Dr. Seuss's Yertle the Turtle and Other Stories
Children's book review by Steve Barancik
Fables on steroids!
The most popular section of this site is our Fables Dep't.
I always suspect that parents don't find what they're looking for there. Have you ever read Aesop's Fables? They were written thousands of years ago during brutal times. Their morals are often the opposite of what we teach today!
Dr. Seuss wrote fables for modern children.
A fable, of course, is a short story with a moral lesson, usually featuring animal characters with human qualities. If that doesn't perfectly describe Seuss Yertle the Turtle and Other Stories, I don't know what does.
Seuss doesn't state the morals outright, but they're pretty clear nonetheless.
I suspect that if you took a poll of people's favorite Seuss books, Yertle would come out on top. (No pun intended!) In fact, Yertle the Turtle was one of the best-selling children's books of the 20th century, and remains popular today.
The book features three stories.
Yertle the Turtle
It's undisputed that Seuss had a gripe with totalitarianism.
The first illustration in Yertle the Turtle features a blissful pond ("on the far-away Island of Sala-ma-Sond").
Turtles swim and dive about with sublime smiles upon their faces. Sitting blissfully upon a rock overseeing it all is King Yertle.
Yertle has two expressions: happy and angry. We see happy when he's getting what he wants.
Guess when we see angry.
Yertle decides he likes being king of all he sees. Unfortunately, that leads him to want to see more.
"I'm ruler," said Yertle, "of all that I see.
But I don't see ENOUGH. That's the trouble with me...
This throne that I sit on is too, too low down.
It ought to be HIGHER!" he said with a frown
So Yertle tells his minions to raise him up higher by stacking themselves up beneath him. It's a real Tower of Babel story; he's happy for a moment, then he senses something he still can't see, or sees something higher than he.
A turtle named Mack - at the bottom of the stack - is the only one with the nerve to tell King Yertle this circumstance seems rather unfair. He pleads the case of all the turtles below.
"Your majesty, please...I don't like to complain,
But down here below, we are feeling great pain.
I know up on top you are seeing great sights,
But down at the bottom we, too, should have rights.
A plea for fairness. A plea for democracy. Note too how the tale teaches about seeing another person's viewpoint. lowly Mack gets that this must be great for the king, and he expresses it. The king, however, is singularly unable to make the same leap. But he's headed for a fall anyway.
Mack burps. This minor little emission upsets the whole stack. To the joy of all the other turtles - and the distress of Yertle - the King is literally toppled from his throne.
And today the great Yertle, that Marvelous he,
Is King of the Mud. That is all he can see.
And the turtles, of course...all the turtles are free
As turtles and, maybe, all creatures should be.
In the second of Yertle the Turtle's "other stories," we meet Gertrude, a "girl-bird." She has only one tail feather. So it bothers her no end that another girl-bird - Miss Lolla-Lee-Lou - has two.
Dr. Seuss - perhaps anticipating the plastic surgery "revolution" - has Gertrude visit her doctor uncle to see what can be done about her "deficiency."
Doctor Dake ("whose office was high in a tree by the lake") knows that one tailfeather is precisely how many Gertrude is supposed to have. But he's no match for a girl-bird's tantrum. He sends her to the pill-berry vine.
Yes! There was the vine! And as soon as she saw it
She plucked off a berry. She started to gnaw it...
Then she felt something happen! She felt a small twitch
As if she'd been tapped, down behind, by a switch.
And Gertrude looked 'round. And she cheered! It was true!
TWO FEATHERS! Exactly like Lolla-Lee-Lou!
Of course, as many as Lolla-Lee-Lou isn't good enough for Gertrude when she could so easily have more The next thing you know, she's swallowed ALL the pill-berries. She grows more tailfeathers than a peacock.
And she can't fly a foot.
In a thoroughly humiliating experience, Gertrude gets a flying tow back home from a flock of single tailfeathered birds. Then she gets plucked...a thoroughly painful experience. But at least she learns her lesson:
And, finally, when all of the pulling was done,
Gertrude, behind her, again had just one...
That one little feather she had as a starter.
But now that's enough, because now she is smarter.
The Big Brag
Seuss didn't just anticipate the plastic surgery craze. He apparently foresaw the epidemic of "trash talking" as well.
A smug, lazy rabbit contemplates how wonderful he himself is.
And he boasted out loud, as he threw out his chest,
"Of all the beasts in the world, I'm the best!"
Well, there's someone here to hear him. And this someone isn't suffering for self-esteem either.
The rabbit looked down and he saw a big bear.
"I'M the best of the beasts," said the bear. "And so there!"
How to settle who's the best? The two ego-driven creatures decide on a contest, matching the hare's hearing against the grizzly's sniffer. Whoever can hear or smell farther is the winner! The rabbit goes first.
Do you see that far mountain...? It's ninety miles off.
There's a fly on that mountain. I just heard him cough!
Well, the bear claims he can smell farther than that. He sniffs out a spoiled hummingbird egg in a nest 600 miles away. (It's the egg on the left.)
All this bragging is enough to wake the dead...or at least a weary worm who'd previously been resting beneath the boastful creatures' feet. He assures the two idiots that he can see farther than they can hear or smell.
He looks out past that mountain, he looks out past that hummingbird nest, and then he reports what he's saw.
And I kept right on looking and looking until
I'd looked 'round the world and right back to this hill!
And I saw on this hill, since my eyesight's so keen,
The two biggest fools that have ever been seen!
And the fools that I saw were none other than you,
Who seem to have nothing else better to do
Than sit here and argue who's better than who!
How's that for a well-written (and well-deserved) insult!
Yertle the Turtle and Other Stories
This is truly some of Seuss's finest work. There's real substance to be had here, and as in all the finest fables the offending creatures get their much-deserved comeuppance. You should be able to find at least six of the seven deadly sins in here. (We can save Lust for later, right?)
Yertle the Turtle and Other Stories is funny and joyous and morally righteous in a "he sure deserved THAT" kind of way.
Webmaster's note: There's also a Yertle the Turtle 50th Anniversary Edition with 32 extra pages of fascinating Seuss history of how these stories came to be.
Read more of Steve's reviews.
Best Children's Books - Find, Read or Write home page.