If I Ran the Zoo, a notion most plain,
Is the name if our book, born in the brain
Of 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 what 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!
In '92, the book went on TV
But it might as well have gone out to sea.
The film seems lost without any trace,
Disappearing even from Cyberspace.
But McGrew would once again leave his mark
In Orlando at Universal's theme park
As a permanent fixture in the awesome Seuss Landing.
Way to go Seuss—talk about branding.
Come one, come all, it's too good to be true!
(That's what imagination will do to you.)
Warning: The following conversation contains a healthy dose of -isms and some -ists, specifically: presentism, historicism, racism, nationalism, and ismists (i.e., people who put too much stock in the -isms of others). We apologize in advance.
While reading If I Ran the Zoo, you may have given yourself pause in a few spots. For us, one of the longer pauses came when we read the line "[w]ith helpers who all wear their eyes at a slant" attached to a picture with some very stereotypical Chinese people (10.2). The whole thing just felt out of place.
In contemporary society, such a picture or line just wouldn't fly. The only reason we can even print it today is because Seuss remains such a cultural icon. His works are of huge importance to the history of American literature. To edit (i.e., censor) his works now would be equally as wrong.
Where does that leave us, the parents and teachers? Well, it leaves us in the precarious middle ground between historicism and presentism. How about we get some definitions up in here:
Literary Presentism: when a present-day reader imprints his ideals and values onto literary works of the past.
Literary (or New) Historicism: when a present-day reader reads a text as a document of a particular era, hoping to understand the historical culture in which it was written.
Those are super basic definitions, we know, but they'll serve our point. Seuss may be children's literature, but it's still literature, so we need to come to terms with how we'll judge it as a piece of art. Here are some of the questions we feel are necessary to consider before reading If I Ran the Zoo to your children:
• Do we read If I Ran the Zoo as a work that gives us the deets on a particular mindset of the 1950s; i.e,. do we take the literary historicist's approach?
• Do we view it through our own cultural lens, i.e., the presentist's approach?
• Do we label it racist as some people have? Nationalistic? A product of its environment? None of the above?
• Do we let later works like The Sneetches modify how we read If I Ran the Zoo as part of the entire Seuss canon?
• Is Seuss's portrayal of 1950s America equally as stereotypical? Does that even matter or is it super important?
So many questions and no right answers. The truth is that all those questions will inevitably have different answers depending on who's answering.
How about we return to the question that started this question-filled shindig: Why should you care? You should care because, as a parent or teacher, you're going to need the practice. If I Ran the Zoo may be the first book your child comes across where you'll have to consider these kinds of questions, but it won't be the last. Classical Greek mythology is packed with all sorts of values that are way out of whack with modern society. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn uses the n-word, resulting in its almost honorary spot on banned book lists across the country. And Shakespeare can get all kinds of raunchy underneath that poetic language.
Point is: When introducing these authors and works to your child, you'll have to ask yourself whether or not you should explain the book with an aim toward presentism, historicism, or some other way. Do you try to explain it at all? And even if you can answer all the questions to your satisfaction, you will have to consider for yourself whether or not your child will be able to understand your reasoning (or even the issue at hand).
It's a difficult place to find oneself as a parent or teacher. On the plus side, Seuss provides a wonderful way for us adults to brush up on our literary analysis skills.
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 would they be named? How would the 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.