Lessons learned from Dr. Seuss

I loved Dr. Seuss as a kid.  Some of my earliest memories were of my mother reading me Dr. Seuss books.  She will credit the books for helping teach me to read.  I loved the rhyming, silly stories and made up words.  But as I’ve grown up, I realize that the themes and messages from these books have made an impact on how I see the world and who I am today.  I started out thinking I would list my top 10 favorite Dr. Seuss books here, but realized it would take me forever.  Instead, here are my top 5:

  1. The Lorax.  I love the Lorax.  I love his sense of right and wrong.  I love that he recognizes the need to speak for those who have no voice.  I love that he sees the beauty of an unspoiled forest.  I love that he’s willing to stand up for what he believes in, even when it is the unpopular opinion.  But most of all, I love that maintains a hope for the future, even when it seems so dismal.  And I love that he not only believes that one person can change the world, but he empowers them to do so.
  2. The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins.  This is not a typical Dr. Seuss book.  It’s long and one of the few that doesn’t rhyme, which only intensifies the intellectualism.  But it tackles some of the themes that Dr. Seuss is so famous for: the innocence of childhood, the rejection of absolute power and the fantasic occurences that are hallmarks of Suess’ works.  It explores conflicting purposes of arbitrary (and perhaps ridiculous) rules.  And, while I have heard some criticize Bartholomew for being weak and not standing up for himself (quite the opposite of the indignant Lorax), I see him as showing a gentle obedience and politeness in the face of unfair treatment from an arrogant leader.  He shows courage and bravery as he faces punishment for something that is truly not his fault.  And at the same time, the executioner shows obedience in that he cannot do his job until Bartholomew’s hat is removed.  In the end, there seems to be a confidence that leaders—even non-elected leaders—will do the right thing.  There’s that hope again.
  3. The Sneetches.  As far as I’m concerned, this is one of Dr. Seuss’ most under-rated books.  It’s a classic tale of two groups of creatures who are separated by class.  An arbitrary star on their belly makes one group think they are superior. The star bellied Sneetches control everything while the plain bellied Sneetches are social outcasts.   The message of tolerance is obvious.  But equally as important is the idea that the social divide that the Sneetches have created for themselves is ridiculous.  Add to it unfortunate truth that people sometimes profit from conflict and harmful products and you have a brilliant story, packed with lessons for everyone.  As a child, I remember feeling like a plain bellied Sneetch.  And, now that I’m an adult, I often still feel like a plain bellied Sneetch.  Dr. Seuss taught me that it’s okay to be plain bellied…and in fact, it can be preferable.  It is important to point out though, that the Sneetches did not achieve peace until they no longer knew who was who.  But, I don’t think that Dr. Seuss was saying that we should just assimilate and become anonymous in order to get along.  I think the lesson is that most of us don’t really know which we are — star bellied or not — even if we choose to identify with one or the other.  And when we can come to the realization that we all have insecurities and needs to be accepted, that is when we can begin to move toward tolerance.
  4. Happy Birthday to You!  It’s a simple message — we are all unique and should be ourselves.  I love the pictures, the use of color and the general idea that birthdays should be celebrated in an extravagant way. 
  5. Horton Hears a Who.  This was not a favorite of mine growing up.  I liked it, but it didn’t resonate with me the way some of the previous books did.  And after the movie came out several years ago, I didn’t like how it was being used to promote political messages that simply weren’t there. ( That’s not to say it didn’t have political undertones — but it was written in 1954 and was a commentary on post World War II occupation of Japan).  However, it makes my top 5 because of the way it has impacted my son.  While the message “A person’s a person no matter how small” certainly resonated with him, given his small stature, it was not the Whos to whom he related.  Instead, he was drawn to Horton…a gentle character who courageously stood up to a mob mentality to protect what he believed in.  Very much like the Lorax. 
And there you have it.  Out of 46 books, those are my top 5.  It’s painful for me to stop there because I really could go on and on.  But really, this list encapsulates most of the major themes that Dr. Seuss wrote about:  Be yourself (and don’t be afraid to be different).  Stand up for what you believe in. Question authority.  Use your imagination.  Be silly. Be courageous.  Be loyal.  Love your friends.  Stand up for them.  Always have hope.

In retrospect, it’s really hard to say whether or not my world view was shaped in part by the writings of Dr. Seuss or if I simply related to his characters and stories because of my world view.  It doesn’t matter.  I am glad he was born.  I’m glad he wrote whimsical stories that were fun to read.  And, I’m glad I get to share them with my son.  I know he will share them with his children.


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