I read a lot of children’s books. Some are terrible, many are decent, and a few are truly wonderful. Most authors don’t have the staying power to slot multiple entries in all three categories while achieving worldwide fame and fortune; in fact, Dr. Seuss is the only one that comes to mind.
His characters are ubiquitous without being stifling. Think of how rare a combination that is! How many times have you daydreamed about stuffing Dora into a sack with a few heavy rocks and tossing the whole bundle into a river? Just how many Minions could you shank, if I handed you a screwdriver and put two minutes on the clock? How delightful would it be to push Eeyore off a building just to listen as his depressive mutterings fade to silence?
Whereas in my family, we have a dozen Seuss books in the house and reread them constantly. We watch the Cat in the Hat TV show. We own the board game and the flash cards. And I’m sure there’s a stuffed animal or five hidden under some clutter in the kids’ rooms. My 2-year-old son spots that candy-cane top hat in the wild wherever we go and jabs a finger in the air as he shouts a glorious discovery. We are Seussed up the wazoo, as are all of the Doodles in Greater Blazoo, but a bonfire of Hortons never seems a good thing to do.
Last week brought a new entry in his bibliography, nearly 24 years after his death. It’s called What Pet Should I Get, and it’s essentially Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman for the chocolate-milk set. According to the official story, Seuss’s widow was cleaning out his office a couple years back, found a box full of black and white sketches covered in text, and picked up the phone. And that’s how Person Who Makes Cool Shit gets transformed into Person Who Makes Cool Shit Enterprises. Corporations are people too, y’know, but unlike people, corporations don’t die. The first press run for this thing is one million units.
So what puts this guy’s work in the same artistic (and commercial!) class as Atticus Finch and Christian Grey? Is every last book worthy of the bedtime pantheon? Here, now, a guide to the good doctor’s highlights and lowlights.
Mr. Brown Can Moo! Can You?
Mr. Brown is the happiest bloke on the block. Know why? Because he can talk to the animals! Sure, he can moo like any idiot driving past a farm, but he can also make the sounds of a goldfish kiss (pip) and of a hippopotamus chewing gum (grum grum grum). Mr. Brown has soul. He daren’t even open his eyes, the spirit moves him so. Look at him there, eeking like a squeaky shoe, blurping like a horn, throwing his whole body into choo-chooing like a train. Boom, boom, boom! Mr. Brown is a wonder! Boom, boom, boom! Mr. Brown makes thunder!
If that content doesn’t sell you, consider its applications to your own life. When my daughter was young, thunderstorms weren’t scary—they were just Mr. Brown gettin’ down. When there was a tad too much squealing around the house, we all took turns whispering like butterflies. And knock-knocking like a hand on a door is a nice warning when Mommy and Daddy manage to steal a few minutes of Alone Time. Plus, it’s great fun to moo like an idiot. Try it!
The Cat in the Hat
The most beloved, most enduring Seussian literary invention. And while this book is ultimately responsible for those grown men who wander around wearing Thing Two T-shirts, its charms far outweigh such asshatery.
The setup is perfect: a rainy day with nothing to do. When I was a kid, a rainy day felt like prison; now that I’m a parent, I’d rather spend a rainy day in a real prison than be trapped in a house with my kids. The hero, meanwhile, is perfect. It could never be a dog. A dog follows orders. A cat, though, does what it wants, no matter the verbal abuse it suffers from a bossy fish. Cats are also pretty good at wrecking houses. The only thing I don’t like about this book are the handful of pictures of the cat, sans hat: It’s unsettling. It reminds me of Abraham Lincoln without the beard.
How the Grinch Stole Christmas
I feel for the Grinch. I really do. Stuck up there, alone in his cave, with only a dopey dog for company. Maybe it’s not Eeyore I want to push off a building so much as myself. Anyhow, what a magical premise, to steal Christmas from those who love it the most. Hear that, Bill O’Reilly? The subversion of Santy Claus into an evil-hearted thief is shocking to kids, in a delightful sort of way. It’s all play-acting, but still so bad.
What makes the book for me are the little details. The way the Grinch tucks his hands into his, uh, pockets as he glowers from his cave. The way the dog looks with one antler tied to the top of his head. The way the Grinch steals everything in Cindy-Lou Who’s house, including the log from the fireplace, as he escapes up the chimbley. The way Jim Carrey is not involved in this version in any way.
A lot of people can’t stand Dr. Seuss because of books like this: the ones with morals. These are the same people who moan about political correctness and forward Ron Paul’s policy rants to your inbox. To be fair, the environmental moral here is not subtle, but neither is the weather lately. This is basically Mad Max: Fury Road, but instead of pining for water, everyone’s mourning the loss of Truffula trees and Brown Bar-ba-loots. Don’t let your babies grow up to be Once-lers. Oh, and avoid this movie, too.
