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Go Beyond the Zebra Lessons from Dr. Suess

One of the many wonderful and creative aspects of Dr. Seuss books is the juxtaposition of advice and nonsense, of life’s lessons with whimsical folly. Added to that, the antics of his far-fetched, zany creatures, including those in “On Beyond Zebra,” are playfully described with vocabulary that can play an important role in reinforcing the development of early reading skills.

March 2 would have been the 115th birthday of Theodor Geisel, fondly known as Dr. Seuss, the world’s best-selling author of children’s books. For more than 20 years, the day has been celebrated across the country with reading celebrations and incentives initiated by the National Education Association’s Read Across America Day. The critical importance of a love of reading and the development of good reading skills are both aptly connected to an author who expertly delights old and young alike.

Each of the 60 different Dr. Seuss books offers its own unique gift, along with the ever-present, delightful creatures whose looks and actions cleverly run counter to our own experiences and expectations. If you want to encourage bedtime, the “Sleep Book” begins with an apt caveat, “This book is to be read in bed.” Children can be wooed to sleep by counting the hilariously illustrated beings who are yawning, sleepwalking, talking in their sleep, dreaming and searching for the perfect bed. Because by the time you close the book the number of sleepers will, at “ninety-nine zillion/nine trillion and three,” include your own child.

“The Cat in the Hat” was written to counter boring school readers and to inspire a joy in reading that was lost in the blandness of Dick, Jane and Spot. Limiting himself to 220 words, Dr. Seuss wrote about Thing One and Thing Two, who managed to turn sense to nonsense with each wild idea of fun and each fast-paced rhyme. The irresistible characters, easily recognizable words and clever verses take an ordinary day and turn it into an extraordinary adventure. The limited vocabulary and clever use of word patterns and rhymes encourage an early reader’s first steps into independence with a book — and give parents pause if they are thinking about leaving their children alone with such Things!

In addition to reading and decoding skills, concepts such as opposites are readily taught and reinforced in books like “The Foot Book.” In second and third (and 10th) readings of “wet foot, dry foot” and “low foot, high foot” you can pause enough to let your child fill in the opposites, a task that comes easily to a little one who is being enchanted by the illustrations of truly wacky feet attached to truly wacky new friends.

Lessons in ethics are also hidden in Dr. Seuss books. The author’s irresistible beings and their zany adventures teach us about acceptance, advocacy, collaboration, respect, integrity, perseverance and a host of other values without preaching. Geisel understood the importance of those lessons for the development of morality in young children, and he tapped into the added bonus of parents being reminded of their importance. Particularly for books that are so uniquely suited to being read aloud, what we take from them comes at a time when everyone is most accepting, comfortably seated in the shared enjoyment of a book.

Father and Mother in “Dick and Jane” lived idyllic lives and the readers inferred that their children’s lives were slated to stay that way. There was no clear need for politicking. But today, when we need a reminder about advocacy or when we need encouragement to right a wrong, we can read “The Lorax,” where we are put on notice that “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”

In “Scrambled Eggs Super!” the challenge of making a scramble with eggs from Kweets, Wogs, Kwiggers, Grinkily Gractuses and Noodled Finches was, in the words of Peter the cook, “immense.” But he persisted and happily shared his final concoction.

When our children are wary or critical of others for their differences, we can read “Some are fast. And some are slow. Some are high. And some are low. Not one of them is like another” in “One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish.” Who wouldn’t want to make friends with a “boxing Gox” and a “winking Yink who drinks pink ink?”

When we lose sight of being true to ourselves, we can read “Only you can make your mind up! You’re the one and only one!” in “Hunches in Bunches.” When we’re down on ourselves, there is: “Of all the shapes we might have been, I say ‘Hooray’ for the shapes we’re in!” in “The Shape of Me.”

The Library of Congress catalogs “Oh, The Places You’ll Go” as “Advice in rhyme for proceeding in life; weathering fear, loneliness and confusion; and being in charge of your own actions.” This is what we want for our children, and what we want for ourselves.

As you take the month of March to celebrate the birthday of an amazing author, fill your bookshelves (and your own bedside tables) with Dr. Seuss books. But you still may have to remind your children not to “Hop on Pop!”

One comment

  1. So totally wonderful. Beautifully written. Makes me want to read them all over again.

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