The World According to Dr. Seuss
Who knew rhyming could be so controversial?
In The World According to Dr. Seuss, you'll be in for much more than just goofy rhyming (though there's plenty of that). Over the course of three weeks, we'll go behind the scenes and see how Dr. Seuss tackles all sorts of issues, from war, racism, and communism to economy, ecology, and literacy.
Once you're filled in on all the thinly veiled PG-13 content, we'll provide you with activities that you can do with your children at home or with your young'un students. We've consulted with an expert in child development and children's literacy to bring you the most effective and engaging activities for each and every Seussy kid out there.
Unit 1. A Book a Day Keeps Illiteracy Away
In this unit, we're going to let you in on some of the Seussiest secrets to reading with your child. We'll go behind the scenes of Seuss's most beloved reading primers: The Cat in the Hat, Green Eggs and Ham, Hop on Pop, and Fox in Socks. Seuss published all four of these books in less than a decade (1957-1965), and here we are, still reading them today.
Unit 2. Horton Goes to War!
In this unit, we'll be reading The King's Stilts, Horton Hatches the Egg, Bartholomew and the Oobleck, Yertle the Turtle, and The Butter Battle Book and digging deep into Seuss's thoughts on World War II and the Cold War. Teddy G had him some opinions, and he's not shy about sharing them. He just happens to do it in the form of classic children's literature.
Unit 3. The Many Opinions of Dr. Seuss
By reading The Cat in the Hat Comes Back, The Sneetches and Other Stories, The Lorax, and Marvin K. Mooney Will You Please Go Now!, you'll get deeper into the mind of this brilliant man than you ever thought possible. But don't worry, we'll end on a not-so-heavy note, and leave you with the last book Seuss wrote before he died: Oh, the Places You'll Go! Because, Shmoopers, we know you're going places.
Sample Lesson - Introduction
Lesson 1: Sometimes a Seuss Is Just a Seuss
Welcome aboard to If I Ran the Zoo
A classic book written by—yep, you know who—
one Theodore Geisel, a.k.a. Dr. Seuss,
Our modern day, kooky, and male Mother Goose.
Reality here is a little askew,
Thanks to the mind of Gerald McGrew,
Who thought to himself just what he'd do,
If he ever managed to nab him a zoo.
He'd fill it with animals from far and from near
Some curvy and zany, but none should you fear.
And all for the zoo goers' fun and delight,
As they'd waddle and toddle past all the fun sights.
For young Dr. Seuss in old 1950,
Writing kids' books was really quite nifty.
He moved right along from snarky cartoons
To tell all the wee-ones which words rhyme with spoon.
If I Ran the Zoo is the first time we heard
A word you may know (or even be!): NERD.
And what would Shmoop be without that neat term?
Probably not a bunch of bookworms!
Come one, come all, it's too good to be true!
(That's what imagination will do to you.)
Okay, we got the rhyming out of our system. Let's get to Shmeussing.
Dr. Seuss loved to wax poetic (and prosetic) about deep, intellectual, and controversial topics. But even the most geniusy of geniuses needs to take a break from the heavy stuff once in a while. You know that better than anyone, right?
We're going to start you and your kiddos off with one of the lighter goodies that Dr. Seuss sends our way. Don't get us wrong—there's always a message hidden somewhere under Seuss's wobbly words. But in the book you'll check out today, simplicity is key. We're talking wonder, imagination, excitement, and all that gooey stuff.
So get yourself in a cuddly, life-is-good mood (we're guessing a toddler will help with that), and let's jump in. Full Shmeuss ahead.
Sample Lesson - Reading
Reading 1.1a: One Shmoop
What would you do if you ran the zoo? For starters, you'd need some inspiration.
So if your Seuss library isn't complete yet, go ahead and grab this sucker on Amazon or head on over to your local Seussioteca.
Got it? Good.
Now first things first: read the book. Yep, read it. Not to your kid (that'll come next); just to yourself. We recommend the out loud style of reading—it makes for more fun. And plenty of hilarious stares if you happen to be in public.
Sample Lesson - Reading
Reading 1.1b: If We Ran the Shmoo
We wanted to start out by showing you HOW MUCH FUN Seuss can be. (Yes, we're yelling it at you. He's THAT MUCH FUN.) And If I Ran the Zoo is the perfect place to start.
