BY MAURA AMMENHEUSER
Theodor Geisel, a.k.a. Dr. Seuss, was born March 2, 1904. Some inland schools will celebrate his birthday this week with special events, and for good reason. Children have learned to read with Dr. Seuss books, filled with silly, simple rhymes, since 1937, when "And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street" was published.
Momarama asked education experts for their take on why "Green Eggs and Ham" and "The Cat in the Hat" remain so beloved by children and parents, more than 20 years after Geisel's death. Ann Neely, associate professor of education at Vanderbilt University's Peabody College of Education; Donna Eshelman, a motor-development specialist who works with children and writes an online guide (stellarcaterpillar.com) about how babies learn skilled movement; and Kimberly Greene, assistant professor at Brandman University's School of Education, director for Brandman's Center for Instructional Innovation and author of interactive books for LeapFrog Toys, explain their love of Seuss.
Momarama: What's the enduring power of Dr. Seuss?
Neely: Dr. Seuss wrote with the joy, concern and passion a child carries. His books, often filled with strange names and "political" messages, demonstrate his heart in a way that allows the reader to read, repeat and even sing his words! I think of the 3-year-old whose first attempt at "reading" is "There's a Wocket in my Pocket!" His confidence at knowing the pattern (anapestic tetrameter) and having memorized the words is exciting and confidence-building. ... Readability is a key part of the enduring power of Dr. Seuss ... Children can read Dr. Seuss books many times without tiring of the rhythms, the plots or the art.
Eshelman: I believe a creative work is considered "great" when it has many layers to it. This means that each time you see it or read it, you discover something you did not get before or understand something for the first time because of your recent life experience. ... This is true of Dr. Seuss books. The baby sees bright colors and interesting shapes of familiar and unfamiliar objects. The toddler likes to hear the patterns of rhyming words, reminiscent of a song. The child might find the absurdity of the dog driving the car amusing. The slightly older child follows the plot and anticipates the ending. And the much older child and even the adult reading the book find wonder in how he weaves a moral into the ridiculous spectacle we have just watched unfold.
Greene: There's so much joy in his writing. He knew who his audience was. ... When he [was first published], kids in school were reading "Dick and Jane." There's not a story there. [With Dr. Seuss] there is always character and plot ... In school we were getting bored to tears reading 'Stop, Spot, stop," but [Seuss] told a story ... familiar and friendly and understandable to pre-school and early-elementary-school kids.
Momarama: Is it ironic that books so simple, and goofy, have been hailed as powerful early-education tools? Dr. Seuss means very basic words and rhymes. How can this nurture young minds?
Neely: Not ironic in the least! To many it is interesting how useful these simple (and goofy) books can be for young learners. Geisel was asked by publisher Bennett Cerf to use around 250 of 400 simple words that would not allow readers to become disengaged ... Out of this request came "The Cat in the Hat," utilizing 236 of those simple but not boring words. ... Children in the stages of early literacy need to develop strong foundations in phonological awareness. I think the rhyming can be used in a variety of ways in this regard.
Eshelman: I call it the 4 Rs: Rhythm, rhyme, repetition and the ridiculous. When something is organized in patterns it is easier to grasp. It is easier for babies to learn to speak when they learn songs because the rhythm and repetition brings a familiarity so they anticipate the next words and try and say them on their own. So through the rhyme, rhythm and repetition of these simple words, learning to read is easier.
The 4th R, the ridiculous, is very important because children are drawn to the new and unusual. The ridiculous aspects of Dr. Seuss stories captures and maintains their attention, which creates deeper learning. [Simple and goofy] ... is Dr. Seuss' brilliance.
Momarama: How important are the moral lessons underpinning the plots? Would the books hold the same value if they were merely a series of silly poems?
Neely: I see the moral lessons in Dr. Seuss plots as valuable for discussions and learning experiences for older children. I do think that silly poems are necessary from time to time, however. Part of the value of Dr. Seuss stories is that there is this rise and fall of the plot that produces a lesson for readers. That said, I do know that many of the moral lessons accompanying Seuss tales go way over the heads of the young readers. I can't imagine the books would maintain their high value and societal prestige if they did not contain the moral underpinnings that can be so easily discussed with children, young and old.
Greene: They're universal themes. [In "The Sneetches"] every kid can relate to feeling left out, being different. In "Horton," it's about helping. ... These books can be a real lifesaver for someone who wants to teach life lessons [without] being preachy.
Momarama: How important are the illustrations (also by Geisel)? It's hard to imagine Dr. Seuss books looking any different than they do, but most educators focus on the value of the words. Is the art just fun icing on the cake?
Neely: The art isn't that lovable or important. ... Besides the recognizability of the art in Dr. Seuss books, I'm not really attracted to it (and was personally bored with it as a child). I also think of "The Bippolo Seed and Other Stories" and how the art is more sparse in this book but the stories are just as enjoyable. Maybe this shows my preference for text but I've found that the children I know like these stories just the same. I also think it is interesting to think about how the many movie adaptations of Seuss stories have probably changed the perception of his art in some ways.
The art Dr. Seuss provided greatly influenced the art of more recent children's book illustrators. And the popularity of his books encouraged publishers to be far more interested in and willing to seek illustrators considered to be "cutting edge."
Eshelman:These books often end up on a baby's first bookshelf because they enjoy looking at the pictures. The high contrast and primary colors often used are easy for babies to see, and the silliness or exaggeration of the people and everyday objects create novelty, which babies and children love. ... After all, when did you last see a cat in a hat? Or a dog driving a car? It is funny! Learning should be motivated by intrigue and curiosity. These books are also sensory experiences by providing stimulating illustrations along with rhyming words.
Greene: The pictures help the kids [seek more Dr. Seuss] because they recognize the artwork. Somebody will write the book, and an illustrator instead of making sure the pictures match the words, they'll try to be humorous or ironic. The words say, "I really love pizza," but a kid's making an ugly face. For early readers, that's a disconnect. For pre-readers, words and pictures should match up. Dr. Seuss did it so right.
Momarama: What's your favorite Dr. Seuss book?
Neely: As a child, I liked "One Fish, Two Fish," perhaps because the illustrations really do matter there.
Eshelman: "Green Eggs and Ham!" I love the message of eating things that do not appeal to you and discovering they taste delicious, and I love the energetic repetition of the words.
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