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Dr. Seuss: The Marriage of Entertainment and Morality

Today’s topic is a follow up on last week’s wherein I wished for two things a) for grittier romance books and b) for those romance books that include gritty elements, to treat those elements seriously.

One of the responses that I heard was that readers like to be entertained and not issued to death. I don’t know when the two (entertainment and serious books) became mutually exclusive. The fact is I read issue books every night, except most of the time they are books I read to my four year old.

That’s right. Sneetchs. Nearly every children’s book out there is an issue book. My favorite ones are the Dr. Seuss stories. My four year old’s favorite Dr. Seuss is “Sneetches and Other Stories.” My DD always asks me if I will read “all stories” in the book. It contains four, all of which revolve around the issue of bias or prejudice and the danger of sameness. Prejudice comes at a cost. For the Sneetches, all their money was spent trying to maintain their illusory differences–the stars on their bellies.

The first story is the headliner: Sneetches. For those who haven’t read it or had at one time but since forgotten it, Sneetches tells the story of the Seuss creatures who have stars on their bellies and the creatures who have “none upon thars”. The Sneetches with the stars are snotty and do not let the plain belly Sneetches partake in any of the parties or picnics. Then a shyster comes along and says that he can put stars on the bellies of the plain belly Sneetches and once he does, the snotty Sneetches are disgusted. Of course, for a greater fee (ten dollars eaches), the shyster agrees to remove the stars of the snotty Sneetches. The climax is the scene where the plain belly Sneetches and the star belly Sneetches keep going into the star on and the star off machines

until neither the Plain nor the Star-Bellies knew
whether this one was that one or that one was this one
or which one was what one… or what one was who

In the end, the Sneetches grow “quite smart” and realize that a Sneetch is a Sneetch no matter the outward physical appearance.

The fourth story in Sneetches is a story of racial prejudice, in my opinion. It’s title, What Was I Scared Of? This is the story of the pale green pants with nobody inside them. The Seuss like character has never seen a pair of pale green pants without anyone inside them before. He is scared with every increasing encounter until one day he’s in Snidefield and reaches inside a bush and what should he find but the eery pale green pants. The story ends with the Suess like character confronting the fact that those pants were just as afraid of the strange Suess character as the little creature was afraid of the pants. The two weren’t so different at all, even though they looked odd to each other. There really wasn’t anything for either to be afraid and those fears fell away once they began to get to know each other.

Dr. Seuss tackled a number of issues in his stories. There is the issue of conservation and imperialism in The Lorax where Once-ler keeps “biggering and biggering and biggering” his factory, his loads, his trucks, just because he can. Once-ler comes upon a wonderful tree called the Truffula. He begins chopping them down at such a rate that it harms the ecosystem. The Lorax attempts to first speak for the Brown Barbaloots who are fed by the Truffula fruits. Because of the declining source of food, the increase in smog and pollution, the Brown Barbaloots have to leave and soon after the fish and birds follow until the paradise is totally destroyed with nothing but wasteland and empty buildings. The story ends with the Once-ler dropping down a seed to the boy below saying that that change might occur if someone plants the seed, tends it with care, and perhaps the Lorax and his friends will return.

Dr Seuss himself said that Cat in the Hat was about objecting to authority

“I’m subversive as hell,” Seuss once said. “The Cat in the Hat is a revolt against authority. … It’s revolutionary in that it goes as far as Kerensky, and then stops. It doesn’t go quite as far as Lenin.

He wrote an anti-war book called The Butter Battle Book wherein two rival factions take up an arms race and are poised to destroy each other totally other over the fact that one faction eats their bread butter side up and the other butter side down.

Entertainment and serious issues aren’t mutually exclusive. The fact is that it takes a talented author to make it seem less so. I know that there are talented authors in the romance genre who can take a moral, an issue, a serious topic, and make it fascinating for the reader. And I also believe that adult readers are entitled to same smart but serious topic-ed books as their children.

