Political Messages In Dr Seuss Childrens Books English Literature Essay
Theodore Seuss Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss, is one of the greatest children’s authors in history. Dr. Seuss’s books are notorious for colorful illustrations of animal like people and the use of rhyming verse. Not only did Dr. Seuss create excitement for children in regards to reading, he also placed hidden political agendas in many of his children’s books. He felt that a person did not need to be an adult to understand the issues facing the world. Dr. Seuss used the stories he wrote such as The Lorax, Yertle the Turtle, and the Butter Battle Book to send messages to children and adults about environmental ruin, greed, conformity, the arms race, and civic instruction.
“Children and adults, Seuss suggests, should use the ability to think creatively, participate in the world, learn from it, and when necessary, do what they can to make the world better” (Nel). Theodore Seuss Geisel, born in 1904, to Theodor Geisel and Henrietta Seuss Geisel lived and worked by his words (The Political Dr. Seuss). Much of his inspiration and discipline came from his parents. Ted’s mother, Henrietta, sang rhymes to her children to help them fall asleep (All About Dr. Seuss). Ted felt his mother was the main reason he had the ability and desire to make rhymes, which led to his success (All About Dr. Seuss). Ted was quoted as saying, “More than anyone else, my mother was responsible for the rhymes in which I write and the urgency with which I do it” (Morgan 7). In regards to his father, Ted said, “My father was an inspiration. Whatever you do, he taught me, do it to perfection” (Morgan 7). Each parent had their influence toward Ted’s career, his father encouraged his drawing, but his mother nurtured his love of words (Morgan 14).
Ted Geisel attended Dartmouth College where he became the editor in chief of Jack-O-Lantern, Dartmouth’s humor magazine (Dr. Seuss Biography). Ted was caught drinking at Dartmouth, which was against school policy, and was removed as editor in chief. However, he continued to contribute to the magazine using a pen name, “Seuss.” This was the first time he used his middle name, which was his mother’s maiden name to sign his work (All About Dr. Seuss). After graduating from Dartmouth, Ted attended Oxford University, to study to become a literature professor (Dr. Seuss Biography). Bored in his class, Anglo-Saxon for Beginners, he was seen doodling on his paper by another student, Helen Palmer. She liked his drawings and suggested he should be an artist instead of a professor. After college Helen and Ted married and moved to New York City, where he began his career as a political cartoonist (Independent Lens).
While in New York, Ted worked as a political cartoonist for a left-wing daily newspaper called PM (The Political Dr. Seuss). During his time with PM, his cartoons criticized topics such as isolationism, racism, anti-Semitism, Hitler, Mussolini and the Japanese. The cartoons that he drew for PM magazine later influenced his political messages in his literature. His political cartoons urged his audiences to ask questions instead of just accepting answers. They attempt to teach the idea that even the smallest person can speak up and make a difference (Nel). After he became an author, Seuss thought it was worth trying to change the world by including messages in his books. That is why he wrote The Lorax, Yyertle the Turtle, and The Butter Battle Book. However, he wrote The Cat in the Hat and other beginner books because he felt it was important for children to learn to read. Before they could take on the thinking that his books promoted, they first needed to be able to read (Nel).
Ted was one of the first writers to give equal importance between text and illustrations (Morgan 84). He is quoted as saying, “I began thinking that words and pictures married, might possibly produce a progeny more interesting than either parent” (Independent Lens). His creativity allowed him to use puns, hyperboles, chiasms which are reversal of word order: “I meant what I said and I said what I meant” (Democracy in America: By Dr. Seuss Essay). Dr. Seuss linked his political cartoons by allowing the characters which first emerged in his cartoons to make appearances in his books (The Political Dr. Seuss). Many people mistakenly believe he is only a writer of children’s books that speak of nonsense which engages only a child’s mind. However, Seuss’ genius lies in the fact that he writes with humor; many people do not realize that he is in fact sending political messages (Independent Lens). Several of his books creatively send hidden messages to his readers. These books include, The Lorax, The Sneetches, The Butter Battle Book, and Yertle the Turtle.
Dr. Seuss’ favorite book, The Lorax, dealt with topics such as environmental ruin, greed, pollution, and industrialization (San Diego Museum of Art). This book found an important place in history. It was published in the 1970’s during a crucial time when environmentalists began to speak up about the destruction happening in the world. In The Lorax, Dr. Seuss used his gift of illustration and rhyme to paint a scene of ecological disaster that results from greed.
