The Seuss-Berenst#in Deathmatch

-{The Doctor}-

PBS ran an article on dissenters on the Dr Seuss Question:

Amid the adoration is a small but vocal group of parents who take issue with the author’s use of nonsensical language.

There’s Jennifer Graham, who once took to The National Review as a frustrated mom.

“I always thought the point of reading to children was to teach them about language,” she writes. “How does Dr. Seuss help? Heck, he knew so few words that he had to make most of his up.”

She writes about losing it while reading Seuss to a group of children: “‘I DON’T KNOW WHAT A TRUFFULA TREE IS!’ I shriek. ‘I don’t know what any of this stuff is!’”

There’s Amy Mascott, a state-certified reading specialist in Maryland, who wrote a blog post two years ago that began with a confession: “I don’t love Dr. Seuss. I don’t, and I haven’t, and I won’t. So there. I said it.”

And there’s this commenter from a online Goodreads discussion. “Is Dr. Seuss good for kids? He makes up words. Then when my kids start making up words I have to be the bad guy and shoot them down.”

Seuss photo

Image by EvelynGiggles

Our child development specialist frowned down on Dr Seuss. Less so for the fantastical language and more for the lack of literal illustration. The cows do not look like cows, and Sneeches don’t look like anything. It was her perspective that time spent learning what a Gox is would be better learning what an ox is, with a picture of an ox. She wasn’t 100% against Seuss, though that might have been more of a practical concession (“These people won’t listen to me if I am too adamant”) than an ideological one.

I’ve found myself undisturbed, which for those who know me isn’t surprising. I am actually quite impressed with my daughter’s ability to pick up on abstract imagery, to see a cartoon cow that doesn’t look like a cow, but successfully associate it with an actual cow. She is genuinely better at identifying the Play-Do outlines. She calls something a pig and I look at it and hey yeah that actually is a pig I had thought it was a dog.

-{Bad Books}-

Alan Jacobs takes issue with parents complaining about how bad children’s books are, wondering if our parents ever complained about the books they had to read to us.

Well, they didn’t complain to me or anything. And I wouldn’t dream of complaining to Lain. It is indeed one of those parental tasks to be taken with a smile. That doesn’t mean, of course, that we can’t vent on the Internet. At least a little bit. And that’s probably one of the differences. Used to be you just vented to other parents.

I enjoy reading to Lain within limits. Lain, however, does not always recognize limits. She is particularly aggressive with Clancy, who is more indulging. Since she isn’t around all day, she doesn’t quite need to set the boundaries that I do.

Lain’s library was mostly procured over eBay. You can get large sets of books for really reasonable prices. Some of them are not in the best condition, but that’s okay because if the book falls apart, you can make an informed decision about whether or not to pay full price for it. Sometimes you’re kind of glad it’s gone. Other times, though, you know it’s worth paying $10-20 for because you know that both parent and child will enjoy it. That’s worth a lot.

Some of the books are really bad, and Lain’s tastes are a bit spotty. The worst books are the educational ones. Intended for somewhat older kids. There’s one called You Will Go To the Moon, which is vaguely technical (explaining how a space station would simulate gravity) and boring. Also, given that she will not in fact go to the moon, a cruel lie. There’s another one about whale migration that I am not a big fan of, though it taught her the word “whale.”

I find myself wondering if Dr Seuss just ruined the industry. He was so prolific, and so good, and his works mostly so timeless, that I wonder if he rendered obsolete any book written since. More likely, it’s related to the fact that writers probably like to consider themselves above writing children’s books. It’s probably considered less impressive to say at a dinner party that you write children’s books than loftier stuff aimed at mature audiences. (I also think this is why comic books have “matured” over the years, or at least a contributing component.

It seems to be a pretty tight market, in the overall. The free ebook options, which for some reason I expected to be many, are actually quite rare (though Gecko on the Wall is great, and Danielle Bruckert‘s other books tend to be fun). And Kindle is so hit-and-miss with independent authors, and children’s books themselves especially so, that I haven’t really dived in as much as I otherwise might.

-{Berenst#in Bears}-

This is really, really important. Evidently, there is a rip in our time-space continuum that has been identified by the Berenst#in Bears.

Here’s the thing. These books play such a huge role in the collective memories of so many people, all of whom clearly and distinctly remember “BerenstEin”, that I am not the first to propose the notion that somehow, at some time in the last 10 years or so, reality has been tampered with and history has been retroactively changed. The bears really were called the “BerenstEin Bears” when we were growing up, but now reality has been altered such that the name of the bears has been changed post hoc.

In 1992 they were “stEin” in 1992, but in 2012 they were “stAin” in 1992.