Because it's all about imagination. In this case, we're specifically talking about children's imagination, but you could expand the premise to include adults, senior citizens, and, heck, even teenagers. Why not? We've all got a little imagination in us.
And who better to show the power of pure imagination at work than the menagerie in McGrew's zoo? The closest we come to typical zoo fare are hybrid creatures like the ten-footed lion (5.2) and the Elephant-Cat (7.3). Meanwhile, the Thwerll (21.1) looks like it wouldn't belong in any zoo on this world—or any other planet for that matter. And it's all created so a lone boy can fill his imaginary zoo with something the visitors (also imagined) will love to see.
The fantastical animals demonstrate just how fun imagination can be, and when children see this much fun happening right in front of them, they just have to give it a shot. That's great for the parents and teachers among us. We're always looking for ways to teach our young ones the skills necessary to succeed in the "real" world. Lucky for us, the "imaginary" world seems to be the place where they'll actually learn them.
We believe that's called irony.
The Imagination Rocks the Real World
According to Reader's Digest, imagination helps children develop social skills, bolster self-confidence, boost intelligence, work through fears, and build language skills. Wow, all that from just playing around in your own head?
And a child's imagination is so vivid that it usually creates a world above and beyond our own. When playing cops and robbers, the heroic child always triumphs over evil and paperwork doesn't exist, regardless of the tolls and tolls of property damage their fantasy world might rack up. When a child dreams they are a professional basketball player, every shot is the championship winning play, and every game ends with a musical accompaniment courtesy of Queen.
The same can be said of McGrew's fantastical journey. Animals likes lions, tigers, and elephants seem like ordinary, backyard affairs and are replaced with the Russian Palooski (31.1), the Flustard (10.5), and some Joats (13.1). Even "normal" places like China, Canada, and New York City won't do for McGrew and Seuss. They must travel to Motta-fa-Potta-fa-Pell (12.2) and the Desert of Zind (17.4).
The Power of Imagination
So let's recap: McGrew changes himself by taking on the clothes and identity of the zookeeper (see the illustration attached to stanza 3). Next up, he changes the zoo by removing the animals he finds dull and rote. Which, by the way, are lions and tigers. Go figure. Finally, he travels the world searching for all manner of exotic, weird, and oddball beasts to occupy his zoo.
Why is he so dead set on changing everything?
Well, as we know, children don't have a lot of control over their lives (bedtimes, anyone?)—If I Ran the Zoo really taps into this longing. After all, a child completely controls his or her own imagination (don't we know it), so they have the power to change anything within their imagined world. And we mean anything. In a way, imagination is the only place in our lives any of us have complete and total control.
Better yet, imagination can actually change the world. Ready for some awesome sauce? Seuss coined the word "nerd" in If I Ran the Zoo (32.12). Yep, nerd. This word has since leaped the world of McGrew's imagination and changed the real world. We use it every day, and some of us wouldn't know what to call ourselves without it.
Love, Love, Love is All You Need
One last thing, and then we'll shut up about imagination. We promise-ish.
When children play, they build a world uniquely situated around themselves. Let's face it: we do a lot of the things we do because we desire the approval and respect of other people like parents, peers, and even random strangers whose lives only affect ours in the same way a butterfly's wings affect New York's weather patterns. How many times have you posted something on Facebook just because you thought a lot of people would "like" it? Be honest.
A child's imagination works the same way. It creates worlds that completely and utterly accept the child and even praise her for everything she does. Usually, a child can do no wrong in their own imagination, and even if they can do wrong, it'll work out in the end. In a way, McGrew's zoological journey presents this very idea. He doesn't just conceive what it would be like to build the zoo; he also envisions the reaction people will have to his efforts.
It starts off small, with the people saying, "Now I like that boy heaps. / His New Zoo, McGrew Zoo, is growing by leaps" (14.3-4). Then it builds as the people note how "[t]his Zoo Keeper, New Keeper's simply astounding" (30.6). Finally, the people are chanting to have him crowned "the greatest of all the McGrewses" (34.11).
This isn't ego… actually, scratch that. It's totally ego—but the healthy variety of ego. When children feel good in their imaginative worlds, the good feelings might just filter through into our own world. As plenty of experts have shown, these good feelings encourage imagination, and, if you remember, imagination can lead to a host of super important adult skills such as problem solving, rich vocabularies, and of course, creativity (source).