In the beginning of the book, The Lorax, the scene is illustrated as dark and dreary, the colors used are muted and gray, and environmental destruction is evident. The story is told from the point of view of a character named Once-ler. The only part of the Once-ler visible to the reader is his hands and beady eyes. This allows the reader to imagine a horrible creature whose hands destroy all that is good. The Once-ler agrees to tell the story of the Lorax and how he was lifted away. Greed is an obvious characteristic of the Once-ler, because he will only tell the story “if you’re willing to pay” (The Lorax ). The Once-ler begins the tale of how all was destroyed by first describing the beauty that used to be, “…the grass was still green, and the pond was still wet, and the clouds were still clean. One morning, I came to this glorious place. And I first saw the trees! The bright-colored tufts of the Truffula Trees” (The Lorax ). In addition to the trees he describes the Swomee Swans singing in the sky, and the “Brown Bar-ba-loots frisking about in their Bar-ba-loot suits, eating the Truffula fruits” (The Lorax ). The colors in the illustrations which were formerly muted, were now bright and cheerful, showing the beauty and joy in the environment. The Once-ler was immediately entranced by the smell and silky feel of the Truffula Trees. This inspired him to make Thneeds out of the Truffula silk.
The Once-ler’s first acts of devastation occurred when he built a shop, chopped down a Truffula tree, and knitted a Thneed from its silk. Just as he finished knitting, a creature popped out of the stump. He said, “I am the Lorax, I speak for the Trees. I speak for the trees, for the trees have no tongues” (The Lorax ). Dr. Seuss was once again clever with his illustrations, drawing a resemblance between the Lorax and President Theodore Roosevelt, who was remembered for preserving millions of acres of National Forest. The Once-ler replies to Lorax that there is no cause for alarm, it is only one tree. He claims to be useful by making a Thneed, “A Fine-Something-That-All-People-Need” (Lorax ). He claims that a Thneed can be anything a person could need, but actually a Thneed is a senseless product. This shows the foolishness of consumers who carelessly buy useless products. The Lorax tries to enlighten the Once-ler about making a product no one would want or need. However, just as he is trying to get his point across, a consumer pulls up and buys the Thneed. This fuels mass production, which feeds the Once-ler’s, who represents big business, greed. The Once-ler’s relatives come to help produce more Thneeds. Truffula trees need to be cut down faster to keep up with the production of Thneeds. To produce more Thneeds, the Once-ler invents a Super-Axe Hacker to chops down four trees at a time. Dr. Seuss uses this as an example of increasing destruction of the environment and natural resources. The Lorax tries to explain to the Once-ler that his actions have forced the Barb-ba-loots to leave because there is not enough Truffula fruit to feed them all. The Once-ler did feel bad, for a moment, as he watched the Bar-ba-loots go, “But…business is business! And business must grow. I went right on biggering…selling more Thneeds. And I biggered my money, which everyone needs” (Lorax 37). Again, this shows corporate and personal greed at the expense of others.
Dr. Seuss was using the Once-ler, the production of Thneeds, and the increasing lure of money to represent an American view of business. The idea that Americans feel that resources are at an endless supply is as true today as it was in 1971 when Dr. Seuss wrote The Lorax. Economic growth is a measurement of success and prosperity, even at the expense of the environment. “Most Americans would agree that bigger is better and what is good for business is good for America” (MacDonald).
The quest for mass production to create more money left one Truffula tree standing. The Once-ler did not stop to take notice of the destruction he caused and chopped down the last Truffula tree. With no Truffula trees left to make Thneeds, the Once-ler’s family left, the Lorax lifted himself away, and the Once-ler was left alone with the devastation he caused. Once again, Dr. Seuss leaves the reader with muted, gray illustrations to emphasize the bleakness and destruction the Once-ler caused. The only thing left standing was a pile of rocks with the words “UNLESS” printed on them. In the end, the Once-ler tells the little boy listening to the story, “UNLESS someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not” (Lorax 58). The Once-ler calls to the little boy to catch the seed he lets fall, “Catch! It’s a Truffula seed. It’s the last one of all! You’re in charge of the last of the Truffula Seeds. And Truffula Trees are what everyone needs. Plant a new Truffula. Treat it with care. Give it clean water. And feed it fresh air. Grow a forest. Protect it from axes that hack. Then the Lorax and all of his friends may come back” (Lorax ). Dr. Seuss leaves both his young and old readers with the idea that there is still hope. They must stand up for our environment and protect it from big business. The last page of the Lorax is left blank, to ask the reader to imagine what is in the future.