Some explanations have been proposed. One person suggested a change due to time travel, similar to “A Sound of Thunder” by Ray Bradbury. It’s an interesting theory, and I admire it for its simplicity, but it is flawed. Time travel doesn’t actually work that way, and if someone had “stepped on a butterfly”, it would not impact the future because they had already stepped on the butterfly before they left for the past; history has to be consistent.

I would like to make a modest proposal: We are all living in our own parallel universe.

When my wife pronounced them Berenstain Bears, I thought it was analogous to how she pronounces the president’s name “Oh’bamm’ah” rather than “Oh’bomb’ah”). So imagine my surprise when I notice the spelling.

Which is doubly problematic. That means that not only am I from a timeline alternate to the current one, but my wife is from this timeline. It’s almost enough to make me question our basic compatibility.

Please do be so kind as to share this post.
TwitterFacebookRedditEmailPrintFriendlyMore options

96 thoughts on “The Seuss-Berenst#in Deathmatch

  1. Oh lord, adult opinions on children’s books. Let me start this way, remember the children’s cartoon Barney. Giant purple dinosaur, goofy songs, lots of lovey talk. Some people hated it, they said it was consedning or to gooey or simplistic. Those people were Wrongy McWrongpant.

    It was made of frickin toddlers. It was perfect for the kids it was aimed at…sweet, loving, silly with lots of big colorful characters. Side note, my son loved Barney. It is like dry white toast to adults. But it was a kiddy show for kids at their level. It didn’t have adult references or pop culture nods or double entendre. It was just a kids show for little kids, which some adults just could not stand.

    So Dr. Suess. How do people not get it. He made up words, so what, that is what kids do. They play with language and sounds, that is part of how they learn. Play = learning for kids. Give them books that allow them to play with words and they are learning. All the grammar is correct. If you can understand Dr. S books, you can learn english. Why does some dizz brain think kids need an explanation of what a Trufula Tree is, there is picture of it right there. Some adults have so lost how kids think or imagine there precious little snowflake just has to more adult and cool then all those other kids. Achhh people.

    Oh the B Bears were fine.

    Report

    • Seconded. Lately Bug loves a show called Plim-Plim – so freaking annoying, but it’s not for me, it’s for a 3 year old.

      As for Seuss, again I agree with Greg, how can these folks not get it? All language is made up. It’s not like physics where words are discovered through experimentation and once determined, are universal law. Language is always made up. If Bug dreams up a new word, I merely ask him what it is/means, and if it’s good, we run with it until he gets bored of it. He understands the difference between real & pretend well enough that Seuss doesn’t throw him.

      Serious lack of imagination in people…

      Report

      • I’ll echo this too. The most bizarre sentence in any of the quotes was “Then when my kids start making up words I have to be the bad guy and shoot them down.” Why on earth would you do that? Imagination is good/healthy.

        Seuss is brilliant at crafting clever narratives with simple words that captivate kids. That’s good, and I say that as someone who has read Cat in the Hat ~50 times this summer.

        Report

    • Yes, my kids loved Barney. For about 18 months, they were nuts for anything Barney. I just wished I didn’t have be involved in Barney. Give me Blue’s Clues any day over Barney. Of course, later it was two Pokemon movies and then Power Rangers. Those had their moments, more than Barney, but on the whole, not meant for me.

      Report

    • Let me start this way, remember the children’s cartoon Barney. Giant purple dinosaur, goofy songs, lots of lovey talk. Some people hated it, they said it was consedning or to gooey or simplistic.

      There are actually legit reasons to dislike Barney. For one, anyone who wanted to do anything different from the group was always always always wrong.

      Report

  2. My daughters still refer to themselves as Thing One and Thing Two, from The Cat In The Hat. I have adopted this for the internet. We are a Seuss-positive household. Mostly because we were quite confident in their language skills, and liked introducing some playfulness. If reading is fun, they will want to do more of it, was our thinking. Also, mastery of language means not only understanding the rules, but also understanding when. To Break. Them.

    Report

  3. My daughter is fully aware that she has books I do not like to read to her, and in at least some cases why I do not like them.

    I have explained my specific reasons where they are within her grasp – if she asks me why I don’t like it, I try to explain. Sometimes she gets my objections, when they center on something she can understand, like crappy gender roles (I do not like that the female characters are powerless, stuck in the kitchen, and preoccupied with unimportant things, and sit around waiting for me to do solve their problems). It turns out my objection to some other books don’t convey so well, e.g. the complete disjointedness / lack of story of her Dora the Explorer book (that, it turns out, is a straight rendering of an actual episode of the show – it’s not just the book that’s so badly written). I have still told her that I do not enjoy that particular book, so while I will read it to her from time to time, it will not enter daily circulation.

