never seen green eggs and ham, you know they exist somewhere. And if someone says you’re a Grinch at Christmas, you might give them the stink eye because you know that’s not a nice thing to be. This is because Seuss’ over sixty children’s books, which feature these and many other unforgettable images, are all a permanent part of the literary landscape.

For me, his work captured my interest from an early age because it was just crazy fun. I liked reading The Cat in the Hat to my sister because it was the story of a six foot cat causing mayhem in two children’s lives. I like his Green Eggs and Ham because it features determined little salesman Sam-I-Am who is striving to get his finicky friend to eat his oddly coloured breakfast food.

Seuss’ use of words is lovely and fun too. I liked reading the books because they were fun to say out loud. A fun but creepy character called the Glunk was “greenish, not too cleanish and he sort of had bad breath”. At one point in the How the Grinch Stole Christmas, the Grinch “got an idea! An awful idea! The Grinch got a wonderful, awful idea!” So fun.

Of course, Seuss would not be Seuss without the doctor’s trademark illustrations. The scratchy drawings, the lopsided trees and buildings; the interesting but sometimes faintly menacing villains; the really weird names and objects (e.g. Whos; The Lorax and some place called Solla Sollew.) Dr. Seuss' narrative is nothing without his drawings.

The really amazing thing is that even while getting carried away with Seuss’ stories, the lessons to be learned from them were apparent and invariably cleverly done. There were simple lessons like trying something before you decide you don’t like it (Green Eggs and Ham) and bigger lessons like the importance of life “no matter how small” (Horton Hears A Who) and the meaning of Christmas (how else did the Grinch’s heart grow three sizes that day?) With stories so deceptively simple and so simply told, it is amazing how affecting they can be. I am yet to read The Butter Battle Book


but the TV adaptation (a faithful one, according to Dr. Seuss) depicts two warring nations of creatures each bent on defeating the other side by creating bigger and bigger weapons. In the end, there is a stalemate as each group debates whether to drop their identical bombs and wipe out everyone. Anti- war propaganda some said; the basic ingredients of war I say: what it all comes down to in the end - all in a book supposedly for kids.

Not every Dr. Seuss adaptation is as well done (shudder with me as I point toward the movies for The Grinch and the Cat in the Hat), but I’ve heard good things about last year’s Horton Hears a Who which I will eventually see. Special mention must be made of animated short of How the Grinch Stole Christmas – the ultimate Christmas classic. Directed and produced by uber genius Chuck Jones, this is quality stuff, and definitely complements and enhances the book with narration and voices by Boris Karloff and the famous “You’re a Mean One, Mr Grinch” song. I can’t be the only one who has to watch this at least once during the Christmas season, and the animation when the Grinch gets his awful idea is pure wicked delight. Again Dr. Seuss has woven a golden thread into my childhood quilt of memories. Thank you sir!

The good doctor was eighty-seven when he died in 1991, and I think he went way too soon. Like any good poet, he wove pictures with words and produced an unforgettable weird, crazy mix which charmed and delighted and was never overly cutesy. I think his contribution to literacy is invaluable. I think his themes were timeless. I think his "wordsmithery" was genius, and he deserves his place in the hall of great poets in my opinion whether it be Keats, Wordsworth, Milton and the like.

Find out more about some of the books I mentioned

How the Grinch Stole Christmas!

The Cat in the Hat

The Butter Battle Book

Green Eggs and Ham

Horton Hears A Who