The Lorax deals with many important issues. The most obvious are environmentalism and protecting our natural resources. The message Dr. Seuss strongly relates is that factories cause pollution of air, water, land and kill the animals living nearby. The use of color is a strong symbolism in depicting the correlation between factories and the environment. In the beginning of the story, there is no factory, and the colors used were bright and cheerful. As the factory gets bigger, the colors become darker and more morose. Dr. Seuss uses a child as the savior in the book. He is showing children that they have power to take a stand against greed, big business, and environmental ruin. Dr. Seuss uses the word, UNLESS, to show children that the future of the planet is in their hands.
Twelve years after The Lorax was published, Ted was bothered by another issue, the mounting cold war with the Soviet Union. The rising tensions between the Soviet Union and the United States, caused the United States, under the leadership of Ronald Reagan, to begin making defensive weapons called the MX missile and the Star Wars Program (Lopez). In 1984, Ted Geisel wrote The Butter Battle Book, which ridicules the arms race during the cold war (Lopez). The book’s message was so effective that a controversy ensued causing it to be removed from library shelves (Conradt). He was quoted as saying, “I’m not anti-military. I’m just anti-crazy. We did the same thing in WWI and WWII. Why can’t we learn?” (Morgan 249). Dr Seuss, through the use of story line, rhyme, character, and illustrations, dissects the ridiculous reasons countries go to war.
The Butter Battle Book explores the concept of a battle that goes on between two groups of people, the Yooks and the Zooks. Ted Geisel used his artistic talents and background in political cartooning to differentiate the Yooks from the Zooks. The Yooks are illustrated as dressed in blue clothes to represent the Americans, while the Zooks are dressed in red, which symbolizes communism, to represent Russia. The Yooks and the Zooks are fighting over which side of the bread the butter goes on. The Yooks think the butter should be on the top of the bread, while the Zooks are adamant that bread should be butter on the bottom. The use and simplicity of something as common as bread and butter points out to the reader the tension between the United States and Russia and the dangerous game of one up-man-ship in attaining weapons.
Dividing the Yooks and the Zooks is a wall illustrated to resemble the Great Wall of China. This wall symbolizes the Berlin Wall which separated the people of East and West Germany (MacDonald). The wall dividing the Yooks and the Zooks represents any wall that divides people, literally or figuratively. Just like the Yooks and the Zooks in The Butter Battle Book, these walls lead to discrimination.
The Butter Battle Books begins with a Yook grandfather telling his grandson the story of how the war began. In the beginning, the wall dividing the Yooks and the Zooks was low. The Yooks and Zooks each defended their sides with slingshots. As the years went by, each side increased their technology to create bigger, stronger weapons to defend themselves, and the wall grew higher. This increase in power of the weapons reminds the reader of the arms race between Russia and the United States. In the book, and in the real life arms race, neither side ever fires a weapon. The scare tactics became the most effective weapon (MacDonald). Dr. Seuss tells the story from one side, the Yooks side, which is the American point of view. This is to show that both the Americans and the Russians only saw one point of view. Each country was rich with propaganda, fueling the arms race.