Jane Litte is the founder of Dear Author, a lawyer, and a lover of pencil skirts. She self publishes NA and contemporaries (and publishes with Berkley and Montlake) and spends her downtime reading romances and writing about them. Her TBR pile is much larger than the one shown in the picture and not as pretty. You can reach Jane by email at jane @ dearauthor dot com


  1. Ana
    Apr 01, 2008 @ 09:48:29

    Dudes, I completely forgot it was April’s Fool day and for one moment there? I freaked out! LOL>

  2. Jane
    Apr 01, 2008 @ 09:50:07

    Actually, I had this great April Fool’s Day joke worked out but it ended up killing the server here at DA.

  3. carolyn Jean
    Apr 01, 2008 @ 10:30:04

    Oh, I just wrote this long thing and it went away! Anyway, I really loved this post.

  4. Keishon
    Apr 01, 2008 @ 10:31:48

    I started buying my nieces Dr. Seuss books and they love it. When I was growing up, the issue books I enjoyed were by Judy Blume. Forever, a novel about “firsts” and Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret about puberty and religion, and there was another one by her that was really good, too. Can’t recall the title.

    What happened to your graphic?

  5. Kim
    Apr 01, 2008 @ 11:07:48

    Ooooh. Very good post! Seuss was very clever. I always thought Green Eggs and Ham was about temptation. Very Satan and Eve in the Garden of Eden.

  6. Radish
    Apr 01, 2008 @ 11:26:10

    Heh-heh! Comedy is often a vehicle for social commentary —

    — and sometimes it’s the only one that will work.

  7. Jan
    Apr 01, 2008 @ 12:08:37

    Entertainment and serious issues aren’t mutually exclusive. But sometimes I don’t want to think about the latter. I just want to read an entertaining book that doesn’t have implications about the author’s ideas of social injustice (which half the time don’t match mine anyway).

    And there’s nothing wrong with that either.

  8. Kathleen O'Reilly
    Apr 01, 2008 @ 12:12:36

    Serious Seuss, forsooth, you say! The man I read was only play.
    He did not preach, he did not prattle, he did not lecture, he did not twattle. He did not posture on his box, he did not teach me to love lox. I cannot listen anymore, I think I’ll go and shut my door.

  9. Jia
    Apr 01, 2008 @ 12:17:21

    Serious Seuss, forsooth, you say! The man I read was only play.
    He did not preach, he did not prattle, he did not lecture, he did not twattle. He did not posture on his box, he did not teach me to love lox. I cannot listen anymore, I think I'll go and shut my door.

    Ha! I love it!

    Although I, personally, do prefer my reading to have a marriage of entertainment and gritty elements. Not lecturing or preachy moralizing or posturing but a thoughtful examination portrayed within the context of a great story. That’s all.

    (Says I, as if this is an easy thing to do, and I know it’s not, which is why I admire writers who can pull it off.)

  10. Kim
    Apr 01, 2008 @ 12:23:24

    And there's nothing wrong with that either.

    But you have to admit Sam-I-Am was a tool.
    Only someone evil would put you in a box with a fox.

  11. MCHalliday
    Apr 01, 2008 @ 12:30:35

    Actually, I had this great April Fool's Day joke worked out but it ended up killing the server here at DA.

    Well, I think someone found a way…

    Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, LLC has been acquired by the Dear Author Media Network (D.A.M.N. Inc.) and behold our new site: Dear Bitches. To bring you higher quality news, reviews and witch-hunts of defenseless authors, Dear Author and Smart Bitches merged in a hostile takeover decided to combine forces in 2008. The result? Dear Bitches. Rest assured that this change will result in 200% more top-notch kerfuffles, drama and conflations as well as 5000% more content, as Jarah and Jandy learn to utilize Jane’s fearsome powers of time management. This may or may not have required evolving into a ninja robot lawyer with laser eyes and a million monkey minions to do our bidding.


  12. L.C. McCabe
    Apr 01, 2008 @ 12:32:11

    But if you believe the tale, Green Eggs and Ham was written on a dare between Theodore Geisel and Bennett Cerf. The bet was that Geisel couldn’t write a story that only had fifty words.

