The Logical Insanity of a Child's World

ELLEN GOODMAN

September 28, 1991|By ELLEN GOODMAN

BOSTON. — Boston--He was a subversive of course. Not a doctor, unless you count an honorary degree. Most certainly not a ''Modern Mother Goose,'' the unhappy rubric pasted on one obituary. Only the most literal and dullest of booksmiths would dare

confine Dr. Seuss' appeal by calling him a ''children's writer.''

The Theodor Seuss Geisel who died at 87 in bed in his mountaintop home -- a rambling Seuss house if there ever was one -- was subversive in the way that people who really speak to children often are. They cut through the treacle, the mush and the fear. They side with the young and dismiss the rest of us for what we are: ''obsolete children, and the hell with them.''

This is the beauty, after all, of the writers who built Oz and Wonderland as well as Whoville. They re-created what Dr. Seuss called the ''logical insanity'' of a child's world out of memory and imagination.

What is it like for the people who inhabit a world full of chairs that are too big for them and rules they don't understand? What does it feel like to be as small and complicated as a speck of dust in Horton's hand? ''A person's a person no matter how small.''

Dr. Seuss, unlike most adults, remembered. He retained a sense of the absurd, including the absurdity of the idea that growing up means losing your humor. So while too many adults spend their time teaching children the seriousness of the situation, he managed to sneak under the heavy door of learning asking, ''Do You Eat Green Eggs and Ham?''

The Loraxes and Grinches, the Cats in Hats and elephants on nests, began life not so far from Mulberry Street in Springfield, Massachusetts. The boy's sense of the absurdity of the adult rules came from his father, slated to be named president of a brewery on the very day Prohibition began. The fantastic menagerie grew out of visits to the zoo when his father became, instead, superintendent of parks.

Mr. Geisel spent the Depression drawing an endless series of cartoon ads for insect killer -- all bearing a single cutline: ''Quick, Henry! The Flit!'' But in 1936, he sat on the deck of a cross-Atlantic ship and turned the mind-numbing rhythm of the engine into the beat behind, ''And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street.'' That began his running, giggling and sometimes warning commentary on the world.

If governments ignored the little folk, Horton heard a Who. If there were Hitlers in the world, well, Yertle the Turtle was brought down by a single burp from his lowliest subject. If the environment was in danger, one child listened to the Lorax. And if the adult world worked one way, children worked another.

He drew inhabitants for these places that resemble a collection of runaways from some mad genetics institute. He even gave them their own language, so they snuffled and snarggled, cried with cruffulous croaks and made smogulous smokes.

But the subversion that pleased him the most was when he replaced Dick and Jane and their dreary little reader world with the rambunctious, irrepressible Sam-I-Am. He excised Spot for a Fox in Socks.

Dr. Seuss was not universally loved. There were educators who thought that making up words was improper. There were loggers who thought the Lorax was dangerous. To which I say: Quick, Henry! The Flit!

The world tells children to act their age all too often. School is Serious and Reading is Important. Today the Books are Relevant, the Subjects are Real Life. It's rare that an adult escapes all this, rarer still that someone comes along piping a message that says, Imagine This. Thing One and Thing Two.

Ted Geisel has died. But in Dr. Seuss' reading room, it is still possible to laugh and think at the same time. In his pages, even parents still get permission to delight in the sounds of silliness. He has left a legacy of Truffula Trees, ziffs, nerkles, Grinches and stolen pleasure. ''I think I have helped kids laugh in school and at home,'' he said. ''That's enough, isn't it?''

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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