Top 10 Wild and Whimsical Dr. Seuss Books — also known as: Top 10 Best Dr. Seuss Books
Theodore Giesel is a name most people probably won’t recognize. The son of a German-American family, Giesel was born in 1904 and lived to see the 1990s. He experienced WWI, WWII, Prohibition, the Vietnam War, the Korean War, the Cold War and a variety of other super crazy things that happened in almost 90 years of living. A name you might recognize, however, is Dr. Seuss, Giesel’s nom de plume for his massive work of children’s literature that has delighted and instructed kids for generations. Unafraid to take on themes of war, racism, social acceptance, and forgiveness, Seuss has created a legacy of books that are perpetually relevant to both children and adults long after his death in 1991. In fact, his work began quite seriously, as he was both writer and editor for Dartmouth College’s magazine, and his earlier work ranges from advertising to political cartoons. And then his legacy began when he decided to start writing children’s books. Silly, whimsical, inventive, and daring, Seuss’ work plays with our imaginations while forcing us to look at the very fabric of our societies as well as the very fabric of ourselves. With over 40 amazing children’s books from which to choose, here is our list of the Top 10 Dr. Seuss books that have touched and taught us over the years.
How the Grinch Stole Christmas
Maybe it’s the changing weather, maybe it’s the forthcoming holiday season, maybe Christmases of years’ past nostalgia is at play. For whatever reason, Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas had to make this list. You would be hard-pressed to find another children’s author who tackled so many complex, teachable moments. At its heart, How the Grinch Stole Christmas isn’t even about Christmas. It’s about human connection, togetherness, and presence in the absence of, well, presents. The Grinch is a jaded creature who secludes himself because he’s lost all sense of this connection. He sees the yearly traditions of the Who people, but all he notices are the material goods, and he assumes the Whos only notice the material goods as well. After going to great lengths to destroy Christmas, the Grinch finds that he could never destroy the camaraderie that drives the Whos to celebrate Christmas. In the end, they hold hands and sing, and the Grinch realizes how wrong he’s been.
How the Grinch Stole Christmas is a psychological study in how people need social connection in order to thrive. For most of the book, the Grinch is riding pretty smugly on his high horse. He’s sure of his superiority to the Whos, and he isn’t shy about letting his dog, the only other creature he’ll let near him, know about it. But that’s the clincher. The Grinch has a dog. He’s miserable. He’s lonely. He’s cut everyone out of his life. But he has a dog. One of the most social and domesticated animals. And why is that? Because no one likes prolonged solitude, not for the several years the Grinch has been squirreled away anyway. All it takes to make the Grinch happy again is to come down from that mountain cave of his and share some roast beast with a few good-hearted people, people who readily forgive him for stealing all of their stuff. How the Grinch Stole Christmas is heartfelt, genuine, and it’s no wonder that it continues to be a seasonal favorite.
One of the most celebrated and recognizable titles, The Cat in the Hat has become a cultural phenomenon. Inspiring a movie, video game, TV short, and body of merchandise that rivals any modern franchise, The Cat in the Hat is a story that will continue to pervade the public’s imagination for years to come. And that’s just what it’s all about, imagination. And being a kid while you’re still young enough to enjoy it. The agent of chaos in many ways, the Cat brings along Thing 1 and Thing 2. And while they all have a great amount of fun on an otherwise dreary day, the brother and sister who are the main characters begin to understand the warnings of their fuddy-duddy pet fish who chastises everyone throughout the ridiculous romp that ensues once the Cat comes through the front door.
Ultimately, imagination runs wild, and the house is wrecked right before the children’s mother is about to walk through the front door. But of course Seuss swoops in with a lesson about responsibility. The Cat saves the day with his giant cleaning machine and rights everything that he initially wrecks, professing that he always cleans up his mess. Moderation and balance is the moral of this Seussical masterpiece.