    I’ve never sat and verified whether or not the book has more than fifty words that are repeated over and over and over again, but it is plausible that there might only be fifty words used in that book.

    BTW, I think that the stars used in the Sneetches may be representing more than just difference. It may also be symbolic of the yellow stars that Jews were forced to wear during World War II by the Nazis. The next time you read that story, imagine they had six points rather than five and see if you can finish without your voice cracking.

    Another fan of Seuss,


  13. Belinda
    Apr 01, 2008 @ 12:53:43

    But you have to admit Sam-I-Am was a tool.
    Only someone evil would put you in a box with a fox.

    I always thought the key line was “I will not, will not with a goat.”

  14. Leah
    Apr 01, 2008 @ 13:18:06

    My kids (ages 6,4 and2) love the Dr. Seuss books we’ve read so far–esp. my 4 year old son, who has a very well-developed sense of humour (my daughter is too serious, like, um, her mother). I like Green Eggs and Ham, although it has not yet achieved what I (unsophisticatedly) saw as its purpose: to get kids to try new foods. I like the Sneetches and its message–it will be very important when they’re just a few years older. I had forgotten all about those green pants! I find the Lorax a liitle too preachy, but it’s probably the right tone for children. As far as the Cat in the Hat goes, I find him creepy–coming in when the parents are gone, trashing the house, and then acting all wounded when others are displeased; the kids don’t seem to have much fun with him–he’s only amusing himself (and those things) at others’ expense. He could rebel agst authority in a more useful way, I think, but hey, I’m 41 and stodgy!

  15. Robin
    Apr 01, 2008 @ 13:27:55

    So does that make Dr. Seuss anti-goat porn?

    Although I understand the basic principles of the “issue book” debate, I also think it’s kind of a red herring, at least outside those books that really “preach” an issue. Because IMO all Romance is “issue” fiction in that it pertains to the issues of love and often marriage, offering a somewhat idealized image of a love relationship for the reader’s acceptance and approval. Some books may seem “heavier” and some “lighter,” but I think you’ve always got some “issues” in a genre that is so focused on the ever after happiness of a couple who must overcome some obstacle(s) in solidifying their relationship and making us root for them. Ultimately, I think when people talk about issue books what they often mean is that they don’t want to read books that seem to *endorse* some kind of political, social, or other kind of idea or issue, or “preach” about an issue, or deal with something so heavy-handedly that it seems to take over the whole book. But fundamentally I think all genre fiction is issue-oriented, just like all children’s lit.

  16. Robin
    Apr 01, 2008 @ 13:30:39

    That cat in the hat always seemed like a bit of an autocrat to me rather than a subversive challenge to autocratic authority. But then that’s the danger in all revolutions, I guess.

  17. JulieLeto
    Apr 01, 2008 @ 14:39:35

    Since we’re talking Seuss, I’d like to know…has anyone read ON BEYOND ZEBRA? When I was teaching high school, our principal used part of it for his commencement address and the seniors loved it. I special ordered the book for my daughter. It’s a little longer than it needs to be to get the point across, but it’s still a really great, if little known, Seuss book.

    As for issues, well, I hope if I ever introduce anything serious into my books that I handle it in a realistic way, but I admit I don’t go out of my way to tackle tough issues in a romance. I don’t mind reading it, but I don’t want to write it. Maybe I don’t feel qualified. I don’t know. Maybe I just like to keep my books light. One author who blends “serious” topics with her genre fiction is Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez. I respect her skill, even when she’s writing from points of view that are the opposite of mine. Heck, ESPECIALLY when she’s writing about points of view opposite of mine. But as much as I love her books, I also love authors who are just entertaining me. Depends on my mood, I guess.

  18. Robin
    Apr 01, 2008 @ 15:01:53

    I haven’t read the Zebra book, but my Family Law professor used Horton Hatches The Egg to discuss issues of surrogacy, adoption, legal v. biological parenthood, and custody. That Maisie was one neglectful mother.

