Contrast, people. It's all about contrast.
The Lorax offers a brief glimpse of the present—gloomy, ominous, and treeless—and then plunges into the Once-ler's flashback. What is now a barren town was once a magnificent forest studded with brightly colored, butterfly milk-scented Truffula Trees; a clear lake; and a host of forest creatures.
Dr. Seuss leads us through the process that destroyed the natural beauty. As the pages turn, we can see the sky turn from clean-blue to pollution-black. As we discuss in our section on "Illustrations," Dr. Seuss needed to broaden his color palate to make this all happen. The primary colors so perfect for The Cat in the Hat wouldn't cut it to contrast the town as it is today (when the boy is listening to the Once-ler's story) with how it was in the pre-Thneed factory days—and everything in between.
We don't know how long it takes the Once-ler to destroy the forest or how long he's been holed up in his "Lerkim [place where one lerks, obvi] on top of his store" (19). We are pretty sure the boy is listening to the Once-ler's story "on [a] dank midnight in August" (23), but other than that, the whens are as fuzzy as the wheres.
Okay, so this might not be the book to teach your kids about time. But it is a wonderful resource to talk about past, present, and future, concepts that grownups might take for granted.
No part of The Lorax is set in any particular time or place, which makes it universally accessible. But Dr. Seuss did have some specific inspiration—he drew from the natural worlds at home and abroad to build this strange and magical world.
Upset by careless treatment of the environment, Seuss wrote a draft of the book in La Jolla, California, but wasn't happy with the result. A trip to Kenya sparked his imagination and helped make The Lorax what it is. The text for the story was written there, and the pictures were done back in California (source). Nothing a little change in scenery can't cure.
Almost too cute to be sinister, the factory is one of the most evil-fun parts of the story. The illustrations for lines 171-78 (where the Once-ler discusses his biggering ways) are definitely worth a closer look. Notice the wacky contraption for delivering Truffula Tufts to the factory. It looks like it was modeled partly on a cuckoo clock—makes sense, since the Once-ler is part genius, part madman.
But, things don't get really good until we're inside. The pictures for lines 195-200, when the Lorax leads the Once-ler on a walking tour of the innards of his own factory, put us in the very tummy of the beast.
This is all pretty fun as we're reading it. It really highlights the fantastical reality of Seuss's world. But then—dun dun dun—we flip the page. All this stuff is getting piped into the lake where the Humming Fish live! The lake is no longer clear blue; it's now a muddy brown. There's no subtlety here; kids can easily make the connection that waste from industry can damage the environment when handled irresponsibly.
You've always got a lesson for us, don't you, Doc?