Dr. Seuss books tend to pack a wallop when it comes to morals. His books have stood as allegories for some of the most gruesome of human follies: war, racism, environmental ignorance. Heavy hitters, to say the least. That’s why Green Eggs and Ham might seem a little lackluster on Seuss’ part. Sure, it teaches kids to try new things. Great. Cool. But where’s the thinly veiled allusion to the Holocaust? Where’s the whimsical, Carroll-esque, nonsense language that punches you in the heart when you realize it stands for some momentous shame in human history? It’s not there. Maybe that’s all Seuss wanted for this book, to try and get children to eat green things, to not be so limited in their scope, to be adventurous. And that’s all fine and dandy, but Green Eggs and Ham falls flat among a body of work that doesn’t belittle the emotional intelligence of little kids. That’s so hard to find these days.
So why is Green Eggs and Ham on this list at all? Because it’s a feat, that’s why. It’s an exercise in writing, and it’s probably one of the most literary examples of Seuss’ work craft-wise. Seuss’ editor (who, from this fun little fact seemed like a laid-back kinda guy) bet him $50 that he couldn’t write a book using only 50 unique words. And it seemed Seuss was the kind of writer to never back down from a challenge. And so Green Eggs and Ham was spawned with its simple, repetitive rhyme scheme and even simpler moral. And though Seuss may have never gotten paid those $50, Green Eggs and Ham went on to be one of his most widely read books and inspired (presumably) decades of children to at least try their broccoli instead of hiding it under their mashed potatoes.
Did I Ever Tell You How Lucky You Are is an excellent exercise in perspective, something that’s a little hard for children (and even those of us old enough to know better) to grasp. The book tells of a guru in the middle of the forest who perpetually sits on a cactus with his toes laced, doling out some rather wise life advice. He explains to anyone who comes his way, whether they actually seem disgruntled or not, that their lives really aren’t so bad when it comes down to it. He spends the entire book recounting the lives of people all over the world who probably have it worse than you. For instance, the Brothers Bazoo, whose hair grows in a way that connects all of the brothers together. Or Poor Harry Hadow who has a defective gizz and therefore can’t produce a shadow. He even drums up some empathy for that left sock you lost and will never be able to find again.
By the end of the book, the narrator (a young boy who the guru refers to as “Ducky”) has joined the old man in his cactus-sitting, toe-lacing ways. He has come to understand that his problems really aren’t so bad when it comes down to it. And in realizing that, he has begun to experience empathy for the people around him, people he hasn’t even met.
Every single person with a high school or college degree knows the book Oh, The Places You’ll Go. It’s the go-to gift for graduation parties across the nation, and for good reason. The book is essentially one giant, long-winded pep talk. Except, to paraphrase the Dr. himself, when it’s not, because sometimes it isn’t. Dr. Seuss may see things in a grand spectrum, but he is nothing if not realistic. When someone of any age reads Oh, The Places You’ll Go, it’s apparent that Dr. Seuss has more faith in his readers to succeed than they probably have for themselves. And when you first start reading the book, it may catch you off guard, because it sounds a little short-sighted. How can Dr. Seuss possibly tell thousands to millions of kids he doesn’t know that they’ll be great? That they’ll succeed? That they won’t fall flat on their faces from time to time as most people do? That sometimes they’ll feel like everything is hopeless and there’s no way out?
Well, all I can say is keep reading. Because he DOES tell his audience that, in so many words. And, in true Dr. Seuss style, those words rhyme. Seuss reminds us that sometimes we won’t succeed, sometimes we’ll be alone and scared with seemingly nowhere to go and no one to talk to. He reminds us that sometimes we will not be the best and we’ll even fail at the things in which we thought we excelled. But the pep-talk resurfaces, explaining that these things happen and that they’re okay and that if we don’t let them get to us, we can bounce back.
Written in 1990, this is the last book Dr. Seuss ever wrote and undoubtedly the most popular. It recently celebrated its 25th anniversary and continues to make recent grads antsy about their future career prospects.
Everybody knows The Lorax. It’s hard not to have heard of the book before. References to it are so ingrained in our culture, and it’s a book that has persisted not just through literature but into film as well. The beautiful thing about The Lorax is that it’s always relevant. With the recent UN Climate Change Conference in Paris, it’s hard for any story about taking care of the environment to not be central. And to be honest, maybe I jumped the gun. Maybe it ISN’T a beautiful thing that The Lorax is still relevant. Maybe it’s chilling and telling that our approach to climate change and environmentalism has changed so little since 1971 when the book was first published. It’s true, The Lorax is mega Apocalyptic.