    Likewise, she gets to tell me if she does not like a particular book, and articulate her reasons if she feels like it.

    We discuss these things. Why ever would we not?

    Report

  4. I just have to say that making up words is an art form and something humans have been doing forever.

    I defend Seuss; coinage isn’t limited to mints.

    As to the bears, I’m on record here repeatedly: they clunk in the mouth, and reading them was torture. While I didn’t censor them, they went to the shelf of, “if you want to read this stuff, do it yourself.” Didn’t know about the naming confusion; don’t know if it qualifies for space-time rift; but I suppose that’s because it’s not my name.

    And yes, much of children’s literature is horrid. My first reading materials were Dick and Jane. (Really.) It’s probably little wonder I didn’t gain fluency until 5th grade, being dyslexic. (By 6th, I was reading on a college level and retaining something like 85% of it. They thought I’d cheated, to retested me several times.)

    Report

    • I’m not going to claim to be an expert on the Berenstain Bears, but it seems to me that there are at least two different types of books for them (maybe from different career phases, or perhaps even written by ghostwriters?)

      The first type are pretty much straight-up physical comedy – these tend to be the rhyming books, and the artwork and coloring is usually excellent. In these, usually Papa Bear tries to do something (take the family camping, or go on a picnic, or teach them safety at the beach or how to ride a bike) and continually fails in a series of painful mishaps. I don’t mind these at all, these are classic comedy in a Wile E. Coyote vein, and even if they are not super-original like Seuss, the execution is top-notch.

      The second type tend to be prose, and are much more didactic, with explicit lessons (be careful of stranger danger, don’t eat too much junk food, don’t tell lies, don’t be greedy) that are sometimes pretty overtly Christian in theme. To my eye, the artwork is also much less detailed and elaborate.

      These latter are, for obvious reasons, much less “fun” to read – but still have gotten some mileage around here, when we refer back to them to talk to the kids about various lessons (“no, I think we’ve had enough junk food for today…remember what happened to Brother and Sister Bear?”)

      Report

      • Curious George has a dichotomy. Kind of. Some of the books were good “We’re going to show you what going to the hospital is like”… but a lot of them are by-the-numbers “It doesn’t matter how much trouble you get in to, you will get a puppy in the end.”

        Report

        • Well, “Curious George” is a brand exploited in a lot of different ways. The originals certainly have some troublesome issues (including “Yay, a man captured me!” and “Yay, now I get to have a balloon in a zoo!”). The later ones are either new authors or adapted TV shows, and have only passing ties to the original stories.

          Report

  5. Truffula trees *are* actually sort of a thing now though. They are a fictional thing, but they are still a culturally important thing to know about. Fairies aren’t real either. I think it’d be weird to try and bring up a child who had never heard of them though.

    Report

  6. I suppose there are always complainers.

    Wouldn’t Dr. Suess help with imagination or creativity? Is someone going to chime in about how Dr. Suess does not help kids for today’s corporate world?

    I went to a talk a few years ago by a specialist in child psychology. She said the reason 2-3 year olds can watch the same movie (or hear the same book) over and over again is that they basically can’t retain the information like adults. So say you are reading a book to Lain for 20 minutes, she might only retain 5.

    Report

    • Good point, . The funny thing is, this is still true of adults! How many people re-watch a movie or re-read a book not just because they enjoy it, but because they find something new or different about it with each endeavor? This is generally true of deeper works. They’ll pick up on new symbolism or a different character’s development or whathaveyou. That is how almost every book is for kids. How lucky they are!

      Report

      • When I was in high school, a couple of my babysitting charges were 2 & 5. One of their favorite movies was Aladdin, and it was so much fun to watch the 2 yr old be surprised by the movie again and again.

        I particularly remember one of the first scenes, when Aladdin and Abu are in the cave, and Abu takes a gem from a statue that results in them getting trapped in the cave. The 2 yr old would watch, on the edge of her seat as he reached for the gem, yelling at Abu, “Don’t do it, Abu, don’t do it!” followed by sad slumping back onto the couch, “Ah, he did it!” Obviously she knew the movie, but also obvious was that she didn’t necessarily think it would always be the same, or that she couldn’t influence the characters.

        Report

  7. One of my greatest joys in life was coming across a rumor that Raymond Chandler and Theodor Geisel were drinking buddy’s. Don’t care if it is true or not.

    Dr Seuss gives kids the gift and joy of language, poetry. Not the rule bound dictates of the MLA class and it’s nefarious army of grammarians. Bashibazooks, the lot of them.

