Tag Archives: Dr. Seuss

Fit for a King: Traditional tales and Revision


The Oxford Reading Tree version of the Dominican tale, “The King who wanted to Touch the Moon.”

Since the referendum on Brexit, many of the British political parties have been in turmoil; I was camping along Hadrian’s Wall for a few days this week and came back to find that the UK had a new prime minister. The Labour party is also mulling over changes: should Jeremy Corbyn remain the head of the party? The thing that struck me most about all of the changes and potential changes is that they largely are being discussed at the top. Whereas Brexit was a straight majority-rules vote about remaining in the European Union, Theresa May became prime minister without an election, and the Labour Party is arguing over whether the “three pound” Labour Party members (who joined during the last Labour leadership campaign, and mostly supported Corbyn) should be allowed to have a say in the next leadership vote. This all, of course, complies with British political party policy—but many ordinary British voters might well begin to suspect that the leaders of the major parties do not really want to know what they think.


Many voted for Brexit because they said they didn’t like the “elites” telling them what to do.

The upheaval in Britain made me think of a story that will be familiar to many Americans, at least those born in my era, Dr. Seuss’s Yertle the Turtle (1958). The story concerns a turtle king who wants to have complete power over all that he sees; once he does, he climbs higher to find more to conquer. Seuss has King Yertle climb on the backs of his citizen turtles to get higher; the lowest on the stack, a turtle named Mack, constantly complains but Yertle ignores him. The story comes to a climax when Yertle wants to be ruler of the moon and Mack, in protest, burps, bringing down the turtle stack and dumping Yertle in the pond.


Dr. Seuss’s Yertle the Turtle has Yertle governing without regard to his people’s needs.

Somewhere along the line—I can’t remember when, but we came from a household where political messages in texts would have been suggested to us—I learned that this story was written with Adolf Hitler’s then-recent attempts to conquer Europe (and beyond) in mind. This is one of the now-accepted interpretations of the book: the author of the blog, The Children’s War, for example, writes, “Now, I am sure you can see the resemblance to Hitler and his quest for more and more Lebensraum in Yertle.  And it isn’t hard to figure out that the turtles are the German people under Hitler’s dictatorship” (https://thechildrenswar.blogspot.co.uk/2013/03/yertle-turtle-by-dr-seuss.html). Seuss was certainly political; there’s even an American public television programme, Indpendent Lens, which has done an entire episode about “The Political Dr. Seuss” (http://www.pbs.org/independentlens/politicaldrseuss/); the web page about this episode also mention the link between Hitler and Yertle the Turtle.

But Seuss’s story—though certainly originally presented—is not an original story. I recently came across a Dominican folk tale strikingly similar to Seuss’s story. Like Seuss’s story, it is set on an island. The island is ruled by a king, who has a wish for power, and makes his people serve his every desire. The Dominican story is entitled “The King Who Wanted to Touch the Moon.” In the Dominican story, the king gets his carpenter to tell him how to build a tall tower to touch the moon. Even though the carpenter knows that it is not possible to touch the moon, he and the villagers obey the king’s wishes and stack up all the chests and boxes in the kingdom. When it still does not reach the moon, the king insists that the people send up the bottom chest. They take it out, and the tower—and the king—fall down.

Seuss’s story and the Dominican folktale are similar in most ways. The differences are significant as well, however. In the Dominican story, people are the main characters. Even though readers/listeners would know that it is a folktale setting—the Dominican Republic was never ruled by a king, unless you go back to its Spanish colonial days—the use of humans connects the story directly to the readers. This is particularly important when versions of the story are published outside of the Dominican Republic. Oxford Reading Tree, for example, published a very simple version of the story entitled The King and His Wish (2011), authored and illustrated by Alison Hawes and Kate Slater. Although only the teacher notes indicate the story’s origins, the pictures of people of various shades who can see the foolishness of the king serve to underline the idea that wisdom (and foolishness, for that matter) is not just the purview of white, western people. Given the white, western publishing world’s tendency to place non-white people only in supporting roles, the message in The King and His Wish is not insignificant.


Another difference between the Dominican tale and Dr. Seuss is the ending. Seuss has Yertle become “King of the mud” while the other turtles become a free people. The Dominican tale, on the other hand, ends with a humble king who is better able to rule and will take the advice of his people. The distinction between a specifically (white) American individualism and the more communitarian approach of the Dominican tale reflect different approaches to government. Interestingly, the Oxford Reading Tree version has an open ending, with the king on the ground and the people standing round him with varying attitudes toward his demise. It would be interesting to hear kids from different countries and/or backgrounds discussing what happened next in the story.


The Oxford version has an open ending; these are the last pages of the text.


Kings—and governments—fall when they don’t listen to their people. This is a lesson that both Yertle the Turtle and “The King Who Wanted to Touch the Moon” teach, and a pertinent one for our times. But the folktale version also reminds readers that the community has a role to play, not just in deposing government, but in making it better. And this too is a lesson fit for our times.

Dr. Seuss and Racial Passing

Dr. Seuss is one of the most beloved children’s authors in America. He also has a rather mixed record on issues of race and diversity. As a young man, Dr. Seuss wrote and drew for various magazines and college publications. In these, Seuss portrayed Africans and Asians in stereotypical fashion. During World War II, Seuss drew some political cartoons which sympathized with African-Americans and Jewish people and others that accused Japanese-Americans of perpetrating acts of sabotage.

