It’s Dr. Seuss’s birthday, and each year is another chance to celebrate a joy that goes beyond sounding out the word and improving one’s vocabulary. Teachers and college professors and school custodians and librarians and bus drivers will be reminding their students that reading is fun.
School lunch ladies will be scrambling Green Eggs and Ham. School principals will be showing kids How to Eat Fried Worms. There will be Read-a-Thons and authors talking about books that make them cry and book illustrators demonstrating their craft.
Governors will do photo ops with a Cat-in-the-Hat hat. Oh, The Places We Will Go on March 2nd. Dr. Seuss would be proud, were he alive, to be the center of such joy, I like to think.
Ted Seuss Geisel was not supposed to be an author of children’s books. He was a political cartoonist, and some of his work during WWII depicting the threat from Japan is controversial to this day for it’s stereotype of the Japanese. But I don’t judge Mr. Geisel for those caustic cartoons during a terrible time of war because the rest of his life was a repudiation of stereotypes and bigotry.
He used his art and the elegant simplicity of his words to teach little children something very big about being deeply human.
But one day in 1954, a friend and frustrated publisher complained about the state of literacy in the world after reading a study showing the sorry lack of reading skills among American children.
It seems that kids didn’t like to read, and they weren’t growing up to be readers (who would buy his books). The publisher believed children didn’t like to read because literature for children was so deadly artificial and boring.
He challenged Geisel to write a picture book using only the 250 most common words that first graders should know. But. It had to be… exciting. It had to be …suspenseful. And it had to be … funny.
It had to have a plot that would make kids turn the page to find out what happened next. It was too delicious a challenge to turn down.
To say it was a success doesn’t do honor to the word “success”. My mother read The Cat in the Hat to me when I was in kindergarten. I read The Cat in the Hat to my boys when they could still snuggle on my lap. My granddaughter memorized the Cat in the Hat when she was in diapers.
I can walk into any kindergarten room in the country today and put on a silly stove pipe hat with red and white horizontal stripes and ask whose hat I’m wearing, and there will be a resounding: THE CAT IN THE HAT!
The Cat is every child’s naughty best friend, and he has been, and will be, for generations.
Ted Geisel wasn’t a particularly warm and cuddly kind of guy from everything I’ve read. He never had children of his own. He wasn’t a preschool teacher or an early childhood education researcher or a reading curriculum designer.
He was a plain talker who knew how to capture a mood and a message in a single-page cartoon and a one-line caption. Without being preachy, he preached a message was so simple that four year olds and graduate students, little giggly girls and grandpas in suspenders could all understand and want to hear again. And again.
Be kind and caring. Trust that the nastiest of green Grinches could grow a heart.
Don’t be stupid and care about how many Stars are on Thars.
You’re not better than anyone else, so don’t be Yertle the Turtle, Oh Marvelous He stepping over everyone to get to the top. You’re not worse than anyone else, so don’t be all the nameless turtles who let Yertle step all over them. They all end up silly in the mud.
Don’t ignore the desperate little Who voices that are only a tickle in an elephant’s ear. Just because you can’t see them doesn’t mean they aren’t in danger, and a person’s a person, no matter how small. Have fun in a big, sneaky, messy way but clean up after yourself before Mother gets home even if you have to find One or Two Things to help out.
Be confident. Be bold. Be in love with the bright little colors and shapes of a weary world, with One or Two or Red or Blue Fish. Be a Lorax. Speak for a tree.
Dr. Seuss was a crusty old character who didn’t mean for us to love him. But he did mean for us to learn. To learn to how to read. Then to learn how to live. That we learned to love the lesson is the gift he gave us. The gift we celebrate on his birthday.
Happy NEA Read Across America Day.