Yertle the Turtle and Other Stories
by Dr. Seuss
Yertle the Turtle and Other Stories Writing Style
First: Rhythm and Rhyme
You may have noticed that all three of these stories are poems with good old fashioned rhythm and rhyme. Hooray! You have eyes and ears! You can notice things! Now just what kind of rhythm and rhyme might be a little more tricky to spot.
Both in general and in this collection, Seuss is a fan of a little thing called anapestic tetrameter. What's that mean? Time to break it down. Anapestic tetrameter is rhythm that consists of three units (anapests), where each unit has two weak syllables (da-da) followed by one long one (DUM).
Take this example:
And today the Great Yertle, that Marvelous he
Is King of the Mud. That is all he can see.
Those little couplets (two lines) are most often rhymed. Except, of course, when Seuss needs to speed up the action, and then he does whatever he wants. Enter the example:
Until 'long about noon. Then he heard a faint sigh.
"What's that?" snapped the king
And he looked down the stack.
When something big and unexpected is going down, Seuss gets out of the way of rhyming and rhythm constraints, letting the lines go where they go.
These three tales are pretty classic stuff—they're folklore, or, more specifically tall tales.
Tall tales, in case you've forgotten (we certainly had, with all there is to remember these days) are kind of like myths, except in myths, the great feats of their heroes are exaggerated, while in tall tales, it's the exaggeration that's exaggerated. Meaning, the story is more about the exaggeration itself than anything the characters do.
In all three of these stories, that exaggeration comes straight from the characters' ideas about themselves. That's Yertle calling himself "marvelous" and crying, "All mine!...The things I now rule!" (Yertle.25). That's Gertrude considering herself so beautiful, her nemesis Lolla-Lee-Lou will "scream and she'll fall right down dead!" (McFuzz.64). That's the rabbit and the bear claiming to smell and hear over a mountain range.
Exaggeration is any and every element, from the word choice to the illustrations to the very way the whole structure of the story is constructed. Which leads us to…
Explosive Story Structure
Have you ever watched one of those action-packed movies where there's some huge explosion and everything that once seemed indestructible comes tumbling down? Well, as sudden as it might seem, those buildings don't just explode with the flick of a button. They've either got to be laced with something first, or something bad has to happen, like a gas leak that continues for days unnoticed as the whole building fills.
It's the same thing here. Yertle, for instance, has to actually stack those turtles higher and higher before he's high enough to have his spectacular fall. Gertrude needs to first accumulate one fancy feather and then another and another before she has so many she can't get off the ground. The rabbit and the bear have to pile their feats up high before the worm can knock 'em right back down.
This layering—one turtle after the next—happens right down on the level of the sentences, too. Take a look at Yertle's first stanza for instance:
On the far-away Island of Sala-ma-Sond,
Yertle the Turtle was kind of the pond.
A nice little pond. It was clean. It was neat.
The water was warm. There was plenty to eat.
The turtles had everything turtles might need.
And they were all happy. Quite happy indeed. (Yertle.1)
While that first sentence is a bit longer, most are no more than three or four words. These short sentences help the rhythm move along, sure, but they also help the story begin as something relatively simple and direct.
By the next stanza, they're starting to get longer: "They were…until Yertle, the king of them all / Decided the kingdom he ruled was too small" (Yertle.1-2). This expands the Seussian vision into something bigger and more sinister.
Later on, the sentences get shorter again:
I'm king of a cow! And I'm kind of a mule!
I'm king of a house! And, what's more, beyond that,
I'm kind of a blueberry bush and a cat! (Yertle.26-28)
Notice something? The sentences are stacking, just like the turtles beneath Yertle. The short sentences build expectations higher, while the longer ones help Yertle justify what he's got to do to take his vision higher. Yep, we told you. It's exaggeration in folklore form.
Teddy Repetitious and His Repeatedly Repetitive Ways
All this Seussian glory shows its colors in "Gertrude McFuzz" and "The Big Brag," too. Since we know you're quick and are picking up what we're putting down, let's skip ahead to the end of "The Big Brag," where the worm has another technique altogether for building up his accomplishments: repetition.
Don't believe us? We'll go ahead and write out his passages, bolding the repeated language just so you can see.
"Now boys," said the worm. "you've been bragging a lot.
You both think you're great. But I think you are not.
You're not half as good as a fellow like me.
You hear and you smell. But how far can you SEE?
Now, I'm here to prove to you big boasting guys
That your nose and your ears aren't as good as my eyes!" (16).
Phew! See what we mean? And it gets worse as we get closer to the end. Every time the worm repeats a word, he's just layering on another level, getting a little bit higher. Because really, when you already know what works, you just keep going back to that one thing. That worm was one smart cookie.