There’s a Wocket in My Pocket
Here we reach the inevitable limit of rhyming made-up words. A boy leads us on a Cribs-style tour of his house, noting the packed roster of Seussian creatures living in the sink and the lamp and behind the curtain and on the steps and under the rug and in the cellar, among lots of other places. Some are friendly, some are not. Others are scary, and one in particular seems quite pretentious.
There’s a Yot in the pot and a Findow in the window and Zower in the shower. Yes, it brings a little pizzazz to the standard exercise of teaching kids the names of various household objects. But you see what I mean. Give this one to the, uh, Frash hanging around outside. I don’t have to tell you where where to find him.
Fox in Socks
Take a look at this smirking motherfucker on the cover. He knows you hate him. But he knows that when your bright-eyed little munchkin toddles over to you with this one, you have no choice. And he also knows that halfway through this damn thing you won’t just be tongue-tied, won’t just be mixed and muddled, won’t just be gasping for breath, but be entirely verbally wiped, a tabla rasa of language, unable to remember the proper pronunciation of sew—does it rhyme with Sue or Joe? And that’s even before the Goo-Goose begins chewy chewing blue goo, before Bim and Ben bend and break their brooms, before Luke Luck and his duck lick the lakes they like so much, and before the tweetle beetles battle in a puddle with paddles in a bottle. As much as I can’t stand this book, I have to hand it to Dr. Seuss for the most successful read-aloud trolling of all time. I like to imagine his ghostly spirit over my shoulder, cackling with glee every time I sit down with Mr. Fox.
Happy Birthday to You!
If you buy this for new parents, fuck you.
In the land of Katroo, the Great Birthday Bird kidnaps you on your day of all days to feast and to gloat, to indulge and to frolic, in a celebration that could never be equalled here on plain ol’ Earth, so don’t even try. By my count, the cake on the front cover bears six candles, and no child younger than that age is going to sit through this sprawling, unfocused mess. But new parents, being unfocused, sprawling messes themselves, will latch onto sentimental cues as signposts for child-rearing, and as soon as they have enough sleep to string together consecutive wakeful moments that aren’t meant for the base level of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, a little tug of memory will draw their attention to the bookshelf, and they’ll see this present you bought to celebrate the birth of their baby. A warm feeling of love will envelope them as they reach for the book, a feeling that will drain quickly away as they read, and the next time you see them, their face will darken and a curse will pass their lips.
Oh, the Places You’ll Go!
If you buy this for a graduate, fuck you.
Here’s a short list of presents a graduate would rather receive: a box of condoms, a bottle of whiskey, a car. This is true for high school, college, or even kindergarten graduates. The lead selling point of What Pet Should I Get is that it replaces this book as Seuss’s last original work. It’s a Horatio Alger tale about the wide world of possibilities available to someone like you, with brains in your head and feet in your shoes. You’ll top all the rest, except when you don’t, and that’s okay, because slumps happen to everyone. Sometimes you’ll be alone and confused and scared, listening to the howls of Hakken-Kraks. But you’ll turn things around if you step with great care, and in the end you’ll succeed, 98 and ¾ percent guaranteed.)
It’s a nice sentiment. But here’s the reality: You’re not going anyplace special, because the world doesn’t care about you. Where you are going is: into bankruptcy, crushed under mountains of student debt. Into a short stint of cultural-disaster tourism via Teach for America, where your idealism will be beaten out of you by the unsolvable problems of modern society. Into New Associate training at Walmart, because no one wants to hire an English major. Into your parents’ basement, scene of your great, serial rebellions those few short years ago, to write poetry and long for a chance to earn enough wealth to pay rent on a studio apartment with a view of the air shaft. Into the no-attachments, cutthroat world of Tinder hookups, hoping for a brief encounter with someone who cares about or at least remotely shares your own buried emotions. It’s all one long slump until the end.
The best you can hope for is a careful hand to sift through your papers after you’re gone, someone to notice the unseen lines of verse that really weren’t all that bad, actually. Someone to publish a posthumous collection, the exhumed corpse of your meager life’s work finally seeing the light of day, the release date in 2025 or whatever, unluckily coinciding with the unveiling of Harper Lee’s recently unearthed Go Set a Watchmen prequel. So it goes.
Geoffrey Redick is a freelance writer and radio producer. He lives in Memphis. He’s on Twitter.
Illustration by Jim Cooke.
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