The Political Message Hidden Within Dr. Seuss’ New Book

As with many of his previous works, Dr. Seuss' first new book in decades, What Pet Should I Get?, is also a biting societal critique

Dr. Seuss' new book What Pet Should I Get was published July 28. — REUTERS
Jul 28, 2015 at 1:32 PM ET

The first Dr. Seuss book published since his death 24 years ago hit stores on Tuesday, and initial reviews hint at a deeper political message within the story. It wouldn’t be his first time he has used his children’s books to serve up cultural critiques—far from it. Theodore Seuss Geisel has a long history of writing political allegories.

Horton Hears a Who!

Published: August 1954

Plot: Horton the Elephant discovers a piece of dust that speaks. Turns out he’s not insane and the dust is actually the teeny planet of Whoville, filled with even teenier Whos. Horton vows to protect all the Whos despite ridicule from other animals who don’t have his super-elephant hearing skills.

Political message: While Seuss never explicitly said Horton had a hidden meaning, the book’s main proclamation of “a person’s a person, no matter how small” is seen as a call to help the disenfranchised. Many groups have adopted the slogan, and Seuss even threatened to sue a pro-life group that used it on their letterhead. Seuss biographer Thomas Fensch wrote that the mayor of Whoville is referencing the bombing of Hiroshima when he says: “When the black-bottomed birdie let go and we dropped, We landed so hard that our clocks have all stopped.”

The Cat in the Hat

Published: March 1957

Plot: Two children are alone at home on a rainy day when a cat inexplicably wearing a hat and a bow tie appears at their front door. While trying to entertain the children, the cat vandalizes their house with the help of his two henchmen thugs, Things One and Thing Two (much to the dismay of the children’s fish). Fortunately, the anthropomorphic feline has a machine that fixes everything.

Political message: Seuss said in a 1983 profile that “The Cat in the Hat is a revolt against authority, but it’s ameliorated by the fact that the Cat cleans up everything at the end. It’s revolutionary in that it goes as far as Kernesky and then stops. It doesn’t go quite as far as Lenin.” Seuss has also referred to the killjoy fish as “my version of Cotton Mather,” who was a Puritan advisor for the Salem witch trials.

Yertle the Turtle

Published in Yertle the Turtle and Other Stories: April 1958

Plot: Yertle, the king of the pond, grows tired of his stone throne, so he stacks his minion turtles and sits upon them. As Yertle adds more and more turtles, Mack, at the bottom, suffers from the weight. Just as Yertle decides he needs thousands of turtles so he can be higher than the moon, Mack burps and Yertle falls to the ground.

Political message: Seuss said Yertle was inspired by Adolf Hitler, and an early version of the character even had a mustache. The book was controversial because of the metaphor and the belch.

The Sneetches

Published in The Sneetches and Other Stories: August 1961

Plot: Sneetches born with green stars on their stomachs are prejudiced against the star-less of the species. A salesman comes to town and disrupts the caste system when he introduces a Star-On machine. When he introduces the Star-Off machine the natural order completely falls apart. The Sneetches are forced to become more tolerant once they can no longer afford star reassignment.

Political message: Seuss said the short story “was inspired by my opposition to anti-Semitism,” and cartoonist Art Spiegelman has suggested that the stars are meant to be the Star of David, linking the Sneetches to the Holocaust.

The Lorax 

Published: 1971

Plot: A boy asked the elderly Once-ler how their town was ruined. The Once-ler tells of how he stripped the area of all its natural resources so he could make a versatile product that could transform into virtually any article of clothing—much to the dismay of a mustachioed fur creature known as the Lorax.

Political message: The environmentalism book was one of Seuss’ most direct political messages and he even referred to it as “propaganda.”

The Butter Battle Book

Published: January 1984

Plot: Two warring tribes, the Yooks and the Zooks, are separated by a long wall. Their main disagreement lies in how each prefers to eat their bread—butter-side up or butter-side down. As the dispute becomes more heated, an arms race erupts, with both groups making more destructive sling shots and cannons. The story concludes just before both races drop a powerful bomb—the Bitsy Big-Boy Boomeroo—on each other.

Political message: Likely a metaphor for the Cold War, The Butter Battle Book was one of Seuss’ darkest stories. The cliffhanger ending leads some to believe both groups could easily wipe each other out.

What Pet Should I Get?

Published: July 28, 2015  (probably written in late 1950s)

Plot: A father takes his son and daughter to a pet store. The siblings first try to decide between a dog and a cat before more and more animals are introduced—a kitten, puppy, bird, fish, monkey, rabbit and Yent. The children are overwhelmed. Realizing if they don’t choose soon then they’ll leave with nothing, the boy makes a quick gut decision.

Political message: In a The New York Times review, writer Maria Russo refers to the two protagonists as “consumer- heroes” born at the beginning of the Baby Boom when children had an over-abundance of options. Russo likens the message to that of psychologist Barry Schwartz’ book The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less, which the critic says “nailed the soul-exhaustion of late-capitalist culture and its frantically proliferating menus of options.”