    Report

  8. To make one more point about the genius that is Seuss…

    Those who have read Seuss, have you EVER had a hard time pulling the meaning of the nonsense, made up word from the context? Have you ever had a tough time picturing the made-up things he creates, even if there isn’t a picture, or identifying the made up thing in the picture, based just upon the name?

    I’d argue Seuss is teaching reading comprehension with subtlety.

    Report

  9. I find myself wondering if Dr Seuss just ruined the industry. He was so prolific, and so good, and his works mostly so timeless, that I wonder if he rendered obsolete any book written since.

    In the hopes that what goes around comes around, here are some more modern books that we’ve had great success with:

    Hiccupotamus
    I’m a Big Sister! (Can’t emphasize enough how much this helped)
    Dragons love tacos (best concept there is “tummy troubles”, next best is eating tomatoes/lettuce “like a dragon”)
    The Gruffalo (and its surprisingly-solid sequel)

    And, randomly, she simply CANNOT get enough of this random library book-sale purchase.

    All things Sandra Boynton (not brand new, but post-Seuss)

    The Maisy books (though they drive me nutty reading)

    Report

    • Ditto on Boynton. She is since I was of an age, and therefore new to me when I had kids. They were among my favorites for the younger age. The kids seemed to like them, too.

      The pickings get thicker a few years older. My seven-year old has read and re-read The Wonderful Wizard of Oz many times.

      Report

  10. I find myself wondering if Dr Seuss just ruined the industry. He was so prolific, and so good, and his works mostly so timeless, that I wonder if he rendered obsolete any book written since.

    In the hopes that what goes around comes around, here are some more modern books that we’ve had great success with:

    Hiccupotamus
    I’m a Big Sister! (Can’t emphasize enough how much this helped)
    Dragons love tacos (best concept there is “tummy troubles”, next best is eating tomatoes/lettuce “like a dragon”)
    The Gruffalo (and its surprisingly-solid sequel)

    And, randomly, she simply CANNOT get enough of this random library book-sale purchase.

    All things Sandra Boynton (not brand new, but post-Seuss)

    The Maisy books (though they drive me nutty reading)

    (repost to avoid over-linking based moderation)

    Report

    • If you think Seuss ruined the industry, you haven’t read Mo Willems.

      The ‘Gerald and Piggy’ books are genuinely hilarious, though will be beyond Lain right now.

      The Pigeon books are likewise incredible and she’ll be ready for those a little earlier than G&P.

      But right now is PRIME ‘Knuffle Bunny’ time. She won’t get it fully (see ‘s point above) but she’ll get it enough that it will probably quickly become a favorite. And by the time she is 4 and you fell like you can’t read it ever again, she’ll be ready for ‘Knuffle Bunny Too’.

      Report

        • B. R. I. L. L. I. A. N. T. And note… It’s Will-ems… Not Williams. He has other books but they’re mostly for the PreK/K set… Edwina – The Dinosaur Who Didn’t Know She Was Extinct, Leonardo The Terrible Monster… Ugh… All so good.

          Report

      • knuffle bunny is pretty good stuff. it does pander to parents pretty hard, but does not fail to deliver.

        also a big fan of room on the broom. check it.

        not a huge fan of all the branded lego tie-in stories, but i am not the audience here.

        Report

          • i agree, but i also am fully aware when reading it that it’s pandering to a certain demographic. that makes me like it less in some ways, but there’s only so much you can expect from park slope.

            Report

      • Corduroy

      by Don Freeman was a big hit here. We check out a number of books from the library, and they are mostly all superficial, which I don’t take as necessarily bad for a children’s book. Corduroy, however, is very meaningful, felt like a punch to the stomach to me, and most importantly is a story that the littlest Bath really liked.

      Report

  11. When the oldest of the nephews of the tribe was born, I picked up a collected edition of the Babar books, which I loved so very much as a child.

    AND LIKE THE BODY COUNT IS TWO ELEPHANTS BEFORE WE GET FIVE PAGES INTO THE STORY

    I had totally forgotten that.

    Also how it was kind of a defense of colonialism. I didn’t really catch that in the 70’s either.

    Anyway, I think I can tentatively recommend those because, hey. Elephants.

    Little kids love elephants.

    Report

  12. In my opinion, in children’s books today there’s nowhere near enough being carried away off into the sky, never to be seen again; having one thumbs snipped off by a strange man-creature wielding gigantic scissors; or accidental self-immolation from playing with matches – in rhyme:

    Report

    • It’s something I always wished I’d taken an academic interest in. My working theory is that children’s stories are the clearest insight into what a society really worries about. 500 years ago, you worried that you’d be dead tomorrow. So you scared children shitless in an effort to keep them from being dead.

      Now we worry about being rude/unpopular/whatever so we write stories about how to be nice and polite.

      Report

Comments are closed.