Dr. Seuss's less stellar diversity moments.  Taken from Richard Minear's Dr. Seuss Goes to War (NY: Norton, 1999).

One of Dr. Seuss’s less stellar diversity moments. Taken from Richard Minear’s Dr. Seuss Goes to War (NY: Norton, 1999).

After the war, Seuss’s attitudes changed. These changes in attitude came about, in part, because of his writing commissions. He visited Japan on assignment for Life magazine, and saw the devastation caused by the atomic bombs his country dropped. His writing for children also began to take off. Both of these things resulted in a measurable difference in his public attitudes toward racism. Phil Nel points out that Seuss wrote Horton Hears a Who directly after he returned from Japan in1953. The book argues that all people matter “no matter how small”. Many people have also pointed to Seuss’s Yertle the Turtle (1958) as an allegory of Fascism. Writing for children gave Seuss a sense of responsibility about his publications (even to the extent of causing him to revise earlier books for children to be more culturally sensitive).

This cultural sensitivity continued when Dr. Seuss published The Sneetches in 1961. Many critics take Seuss at his word when he says that he wrote The Sneetches about anti-Semitism. Although Philip Nel adds, almost as an afterthought, that “the book also works as an anti-racism fable” (Dr. Seuss: American Icon New York: Continuum, 59), it is surprising that the critics have not taken this possibility more seriously. Seuss may have been influenced in his anti-racism by his World War II experiences, but he could not have been ignorant of events occurring in his own country in the late 1950s. The Civil Rights movement was well underway, and the nation as a whole was gripped with the implications of laws that would enforce equality between whites and African-Americans. Lines in The Sneetches such as, “When the Star-Belly children went out to play ball,/ Could a Plain Belly get in the game . . . ? Not at all” echo the official and unofficial rules of a still very segregated United States.

Starless Sneetches need not apply.

More than that, The Sneetches taps into one of the fears that segregationists held, and which was represented as an ever-present danger in the Northern as well as the Southern states: the fear of “passing.” In a country where “one drop of African blood” made a person black and not white, worries about being able to place people in the racial hierarchy if they could “pass” for white emerged through various forms of cultural production. Mark Twain, Charles Chestnutt, and Nella Larsen all wrote novels about African-Americans passing for white. The 1930s musical “Showboat,” twice made into a film (in the 1930s and the 1950s), has a tragic plot involving passing. Another film, based on a Fannie Hurst novel, was made twice by Hollywood (again in the 1930s and the 1950s). “Imitation of Life,” in its second incarnation became the fourth-most successful movie of 1959—just two years before The Sneetches was published.

Wait–are there African-Americans in this movie? Oh, yes, they’re way down in the corner . . .

“Imitation of Life” (in its 1959 version, which was less faithful to the book than the 1934 version starring Claudette Colbert) concerned two women, one white (played by Lana Turner in increasingly glamorous costumes) and one African-American (played by Juanita Moore, wearing either maid’s garb or middle-aged mom clothes throughout) and their daughters, the insufferably perky Sandra Dee as Turner’s daughter and Susan Kohner as Moore’s. Kohner’s character is light-skinned enough to pass for white (Kohner herself was of Mexican and Jewish descent, not African-American; so she was passing for African-American passing for white), and she does so with a vengeance, denying her color and even her mother (she tells people that Moore is her maid, or her “mammy”). The white characters in the film are somewhat befuddled by this, claiming that Kohner’s color “doesn’t matter” and that they “love her anyway”—only reinforcing the notion that color does matter, if they have to love her in spite of it. The film ends tragically, of course, with the death of Moore’s character and the remorse of Kohner’s.

I have no evidence whether or not Dr. Seuss ever saw “Imitation of Life” but certainly The Sneetches has remarkably similar themes. Before Kohner’s character leaves to become a dancer in Hollywood, she says of her mother, “She can’t help her color—but I can. And I will!” The Sneetches without stars are told that they can have stars “for three dollars each” and they do not hesitate to take Sylvester McMonkey McBean up on his offer. Newly be-starred, these “improved” Sneetches tell the other Sneetches, “We’re exactly like you! You can’t tell us apart./ We’re all just the same, now, you snooty old smarties!/ And now we can go to your frankfurter parties.” These Sneetches were not born star-bellied—but now they can pass for such.

A Star-Belly Sneetch's worst fear: that we might not be able to tell "them" from "us".

A Star-Belly Sneetch’s worst fear: that we might not be able to tell “them” from “us”.

The picture that accompanies this text has very happy Sneetches. When Moore, in “Imitation of Life” asks her daughter if she is happy, Kohner responds, “I’m somebody else. I’m white—white—white! Does that answer your question?” Seuss takes the idea of passing and puts it on a grand scale, amplifying both the joy of those passing and the fear of those deemed racially superior. Kohner’s character must lose her mother before she can gain self-love. The Sneetches lose all their money before deciding that “no kind of Sneetch is the best on the beach.”  Seuss’s book, unlike “Imitation of Life,” can have a happy(ish) ending because the Sneetches have only a single, surface-level difference; “race” is removable.  Hollywood no longer makes movies about “passing,” and it would be nice to think the idea of “racial purity” may be passing out of the American vocabulary as it did out of the Sneetch vocabulary.  Unfortunately, racism is not so easily erased–even by Sylvester McMonkey McBean.