While famous for his staggering universe of wonderful children’s picture books, Theodor Seuss Geisel was also a serious visual artist and political commentator. As anyone with half a brain will notice, most Dr. Seuss children’s stories contain some sort of political allegory; from the obvious Berlin Wall references in The Better Butter Battle to cries of ecological responsibility in The Lorax. But in terms of subliminal messages in these iconic books, the ways in which Dr. Seuss totally turns kids on to science fictional and fantasy concepts is also extremely prevalent too!
The pervasive nature of Dr. Seuss’s material is first evident by taking a glance at any of his illustrations. Just what sort of creatures are Sam or the unamed character in Green Eggs and Ham? I mean, there’s a fox in socks, which is supposed to be extremely weird, but what about these weird looking creatures who are essentially the main characters? And this isn’t the only time Seuss does this. In fact, actual HUMAN characters are seemingly quite rare. Sure, the children in The Cat in the Hat are human enough, but they are confronted not only with the titular cat immediately, but also a slew of other crazy stuff, notably Thing One and Thing Two.
Similarly, the main characters in How the Grinch Stole Christmas are a race of beings called “The Whos.” Like Sam I Am, or the guys from The Better Butter Battle, there are elements of these creatures that don’t seem quite human.
Indeed, The Grinch is just the Grinch, his own sort of monster. Could the Grinch have once been a Who? Did being so evil turn him green? Looked at from this perspective, the Grinch is very similar to Gollum/Sméagol from The Lord of The Rings. He was maybe once an okay guy, but got screwed up because of a bad heart, bad shoes or whatever. If anything, the Grinch is a more frightening character than Gollum/Sméagol because his monstrosity doesn’t come from an outside factor like a magical ring. Instead, he is a monster because of his own nature.
But like a Darth Vader character, this monster redeems himself. Because Dr. Seuss doesn’t do monsters the way anyone else does. He firmly puts a different idea in the minds of children about what a monster really is. By having so many of his main characters depicted as creatures from some other sort of dimension, prejudices about what good guys and bad guys are gone. Thing One and Thing Two look cute and nice, but they are basically little terrorists.
The reason why all of these odd creatures work so well for Dr. Seuss is because he does it casually. He doesn’t explain to you what the Whos are or where they live. He just drops you in Whoville. Deal with it. Personally, I think this is largely successful because children don’t have the same genre prejudices of many adult readers. This is interesting because it’s not like Dr. Seuss created some lame half-assed fictional worlds. If anything, the opposite is true. The worlds he creates might be slap-you-in-the-face metaphors, but the texture to these places feels, well, real. I know this sounds ridiculous, and it’s not like I expect to see the Sneeches walking down the street. (Though I do get excited whenever I pass Mulberry Street in NYC) What I am saying is that for many children, the question isn’t “oh what are these silly Sneech creatures? Man they look silly!” Instead the question from the child is “What are these Sneetches up to?” Readers respond to Dr. Seuss’s creatures the same way movie goers responded to Chewbacca back in 1977. “Oh cool, they’ve got one of these things.”
My favorite Dr. Seuss story is without a doubt Horton Hears a Who. In it, an elephant discovers an entire planet of creatures living on a small speck of dust. Being a noble elephant, Horton decides to protect the little Who planet from the certain doom it would face tumbling through the universe of our little planet. The notion that an entire civilization is simply floating around in a speck of dust challenges all sorts of basic childhood perspectives on what a life form is and where they might exist. I remember this book making me more interested in my microscope and later, my telescope. Everything seemed like a question of distance and relative perspective. Which, scientifically speaking, is sort of true. The other reason I really loved Horton Hears a Who is because I assumed this planet contained the same Whoville from How the Grinch Stole Christmas. The idea that another story was playing out on that tiny little planet made me extremely happy. It also raised the stakes as to what might happen to the Whos if Horton was boiled in oil!
He wasn’t just saving the Who planet. He was saving little Cindy Lou Who who was not more than two!
By the way, does Cindy Lou Who have legs? Or is she some kind of land mermaid? Maybe Whos start off with one leg like, and then grow two when they get older. Oh well, I guess I’ll never know. And though I can’t ask Ted Geisel all these questions, I am thankful that I even get to think them up.
Ryan Britt is a regular blogger for Tor.com His writing has appeared with Clarkesworld Magazine and elsewhere.