The Powerful Lesson at the Heart of Every Dr. Seuss BookBrian Gresko
No matter how many times I read “King Looie Katz” in Dr. Seuss’s I Can Lick 30 Tigers Today — and for awhile there my son Felix asked that I read it at least once a day, if not more — by the time I came to the part where the tails get slammed on the ground, I always wished the short story went longer. If you’re not familiar with this one, the tale tells of how King Looie, the feline king of Katzen-stein (and The Cat in the Hat’s great great great great grandpa), doesn’t want his tail to drag on the ground and so has one of his subjects hold it up, who then gets someone to hold his up, who gets someone to hold his up, and on and on till the last cat in Katzen-stein has no one to hold her tail up and so says, “I quit!”
“Then Prooie Katz slammed Blooie’s tail
And Blooie Katz slammed Hooie’s
And Hooie Katz slammed Chooie’s tail
And Chooie Katz slammed Kooie’s.
All tails in Katzen-stein were slammed
Including proud King Louie’s.”
I love how fun it is to say all the “ooey” names, and how those soft gooey chewy-sounds contrast with the hard, flinty constants, and how evocative the word “slammed” is, perfect at conveying the frustrated but empowered emancipation of cats who are mad as hell and just won’t take it anymore! It’s like a great hip-hop flow, the kind you never want to end, not even for the chorus.
This is my favorite thing about Dr. Seuss, who was born on March 2nd, 110 years ago, in 1904. For as much as I love a good story, and man, does Dr. Seuss spin some great ones, with fascinating characters, compelling conflicts, and clever resolutions — The Lorax and Horton Hears a Who come right to mind — the thing that I love most about his work, and which captivated my son from the start, is how he plays with language like a one-man-band, arranging words into a beautiful musical score.
It’s not easy to do, and if you require proof check out the Cat in the Hat series of books that Seuss didn’t write. No matter how familiar the characters, and how adeptly the authors mimic Seuss’s style, you know from the first the page that you’re not in the presence of a lyrical genius. The rhythm falls flat, and the word choices seem forced, or blandly uninspired — ho-hum. Dr. Seuss has what writers refer to as “a voice” on the page, and it’s a commanding, jaunty, witty, twisty-turning one that grabs you by the hand and leads you in a sprint from page and page. Best of all for little kids, when spoken, Seuss’s words turn even the most monotone, straight laced parent into a scatting jazz soloist.
Sometimes, it’s as simple as daring to repeat the same words again and again but with slight variations, like in Green Eggs and Ham. Ok, sure, this book can drive a parent batty after the one millionth read, but as Sam endlessly lists where he would not, could not eat green eggs and ham the lines morph into a chant, the words losing meaning, becoming simply percussive sounds bouncing about on your tongue and then off your lips and into the air, just as the printed letters fall into a pattern on the page. (Seuss created this minimalist masterpiece in order to win a bet with his publisher, who thought that Suess couldn’t write a book using only 50 words.)
The best place to see Suess’s playful side in full effect is Fox in Socks, his book of tongue twisters. Though Felix’s passion for that book faded almost a year ago, you can still ask, “What do you know about Tweedle Beetles?” and he’ll spout off, “When Tweedle Beetles fight, it’s called a Tweedle Beetle Battle!” This book was the first I remember Felix laughing at, giggling about the Tweedle Beetles and their battles with paddles in puddles on poodles and in bottles.
I held on to my Dr. Seuss books from when I was a kid, and in high school, I added more to my bookshelf. A lot of my son’s books come from that collection. At 16 years old, I’d take breaks from homework to read Seuss’s lines aloud to myself, very much enraptured with his bold and uninhibited use of words. The gall — to just make up words in order to complete rhymes! I fell in love with Kurt Vonnegut’s novels at about the same time and loved his talk of “granfalloons” and “foma” for similar reason. Later, hip hop slang grabbed me as well, for shizzle. I used to wonder if Seuss composed his lines to the time of a metronome, the way rappers practice dropping rhymes to timekeeping beats.
There is, I think, embedded in Seuss’s use of language a very deep lesson, deeper than any one moral of his books, and that’s to HAVE FUN. To live life to the tune of your own band, to not feel boxed in by the lines but to draw over and around them, and to speak with zest and passion and melody. Words are sensual things built of breath and motion. They are thought given shape, but also the physical — the vibration of your voice box — made abstract and atmospheric.
Dr. Seuss’s books infected Felix’s earliest language, and he still often tosses different letters at the start of words to hear how they sound, or to ask if his new, invented words are actually socially-understood ones, and sometimes he coins new phrases in order to create his own nonsense poems. Half the time when he sings along to music, it’s in some Seussical gibberish. This freedom with language is something I hope that he always keeps, and it’s why I’ve carted around Seuss’s books for most of my life, so that if ever I’m feeling glum about writing or speaking or living, I can open one up and remember how easy and joyful it can be to let loose and smile.