Children’s literature expert discusses enduring value of ‘Dr. Seuss’

Cat in the Hat and US map
(Courtesy NEA)

Tomorrow, millions of children across the country will celebrate one of the most beloved authors of all time. March 2 marks the birthday of the late Theodor Seuss Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss, and is also the date the National Education Association annually designates as “Read Across America Day,” an event that focuses on the need to instill a love of reading in children.

Vanderbilt children’s literature expert Ann Neely says Dr. Seuss holds a special place in the hearts of many because he wrote with the joy, concern and passion a child carries.

“His books, often filled with strange names and ‘political’ messages, demonstrate his heart in a way that allows the reader to read, repeat and even sing his words,” said Neely, associate professor of education at Vanderbilt’s Peabody College of education and human development. “[rquote]This readability is a key part of the enduring power of Dr. Seuss literature.[/rquote] Children can read Dr. Seuss books many, many times without tiring of the rhythms, the plots or the art.”

Neely says the simple and often “goofy” Seuss books are powerful tools for young learners and finds the vocabulary and rhyming as a major benefit to these classic tales.

“Children in the stages of early literacy need to develop strong foundations in phonological awareness,” Neely said. “I think the rhyming can be used in a variety of ways in this regard.”

Ann Neely
Ann Neely (Jenny Mandeville / Vanderbilt University)

The moral lessons in Dr. Seuss stories also contribute to the learning experiences for older children.

“I can’t imagine the books would maintain their high value and societal prestige if they did not contain the moral underpinnings,” she said, but added that young children are likely to be totally unaware of the moral of the story. “They just enjoy the characters and plot. Only as teens or adults should the lesson being taught be further discussed.”

This year, NEA’s Read Across America Day will feature Seuss’ “The Lorax,” the 1971 book-turned-movie that opened nationwide March 2.

Neely says the many movie adaptions of Seuss stories have probably influenced the perception of his art, which has greatly inspired the art of more recent children’s book illustrators.

“The popularity of his books encouraged publishers to be far more interested in and willing to seek illustrators who were considered to be ‘cutting edge,’” Neely said.

Although Neely shows preference for the text over the art, her favorite Seuss book as a child was One Fish Two Fish largely due to the illustrations, she said. As an adult, she says she frequently quotes Oh, the Places You’ll Go.