A day at the zoo—you can't go wrong. But you can go very, very right.
Gerald McGrew is just visiting the zoo. When he sees the zookeeper, he notices how proud the guy is about his zoo. McGrew thinks it's a perfectly fine zoo but, you know what? If he were in charge "[he]'d make a few changes" (2.3). Fair enough.
What follows is a series of wild, crazy, awesome adventures as McGrew builds the world's most interesting and free-form zoo (the insurance rates are going to be obscene). By why would McGrew make these changes? Let's see if we can figure that out.
Why do children play or imagine? It's a pretty broad question, but an important one when considering McGrew's character. After all, the bulk of the poem centers on McGrew imagining what he'd do as a zookeeper. And if we're going to figure out who this character is, we're going to have to attempt an answer.
Try this one on for size: Children play and imagine to try on different societal roles. That is, children know—if only inherently—that one day they'll need to join society in some role, most likely a job. Why else would all those tall folk keep asking, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" Must be an important question. Play provides a way for children to experiment with different answers, wearing different societal roles like hats (source).
Of course, a child's imagination often 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).
And the zoo they build is pretty stinkin' spectacular. You've got to give them that.
(Psst! Down here. You want to know more about the animals of McGrew's Zoo? Click over to our "Symbols, Imagery, Allegory" section where we're got you covered.)
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, children can do no wrong in their own imaginations, 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 imagination can lead to a host of super important adult skills such as problem-solving, rich vocabularies, and of course, creativity (source).
Seuss might onto something here with If I Ran the Zoo. McGrew promotes imagination and creativity 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.
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 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.
For more on this particularly sensitive topic, jump over to our "Why I Should Care?" section.
In a way, we could say Dr. Seuss and McGrew are pretty similar; or that McGrew is Seuss's inner-child breaking free. Both imagine the zoo to see what it would be like to be a zookeeper—Seuss as the author, McGrew as the poem's narrator. But their childish musings conjure a world very unlike our own. For more on McGrew as Seuss's surrogate persona, check out our "Symbols" section.