  19. Terry Odell
    Apr 01, 2008 @ 15:32:17

    I remember the ‘older’ Dr. Seuss — The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins, If I Ran the Zoo, and yes, I do remember On Beyond Zebra. (Showing my age here — I thought the other books were for babies. Of course, then I had some, and yes, we read all the rest.)

    I don’t want to read something that will frustrate me because it’s dealing with an issue that I know can’t possibly be resolved. I might touch on some ‘issues’ in my books, but they’re not what the book is about. They’re things that are out there in the real world, but my characters aren’t trying to put an end to them…they’re too busy solving the immediate problems and falling in love.

    I don’t want to see ‘issue’ movies, either.

  20. Marianne McA
    Apr 01, 2008 @ 18:04:19

    Think your conclusion is flawed. Clearly we don’t need more romances that deal with issues – we need more romances that rhyme.

    Would you, could you, kiss with zeal?
    Could you, would you, with a SEAL?
    If he cries ‘Eternal mate!’,
    Would you, could you, copulate?
    I would not, could not kiss with zeal,
    I could not, would not with a SEAL,
    Could not believe I’d met my fate,
    Would never, ever copulate,
    I do not like all this Wham!Bam!
    I do not like it, Sam-I-am.

  21. Leah
    Apr 01, 2008 @ 21:04:40

    Oh, I love it! Although, at first, I thought you meant a seal, not a Navy SEAL (duh!)

  22. Kathleen O'Reilly
    Apr 01, 2008 @ 21:38:03

    Marianne, I love this. I just needed to say that.

  23. Anonym2857
    Apr 01, 2008 @ 22:33:59

    The SNEETCHES is one of four kid's books I keep next to the toy box in my office. Not for children – all for me. Some days I just need to be reminded of those life lessons that speak to the child in all of us.

    Anyway, once after a particularly frustrating day of dealing with intractable children in uniform, my sergeant and I were marveling at how persons with such highly respected and professional public personas could resort to tantrums that would put recalcitrant three year-olds to shame behind closed doors. I ranted that I was sick of working with a bunch of friggin' Zax. The sergeant had no idea what I was talking about, so I whipped out my trusty SNEETCHES book and read him the story of the Zax. The story was so apropos, he actually had it framed and hung on his office wall. Every time he has to go and deal with those whiners, he looks at the picture and superimposes different workplace faces onto those stubborn Zax! LOL

    admiring all the Seuss-like poetry, and wishing I was clever enough to think of some

  24. Jenyfer Matthews
    Apr 02, 2008 @ 02:08:04

    I love this analogy, but I’m not sure I buy it.

    Dr. Seuss is great for weaving life lessons into fun rhyming prose and I love to read them to my children for that reason – they might just learn something while reading a wonderfully fun book. It’s the same reason I like Russell Hoben and the “Francis” books he wrote. Because unlike so many of the children’s books out there today, these authors were able to teach a lesson within the context of the story without it feeling like it was the reason for the story or that you were being beaten over the head with it.

    I don’t read romance books to learn a lesson however. If the characters have issues / baggage to deal with and overcome in the process of the main story of developing a loving relationship with another character, that’s great. I love characters with depth and substance. But I want that issue to be their issue to deal with in their own way – without feeling as if I am being preached to on this topic or that.

  25. Virginia DeMarce
    Apr 02, 2008 @ 20:17:47

    I love Dr. Seuss — not just for my children (a quarter of a century ago) but now, also, for tutoring ESOL students who have limited vocabularies but adult minds and can appreciate the themes and humor. One we read was Horton Hatches the Egg; we also did Maizie and her ever-expanding tail feathers.

    I’ve gotten to the era when I really appreciate his foray into geriatrics (Old Age Is Not for Sissies).

  26. Tracy
    Apr 03, 2008 @ 09:20:54

    You know, Dr. Seuss did write a romance novel (of sorts): The Seven Lady Godivas.

    Seven naked women receive seven happy endings with their respective Peeping boyfriends. Can’t get more romantic than that.

  27. Jane
    Apr 03, 2008 @ 10:41:05

    Really? That’s fascinating. There are a whole host of Seuss books that I have never read. I need to start ordering some.

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