The Onceler, Seuss’ main character for the book, lives in a barren, smog-ridden land devoid of other people, creatures, plants, or even sunshine. It’s a bummer, to say the least. He’s a hermit who won’t leave his house, and who knows how often the man showers. But he’s a hermit for a reason. When he came upon the Street of the Lifted Lorax many years ago, the Onceler’s land had been lush with beautiful, nonsensical vegetation and a vibrant ecosystem of plants and animals. The crowning glory, of course, was the stretching forest of multi-colored Truffula trees. So the Onceler did what any ambitious young American would do. He chopped all the trees down and made commodities out of their unique tufts. And, wouldn’t you know it, he never thought to plant more trees to renew his resources. (The Onceler may have been industrious, but he wasn’t very smart). In essence, he destroyed everything around him all in the name of money. Greed is the name of the game in The Lorax, and it may surprise some people that there’s no sunny resolution to the book. In the end, the landscape is just as barren as it was in the beginning. But there’s a seed of hope that SOMEONE might just start to care about the environment. It’s that someone that the Onceler is looking for. And it’s that someone that we’re all looking for today.
The inspiration for classroom lessons on teaching peace and acceptance, Horton Hears a Who can be seen as much less political than a lot of Seuss’ work. It’s harder to dig down and find a direct political allegory for the book, but Horton still teaches young readers some very important lessons that even adults still need to be reminded of every now and then, and its popularity over the years has been so prolific that it also inspired an animated movie of the same name. In the book, Horton the kind and lovable elephant, happens upon a teeny, tiny bit of dust from which comes a noise he can’t quite explain. With his oversensitive ears, he is the only one who can hear the Whos, a society of microscopic people living on a speck. And these people are terrified. They’re small and vulnerable. They need protection.
Throughout the book, Horton comes up against several characters who don’t believe him, who think he’s crazy. They don’t have any frame of reference for teeny, tiny people, so of course they don’t believe in them. The idea of people existing that are too small to even see is so out of reach for the characters of Horton Hears a Who that some of them even revert to violence in order to keep Horton in check. They have their ideas about what makes a person a person, and they aren’t willing to budge. Luckily, with the help of even the smallest of Whos, Horton is able to get everyone around him to hear what he hears. In doing so, the characters must come to terms with their definition of humanity.
On April 4th, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. In the aftermath of this tragedy, one of the most groundbreaking social experiments was executed…by a third grade teacher named Jane Elliot in Riceville, Iowa. In order to teach her students about racial discrimination, Elliot split her class up by eye color. She “taught” her students that melanin count in a person’s eye color directly affected their intelligence. Therefore, brown-eyed people were better, smarter, and more deserving than blue-eyed people. The experiment showed a direct correlation between how the discriminated children acted and performed. They started making more mistakes and exhibited an extreme lack of self-confidence. The initial experiment only lasted a few days, and Elliot went on to teach her experiment year after year. The exercise is now considered ground-breaking social science, and is still relevant in the sociological world today.
1961, seven years before the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., saw the dawn of one of Seuss’ best books, The Sneetches. Initially, Seuss wrote The Sneetches to show children how groups discriminated against one another during WWII, but his timing, though a few years off, was chillingly relevant to what Elliot was also trying to do. In the book, the Sneetches are divided by racial elements that can be appropriate for any racial issue beyond the Holocaust. There’s a group of regular, plain-bellied Sneetches, and a group of star-bellied Sneetches. The star-bellied Sneetches consider themselves superior to the plain-bellied Sneetches, treating them in much the same way Elliot instructed the brown-eyed children of her classroom to treat the blue-eyed children. In the end, and after some very telling criticism of the structure of Capitalism, the Sneetches realize that stars on their bellies are not important. That they’re all Sneetches at heart, and not one of them is superior to the other.
