Yertle the Turtle
The Cat in the Hat

by Ed Shankman

Dr. Seuss's Yertle the Turtle and The Cat in the Hat

Dr. Seuss's Yertle the Turtle and The Cat in the Hat

When Steve asked me to write this, I discovered that just two books sprung instantly to mind: Yertle the Turtle and The Cat in the Hat.

Just two books from amid the colorful clutter of the many, many stories that were read to me during my childhood, as I sat, happy and entranced, on one lap or another.

(Yertle the Turtle on Amazon. The Cat in the Hat on Amazon.)

It surprises me not at all that both books are by Seuss since I have always considered him the undisputed master of childhood.

Despite my great admiration for many non-Seuss offerings (Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan certainly have a depth of magic and elegance that Seuss never approached; the Grimm stories (and Mother Goose Rhymes) carry the weight of mythology, as though they were written by Gods rather than men), Seuss offered something none of these did – the spectacular cleverness of language. It wasn’t just what he was telling you, it was how; it wasn’t just words, it was music.

With Seuss, every page contains dazzling treasures and surprises, in the form of wordplay, that carry the story on a lace of brilliance.

Okay, Seuss then. But why these two stories? I went back and read them today to find out.

What an immense joy it was to read the same words I’d heard 50 years ago, to know that I’d heard them then – as the person I was then – and to imagine them running through my young and forming mind. It was also wonderful to discover that the stories still hold their charms for me; I read through with eager delight.

Here’s what I discovered. In its essence, Yertle the Turtle (reviewed on this site) is the story of a bully – a turtle king so hungry for power that he stacks up turtles beneath him to increase the height of his throne, disregarding their physical pain and pleas for relief. In the end, the bully gets his come-uppance when the bottom turtle (Mac) gets mad and rebels (with a burp), toppling the pile and bringing down the king.

Looking back, it makes complete sense that this story appealed to me because hating bullies (and rebelling against them whenever possible) has been a running theme throughout my life.

The Cat in the Hat (reviewed elsewhere on this site) is very different. You could argue that it’s a much more complex story because there is no moral. On the contrary, the fascinating thing here is that Seuss doesn’t tell you authoritatively whether the main character (the Cat in the Hat) is a good guy or a bad guy.

The Cat comes to the children’s home – uninvited and when their mother is not home. The children are stuck at home because it’s wet and cold outside and they’re bored out of their minds. The Cat soon delivers one of the great lines of all time:

It is fun to have fun but you have to know how.

I tell you with no small amount of wonder that this sentiment has probably been the guiding force of my life, as I have remained dedicated to the high art of having fun throughout my 53 years (only the specific activities have changed).

Over the strenuous objections of their pet fish (the voice of responsibility), the Cat in the Hat starts playing some games, and risky games at that. The fish warns that the games are risky, the Cat continues undeterred, and, sure enough, a grand mess is made.

At this point, the reader thinks with grave disappointment, uh-oh, the uptight fish must have been right; the cat made a mess of things, which means first that he is a bungler and second that we were wrong to let him in. But then Seuss does an amazing thing.

Just as we see the mother coming home (tension builds), the Cat returns with a high-tech, many-armed, clean up machine and puts the house completely back in order. Our now hero exits with a grand tip of the hat just before the mother walks in.

Seuss ends by having the child (first-person-narrator) say:

Should we tell her about it?
Now, what SHOULD we do? Well . . .
What would YOU do if your mother asked YOU?

Amazingly, Seuss has left open the question of whether children should 'fess up if they don’t have to (a touch of mischievous larceny in the master’s heart that). He also showed that we (the Cat) can be both fallible and heroic, an exquisitely nuanced message for a child. In fact, I still find it compelling as I writing this.

And so, as I revisit these standards from my earliest days, it is with a sense of wonder and ultimate understanding that I discover how prominently these stories have figured within the tapestry of my life. They either spoke to me so deeply because of the person I was and the person I was destined to become, or I became the person I am, in part, because of these stories.

In either case, they have renewed my admiration for the author whose writing style (if not content) pointed the way to my own.

Ed Shankman, author of “I Went to the Party in Kalamazoo” (reviewed on this site), “I Met a Moose in Maine One Day,” and “The Boston Balloonies.”

Complete Dr. Seuss book list.

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