The theme of racial equality and acceptance is the thread that runs through
(1961). The story depicts two groups of people: the Star-Belly Sneetches and the Plain-Belly Sneetches. The Star-Belly Sneetches look down upon their Plain-Bellied neighbors. “We’re the best kind of Sneetch on the beaches… We’ll have nothing to do with the Plain-Belly sort.” This attitude is played out not only in words, but also in actions as the Plain-Belly Sneetches are ignored, dismissed, and segregated in everyday life. Sylvester McMonkey McBean arrives to the segregated beach and, for the cheap price of three dollars, guarantees to put stars on the Plain-Belly Sneetches. They quickly accept this new price of “equality” and soon a conflict arises because the Star-Belly Sneetches find that they are no longer different… and thus better. McBean this time offers to remove the stars from the original Star-Bellies for a ten-dollar fee. They embrace this plan to lose their original stars and differentiate themselves again, but soon in the culmination of the book, McBean’s machine is removing and adding so many stars that the Sneetches can no longer tell or remember which is which. They ultimately (and wisely) come to the conclusion that, “Sneetches are Sneetches, And no kind of Sneetch is best on the beaches.”
Thematic discussion around
can easily focus on the civil rights movement of the 1960’s, noting that the book was published in 1961, but also on other situations of injustice and prejudice throughout history. Reflecting on Geisel’s own biography, one can note the persecution he felt over his German heritage as a young boy, and his opposition to anti-Semitism during the war. Of course, the hierarchy of seventh grade society can be addressed as well as the issue of acceptance based on “brand names” or in the case of the Sneetches themselves -- “stars” is brought to the forefront of the discussion.
It is interesting to note that the characters in
have no ethnic qualities. They have no racially identifiable features. This specific omission could be attributed to pedagogical concerns of Seuss to simplify the matter, or simply to continue his pattern of creating imaginative characters that lie somewhere
the human and animal world, not clearly resting in either one. This observation can enliven a discussion about the purpose of the characters’ “unethnicity” as well as the question of “What if?” What if Dr. Seuss had given the characters certain racial features? Would the theme of the story have remained the same? Would the theme have been as universally acceptable to all readers? Of course, the discussion must always return back to the basic plot: the unfair treatment of the Plain-Belly Sneetches based only on their outer differences. Whatever his purpose, this book does indeed make a clear statement about the treatment of “others” who look different from the majority.
(1971), one of Seuss’ favorites,
focuses on current issues of ecology and environmental conservation. In this story, the Once-ler, a greedy capitalist, arrives to the land of the Truffula Trees. He looks through the beauty of the natural forest seeing only the opportunity for mass production of his sweater-like Thneeds. Although warned by the Lorax, who speaks for the trees, the Once-ler continues to grow and expand his business by cutting down more and more Truffula Trees. “I meant no harm. I most truly did not. But I had to grow bigger. So bigger I got.” Soon of course, the forest is emptied of the living creatures that depended on the Truffula Trees, and the Truffula Trees themselves. The Lorax leaves the smog infested, polluted land with a final word of “UNLESS” whose meaning is soon made clear to the young boy in the story and likewise the young reader waiting for the pieces to come together. “UNLESS someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”
easily conjures up themes of conservation, de-forestation, and pollution, but issues of capitalism and greed also rise up to the surface of the story. Seventh grade students studying the ecosystem and food webs can also point out the interdependence of the living things in the story and thus the severity of destroying the earth. Careful reflection on some of the more memorable lines of the story can help to engage young minds in thinking about the general theme of “rights”. During the climax of his Thneed business, the Onceler chews out the Lorax, saying, “Well, I have my rights, sir, and I’m telling you I intend to go on doing just what I do!”
The Butter Battle Book
The Butter Battle Book (1984) highlights the theme of nuclear proliferation as two communities living on opposite sides of a wall determine each other to be an untrustworthy enemy based solely on their preference of bread and butter placement. This is an obvious allusion to the original culinary-warring countries of Lilliput and Blefuscu in the classic,
in which these two countries engage in a war over an equally trivial argument of whether to break an egg on the large side or the small side. In Seuss’
Butter Battle Book,
the Yooks eat their bread with the butter side down while the Zooks prefer their bread with the butter on top. This minor difference begins a major conflict as the two groups fight to overcome the other’s obvious wrong beliefs and practices. The conflict escalates throughout the story with the weapons becoming bigger and more technologically advanced until the Back Room Boys in each community create the Bitsy Big-Boy Boomeroo bomb to destroy the other community once and for all. The book ends with a stand-off on the wall and a small boy asking, “Who’s going to drop it? Will you…? Or will he…? We’ll see. We will see…”
Once again multiple themes can be found within the lines of
The Butter Battle Book.
While questions of the nuclear arms race and nuclear bomb threats seem obvious especially considering the time period in which it was written, themes of multiculturalism and acceptance can also be lifted from the plot. Discussions focusing on the shared humanity of the Yooks and the Zooks can accompany questions dealing with the minor differences of their cultures. The seventh grade social studies curriculum presents an in-depth look at culture culminating with an International Day celebration in June. By knowing the various aspects of culture and experiencing these differences within their own research and study, students can look at this particular story and note that people can be different without being enemies.
Horton Hears A Who
The rights of minorities form the basis of the 1954 book,
Horton Hears A Who.