Dr. Seuss is pretty much a genius when it comes to allegory. There’s no book that better exemplifies this than Yertle the Turtle. One of his greatest masterpieces and severely underrated, Yertle the Turtle is a veiled allegory for the rise of Hitler and Anti-Semitism during the Holocaust. Seuss even initially drew Yertle with a mustache. The story follows slightly disgruntled Yertle, King of the Turtles, a fairly unsatisfied little reptile who can’t seem to be cool with the fact that he only rules the turtles in his pond. He wants to see more, to rule more. Basically, he’s a power-hungry monarch who will step on every turtle in his kingdom in order to get what he wants. No, really. He literally steps on every turtle in his kingdom in order to make a towering throne so he can be the highest point in the sky. In his mind, the higher he is, the more he rules. Readers can all agree that Yertle is delusional, but he’s the veritable Adolf Hitler of the Turtle world, and what he says goes (though Yertle could easily stand for any tyrant from Adolf Hitler to Joseph Stalin).
Enter Mac, the lowest turtle in the land, the literal bottom of Yertle’s makeshift totem pole. It is on the back of Mac that Yertle’s throne is built. And guess who takes down the King? That’s right, little Mac, by doing the smallest thing possible – burping. One burp and the entire throne topples, leaving Yertle dethroned and slathered in mud. And in the end? The turtles are free, liberated. It teaches kids that anyone can stand up to injustice and take down a tyrant like Hitler with the smallest of actions, just by standing up to them. Even adults could benefit from a refresher course in being the masters of their own destiny, and Yertle the Turtle is an excellent resource.
Dr. Seuss clearly had a deeply ingrained political side to his writing of children’s books. This is no surprise, considering he started writing and illustrating long before he made the decision to write for children. His original work included commercial advertisements, but he also had a long history of writing and illustrating scathing political cartoons. Seuss lived through several wars, and his German American family was often a victim of prejudice during WWII. This made Seuss especially cognizant of injustice and senseless violence. So it’s only natural that he would try and capture this atmosphere in one of his children’s books.
Enter The Butter Battle Book, a chilling depiction of the tensions of war. Published in 1984 during the latter half of America’s Cold War with the Soviet Union, The Butter Battle Book tells the story of the Yooks and the Zooks, two societies separated by a great wall and in a continuous feud over which side of their bread should be buttered (the Yooks prefer their bread with the butter side up, while the Zooks eat theirs with the butter side down). The book doesn’t mask the theme of war. Seuss even uses the word a few times throughout the story. And each general on either side of the wall continuously threatens the other with increasingly ridiculous and dangerous weapons in a cartoonish arms race. Ring any bells? The genius of The Butter Battle Book, and the reason it tops this list, is that there’s no resolution. None. There’s no sunshine and rainbows and good feels at the very end. No, instead it ends with the Yook general and the Zook general threatening one another with a bomb the size of an apricot pit. All the Yooks have gone underground to preserve their society in case everyone gets wiped out in the aftermath. It is, perhaps, Seuss’ darkest book and the one most apt for the time in which it was written. It shows kids that sometimes life is really scary and that sometimes there might not be a happy ending. And that it’s up to us to decide not just our own fate, but the fate of the world in general. It shows that war is silly, that it solves nothing and endangers everyone. And that it doesn’t matter on which side you butter your bread, because no human life is worth being snuffed out over the differences in people we might not understand.
Dr. Seuss’ reach is all encompassing. His stories aren’t just about sharing on the playground or learning how to tie your shoes. Albeit, these are important, pivotal things to teach our children, but Dr. Seuss wanted more out of his work. And he expected more out of the children who read his books. He knew that topics like war and racism could easily be broached when it came to kids, and he knew that educating young people about these topics would lead to a brighter future. When you think about everything Seuss saw in his lifetime, it’s easy to see why he felt such a passion for changing attitudes with his work. Sometimes we forget just how intelligent and discerning children are, and that was something that Seuss always kept in mind. Part of him even believed that children were superior to adults, calling them outdated children. It is for all of these reasons that Dr. Seuss’ work has stood the test of time. And it will continue to do just that as long as we remember to always keep that young innocence alive and never take ourselves too seriously.