The imaginative and sometimes upside-down worlds of the Cat in the Hat, the Sneetches, and the Grinch may have turned the world of children's literature on its head, according to Professor Maria José Botelho. Botelho, who teaches graduate and undergraduate courses in the College of Education, presented an author's study of Dr. Seuss's books called "A Critical Reading of Dr. Seuss: Not an Oxymoron" on April 19.
Commonwealth Honors College Dean Gretchen Gerzina introduced Botelho's Pizza and Prof presentation. Gerzina also spoke about the Dr. Seuss Museum's current renovations and the new Seuss Project, a collaboration between CHC and the Springfield Museums.
Botelho described the early life of Dr. Seuss, or Theodor Seuss Geisel. He grew up in Springfield, Massachusetts in the early 20th century. As a child Geisel loved animals and often doodled pictures of them. Though his parents pushed him to be a doctor, Geisel looked for work as a writer and cartoonist before becoming a children's book author. His first book, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, was rejected 27 times before it was published in 1937, according to Botelho.
Later, a publisher commissioned him to write a children's book containing only 225 words. After nine months of writing and re-writing, Geisel finished the assignment and wrote The Cat in the Hat using just 236 words. The book differed from typical early reading materials, employing strategies like rhyme to propel young readers into the story. Botelho read passages of The Cat in the Hat aloud and passed around other Dr. Seuss books for the audience to view.
Botelho's presentation also outlined the messages and social commentaries found in Dr. Seuss books. For example, Horton Hears a Who was written after the end of World War II and conveys messages about respecting and caring for all people, Botelho said. Some scholars view Geisel's book The Sneetches as an anti-racist commentary. Botelho added that Geisel's use of portmanteaus and neologisms challenges existing grammar and language conventions and "celebrates the impossible." Geisel was also bilingual, which may have helped him to invent new words and sentence structures.
Botelho explored the themes and messages of Geisel's artwork in particular, and her comments were informed by the research of Seuss scholar Phil Nel. Geisel's artwork "estranges the familiar" and blends together the real and imagined, she explained.
Decades later, why do children still enjoy doctor Seuss? Botelho explained that his work's imaginative quality appeals to young children. "They sense he's breaking a lot of rules, even if they can't name that," Botelho said. "One of the major contribution's he's made to children's literature is the invitation for us to read wide awake."