Last week I went to a screening of the documentary film The Political Dr. Seuss. Many people don’t realize that besides being one of the world’s most beloved children’s authors, Theodor Geisel (Dr. Seuss) was very political, promoting environmentalism and literacy, and working against racism and anti-semitism.
At the start of World War II, Geisel drew political cartoons for the New York City newspaper PM, with cartoons opposing Hitler and fascism. In 1943 he joined the army (at age 38) and was part of Frank Capra’s Signal Corps, a special unit based in Hollywood that made films for the US Armed Forces — everything from propaganda films telling the troops not to trust German civilians, to training films explaining to soldiers why they needed to change their underwear regularly.
In the 1950s, literacy was a big issue, as the Cold War pushed the United States to keep up with the Soviet Union in education. In 1954, a magazine report theorized that one of the reasons for declining children’s literacy was that the primers used in schools were boring (such as the “Dick and Jane” series). Geisel took this as a challenge and wrote Cat in the Hat using a list of 220 words appropriate for beginning readers. It never caught on among teachers, but became one of the most popular children’s books ever. He later wrote Green Eggs and Ham when someone challenged him to write a book using 50 words or less.
Many of Geisel’s books also touch on political topics. The Lorax promotes environmentalism, telling the story of a greedy business owner (the Once-ler) who chopped down all the Truffula Trees, leaving a dark, smoggy wasteland. All the animals left, leaving the Once-ler with no customers.
The Sneetches is a message against racism. The star-belly Sneetches and plain-belly Sneetches, who lived on the beach, wouldn’t associate with each other, until:
“The day they decided that Sneetches are Sneetches.
And no kind of Sneetch is the best on the beaches.”
One of the most controversial Dr. Seuss books was The Butter Battle Book, which denounced the nuclear arms race. In the book, published in 1984, the Yooks and Zooks are headed toward war because they disagreed on how to butter their bread — butter-side up or butter-side down. Each side has a bomb that will destroy everything. The book ends with a cliffhanger — a blank page. Geisel was discouraged from publishing the book because it would “scare” children, but he argued that children watch the news and are well-aware of the realities of living in the Cold War era.
The film was really captivating. You can see video clips from The Political Dr. Seuss on the PBS website.