The grandfather Yook tells his grandson about how they came to get bigger and more powerful weapons, culminating in the weapon called the Bitsy Bit-Boy Boomeroo. This weapon, the Bitsy Bit-Boy Boomeroo is only a small pellet, but is capable of blowing up all of the Zooks. This important part of the story is told in a way to remind the reader of the atomic bomb. The grandfather explains that he has been chosen to deliver the Bitsy Bit-Boy Boomeroo to the other side. The Yooks are sent underground to be safe from the effects of the Bitsy Bit-Boy Boomeroo. Again, this is to remind the reader of the fall- out shelters in which Americans built to protect themselves from nuclear weapons. The grandson does not leave to go to a shelter, instead stays to watch the grandfather fire the weapon onto the Zooks. The grandfather then climbs the wall to drop the weapon on the Zooks, but on the other side the Zook is holding the same weapon, ready to fire it onto the Yooks. The Yooks and the Zooks are illustrated to be indistinguishable from one another. This is another way Dr. Seuss used symbolism to make his statement that the Americans and Russians are all people, and thus, should not destroy each other. The Yooks and Zooks each pause and are shocked to see the destruction they are about to inflict on one another. This entire book shows “escalating competition of mutual threat and weaponry until the two sides are poised with identical bombs which could destroy everyone” (Wolosky). The grandson asks his grandfather, “Who’s going to drop it? Will you…? Or will he…?” The grandfather replies, “Be patient. We’ll see… We will see!” (Butter Battle Book). The book ends without a conclusion. Just like in The Lorax, the final page is left blank for the reader to decide the fate of the Zooks, the Russians, and the Yooks, the Americans. Is this final page an indication of total destruction and nuclear fall-out, or is it an indication that the reader is to fill with his own vision of the end? (MacDonald). Dr. Seuss is sending a message that the end is not written. It is up to the people of United States and Russia to end the insanity or not.
Another story written by Dr. Seuss about war is Yertle the Turtle. This was the first of Dr. Seuss’ book to have a political message (Lopez). This story is a representation of Hitler and the Nazi Regime during World War II (The Political Dr. Seuss). The main character in the story is Yertle, who is shown as a dictator. He is the king of his pond. In the beginning the pond is clean, and there was plenty for the turtles to eat. All the turtles in the pond were happy, except Yertle. He feels that his pond is too small and not good enough for him. Yertle thinks that he can only rule all that he can see, so he demands the turtles of the pond to climb atop one another and make a turtle stack. Then, he can climb up on top of the turtle stack and see further, therefore be king of more.
The turtles on the bottom of the stack begin to feel pain. A turtle named Mack on the bottom of the pile lets Yertle know of their suffering. Yertle does not care about his subjects, he only cares to better his own situation. So he calls for more turtles to climb atop each other and make Yertle higher. Turtles came for all over and obeyed the orders of Yertle. Again, Mack makes a plea to Yertle and tells him of the turtles on the bottom and their desparate situation. Mack tells Yertle he is starving and that their shells will crack. Mack, under Yertle and a stack of turtles represents the people suffering under the dictatorship of Hitler and other communist leaders.
In the end, the turtle, Mack, felt he had enough suffering. He took action and he burped. This small act shook the throne of the king, toppling Yertle off his throne and into the pond, and all he could see was mud. Yertle’s rule of the pond and all he could see came to an end. Dr. Seuss writes in the last line of the book, “And the turtles, of course…all the turtles are free. As turtles and, maybe, all creatures should be” (Yertle the Turtle).
Yertle the Turtle is a dictator who uses his power to oppress the turtles living in the pond. He is a symbol of dictators like Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini. In the original drawings of Yertle, he had a mustache to make him look like Adloph Hitler (Fields). The mustache is said to have not appeared on Yertle in the published book because Dr. Seuss did not want the reader to only think of Hitler, but to think of all dictators. The book deals with the problems with authoritarianism. The turtles in the book only obey Yertle out of fear, just as people under dictators also are forced to obey. This book clearly shows Dr. Seuss’ political message about dictatorship, how one rises to power, and how the oppressed can rise up and change their situation. The story of Yertle the Turtle shows that an individual, rather than a collective group, can have a positive effect upon a community (Fensch).
The Lorax, The Butter Battle Book, and Yertle the Turtle have political messages and meanings imbedded in the stories. Dr. Seuss uses the talents he learned as a political cartoonist to illustrate and write books for children as well as adults. He felt strongly about topics that affect individuals as well as the world. In The Lorax, Dr. Seuss demonstrates how selfishness, greed, and big business can destroy the environment. He felt he needed to enlighten people to the ridiculousness and dangers of the arms race by using characters in The Butter Battle Book to represent the United States and Russia. In Yertle the Turtle, Dr. Seuss reflected on the rising power of dictators and the oppression that follows for the people living under such tyranny. Theodore Seuss Geisel, also known as Dr. Seuss, was a talented political cartoonist who became a beloved children’s author. He successfully taught children to love to read and placed messages that he felt were important to the future of individuals and the world in the words that he wrote.
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