Seuss might be onto something here with If I Ran the Zoo. McGrew promotes imagination and creatively by, well, being creative and imaginative. He shows the reader just how much fun he is having in his fabulous world, and the child reader imagines with him only to want to be imaginative themselves. That's right—the imaginative impulse passes on from McGrew to the child reader.
Of course, McGrew shows parents the value of creativity for their child as well. As a parent, you can't help but want your child to be as happy in their imagination as McGrew is in his zoo. He's a two-for-one character like that.
Checking the Expiration Date
Before we go, a warning: Parents should be made aware of one particular aspect of McGrew and his imagination. Both are products of their time. By that we mean the 1950s. McGrew's imagination existed before the second-wave feminist movement, before the Civil Rights Movement, and before political correctness as we know it today.
The examples are plentiful. Stanza 23 talks about the "African island of Yerka" and the accompanying picture depicts stereotypical African bushmen. The same can be said for the stereotypical Russian drawing, with his epically epic beard and bandolier. Then there are the Asian assistants who "wear their eyes at a slant" (10.2). Finally, every American in the book is depicted as white and wearing middle-class garb (dresses for the ladies; suits for the gents).
Our point here isn't to say Seuss was being racist. Instead, we're simply here to give you a warning of content.
McGrew and his imagination came from a certain era where some things were considered acceptable that might not fly in our culture today. Depending on you as a person/parent, you might or might not you want to introduce your child to McGrew's world just yet. Perhaps you'll want to read ahead of your child and prepare talking points. Whatever works best for you.
Sample Lesson - Activity
Activity 1.1: When You Run the Zoo
Children have it a little easier than adults with If I Ran the Zoo. Twisty, silly, and just plain fun animals appear on every page for them to watch and wonder about. Then Gerald McGrew takes these creative creatures and places them in his fabulous zoo, where his imagination is the one and only limit. Biology, geography, profit margins, construction costs, taxes—all these things go out the window. McGrew and the kids are free to imagine the most fantastic zoo they can.
In a way, this book is the framework of a game that young (and less young) readers can play. When the children are done touring McGrew's zoo, it becomes their turn to imagine their own zoo. What animals would they put in their zoo? How and where would they get these fancy-shmancy animals? What will they be named? How would their zoo look?
And these questions only act as a primer for further ventures into the imagination. The game never has to stop as long as the child wants to keep playing.
1. Who's the Boss? (All ages)
Let your child or children run the show. For serious. We dare you. Set aside an hour or so where they get to "run" the house, the school, YOU! This gives them a great chance to feed their power-hungry little minds in an appropriate way. Follow their lead and let loose a bit—it'll do you good. But don't forget to be their guide, at least a little. Do they want to finally hitch their wagon onto Fido's leash and take a ride down the freeway? Talk through the natural consequences of what could happen and whether or not your eight-year-old pug is really strong enough to pull them anyway. Do they want to do something messy? Let them. Just make sure you're ready for clean-up.
2. Shmurban Planning (Ages 5 and up)
Clear an area in the classroom (or living room) and have your students build their own zoo. They can use building blocks as fences or rollercoaster toys for rides. Once the zoo is built, decide where the animals should be housed. You can use toy or stuffed animals, drawings, or even random objects like rocks or toilet paper rolls. Just don't actually say "toilet" when you bring them out—all order will go down the you-know-what. And make sure the children understand why the zebras and lions should probably be given a wide berth.
3. A Picture Is Worth a Bunch of Words (Ages 5 and up)
Have your kids draw up their own weird, wacky, and, above all, imaginary creatures. The only limit is that the beast cannot actually exist. Then have them tell you about it, so you can write down all of their ideas. Remember, the brilliant thing about this book is that it allows kids to be in charge, so don't guide them too much at first. Ask them to tell you about the animal. If they get stuck, then help them out: where is it from? what does it eat? is it mean or nice? You know the drill.
If your kids are old enough to write on their own, have them write a stanza about their animal mimicking Seuss' style. See if they can even come up with a fanscrapulous word or two.
4. Play time! (All ages)
With a group of kids, pretend that you're the animals or the workers at the zoo. Yep, everyone gets a role (including you). Experts say that collaborative pretend play is the most complex, valuable thing a child can do.
All you have to do is propose the idea and help negotiate any problems. Oh, and have a few ideas in your pocket if they get stuck. One of the animals is sick, you say? We need a veterinarian stat! What? The animals have run out of food? What will we ever do?!
You know, stuff like that.