Dr. Seuss’s storybooks address deeper issues than publishers prefer

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A photo of a page from The Sneetches by Dr. Seuss daniel (flickr)

If you can teach a Sneetch, why can’t we learn too?

What stories are we teaching young minds? What are the messages behind those stories? How do they differ from the “ordinary storybook”? These are all questions I have been asking myself while reflecting on stories I read as a child. Storybooks are a massive part of entertaining and influencing children, so what are we feeding them?

I was always a fanatic about fairy tales with magical creatures in the forest, showing the protagonist faced with a dilemma of evil godparents or siblings with the insert of witty side characters going on an adventure to defeat the villain. Good triumphs against evil, which is the hallmark of a good fairy tale. Sounding familiar? That’s because I am describing just about every Disney classic storyline to grace screens and pages everywhere. While Disney does put out an entertaining story that breaks a record just about every time it hits the shelves, there are some plotlines it will not touch on.

Dr. Seuss’s children’s books are vastly different from Disney storybooks but still attract many readers. There are no princesses or princes; instead they often branch out to more mysterious creatures who do not necessarily have magic. One of my childhood favorites is The Sneetches. The Sneetches, who resemble large, flightless, yellow birds, are divided on the beaches by those with green stars upon their bellies and those without. The Sneetches with stars rule the beach while those without are left out from Sneetch-like activities.

This all comes to a halt one day when Sylvester McMonkey McBean arrives on the beach with his Star-On machine, where the Sneetches “without Stars upon thars” immediately pay to have a star put on their chests. With all the Sneetches now being star-bellied, the original group of Sneetches enters McBean’s Star-Off machine. To differentiate each Sneetch into two groups, they keep entering the machines to add and then eradicate each star until they cannot tell which group each Sneetch belonged to.

Bigotry is not often a theme that is monopolized in children’s stories. Still, The Sneetches perfectly represents how people pick each other apart for being different from one another. While the Sneetches boil down their turmoil to a mere star, it equivocally represents how we categorize people into different races, ethnicities, genders, and disabilities when we are all human. The Sneetches was initially published in 1961 during the Civil Rights era, where we saw the hard-lived battle to eliminate segregation in the American system.

Sylvester McMonkey McBean monopolizes the differences between the Sneetches for profit, much like modern-day people attempt to change because they feel pressure to become something they are not. Once the no-starred-bellied Sneetches receive their stars, the starred-bellied Sneetches remove their stars to show the distinction between the two parties and, therefore, continue to exclude a group of Sneetches.

Here we see how the efforts to maintain the difference between the two groups are about a balance of power. The star-bellied Sneetches rule the beaches because their star gives them the authority to do so. In reality, it is just a meaningless star. Still, it is enough of a difference to allow “justification” that the no-starred Sneetches should not participate in Star-bellied Sneetch activities. This shows ostracization and stigmatization exhibited within the segregation of the Sneetch parties.

The story ends with Sylvester packing up his machine with full pockets, leaving the Sneetches ranging with various stars to none at all. At that moment, the Sneetches finally understand that each Sneetches is the same.

“I am happy to say that the Sneetches got really quite smart on that day, that day they decided that Sneetches are Sneetches, and no kind of Sneetch is the best on the beaches, that day all the Sneetches forgot about stars, or whether or not they had one upon thars.” Sylvester McMonkey McBean did teach the Sneetches that day, but we still choose to show bigotry in everyday life.

Bigotry is a prevalent trend in Dr. Seuss’s novels, touched on in The Butter Battle Book, which again looks at discrimination but on the more severe front of War. The Battle contains the Zooks and the Yooks who are angered by the way each group butters their bread. The Zooks who butter their bread side down are frowned upon by the Yooks who butter their bread side-up. We follow a Yook who shows a Zook across the wall the weapons their laboratory keeps building. Each day, the Yook and the Zook continue to show up with bigger and bigger weapons until they both show up with a bomb. Here, the story abruptly ends, leaving viewers to imagine what happened or if either party unleashed the bomb.

The Butter Battle Book was published in 1984 and allegedly demonstrates Seuss’s views on the Cold War, where the United States and the Soviet Union both made more prominent and more giant bombs to one-up each other. If any of these bombs were ever unleashed, they would destroy the world, creating a toxic wasteland. The Butter Battle Book was banned in libraries because it took a satirical look at the Cold War. Even when considering that the war in the book stems from intolerance, it was still shunned from shelves.

Dr. Seuss portrays bigotry in straightforward ways that are still entertaining and light enough for children, but are also influential and show deeper meaning by reflecting upon humans’ actions. So why are there not more books portraying messages of bigotry? Simple bigotry is used as a tool of power. As we saw in The Sneetches, the star upon the Sneetches’ belly was a symbol of power, and it gave the Sneetches the right to exhibit ability on the beach. Society does not like to admit this because it is still a very prevalent use of power today.

Bigotry also demonstrates that when people use it they think their actions are justified, as seen in The Butter Battle Book. The Zooks buttering their bread differently from the Yooks gave them justification on the grounds that they are different. Therefore, it was reasonable to justify the creation of weapons for intimidations against them. Society is still very uncomfortable about speaking on bigotry because we do not like to admit our faults. Simply put, we would rather ignore them than acknowledge them. In reflecting on Dr. Seuss’s children’s books, I realize the importance of bringing to light the issue of bigotry to the child’s mind.

Gillian Massie

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