In this story Horton the elephant hears a tiny voice emanating from a small speck of dust floating by. Intrigued, he listens and learns that there is an entire community, Whoville, complete with buildings and families and a working government living on this speck of dust. Horton vows to protect them from the other larger animals who laugh at the absurd possibility of life on a speck of dust. A few animals who wish to be rid of the entire ridiculous idea snatch the speck of dust and attempt to destroy it, but Horton, true to his word, searches far and wide for the small community all the while justifying his mission with the statement, “A person’s a person. No matter how small.” When the animals are ready to throw the speck into a boiling kettle of Beezle-nut oil, Horton exhorts the entire community of Whoville to make themselves heard. Their first attempts are in vain, but finally with the missing “Yopp!” of a young lad added to the voices of the every Who in Whoville, “their voices were heard!” and Horton smiles and sums things up. “They’ve proved they ARE persons, no matter how small. And their whole world was saved by the Smallest of All!”
This book speaks to those without a voice. Seventh graders will have no trouble identifying with this fact as many of them are dealing with the issues of adolescence and their burgeoning independence. Although they are growing and maturing, they are still nonetheless dependent on their parents whom they sometimes see as sharing the characteristics of Horton’s condescending animal friends. Along with the adolescent voice, discussions can center around other groups who have been silenced in the past. Again, reflecting on Geisel’s own historical and personal perspective, connections can be made to his impressions of the post-war Japanese people and their struggle to find a voice as evidenced on the dedication page of the book itself: “For my great friend, Mitsugi Nakamura of Kyoto, Japan.” And of course the thematic discussion would not be complete without referencing the struggle of the African Americans to find a voice in American society, and perhaps touching on the issue of abortion and the stance of the pro-life movement as they strive to speak for the unborn.
The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins
The 1938 book,
The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins
, is not one of Dr. Seuss’s controversial “message books”; however it does introduce some interesting themes of power and custom. The book is written as a literary fairy tale, and true to form, good versus evil is apparent from the first few pages. Perspective is also introduced with King Derwin, ruler of the Kingdom of Didd, looking down upon his subjects “feeling mighty important” while young Bartholomew looks up at the royal castle and “feels mighty small.” The story begins as Bartholomew ventures into town anxious to sell his cranberries at the market. He is quickly halted as the King’s entourage parades through the city and cries, “Hats off to the King!” Bartholomew obeys the command without question, but soon becomes the focus of the King’s fury because just as soon as he removes one hat from his head, another one quickly appears. Although Bartholomew innocently searches for an explanation to appease the angry king, he is arrested and taken to the castle. Waiting to appear before the king, Bartholomew’s nerves take hold of him, but he thinks to himself, “The King can do nothing dreadful to punish me, because I really haven’t done anything wrong.” This inner monologue does not pacify him for long, however, because at the King’s request to remove his hat once more, Bartholomew answers, “I will -- but II’m afraid it won’t do any good,” and again he removes his hat in vain. After calling on the wisdom of his royal experts, King Derwin allows his haughty young nephew to try his hand at removing the hats. When he is unable to accomplish this task, the King calls on the Yeoman of the Bowmen and his royal magicians. With no success, he relies on the whispers of his nephew and orders Bartholomew to be executed by be-heading. Here enters Seuss’s ironic “Catch-22”. Bartholomew is facing execution
because he will not
(and more importantly, cannot)
remove his hat
, but the execution itself cannot happen
until he removes his hat
. When asked why, the executioner can only answer, “I don’t know, but it’s one of the rules. I can’t execute anyone with his hat on.” With his plans foiled again, the King follows his nephew’s advice and orders Bartholomew to be pushed off the highest castle turret. In the last ditch attempts to save his own life, Bartholomew frantically begins to tear off his hats, which now number 450. Suddenly, the hats begin to change. They become grander and grander until Bartholomew emerges onto the highest turret wearing the most beautiful hat in the kingdom complete with feathered plumes and a gigantic ruby. Wilfred, the King’s nephew, starts to push when the King stops him short, and chastises him for talking back. The King instead offers to buy Bartholomew’s dazzling hat for five hundred gold pieces, and Bartholomew quickly acquiesces, “Anything you say, Sire.” Bartholomew slowly removes this prized hat to sell to the King and realizes that at last his head is bare. The story closes with the entire kingdom of Didd attempting to explain this new mysterious occurrence by simply saying, “It just happened to happen and is not very likely to happen again,” and our young hero, Bartholomew, walking home five hundred hats lighter yet five hundred gold pieces richer.
While obviously longer and differing in style,
The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins
also challenges students to uncover various themes about life. Because the particular themes in this book, however, are intertwined within the plot itself, it would be a good idea to spend some time discussing the plot first. Students should stop to consider: Why do the hats continue to appear on Bartholomew’s head? Why do the last few hats become grander and grander? Why does the parade of hats finally stop at 500? What principle of salvation, if any, keeps him alive?
Once the students have begun to grapple with the finer points of the plot, we can begin to explore the broader themes of the story starting with the fact that obsolete rules often lead to unfair cruelty, while also recognizing the fact that these same arbitrary rules did save Bartholomew from the executioner’s ax. Following this discussion of rules and their conflicting purposes, we can transition into the question of whether there is a need to look at rules to determine their validity in today’s society. Themes of power, command, and obedience can also lead to probing questions about historical figures and current leaders who hold power over others, leading back to Geisel’s own time in the military and his time observing foreign relations overseas. And of course the theme of rules and standards for decorum will emerge in the form of seventh grade questioning and vocal rebellion against those rules at school and at home that “just don’t make any sense!”