I pretty much knew I’d be writing this list as soon as I learned of the estate’s decision to self-censor. And yes, one of the six offenders makes my cut — at the #1 slot no less.
1. On Beyond Zebra. 1955. Seuss’s unsung masterpiece uses abstract expressionism to suggest a world of limitless possibilities, and for that matter whole new realities to explore. The minimalist colors of the pre-60s books work for, rather than against, in this case, and the final page showing Conrad writing his own letter (see right) is one of the most inspired visionary pieces I’ve seen in a children’s book. This is one of the six discontinued books, and shame on Seuss’s estate for being so dim. I’ve yet to see a better pictorial adventure for thinking outside the box than what fills the pages in On Beyond Zebra.
2. Oh, The Places You’ll Go. 1990. This was given to me on my birthday a month before I joined the Peace Corps (in November ’91), and just a year after its publication. It could just as easily been given to me five months before, when I graduated from college. I like to think Dr. Seuss wrote his final book for me, but what an egocentric fantasy; this book has spoken on a personal level to zillions of people — anyone going through a major transition, whether young, middle-age, or old. The narrator is undaunted by anything, as he leaps over every hurdle to explore the world. A close rival to On Beyond Zebra, for my money, in its power to inspire.
3. The Lorax. 1971. Seuss seemed to understand things that a child psychologist like Jordan Peterson does not: that the greatest threats faced by human beings are oppression by power (Horton Hears a Who), arms races and warfare (The Butter Battle Book), and environmental crises (The Lorax). Don’t get me wrong: Peterson is absolutely correct about the regressive left and the threat it poses to free speech. (That’s the main reason I’m writing this pick list.) But Peterson seems to think that we can’t save the world unless we save ourselves first as individuals, and that seems backwards: it is rather systematic oppression, warfare, and climate disasters that are ruining us as individuals to begin with. Regarding that last, The Lorax remains one of the most urgent pro-environment pleas ever written, and a book ahead of its time.
4. Oh, the Thinks You Can Think. 1975. This mind-bender of psychedelic imagery is the sort of thing David Lynch might come up with if he made a children’s film. The shadowy jibboo (see right) is probably the scariest thing Seuss ever drew. (Not the dated caricatures in other books that we’re currently being told can “scar kids for life”.) The book’s theme is On Beyond Zebra‘s: it invites the reader to make things up, think freely, draw unlikely connections, and reboot the imagination entirely. Wild, yes, but just the medicine kids crave.
5. Horton Hears a Who. 1954. The classic lesson, “a person’s a person no matter how small”, and that the strong should defend the weak. The message comes across without sounding preachy, and this was Seuss’s gift that lesser talents have tried to tame but seldom achieved. I still haven’t seen the 2008 film, which I hear does considerable justice to it by revving up the scare factor — the kangaroo is really mean, there’s an intense mob scene, etc. Aside from the insanely addictive Green Eggs and Ham, this is the Dr. Seuss book I read most; it’s that compelling.
6. The Butter Battle Book. 1984. That a dispute over how to eat one’s bread (butter-side up or down) could lead to warfare isn’t terribly far-fetched when you stop to think about it; wars have been fought throughout history for reasons just as juvenile. In this case, the conflict between the Yooks and Zooks escalates into an arms race: they continue to build bigger walls and massive machinery in the hope that one will give up, which of course neither side does. The story obviously speaks to the threat of nuclear war and weapons of mass destruction, as it was written during the Reagan years of the Cold War; but Seuss’s allegory still has plenty to teach us about threats of escalating violence.
7. Green Eggs and Ham. 1960. A brilliant story on minimalist vocabulary. Seuss was issued a challenge that he couldn’t write a book using 50 unique words or less, and he not only proved his publisher wrong, he wrote a gross-out story that would become widely and obsessively loved. I was so obsessed with this book as a kid that I asked my mother to cook me green eggs and ham, convinced that it was an obscure delicacy kept out of children’s reach by a global parental conspiracy.
8. How the Grinch Stole Christmas. 1957. I run the risk of hypocrisy by including this title as a favorite, because the fact is I’ve become an awful Scrooge. I don’t like Christmas anymore, haven’t for a long time, and hardly celebrate it in any meaningful way. But I do like other special days (especially Halloween and Thanksgiving), and there’s something about the way Seuss conveys the magic of a holiday and the way killjoys can be reached and moved despite themselves. I love Dickens’ Christmas Carol for the same reason. So that’s my conflicted defense for the Grinch, as a quasi-Grinch myself.
9. Dr. Seuss’s Sleep Book. 1962. If the contagious yawns triggered by Van Vleck don’t put you under, there may be something wrong with you. With Dr. Seuss’s Sleep Book you don’t sleeping pills, white noise, or meditation. Just read the book and watch the pictures. The use of color is sleep-inducing too, with the red, turquoise, and soft golden yellow bathing the imagery in tranquility. Also subtle is the use of words with letters “o” and “s”, the former putting your mouth into a yawning position, the latter sounding the “zzzz” sound. Now that’s how you get reaction from your readers.