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The Scandalous Dr. Seuss

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By: Dan Laxer – Montreal Times

Could you imagine the irony of someone who, because they do not understand irony, calls for the burning of books about book-burning? Imagine if someone thought that Ray Bradbury’s novel, Fahrenheit 451, was an attack on knowledge and learning because it advocated burning books. They will have misunderstood the metaphor, missed the irony, and therefore missed the novel’s central message, and taken it literally. But then we live a little too much on the surface, these days.  We live in a society in which even the true meaning of the word “literally” is lost. Literally. Well, okay, not literally, because you can’t really misplace the meaning of a word (What did I do with that connotation? I’m sure it was here a minute ago…). The irony of that is lost because irony itself is lost on so many. Fahrenheit 451 was an indictment of book-burning that resonates to this very day. Even in this post-Internet society nothing symbolizes knowledge and learning more than books. Blockbuster stores have disappeared. But bookstores and libraries still exist because people still enjoy reading books. Some may opt for electronic readers. But others need to have an actual book in their hands. And unless you’re sitting on a beach reading Mein Kampf or The Happy Hooker, that shouldn’t be a problem.

But there are those who feel they need to go into libraries and schools to clean up the bookshelves, to make sure that we and our children are not being unduly influenced by smut or violence that has somehow slipped past the moral safeguards that govern our literary habits.

Book burning is the extreme of book banning. And every year a new list of banned books makes the news, usually because we find scandalous the lists of books that our would-be literary chaperones deem unfit. We simply cannot understand what it is that is so objectionable about, say, Huckleberry Finn (a young, white Huck lies naked on a raft with an older, naked, black slave), or Catcher in the Rye (Language, mildly sexual situations). And of course there is violence, like the violence in Dr. Seuss’ “Hop on Pop”.

“The Simplest Seuss for Youngest Use” was published in 1963. There are simple rhymes on every page, like “pup in cup” or “mouse on house,” accompanied by Theodore Geisel’s drawings. (He had written a version that contained the word “contraceptive,” written out in syllables so that kids could pronounce it, just to make sure his publisher actually read the book… which he didn’t.). In 2001 “Hop on Pop” was number 16 on Publishers Weekly’s list of best-selling children’s books. It made a similar list in 2007. In the five decades since its publication you would have been hard-pressed to find anything untoward in it.

Well, one person finally has.

A citizen of Toronto the Good has asked that the Toronto Public Library remove “Hop on Pop”, to issue an apology to fathers everywhere, and to pay damages, because of the book’s violent nature. Granted, the book does contain two bears who, despite the fact that they “play all day,” do indeed “fight all night.” And they are drawn with rather severe, not to say mad, faces, whacking each other with what appear to be tennis rackets. And then, of course, there is the troublesome passage implying the anti-daddy violence that caused so much concern:

Hop. Pop. We like to hop.
We like to hop on top of Pop.
STOP! You must not hop on Pop

When my kids were small we would roughhouse. We would play a game that my kids used to call “Jump on Daddy” (which could be translated as “Hop on Pop,” except that they didn’t call me “Pop”). I’d lie on the floor and my kids would climb on me, and, yes, they’d jump on me. Or they’d lie across my knees while I held them up so they could fly like an airplane. They’d scream and laugh and squeal with delight. Surely this sight would have scandalized the well-meaning, yet poor, misguided individual who called for the Seuss book to be banned because surely my kids were enacting certain violence upon me.

The book also contains a thinly veiled gay group-sex scene: “Red, Ned, Ted, and Ed in Bed.” But somehow that one eluded our intrepid guardian of good taste. If you have this book, you may want to simply rip out the offending pages, because the rest of the book is fine. For now.

There were other books in the Toronto Public Library that were considered violent, like “Lizzy’s Lion” by Dennis Lee. In that book a robber is thwarted when a lion eats him! I shudder to think what would happen if that individual ever got his or her hands on Maurice Sendak’s Pierre: A Cautionary Tale in Five Chapters and a Prologue in which a young impudent boy, who tells his parents at every turn “I don’t care!”, finally gets eaten by a lion:

He looked Pierre
right in the eye
and asked him
if he’d like to die.
Pierre said
“I don’t care!”

Well, of course the lion eats Pierre. His parents, fearing him dead, beat the lion. Eventually the lion pukes up Pierre,
carries him home on his back, and they all live happily ever after. But it was touch-and-go there for a while. And as such would likely have made the list of those books deemed, at least by one guy, to be too violent for prime time.

It’s ridiculous. But in the end, cooler, wiser, more knowledgeable heads prevailed, the heads of people who actually read, and the book now retains its place on the Toronto Public Library shelf. And at this point in our evolution I hope that lists of banned books, and the groups who advocate for their removal, go the way of temperance societies. And let’s hope they never find out that Dr. Seuss wasn’t even a real doctor.

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