Dr. Seuss – Not As Silly As You Think

I am still currently employed as a preschool teacher, and as one might expect, that comes with a bit of Dr. Seuss reading. Over the past year, I’ve found some interesting themes in his books that I really don’t know are the best.

Now, don’t get me wrong, the man was a fantastic author, and his books are largely beneficial to children, but there do exist some underlying themes that might turn problematic in the long run.

Take The Cat in the Hat as our first example. This book is a masterpiece of beginner literature. Seuss took a list of beginner words which he was told every first grader should know (accounts vary on the actual size of this list) and he took 236 of these words and put them all into a masterful rhyme and meter that was an instant classic.

However, the entire premise of the book is allowing a strange person (or cat) into their house to play games. It can be argued that this was all in the kids’ imaginations, or that the Cat was an old friend of theirs, but still, it says their mother was out for the day, and then this cat comes in and destroys the house, breaks all their rules, and doesn’t listen to the one voice of reason in the book (the fish). As I write this, I also want to point out that even if they knew the cat, it’s a problem. Yes, teach your kids to be wary of strangers, but also be wary of people you know. 90% of abused children are abused by someone they know, love, or trust.

This isn’t the worst, since as I said before, it’s likely this was just an interpretation of a child’s imagination on a rainy day, and the cat left with a message of always cleaning up his mess, so I’ll give it a pass, even if it’s questionable.

The real issue I have is with the book Green Eggs and Ham. This is a book with the predominant theme of trying new foods because you never know what you’re going to like. And that’s an important theme. Working with kids, I’ve used this book countless times to convince 2 and 3-year-olds to try the food they didn’t want to try. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. (side note: this book is another masterpiece. Seuss wrote it on a bet that he couldn’t write a meaningful children’s book with only 50 words. Go ahead and count, there are exactly 50 unique words in the book.) The problem though, is how the book gets this  message across.

Sam-I-Am relentlessly hounds the nameless character until he finally gives in. He chases him over hills, through a house, on a train, through a tunnel, endlessly until their train crashes into a lake and nameless finally succumbs to Sam-I-Am’s wishes that he try the food. While trying to get kids to try new food is an important message, they should also be taught from a very young age that no means no. I highly doubt any research exists on this, but I don’t think it’s entirely implausible that this book has had some effect on our society’s current problem with rape culture.

Sam-I-Am does not take no for an answer. And while the persistence is definitely not the predominant theme, or even highlighted as an underlying theme, it’s there. It’s indirectly showing kids that if you ask again and again and again and again that eventually the other person will give in. Saying no once should be enough in any situation. Granted, for young children it’s a bit different if they’re saying no to bedtime or to washing their hands or cleaning up, but when interacting with their peers, saying no once should be enough. This book depicts two peers, one of whom is saying no over and over, and one of whom that will just not give up until he gets his way. Definitely a poor message. Especially when I’m also trying to teach these same kids that they are allowed to say “no” when their friends ask for something they’re not done with yet.

Obviously, I don’t think Dr. Seuss meant any harm in writing this, and it definitely never occurred to me until I started reading it almost every day, but that doesn’t change that the problem exists. I’m not calling for a ban on Dr. Seuss books. I think they’re wonderful, wacky, and fun for kids, and promote early reading like no other author I’ve encountered can. But at the same time, if you are a parent or an educator, I think it’s key that you recognize these themes, however innocent they appear at first, do exist, and should be addressed accordingly with your child when they are old enough to understand.

Or maybe I’m just reading way too much into children’s books. Such is life with an English degree.

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